Remembering ASJA Founding Member Norman Lobsenz
by David Groves
There was a moment in 1948 when the organization we now call ASJA existed only in the minds of three writers. In May, the last of those three, Norman Lobsenz, died at age 93.
Norman began his journalism career as a reporter and editor for New York City newspapers including the Post, Newsday, and The Mirror. In 1945, he published his first article in Coronet and was launched on a brilliant career in freelancing, eventually writing for Collier’s, Parade, Liberty, Pageant, Ingenue, The New York Times Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, Look, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Redbook, New Woman, Woman, Woman’s Own, Seventeen, Modern Bride, Los Angeles Times, and the Toronto Star Weekly.
Norman published 21 books, penned both alone or in collaboration, including How to Stay Married, No-Fault Marriage, Styles of Loving, Nobody’s Perfect, Equal Time, Stop Marital Fights Before They Start, Minister’s Guide to Successful Retirement, His Bedside/Her Bedside Companion, Farewell to Fear, Is Anybody Happy?, and Writing as a Career.
Norman’s career underwent many phases, as happens in this unpredictable business. He published 68 weekly columns for Copley News Syndicate. In the ’60s he wrote regular articles for Amazing Stories and Fantastic, two sci-fi pulp magazines. In his later years, he wrote for senior publications such as Modern Maturity and Saga.
His main specialty, however, was marriage and family. Many of his books focus on that subject, as well as many of his periodical publications, including articles for Parents, Child, Families, Family Weekly, Today’s Family, and even professional journals such as Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
It was only three years into his freelancing career, in 1948, when Norman and two other freelancers saw a need for an organization in which they could share industry information. Thus was ASJA born, although under a different name: The Society of Magazine Writers (SMW). As the organization grew to include authors, newspaper writers, and other specialists, they broadened the name to American Society of Journalists and Authors.
In 1965, after this visionary idea had grown into a large and respected organization, Norman finally served a term as ASJA president. All this time, of course, he had been conducting a full-time freelance career, adding such esteemed magazines to his resume as Reader’s Digest, Redbook, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and many others. He never kept count of how many articles he published throughout his career, but his best estimate was more than 1,000. In 1977, Norman fled the East Coast and put down roots in Southern California. Over the ensuing decades, he became the most respected atten-dee of SoCal meetings, never getting involved in leadership but always enjoying the camaraderie. He also found time to teach article and book writing at USC and UCLA.
In recent years, as Norman became aware that his time was drawing near, he performed the ultimate journalistic act of courage: He wrote a draft of his own obituary, from which many of these facts are drawn.
Among august historical figures, there are those who love to reminisce, who give us insights into larger issues, who issue wise homilies about the foundations of the present while basking in the praise of those who have not lived as long.
That certainly doesn’t describe Norman. He wasn’t in the least sentimental. He didn’t dwell on the past. He took Satchel Paige’s view: “Don’t look back. Someone might be gaining on you.”
I met Norman in 1984, when I had just joined the ASJA because I was having trouble finding my way in the freelance jungle. I was 28 and was looking for the pot of gold. However, nobody would tell me how much they earned. Nobody would tell me where the big money was.
So one day, I took a page from What Color Is My Parachute? I asked the most accomplished member in our chapter, our bespectacled, tough-talking Norman, if I could hire him for an hour’s worth of career consultation. I expected him to say, “Oh no, we’re in the brotherhood of freelancers, I’ll gladly do it for free,” but such words did not issue from his mouth.
Norman invited me to his house, a spacious split-level in the hills of Bel-Air, the Los Angeles suburb to which President Reagan would eventually retire. This looked terribly promising. If freelance writing had bought Norman this house, he just had to point me in the right direction and I could march myself into equity and world renown. Perhaps the answer was in interviewing celebrities, perhaps in becoming a contributing editor, perhaps in moving to New York City.
We sat down on the sofa and started chatting. It wasn’t pretty. No, there wasn’t much money left in consumer magazine freelancing, even at the top. There was a time, he said, when a freelance writer’s salary could support a family, a mortgage, two cars, and even a country-club membership. But with the arrival of television in the 1950s, all the advertising dollars began migrating to the new medium. Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, and Liberty magazine closed down. By the time I hit the scene, top rates hadn’t gone up since 1960.
“What about this?” I said, gesturing at the sunny and spacious living room in which we were sitting. “This is a very nice house you have.”
“I didn’t get it through freelancing,” he said.
In 1987, I sat next to Murray Teigh Bloom, the second member of the founding ASJA troika, at a New York dinner meeting, and got the same depressing news from him. In 1989, I radically changed my approach to writing, and Norman and Murray’s advice was a big part of the reason why. By my reckoning, that $90 I paid Norman saved me 5 to 10 years of wasted time.
B orn in Brooklyn in 1919, Norman received his undergraduate journalism education at New York University, where he would later teach part-time. He earned a master’s degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Eventually, he would write for that university’s highly respected Columbia Journalism Review.
It is humbling to consider the depth and breadth of Norman’s life and career. He was born during Woodrow Wilson’s administration. He was seven years old when The Sun Also Rises was published, 10 years old when the market crashed in ’29. He was hired as a cub reporter at Newsday three months before it was launched in 1940. He was only 20 at a time when grown men actually said “cub reporter.” During World War II, he wrote press releases for both the British and U.S. governments. Norman used to regale other ASJA members with stories of Betty Friedan and Alex Haley, both ASJA members starting in the ’60s, predating their entry into the national consciousness.
Norman officially retired in 2000, something that he richly deserved, given that he had freelanced for nearly six decades. Words flowed from him like water in a stream, but at recent chapter meetings, he declared that he was finished with all that. No more deadlines, no more struggling with leads, no more begrudging rewrites.
Over the last few years, the SoCal chapter has held holiday parties at the Vintage Tea Leaf in Long Beach, a charming little teahouse that requires all patrons to don a hat. The establishment retains a collection on several shelves—lace hats, flowered hats, berets, knitted hats, but only a few with a masculine flair, including my favorite, a particularly antique naval cap. The proprietor was insistent: Before sitting down, members should choose their itsy bitsy hats, then sit down with their peers and eat itsy bitsy sandwiches.
Norman, however, always went hatless. He wasn’t of the generation that put up with that kind of crap.
At one of those holiday parties, I remember him talking hatless with longtime chapter chair Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. They always had what movie reviewers would call chemistry, like Bogie and Bacall, taking mutual delight in each other’s words, opinions, and attentions.
At one point, Barbara asked Norman what he was writing these days.
“I’m not,” he said.
“What about a memoir?” she said.
“Oh, I don’t have anything to say.”
“Surely there’s something else inside you that you’d like to put down in print.”
“I’m old and written out. I don’t want to do that.”
It was sad for me to think that was the case. To me, writing is something that continues to bubble up for as long as you’re breathing. Writing is part of you, like a lung or a heart.
But as it turned out, Norman was just paddling down a river in Egypt. He belonged to a retirement organization and, as it turned out, was secretly writing profiles of their members for the newsletter.
And then, miraculously, Barbara convinced him to write a continuing column for The ASJA Monthly called “The Good Old Days,” a gig that lasted three years, with sporadic columns published in 13 issues beginning in January 2005 and ending in September 2008.
Writing was indeed essential to Norman’s being. Likewise, he was the heart of ours. By heart, I mean, as above: part of us. It is not sentimental, but simply accurate, to say that there are many members—in Southern California, New York, and in other chapters—who will miss Norman terribly.
Norman is survived by his loving companion, Helen Leven, as well as sons Michael, James and George, and seven grandchildren.
David Groves divides his time between writing and the performance of magic. He published over 500 articles throughout the ‘80s for the women’s magazines and health magazines, and now performs magic in a variety of venues, from cruise ship theatres to trade-show stages to motivational shows on corporate stages.