"A Pen as Sharp as a Stiletto": Cleveland Amory as Critic and Activist

By Greenwald, Marilyn | Journalism History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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"A Pen as Sharp as a Stiletto": Cleveland Amory as Critic and Activist


Greenwald, Marilyn, Journalism History


When Cleveland Amory wrote bis best-selling book The Proper Bostonians in 1947 at age thirty, he launched a career in broadcasting, television criticism, and magazine writing. In a career spanning nearly fifty years, the versatile Amory was a regular commentator for eleven years during the early years of the "Today" show, chief television critic for thirteen years for TV Guide, and then a contributing editor of Parade magazine. Despite his status as an author, a magazine writer, and a broadcaster, it was his participation in the growing animal-rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s that may form his legacy, but his zeal for the movement nearly sabotaged a successful writing career. This paper offers a sketch of the iconoclastic Amory's career and examines how he reinvented himself many times.

Little did NBC President Julian Goodman know that his morning would end with a switchboard lit up by hundreds of irate callers, and many more unhappy viewers sent letters as the week progressed. Little did Amory know that the day would end with his unceremonious firing by NBC. No two-week notice for Amory ; he was asked to vacate the premises immediately. His elevenyear stint at "Today" was over.

Amory's experience with the "Today" show is emblematic of his career: his writing and social criticism made him a household name during the 1960s and 1970s, and he certainly had a promising career ahead of him. During most of this time, he was lucky enough-and talented enough-to mesh his jobs and obsession with animal rights, and he had peace in his life. Eventually, his activities for animal rights and his interest in it began to overshadow his wridng and broadcasting career, and, some believe, hurt his career.1 But his is a story that poses questions about a celebrity's responsibility to the public and to other employees, and it illustrated a clash between one person's moral convictions and media policy. Was it permissible for him to use his platform as a social and arts critic to air his views about animal rights, or did he walk over the line? To examine the question, this article utilizes oral-history interviews by the author with close associates of Amory's, as well as information from a large cache of personal papers that he left to the Boston Public Library. This repository includes personal letters, professional correspondence, videotapes and transcripts of some of his speeches, rough drafts of his writings, newspaper and magazine clippings, scrapbooks, and mementos from his childhood and young adulthood.

In studying Amory, it quickly is evident that he had extraordinary connections. "He knew everyone. People always returned his calls," Amory's longtime friend and attorney Edward Walsh said recently about his access to well known people around the country. In fact, he said Amory had an ability to connect with people that was virtually uncanny. "Cleveland had this incredible, wonderful sense of how to move people," he said. "He loved animals, almost unconditionally. But he loved people more."2 He, like many others, became a friend of Amory's almost by accident; the two men met briefly in the mid 1970s when Walsh conducted some routine legal work for the animal-rights group that Amory founded, and the next thing he knew he was in his inner circle. The author began inviting him to ball games and social events and began calling him on the telephone to chat.

Marian Probst, who was Amory's assistant for nearly thirty years, found him hard to resist. "You'd meet him and next thing you know, you were working for him," she said only half-kiddingly. For someone whose name was a fixture in newspaper columns around the country, he was remarkably easy-going and down to earth. A tireless speaker who traveled around the country talking about society, American culture, television, and anything else that crossed his mind, Amory by the early 1960s also was king of all media, appearing on television talk shows and offering commentary regularly on radio.

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