When Ray Cave called to ask if I’d come to Time to write for the Essay page, I was rusticating in Vermont, a requirement for all writers that usually proves fruitless. I drove down to New York, excited by the prospect of a real job, and of ending my year-long conversations with beavers, raccoons, and other woodland creatures. At the same time, I did not want to come off like a rube to Ray. I wanted to show him I was a sophisticated negotiator. So when I sat in his office discussing the assignment (fine), salary (fine—any salary would have been fine), I took a deep breath and said, “I’m used to four weeks’ vacation.”
This was both true and not true. At The Washington Post, where I’d worked before, I had three weeks’ vacation. But I also had taught in a university, where I got three months in the summers. I figured the whole thing averaged out. “I’m used to four weeks’ vacation,” I said again—louder this time, with more self-assurance.
I looked at Ray. Ray looked at me. I could tell he saw he was dealing with a sophisticated negotiator. Finally, after a long pause, he said quietly in his clear, profound voice, “All right, Roger. We ordinarily start with five weeks. But in your case we’ll make an exception.”
The key to Ray in this story was timing. He waited just the right beat before speaking, partly because he knew he was dealing with a fraud, and partly because silences were a hallmark of both his thinking processes and of his conversation style. When you presented Ray with a problem, of any magnitude, he would wait before saying a word, often for as long as a couple of minutes. To complete the effect, it didn’t hurt that he was about six feet and wore a Brillo-like gray-and-white beard and a stony demeanor. I used to call him Captain Ahab, without the sense of humor. But that wasn’t so. He could be funny as hell. The delivery was everything.
The delivery was everything. Yes. Among some of Time’s writers and sub-editors, Ray was thought cold and aloof. I once overheard a guy say stupidly that Ray wasn’t “a people person.” To me, that sounded like a compliment. But Ray was a people person when it counted.
A wonderful old-school editor at the magazine had a drinking problem, which was poorly timed to evidence itself most dramatically on the nights the magazine closed. After a while, the problem grew hazardous. So Ray went to this editor and told him privately and discreetly that Time would pay for whatever treatments it took for him to dry out, and for however long the therapy required. For his health and that of the magazine, however, the man had to seek help. He did and, after some months, returned as a non-drinker and as the brilliant editor he originally was. Ray would never speak of saving the man’s life, but the saved man did.
Ray knew the value of patience. As a boy, he stood with his grandfather, surveying a vast field of corn. “Grandpa,” he said, “how are you going to shuck all that corn?” His grandfather replied, “One row at a time.” Similarly, Ray would wait for a cultural phenomenon like Michael Jackson to peak before putting it on Time’s cover. His theory—proved right by enormous newsstand sales—was to address public interest at the precise moment it was beginning to ebb, and then to pounce, as if to revive a cherished memory.
The key to Ray was timing.
For anyone dealing with Ray, it was an advantage to know the antipodal influences on his youth. One was the army. His stepfather was an army general, and Ray, born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1929, grew up during the Depression on various hardscrabble military bases. The other influence was the rarefied Great Books education afforded by St. John’s College, Annapolis. As a freshman, Ray was surprised that a lecture on canon law had nothing to do with artillery. As Time’s managing editor, he occasionally would play the Luddite from the sticks for a pseudo-intellectual dandy wanting to show off an elite education. The dandy would prattle on, then Ray would let St. John’s lower the boom. It tickled him to call me “college boy.”
There was not an ounce of fakery or unseemly ambition in him. His wants included a winning harness horse and the avoidance of writing a book. The former derived from his beloved wife Pat Ryan (he only called her “Ryan”), who died in 2013 after a career that included posts as managing editor of People (the first woman to snag this job) and Life, and whose father, James, was a famous trainer of racehorses; the wish not to write a book, from horse-sense modesty. Yet Ray was a rabid competitor. At weekly editorial meetings, he always voiced the deepest respect for Time’s chief rival, Newsweek—just before finding a way to blow his competition out of the water.
He was a gift to writers such as Lance Morrow, Bob Hughes, Stefan Kanfer, John Leo, Ron Sheppard, and Richard Schickel. These were Time’s golden years, when writers were encouraged to write freely and imaginatively on everything, not necessarily about normal news events. One morning I told Ray that I wanted to take off from writing essays for a while and travel around the world writing about the lives of children in war zones. Ray pondered for his usual minute or two, then said, “Go.” To be sure, that was a much different and richer era in journalism, but my proposed project seemed an expensive gamble even then.
On the way to the airport, I bumped into Henry Grunwald, Time’s celebrated editor in chief, who asked what I was up to. When I told him, he said, “And this cockamamie scheme is O.K. with Ray? I’d never allow you to do that.”
I said, “Maybe that’s why Ray didn’t tell you, Henry.”
In my study is a photograph of Ray and me at some dinner in the 1980s, me characteristically yammering, Ray characteristically listening. We both knew the wrong person was doing the wrong thing. His loving and attentive children, Catherine (CC) and Jon, born to Ray and his first wife, Katherine, visited him often in the home in Maine that Ray and Pat shared in their retirement years. When he was still able to travel, Ray spent time fly-fishing for salmon in Canada, Scotland, and Norway—another activity that requires patience and the sense and stamina to wait. CC wrote me to say that, on the night of August 17, “Ray left us.” But we both knew that was impossible.
Ray Cave, editor, was born on May 27, 1929. He died of natural causes on August 17, 2020, aged 91