New Celebrity Journalism Anthology Celebrates its Release at KGB Bar on LES

Veteran magazine reporters and editors gathered to hear excerpts from Alex Belth’s sizzling new anthology, What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?: Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s).

| 13 Jun 2024 | 10:59

On the cool summer evening of June 11, dozens of old-school reporters and editors gathered at the KGB Bar at 85 E. 4th St. to celebrate The Sager Group’s release of What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?: Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s), edited by Alex Belth.

The anthology features profiles of James Brown, Ava Gardner, Truman Capote, Reggie Jackson, Warren Beatty, and more. The book chronicles the confluence of new journalism’s popularity among reporters and a willingness on behalf of celebrities to allow the press into their lives, resulting in extremely vivid and storylike articles about the icons of an era.

The event was organized by Mark Jacobson, author and former contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. He’s been hosting monthly readings at the same iconic LES spot for thirty years; in April, E. Jean Carroll was in attendance reading excerpts from one of her books.

Jacobson jokingly worried about the turnout when making the guest list, given that “everyone [he] knows can barely get up the stairs.” Of course, this sentiment isn’t literally true—the event was held at a second-floor walkup— but the dark, Gothic barroom slunk in blood-red drapes had a certain ghostly quality, like a haunted house. The people in the room and the premise of their livelihoods are a figment of the past, an ancient echelon of journalism betrayed by America’s changing relationship with fame, celebrities, and reporting.

“The power has shifted back to the celebrity, not the publication,” editor Alex Belth said of celebrity profiling today.

“After all, if you’re famous, why would you trust a writer of all people with your story? So instead, celebrities will produce their own podcasts or docu-series. You can’t blame them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean better, more interesting storytelling. There’s a big difference between glossy public relations and a deeply reported, carefully written story.”

Belth was drawn to celebrity profiling not because he’s entranced by fame, per se, but by culture. And often celebrities are the vessel by which culture is disseminated.

“Journalists had tremendous access to their subjects,” said Belth.

“These articles are meditations of what it was like to be famous in publishing, music, and film at the time...I wanted to find a unifying theme to anthologize great magazine writing, a craft I admire greatly, in a book. I thought the arc of the so-called “celebrity profile” would be fun, because I’ve always been intrigued by the vulnerabilities and real personalities behind the public persona of famous creative people.”

Throughout the evening, four articles from the book were read aloud by either the original author or another writer in their place. From the get-go—Rex Reed’s 1967 Esquire piece about Ava Gardner— it was clear that these writers had more than just access.

They had liberty, freedom, and the time and budget to actually get to know these stars. There was intimacy with the subject in a way that’s inconceivable today. John Eskow, screenwriter and former reporter, recounted tossing a football around with O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown.

“Being a reporter was not only a writing job, but a performance art,” said Eskow.

“It wasn’t about celebrities, it was about the phenomenon of stardom in America— how they got it, how they used it, how they abused it.”

Belth plans on creating two more anthologies in the series, focusing instead on the 80s, 90s, and 2000s eras of celebrity reporting.

“By the 1980s, public relations, which had been so strong during Hollywood’s golden era in the 1930s and ’40s, began to impact how much access writers had to their subjects. While publications had tremendous creative freedom in the ’60s and ’70s, that began to shift by the ’80s and ’90s, less so in sports, though that eventually happened too, but certainly in the entertainment business,” said Belth.

In today’s vastly different landscape of magazine writing and reporting, Belth’s anthology offers a glimpse into the past through a now very undervalued lens. The elements of fame that reporters could once glean from their access to celebrities spoke volumes to America’s culture at the time, and the modern absence of that tool is equally indicative of where our culture stands today.

Grab a copy of What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?: Classic Celebrity Journalism Volume 1 (1960s and 1970s) online or in bookstores around the city.