Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What is to be done?

One of my oldest friends, a former journalist, sent me an obituary this morning. It was from The New York Times and it was about John Solomon, a Harvard graduate who I knew slightly when he was writing for the Harvard Crimson and I was writing for the Wellesley News. Solomon died on Monday. He was 47, married and had two daughters. He died from complications of a stem cell transplant while being treated for leukemia.

Solomon was funny, smart, tall and playful. He wouldn't have known me if he had fallen over me but I knew his reputation well. The Crimson and the News had an unholy alliance. The Crimson was a daily newspaper, written by male and female undergraduates, and supported by its own ad revenue. The Wellesley News was a weekly newspaper, written by women, and supported by funds from college government. We did sell ads but our ad revenue did not cover our printing expenses. As a weekly, we felt a little unproductive compared to them (they came out every day!) Worse, the same printing presses that published the News also published the Crimson, so we were dependent upon them and at their mercy. I often felt that we were standing on the margins of their greatness and they were billing us for the privilege.

There were a lot of smart, funny, irreverent guys writing for and running the Crimson. One of them was Jeff Zucker, my freshman roommate's friend from high school in Miami, who eventually went on to run NBC. I don't remember the names of the other guys we dealt with (and they were mostly guys) but I remember they always seemed to be laughing. They weren't particularly good looking (think Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network") but they were really sharp and they had great senses of humor. They made me realize that journalism could be fun. A lot of fun.

I'm not sure what the reporters at the Crimson thought of us, if anything. But John Solomon made headlines (literally) at Wellesley when in the spring of 1983, he parked himself next to a good-looking young man, waiting for the bus back to Wellesley in Harvard Square. This man was a co-ed at Wellesley---he was a student from Bowdoin who was living on campus and going to school with us for the year. This coed was noticeably handsome---dark hair, creamy skin, chiseled features, great build---and since he was attending an all women's college in suburban Boston, he was having a good time and happy to talk about it. John Solomon wrote about this co-ed for What is to be Done? the Crimson's's weekend magazine. I don't remember much about the What except that it published decent movie reviews, ran ads for the various ice cream parlors that dotted Harvard Square and didn't seem to have anything to do with Lenin's book of the same title. But I remember Solomon's story. "Some Like it Hot" was the headline. The Wellesley community responded with outrage, and eventually, a sense of humor.

I never saw John Solomon again after college, but I ended up working at the same library as his brother Jim for a few months in the spring of 1995. The glory days of college journalism were behind us and we were both working on writing projects that might or might not go anywhere. (Mine didn't.) I was trying to write a novel but mostly reading Edith Wharton, and Jim was writing a screenplay (I think.) Jim told me that his brother had gone on to to do programming for women at Lifetime, and wrote for women's magazines, as well as The New York Times, USA Today and National Public Radio. More recently, John was writing a book, In Case Of Emergency, Read Book: Simple Steps To Prepare You and Your Family For Terrorism, Natural Disasters and Other 21st Century Crises, which was due to be published in 2011. For more about John's work, check out his blog,

Solomon's death has moved me in ways I can't fully explain. I hadn't thought about him much during the past 15 years but I've spent all day today thinking about him and his family. I am so sorry for their loss. Losing a father and a husband who is still in his prime is unbearable. Since I don't know his family, I turned to the computer for information on what I could do for them. In this age of Google, it is ridiculously easy to find out about people and what they have done and written. I found the following note from Solomon on the Crimson's website. He was one of many former What writers who wrote about their experiences at the Crimson. Solomon was, as usual, wry and funny about his mea culpa. May his memory be for a blessing.

Rarely in its history could the What? have had a such direct impact on the social lives of those in the Harvard Community than during the Spring of 1983. That’s when I wrote a profile of a male Bowdoin student who was spending the academic year at Wellesley College. Though the article itself was relatively tame, the very delicate subject matter and suggestive headline, “Some Like It Hot” generated a good deal of controversy and mail.

The letter with the most significant potential ramifications came from a group of Wellesley students. “Let’s hit them where it really hurts,” they wrote urging that any woman vaguely associated with Wellesley “boycott sex with Harvard students, faculty, administrators and anyone else vaguely associated with the school until the magazine prints an apology for the article.” The next week, we received a letter from an ad hoc organization of civic-minded MIT students who offered to pick up the slack until that apology was forthcoming.

With so much at stake, co-editor Mary C. Warner ’85 and I attended a Wellesley student council meeting to discuss the article. Afterwards, the council decided to suspend distribution of the What? on campus for three weeks. The more serious moratorium, however, was avoided.

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