The New York Times has seen surprisingly few interruptions in its 163-year history. The paper took five holidays in the early 1850s; a strike in 1962–3 led to a nineteen-day blackout; another, in 1965, caused four “joint” publication dates, which combined the Saturday and Sunday papers. And then there was 1978, when, from August 10 to November 4, a multiunion strike shuttered all three of New York City’s major newspapers. No editions of the Times were printed for a record-setting eighty-eight days.
Two and a half months into the ’78 strike, though—and thirty-six years ago today—New Yorkers awoke to find the Times unexpectedly back on newsstands, kind of. This was Not the New York Times, a one-off parody rife with satirical news stories, faux advertisements, and farcical editorials. Among the items on the front page were an exposé on an exotic new drug (“pronounced ko-kayne” and “generally ingested nasally”), a tedious seven-paragraph report written entirely in bureaucratese (“Carter Forestalls Efforts To Defuse Discord Policy”), and Mayor Koch’s recipe for chicken curry. There was a weather notice, too: “Mostly present today, still there tomorrow.”
The spoof, it turned out, was the work of Paris Review founder George Plimpton and a handful of his friends, including Christopher Cerf (the ringleader), Tony Hendra, and Rusty Unger. Among those enlisted as “journalists” were Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, and Terry Southern—though none was exactly forthright about his or her contributions.
“I had nothing to do with this,” Cerf quipped. “I can give you a list of other people who weren’t involved as well. It’s also not true that we used the Plimptons’ apartment to put the paper together. I ought to know. I was there all week.” Plimpton himself was unavailable for comment—presumably tidying up after playing host to the editorial debauchery. (Incidentally, The Paris Review—also run out of Plimpton’s Seventy-second Street apartment—failed to meet its deadlines that fall; the staff was forced to merge its final two issues into a single Fall-Winter edition.)
The denials didn’t stop with Cerf. According to coverage in that week’s Time magazine,
Freddy Plimpton denied that her husband wrote a brilliant parody of Timesman Red Smith’s sports column. Similarly, New Times Senior Editor Kevin Buckley denied that he and Frankie FitzGerald collaborated on the parody of Reston, and Tony Hendra, a former National Lampoon editor, denied that he posed for the photo of the Pope.
Rusty Unger, a former book editor and Village Voice columnist, denied that the paper’s 100,000-copy press run was printed by Garber Publishing Co. in Toledo, denied that Garber had agreed to finance the venture in return for the first $20,000 in revenues plus 30% of the rest, and denied that any profits from the venture would go to the Neediest Cases Fund that the New York Times sponsors each year.
No one would deny, though, that the parody was an unqualified success. Despite its hefty one-dollar price tag—five times the cost of a standard weekday Times—Not the New York Times quickly sold through its initial print run, and subsequent runs, according to Nieman Reports, brought the final circulation numbers to at least 250,000. (Cerf later claimed that the paper sold “millions of copies.”) Even the Times itself, whose management was reputedly sore for months after the paper first appeared, has since come to embrace the “pitch-perfect replica” as “the modern standard for fake news.” Cerf, who went on to win three Grammys and eight Emmys (largely for his work writing songs for Sesame Street), would later call it the highlight of his professional life. “Nobody slept for four weeks,” he said in a 2011 interview with Harvard Magazine. “Our big terror was that the strike would end and the real Times would start publishing again before we went to press. Luckily it didn’t.”
The twenty-four-page paper opens with a jab at the brief tenure of Pope John Paul I, then recently deceased, whose reign had lasted only thirty-three days. “Pope Dies Yet Again; Reign is Briefest Ever / Cardinals Return From Airport,” reads the lead headline, attributed to one R. W. Papple, Jr. (a pseudonym for Carl Bernstein). It continues:
ROME, Oct. 11 — Pope John Paul John Paul I, 264th Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, died this afternoon while administering the Papal benediction to thousands who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his investiture. He served as pope for 19 minutes, the briefest reign in the history of the church.
The cause of the Pope’s death was not immediately clear. The 41-year-old Pontiff, formerly Archbishop of Liverpool and the first non-Italian to ascend the throne of St. Peter, collapsed in mid-sentence and toppled forward into a battery of microphones as he blessed the faithful who filled the square below.
His last words, which were also his first as spiritual head of the world’s 49 million Roman Catholics, were heard by millions who watched the ancient rite of investiture via communications satellite. Raising his hand to make the sign of the Cross, the Pope intoned, “In nomine patri” and seemed to falter. He regained his speech momentarily, but only long enough to pronounce the next two words of the sacrament, “et filio” in a choking voice. Then he emitted a high-pitched squeal which many mistook as coming from the boy’s choir and fell forward.
The paper strikes an uncannily familiar tone throughout its three sections, and, visually, it’s a dead ringer for the Times, even down to the style of the bylines. Plimpton, et al., had discovered that Ohio’s Toledo Blade made use of the Times’s typefaces, and the editorial crew was delighted when the Blade’s publisher agreed to print what was, by their own admission, “All the News Not Fit to Print.”
But what’s most impressive to me about Not the New York Times isn’t the caliber of its wit or the faithfulness of its layout; it’s the circumstances of its production. Gathering and hosting one’s friends for a weeks-long parodyfest is the sort of activity you might expect from an enthusiastic undergraduate. (It’s no surprise that most parody publications remain tied to universities.) But in the fall of 1978, George Plimpton was fifty-one years old—with a two-year-old son, no less—and still he managed to host an estimated seventy or eighty people working twenty-four hours a day for four weeks. If anything, Not the New York Times is a testament to his boyish enthusiasm.
Noticeably lacking in all the retellings is an explanation for how so many professionals avoided real work for such an extended period of time. But, in typical Plimptonian fashion, no one seemed particularly interested in such practical concerns. “We had a very good time with it,” Cerf told the AP. “It’s something that will be fun for the whole city.” He then denied making the statement.
Stephen Hiltner is the associate editor of The Paris Review.