Memoir Tells Lively Stories of Famous Cartoonists, Columnists and Author
you, the columnist
By Dave Lieber
Book Review: Comic (and Column) Confessional: Finding Myself While Covering Syndicates, Celebrities, and a Changing Media World. By Dave Astor.
Xenos Press (2012). 232 pages. Paperback. $25
Dave Astor, that quiet guy sitting in the first row at NSNC conferences year after year writing stories for Editor & Publisher magazine, always made a point of not getting involved with people he wrote about.
Was it shyness? Yes, partly, but it was also a strong sense of ethics that kept him from socializing with the columnists and cartoonists he covered, from hanging out in their hospitality suites and from divulging too many details of himself.
But beneath that shyness and standoffishness, there was a brooding, often on-edge husband, father and magazine employee who kept his serious personal troubles to himself. That’s what is stunningly revealed amid the many funny stories and historic details in his first book, Comic (and Column) Confessional, a memoir about what it was like to cover columnists and cartoonists since the early 1980s.
After Astor lost his job in a 2008 layoff, he became a columnist for his local Montclair, N.J., newspaper and joined our organization, serving as volunteer archivist. He also spent the next three years working on his book.
This is relevant to you, the columnist, in the wake of NSNC President Larry Cohen’s recent death. Vice President Eric Heyl of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review stepped up, and Astor filled his spot as veep. That means Astor is scheduled to be NSNC president for the 2014-2016 term.
His book is the most detailed intimate memoir ever written by an NSNC board member, dealing as it does with the death of his 3-year-old daughter, his miserable first marriage and, ultimately, his unfortunate layoff – even though he was regarded as “the founding father of syndication reporting.”
Astor’s parents divorced at age 13, and he explains that he never overcame his severe shyness until he was forced to do so as an adult working as an inquisitive reporter. He was a 5:06 miler in high school, and that speed and endurance carried him through a 25-year career covering the most famous cartoonists and columnists in the land. He had to write fast and frequently, sometimes filing as many as 10 stories a day for the magazine’s website.
His first marriage, to a woman he does not name, is described in intimate details so carefully placed that Astor almost puts you inside the tiny apartment with his wife and baby daughter Abigail. Abigail is a major character in the book. She goes blind and is paralyzed, a victim of Tay-Sachs disease.
After a medical lab issues incorrect results, the shy Astor is so furious he somehow launches a media campaign to expose the lab – and he sues them. He appears on TV shows and in magazine features to warn Americans that they should not so readily believe results from medical labs. His family’s plight is covered in Ladies’ Home Journal, New York Newsday, even Parade magazine.
Using his work connection, he gets Dear Abby to publish his letter (and then feels guilty about it, ethically.) Ultimately, he serves as vice president of a watchdog group that criticizes medical lab reporting errors. His wife testifies on the subject before Congress.
Little Abigail dies before her fourth birthday. Astor’s writing about it is solid and profound.
But as sorrowful as Abigail’s story is, the story of Astor’s other daughter is utterly joyful. Maggie follows in her dad’s footsteps by becoming editor-in-chief of the Montclair High School newspaper, a top staffer at the Columbia Daily Spectator college newspaper, and now, at only 23, a full-time copy editor for The New York Times.
Another high point: the sheer happiness when Astor finds Laurel, his second wife and true love.
Through it all, Astor intersperses his lively stories of the many famous people he interviewed and how they reacted to the coverage.
After that day in 2008 when he loses his job, the outcry from his fans, including many of us at the NSNC, is so surprising that E&P editors are forced to run a tribute story to Astor and his long career, quoting all the wonderful words said about him, on the magazine’s website.
“I can’t believe the site actually mentioned something that doesn’t put E&P in a good light!” one of his co-workers says.
The idea for the memoir came from the most famous person Astor ever wrote about: Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.
“You should do a book, David,” Snoopy’s creator said. “You write well, and you’ve covered the business for a long time.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Astor replied. “But thank you.”
This book is worth your time, not only for the insights about our future president, but also because it shows how changes in the craft of journalism also forced momentous changes upon the people who practiced it, too.
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Get an autographed copy for $25 (includes shipping) by sending a check with your address and autograph information to: David Astor, 43 Harvard St., Montclair, NJ 07042. Or order it online, via our Amazon affiliate link, and a percentage of the sale goes to NSNC.
Dave Lieber, a lifetime NSNC member, writes The Watchdog column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.