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When The Writer Is The Hero

4 minute read

Matching writer to hero in this fifth installment of the TIME 100 was an intriguing game of free association. Some match-ups made immediate sense: “The American G.I.?” brought the response “Colin Powell.” “Jackie Robinson?” “Hank Aaron, of course.” Others triggered supporting epithets. “Andrei Sakharov?”, for example, brought on “Fang Lizhi.” Pause. “The Sakharov of China”–the press moniker attached to the dissident astrophysicist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy after the violent crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Yes, of course.

And then there was this exchange: “Pele?” “Henry Kissinger.” Long pause. Come again? Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State? “He’d be perfect to write a Pele appreciation,” argued assistant managing editor Howard Chua-Eoan, who oversaw this special issue. “He’s the biggest soccer fan in the U.S., and helped bring the World Cup here in 1994.” A call was placed, and the result is an enthusiastic and knowing appreciation of the great Brazilian superstar, as well as a cogent comparison of soccer and American sports, a realpolitik, so to speak, of two quite different regimes.

The task the writers faced in this issue was not simply telling a story but also bringing special insight. Playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out, Addams Family Values) stirred up a refreshing appraisal of the iconic appeal of Marilyn Monroe, focusing on the legacy of her celluloid image instead of the tabloid conspiracies that crowd her persona. The jazz singer Diane Schuur made poignant connections between her own blindness and that of Helen Keller. Rita Dove, America’s former poet laureate, produced a tightly woven mini-epic in prose of the moment of Rosa Parks’ apotheosis from unprepossessing Montgomery, Ala., matron to unshakable icon of the civil rights movement. Collaborating with staff writer Romesh Ratnesar, Fang explained the symbiotic nature of physics and political dissent that he and Sakharov practiced. Says Ratnesar: “He did so in a methodical, disciplined way, as if he were explaining the proof of a theorem.” Ratnesar says Fang, who teaches at the University of Arizona, “sees himself as a participant in the democratic struggle in China, despite the long distance he has traveled since 1989.”

Then there were the bigger-than-life moments in dealing with writers who are legends in the making. Harold Bloom, fresh from his widely praised rumination on Shakespeare, lent us his magisterial tone for the essay on Billy Graham–a subject Bloom is familiar with from his close study of American religion. He was hardly the distant don, with his infectiously warm phone manner, addressing everyone as “my dear” while dropping invitations for tea.

Betty Friedan, on the other hand, proved a formidable presence. Staff writer Nadya Labi traveled to Friedan’s Washington apartment to work with the feminist icon on the brief reminiscence of the women’s movement that accompanies our Emmeline Pankhurst story. “I perched cautiously on the sofa,” recalls Labi, “and quickly stood when Ms. Friedan entered the room. Her pose was authoritative, and her manner direct.” Especially when she expounded on sex and autonomy. Intoned Friedan: “As women move to greater rights, opportunities and control of their destinies, all the measures of sexual satisfaction increase.”

The actress Natalie Portman exhibited a similar, if more demure, force of personality while insisting to Chua-Eoan, in a voice that could sweep Darth Vader off his feet, that an edited version of her piece on Anne Frank misconstrued her thesis. He quickly agreed to delete an offending passage.

The large number of writers from outside TIME required a sizable force within TIME to keep the enormous amount of text in check. Organizing that labor fell to senior reporter Victoria Rainert, who called on reporters Bill Syken, Mary Hart, Valerie Marchant and Cinda Siler to marshal the facts. Editorial assistant Marianne Sussman kept track of writers’ whereabouts, and research librarian Kathleen Dowling scoured databases to ply everyone with information. Two elaborate gatefold overviews of the past 100 years were produced by Time Inc. editor-at-large Daniel Okrent (athletes of the century) and senior editor Belinda Luscombe (stars of the century).

Now that the project’s done, we hope to drop in for tea with Professor Bloom.

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