Wednesday, January 01, 2014

RIP: Patricia Ryan; 1938- 2014

Nobody I knew ever called her "Patricia"; it was as PAT Ryan that she became famous...

Oh, wait a minute. Unless you made a living in the writing trades in the sixties through the eighties, you probably never heard of her. She was the least visible great editor during those years, when you could make a living, a decent one, freelancing, finding talented young writers and giving novelists and poets crazy assignments to pay the rent during the flood of talented journalism.

She started as a secretary at Sports Illustrated (a very different magazine then), and was "discovered" by a more flamboyant editor who was a bit of a legend himself,  Andre Laguerre. Under him, SI regularly featured articles about hunting and fishing and nature. The legend is that Pat,who came from a horse racing background, would give him tips on horses. One day when he had nobody to send to a story with a track background, he pulled Pat out of the secretarial pool and sent her. Not too many years went by before she was running the show herself.

The NYT obit, where I got this photo, dwells on her tenure at People (which under her was a real magazine, doing pieces with substance as well as glitz). It also mentions her disgraceful firing, after 29 years of accomplishment and too few honors, allegedly (they never gave a reason, bad enough in itself) because of her relationship with a rival of the firer. She improved every magazine she was associated with, but for writers and consumers of "outdoor belles lettres", her most important contribution was made at Sports Illustrated.


Russell Chatham. Jim Harrison.William "Gatz" Hjortsberg (whom she persuaded to ride a rodeo bull). Tom McGuane. All paid the rent in the sixties and seventies with Pat Ryan assignments. And they weren't just "reporting", either. Do you know Tom McGuane's "The Longest Silence"? It is my favorite Tom McGuane essay ever, and one of the finest anyone ever wrote. Sports Illustrated.

It wasn't just the "kids" (these gentlemen, now mostly in their seventies and near seventies, were in their twenties and thirties when they wrote for Pat). Bob Jones, already a formidable reporter for the Time-Life conglomerate, wrote some of his best non-fiction there for Pat. (Remember that wolf on the river sandbar?) So did novelist Bill Humphrey. James Dickey. Older fishing writers, like England's Clive Gammon, would pop up there for a rare trans-Atlantic appearance. She brought out the best in famous non- field sports writers like Frank DeFord, who remembered her in his memoirs, and George Plympton. And I guarantee I have left out at least ten writers whose names I will remember, or whose friends will let me know.

I never met Pat Ryan. My entire contact with her consisted of two extremely nice letters, one complimenting me on my first book Rage for Falcons. She then proved she meant it by putting a review in People -- one with a photo of me and an illustration from the book.  I had once told her in a note that the writers that she published, in the stories that they wrote for her, were the model for my non-fiction writing, but she had moved on before I dared send her anything. The writers she had supported found new niches; Gray's Sporting Journal became the second home for many. Virtually every one of them still alive is still writing and knows where they started.

She seemed slightly reclusive after her magazine years. We had a mutual friend who occasionally reported on her, so I know she read my books. I dedicated my last one to "The unacknowledged creators: the editors Pat Ryan, Ed Gray, Nick Lyons, and the late Les Line." I think, and hope, that she saw this before she left us.

Raise a drink tonight to the first and best of them all. Without her taste, intelligence, courage, "eye", and friendship, there is a good chance that neither this odd electronic thing you are reading, nor my books, nor the books of a lot of the people you enjoy, would exist.


Anonymous said...

Everyone needs an editor, and a good one can bring out the best in a writer.

Jim Cornelius

Gil said...

Thanks for the back story. She wrangled some real characters. Gil