Fellow: Awarded 2012
Field of Study: General Nonfiction
Competition: US & Canada
I was born in Manhattan in 1947, grew up in Westchester County where I attended Bronxville High School, and graduated from Columbia College in 1970. I studied English and history at Columbia, but my true training came from my job, which started quite early.
Save for a summer of inept yard work, I have held one job my entire life, which was at the American Heritage Publishing Company. American Heritage magazine had been founded in 1954 by three Life editors who wanted to apply the techniques of journalism to the discipline of history. They felt that a photograph or painting can be every bit as revealing a historical document as a deed or treaty; they were scrupulous about checking their facts but did not use such academic fixtures as footnotes; and they believed that the best way to engage the reader in long-past events was a strong, clear, well-written narrative.
From my earliest memories I’ve been interested in history, and was fortunate enough to get a summer job there after my senior year in high school in 1965. I came back the following summers, and moved onto the staff as soon as I graduated from college. I stayed there in various capacities for nearly four decades.
I worked first as a picture researcher, and soon joined the editorial staff where—with a year’s hiatus when I worked for the book division—I stayed put, eventually becoming managing editor and, in 1990, editor in chief. During my tenure there American Heritage won three National Magazine Awards.
Over the years I’ve made several extracurricular excursions, beginning with a volume of poetry, The Funny Place, which J. Philip O’Hara brought out in 1975 with an introduction by John Ashbery. I was so astounded to have my verse published at someone else’s expense that I decided not to press my luck, and never wrote any more. Since then I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, the latter including a history of American railroading and of the social, sexual, and mechanical complexities that fueled the great turn-of-the century amusement resort of Coney Island. I’ve published two novels, Freelon Starbird (Houghton Mifflin), about the first year of the American Revolution, and The Burning (Doubleday), which tells of a catastrophic forest fire that destroyed the city of Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1893. I’ve also done documentary film writing, including the script for the PBS American Experience movie about Coney Island, and a fragment of Ken Burns’s The Civil War. I’ve written for magazines and newspapers, served as a consultant on historical movies—among them Glory—and done some chattering on television.
After I left American Heritage (or, more accurately, it left me when the owner, Forbes, sold it in 2008) I got a contract from Scribner to write a history of the American effort in the Battle of the Atlantic, which has always interested me because my father was in it on antisubmarine work. The book was published last year under the title A Measureless Peril (Churchill’s phrase for the U-boat threat, which he said was the one thing that really scared him during the entire war).
I am currently working on a book about the rise of Henry Ford and his world-changing creation, the Model T. I live in New York City, am married (to a former American Heritage publisher), and have two children.