William Manchester is a great popular historian who is best known for his The Death of a President, his account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. I came to him through A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissancewhich reminded quite of Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history A Distant Mirror. This summer has been enlivened by Manchester’s three volume biography of Winston S. Churchill, The Last Lion, which I’m now near the end of the second volume which covers Churchill’s near banishment from Parliament in the 1930s when he alone warned of the growing threat posed by the re-armament of the Third Reich as the English people and His Majesty’s Government, ravaged by the horror of World War I, embraced pacifism at all costs and derided Churchill as a Victorian war monger.
The first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932was a remarkable look into the childhood and formative experiences that went into defining what would become a truly great man, one named the most important Briton of all time in a poll by the BBC a few years ago. From his birth in Blenheim Castle to an American mother and a syphilitic Engish Lord, to his wartime exploits in India, the Sudan, and South Africa, the portrait emerges of a dynamic man who loved the English language and went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and well paid writers in the world.
The second volume, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940, is slower going but needs to be given the tumult of the decade in Europe and the role Churchill played on the backbench of the House of Commons, denied a cabinet seat and thwarted from a role in the government after taking the blame for the the Gallipoli debacle (unfairly if you believe Manchester’s take).
Jimmy Guterman died unexpectedly in July of this year (2016), gone too soon and leaving behind a wife and three children. News of his passing spread through the PC Week alumni network and I wished I had this blog revived at the time to write some words of appreciation for a good friend and esteemed colleague who was with me early in my career and for decades ever after.
Jimmy was a writer. He wrote about rock and roll — not as a critic per se — but one of those loves of the music who could weave a great story about its roots as well as the humor. The Sex Pistols, Sinead O’Connor, Jerry Lee Lewis … he wrote books about all of them. But for some weird reason he took a shine to tech journalism just as it was getting to be cool in the 1980s, and stuck to it with the soul of a reporter and a certain sardonic mensch-like view of the world that kept him curious but pragmatic all the time.Jimmy not only chronicled the amazing development of the tech world over the last three decades, but contributed to it with deep thinking, great thoughtfulness, and a blend of skepticism and utopian hope that came through his work at the Harvard Business Review and on stage at TED.
When I was his editor in 1988 I sent him and another writer across the Atlantic to England to look at prototype of Steve Job’s Next PC — the ahead-of-its-time workstation with the black magnesium case, the first optical drive, and the operating system Jobs would bring back with him a few years later when he returned to Apple to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. Jimmy and his cohort Jeff Young (who had written the first biography of Jobs – The Journey is the Reward) went to some lab at one of the big universities — I think Cambridge, to do a quick analysis of the Next machine’s speeds and feeds. It was a bit of a fool’s errand — the machine was there, being tested by some coders in the beta test program, but it was concealed in mufti with a down vest — like LL Bean would sell — and Jimmy was unable to get more than an unusable picture of a goose-down encased rectangle on a desk.
We were early lovers of hypertext. Jimmy was fascinated by early precursors to HTML and the World Wide Web and did some interest experiments with hypertext fiction. We created a partnership to do some hypertext projects — and together went to Newport, Rhode Island to pitch the CEO of the US yacht racing association a project to turn the rules of sailboat racing into an interactive, animated CD-ROM. They looked at us like we were Martians, Jimmy looked at them like they were something out of JP Morgan and Lady Astor’s garden party, and we were sent packing. Later we registered Vineyard.com and a few other domains. I hired him on a freelance basis to help write some great early features for Forbes.com, and later he repaid the favor by giving me some freelance work when he was editor of Forrester Research’s short-lived but fantastically edited print magazine.
I have, in my dusty music collection, a CD I burned with some of the worst songs of all time — songs inspired by Jimmy and Owen O’Donnell’s 1991 book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time.
Jimmy and I bickered over his inclusion of the Grateful Dead’s live Europe ’72 album — he was not a Deadhead. But his description of some of the horrors committed to vinyl in the name of rock live on on that CD. I take some small pride in knowing I contributed at least one entry that made it into the book.
Jimmy was a great craftsman with his writing. He was a careful reporter, checked his facts, but delivered very clean, spare copy with the pragmatic professionalism of a true freelancer. Everything I know about the craft of the freelancer I learned from Jimmy Guterman.
I’ll miss him. I sent him a note last winter when I realized he was an editor for Newco, John Battelle’s start up for start ups. My company,Acquia, was involved in some Newco event in Boston and so I sent Jimmy a quick “Hey-How-Are-You?” but didn’t head back.
Jimmy was one of a kind and I think about him often now. My condolences to his wife, son, and daughters and friends.