Who’s Here: Ken Auletta, Writer

Ken Auletta, the best-selling author who for decades has played left field and first base for the Writers in the annual Artist-Writers Game in East Hampton, is celebrating his 21st year writing his column “Annals of Communication” as media critic for The New Yorker. His best-sellers include Greed and Glory on Wall Street: the Fall of the House of Lehman; Three Blind Mice, about the three big TV networks; World War 3.0, about the government’s prosecution of Microsoft; and Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, about that company’s success in changing the playing field in media. He is presently contemplating another book, which, he told me when I had breakfast with him the other day, is still in its seminal stages, so there is nothing yet to talk about.

Ken Auletta is 70, movie-star handsome, the husband of book agent Binky Urban and the father of Kate, who is now the travel editor of The Huffington Post. Words and ideas run in the family. They live in Manhattan and Bridgehampton.

Ken Auletta was born in 1942 and raised in the most popular New York beach resort of that era, Coney Island. There was the boardwalk, all sorts of amusements, including Steeplechase Park, the roller coaster, bumper cars, the Ferris wheel and lots of booths and games. Coney Island drew a million tourists a DAY in the summertime in those years. Two blocks in from the beach was his father’s store, Pat’s Sporting Goods. Pat and his wife, Nettie Tennenbaum—he, the son of immigrants from Naples and she a daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia—lived four blocks away with Ken’s older brother and younger sister.

“My dad’s store was across from the subway stop between Mermaid and Surf Avenues. Nathan’s Famous was across the street. That’s where we ate lunch. All of us worked in the store. It did most of its business in the summertime. We’d set beach merchandise out front in the sunshine. The rest of the year was so, so.”

Ken went to the P.S. 80 grammar school and then Abraham Lincoln High School, the former in Coney Island, the latter on the border between Coney Island and Brighton Beach. He was following in his older brother’s footsteps.

“My older brother was the first in our family to go to college,” Ken told me. “In grammar school he skipped two grades, he was so smart. I took a different route through school.”

That route, as it turned out, was nothing to be admired. If his older brother was the genius, Ken would make his mark as the tough guy. His grades were terrible in grammar school, worse in his first two years of high school. Instead, his life was sports. He pitched on the baseball team. He played football. In the summer, he told me, he’d roll up the sleeves of his T-shirt. At this time, doing this was to display your biceps. It was also, in the rolled-up part, where you could keep a pack of cigarettes. These were the mark of rebels, of juvenile delinquents, as they were called back then.

In his junior year, one of his escapades was to change his life. He had spotted on a teacher’s desk a booklet of school passes—what you needed to get out of school during the day for something—and he had stolen it. He then gave passes to his friends. But he got caught.

“The Dean threw me out of school. I went home. My parents got a meeting with the principal, Abraham Lass, to plead for me to be reinstated.”

The three of them, his parents and Ken sat across from Mr. Lass.

“Mr. Lass looked at me very sternly. ‘Now Ken-nit,’ he said, and I knew this was not going to go well. Nobody called me Ken-nit. ‘Now Ken-nit, let me ask you something. What is it you like about Abraham Lincoln High School?’ I knew the answer to this. ‘Baseball and football.’ And he then asked me, ‘Ken-nit, how do you expect to play baseball and football for Abraham Lincoln High School if you don’t attend Abraham Lincoln?’ and I had absolutely no answer to that. He had my attention.”

I was let back in school, but my punishment was to come to his office every day during my two free periods and read. I’d have to sit in a chair. He had a reading list for me. I didn’t read. Now I read. It changed me.”

“So you graduated with good grades?”

“It did bring my grades up. But still. I graduated with a 64.”

“And then?”

“I went to college. I got into the State University at Oswego, the only school that would take me, and then only because of the urging of the baseball coach there. I do want to say that Abraham Lass changed my life. He became my mentor. We kept in regular touch. I spoke at his funeral.”

At college, this was a teachers college, the baseball coach told him he could choose his major. He gave him a list. Ken liked art and chose Industrial Arts. When he found out it would get him a degree to be able to teach high school shop, he switched to History. He had become fascinated with history. He thought he would like to be a diplomat. But then the Civil Rights era swept across the nation, and at Oswego, he became part of it.

“I wrote for the college paper. But then, secretly, I founded an underground magazine, which I called Pravda. In Russian, this means Truth. No editor was listed on the masthead. But that editor was me.”

Here are some highlights from Pravda. He ran an exposé about some land that the president of the college owned. It was vacant land, but the school had announced it would soon be expanding onto it. They’d have to buy it from the president. For a lot, Auletta suspected. He wrote about it.

Auletta, now fully engaged in his studies, applied for and got a scholarship to Syracuse University to get a Masters in Political Science. When he got there, he found they wanted him to be a dorm advisor to freshman, which was fine with him, but when he learned there were forms to be filled out about each student and what they did and wore and said, he considered it spying. So he published these forms in the underground magazine he edited at Syracuse with an exposé. At the end of his school year, he lost his scholarship.

“In my second year,” Auletta said, “I taught undergraduates who were going off to be in the Peace Corps in Africa. Of course, I knew nothing about Africa.”

And he did continue writing a column for the school paper. One column was about the annual ROTC Parade at the school. The ROTC was the Reserve Officers Training Corps for the U.S. Military. There were protesters out there. End the war in Vietnam. Also there was Ken Auletta, a school reporter, and he graphically described the school chancellor, stepping down from the platform and, with the cane he always needed to support himself, whacking protesters.

Eventually, he did graduate. Now what?

It was 1966. The Vietnam War was raging. The compulsory draft was in place. He’d serve his time. He joined the Air Force Reserves and went into the military and served as a private for six months.

After that, he got a job working for Howard Samuels, an upstate millionaire who was running for Governor. He worked as his aide, but Samuels lost in the democratic primary.

He went to work in New York for Senator Bobby Kennedy. This was during the Johnson Administration. His job was to coordinate with the New York democratic leaders who were pretty rough-cut at that time—Carmine De Sapio, Stanley Steinlauf, Meade Esposito, and he didn’t like working with these bosses. He recalled telling this to Bobby Kennedy who told him “hang in there” but he found it too hard to do and he finally quit.

After another stint working for Howard Samuels, who by this time was the Commerce Under Secretary, Auletta quit to join the campaign for Bobby Kennedy’s run for the presidency. After Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in a hotel in Los Angeles, though, he became editor for a weekly New York newspaper.

A few years later, in 1970s, he came to meet the woman he would marry. He had been asked, and had accepted, the job of campaign manager for still another run for the governorship by Samuels. (“We almost won,” Auletta told me wanly.) Then, after that defeat, Samuels was appointed to the non-salaried position of Chairman of Off Track Betting, a new program about to start up in New York. Samuels asked Auletta to be Executive Director.

It was at OTB that Auletta met an employee named Amanda “Binky” Urban. She worked in the marketing department. He asked her out.

“Today, I would be accused of sexual harassment for what I did. I was a boss asking out an employee. But those were not the rules or customs of that time.”

Meanwhile, in 1974, Samuels once again decided to run for governor and once again asked Auletta to be his campaign manager and again he lost in the primary, this time to Hugh Carey.

And so it was that Auletta decided he really should get a real job as a journalist. And that’s when his career began to really take off.

“My first job was with The New York Post—this is when Dorothy Schiff owned it. She hired me as the Chief Political Correspondent and a weekly columnist. My first column, which was critical of some of her friends, got killed, and as I learned, it was by Mrs. Schiff. My career at the Post lasted all of two weeks.”

Auletta wrote freelance for The Village Voice for a while and for publications like Connecticut Magazine. Then he was hired to write The Village Voice’s weekly “Running Scared” column, and also longer pieces for New York Magazine.

“What did you write about?” I asked.

“For the Voice, I wrote about the press. I wrote one column about New York Mayor Beame when New York was teetering near bankruptcy and he was doing little about it. The story was called ‘What It’s Like to Be Dead: A Report from City Hall.’” For New York Magazine I wrote longer investigative pieces exploring the roots of the city’s fiscal crises.”

In February of 1977, Rupert Murdoch made an offer to buy both New York Magazine and The Village Voice. The entire staff of New York was up in arms.

“I joined the protesters, 40 people from New York Magazine, the entire staff, and tried to stop Murdoch. When he won, many of us quit.”

Also quitting and going on strike was his girlfriend, Binky. She was General Manager at New York Magazine at this point. In June, totally unrelated to all this, they got married. She went to work for Grey Advertising, and soon thereafter began her career as a literary agent. He began doing work for a variety of New York media outlets.

He began writing a weekly political column for The New York Daily News. On TV, he became the co-anchor, along with Robert Sam Anson, for a weekly show on Channel 13 about the News of New York. Perhaps his biggest success at this time, however, was the work he did for William Shawn’s New Yorker. Shawn wanted him to write long pieces. He did.

One of them, a three-part series called “The Underclass,” was about the poor in New York, how they lived, and how they were burdened with poor habits, so they were unable to escape crime or poverty or welfare, and became an Auletta book. Another, a two-part profile in The New Yorker, was about Mayor Koch. Auletta, who was 32 at that time, with Koch’s permission, practically lived in the Mayor’s office for almost a year. He silently attended meetings, read his mail, listened to phone calls, and in the end, wrote a not-always-flattering piece about Mayor Koch, suggesting that his mantra not be, with a big smile, staring right at the camera “How am I doin’?” but should be “How is my government doing?” which, in Auletta’s opinion, was not as well as Mayor Koch was doing.

After this series came out in The New Yorker, Koch was really angry with him, telling people “Auletta betrayed me.”

“I remember a conference call I had with the Mayor and with Dan Wolf, the publisher of The Village Voice at that time,” Auletta told me. “I told the mayor I had done my job as a journalist, I had reported on what I saw. I didn’t lie. I didn’t use off the record material. He should not use a loaded word like betrayal about me. And Koch agreed, and never did use that word again.”

Auletta continued to write his weekly political column for The New York Daily News for many years. He also began to play baseball in Sag Harbor, and beginning around 1985, became a regular player in the annual Artist-Writers softball game in the park in the center of downtown East Hampton. Also in those years, while continuing with his column in the News and his pieces in The New Yorker, he began writing books.

Lehman Brothers, the New York banking firm, had fallen into disarray in a battle between two CEOs in 1984. Auletta’s account of this, and its subsequent merger with American Express, resulted in Auletta’s Greed and Glory on Wall Street, which became a number one best-seller when it came out in 1986. Others followed. He wrote Three Blind Mice, about the three TV networks, which was another best-seller, in 1991. The following year, he was hired to begin writing New Yorker profiles under the “Annals of Communications” rubric, which continues on to this day. In 1997, he published another book, The Highwaymen, a collection of New Yorker pieces on the media, and, in 2001, his celebrated book World War 3.0 appeared.

At the time, Microsoft, moving toward becoming a monopoly in the computer software world, became the target of a federal government anti-trust trial. A huge government lawsuit alleging monopolistic practices was filed. The government proposed that Microsoft split into two companies. Microsoft lost the lawsuit and, in part because the judge had spoken with Auletta for his book, a federal appeals court overturned his decision to break up Microsoft.

His most recent piece in The New Yorker, just before our interview, was about Henry Blodgett, a defrocked Wall Street advisor, banned for life from that industry, who is now starting a new career as the editor of Business Insider. Auletta also hopes to write next about the TV network Al Jazeera and hopes to go to Qatar to interview the Emir of that state who finances it.

Auletta has been named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. He has won many journalism awards and was selected as one of the 20th century’s top 100 business journalists. He was, for a dozen years, a trustee of the Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival.

We finished our breakfast and went our separate ways. And I thought—Ken, what was your favorite ride? I called him and asked him. In Coney Island? It was the bumper car rides. All the kids would laugh and bash their cars into one another.

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