Requiem for a Mate

If our publisher-editor relationship was a bit tense, to the point of even being slightly antagonistic, that was a good thing.
Sunrise over the sea and beautiful cloudscape.
“I have always valued what sailing can bring to our lives, providing a wonderful escape, instilling a sense of confidence and self-reliance, and simply offering cherished time on the water with friends and family.” —Sally Helme volodymyr/

The day Sally Helme fired me was pretty rough. I could’ve used a life coach. Like the dude who was brought in to replace me. 

The year was 2005, and I was five years into my tenure as ­editor-in-chief of this magazine. It was a different era. My mentors, the preceding editors—Murray Davis, George Day, Dale Nouse and Bernadette Bernon—had always emphasized that in publishing, there was a church and a state, equal but separate, with an emphasis on separate. The churchly editorial department, the words and stories, represented the scripture. Publisher Sally ran the business side—the state—responsible for generating the advertising lucre that kept all the wheels spinning. 

I’d been taught that it was not only beneficial, but also essential, to maintain an arm’s length from business decisions and to refrain from granting favors to clients. My job was to represent and satisfy the readers and subscribers. If the publication was the least bit phony, there was nothing to sell. And if the publisher-editor relationship was a bit tense, to the point of even being slightly antagonistic, that was a good thing. Healthy. Necessary. 

Man, I was outstanding at that part of the job.

Honestly, I wasn’t shocked when I was sacked. But the one thing that really ticked me off was that my executive editor, Tim Murphy, whom I’d been grooming to take my place, was passed over for the job. (Which contributed to his decision to quit, which made me respect and love him even more than I already did.) Thinking back, though, even that didn’t surprise me. Tim would’ve definitely wreaked even more havoc than I had. 

A short time before all the drama, I went in to work on a weekend. There at the door to my office was a pile of fresh dog poop. I’d seen Sally’s car, so I knew she was there and, sure enough, so was her pooch. She apologized profusely and cleaned up the mess, but I’m fairly certain that doggie got a treat shortly thereafter. 

Oddly enough, my first connection with Sally was through my mom, who ran an employment agency in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Sally had come to Newport to launch an upscale marine magazine called The Yacht, and my mother had played a role in staffing it. It was how I first came to know Sally.

As has been made clear in this issue’s tribute to Sally (see page 8), she was a force of nature. The marine industry was super-macho in those days, led by hard boys like the Harken brothers, Ted Hood, Everett Pearson and similar characters. And while Sally cast a commanding presence, she wasn’t the type to curry favor by batting her eyelashes. No, to succeed in that hypermasculine world, she always had to be the smartest person in the room. A Princeton grad, she always was. 

All that said, it’s absolutely true that for me, getting canned was not a bad thing. I pivoted to writing more of my own stories, not editing ones that I’d commissioned. I wrote a few books, sailed my butt off, and did things that I’d never have contemplated had I remained in the editor’s chair. Though it stung at the time, I came to be very grateful that it had happened. 

And Sally and I, amazingly enough, eventually became pals. Real ones. She was always supportive, and connected me with more than a few fine opportunities. Sure, we still tangled a bit. She was on the board of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and in its early days, I was one of that organization’s most outspoken critics, which I knew bugged Sally to no end. It was just like the old days.

The last time I saw Sally was at, of all places, a beauty parlor: We had the very same hairdresser. (It was our mutual scissors friend who texted me the news about her passing, a good day before anyone else knew.) We’d caught up, gossiped, had a few laughs, even shared a quick hug. There we were, after all this time, a pair of old mates still trying to keep up appearances.

Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.