William Alvin Whitworth began his newspaper career in Little Rock (Pulaski County) when he was a high school student. He has come to be recognized as one of the nation’s most reputable journalists, having been a writer and associate editor of the New Yorker and editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly.
Bill Whitworth was born on February 13, 1937, in Hot Springs (Garland County). He attended Central High School in Little Rock, where he also spent time working as an advertising department copy boy for the Arkansas Democrat. He attended the University of Oklahoma (OU) at Norman. During summers and a year he took off from school, Whitworth continued to work at the Democrat with editor Roberta Martin and photographer Will Counts as a general assignment reporter for the Sunday magazine and writer of feature stories and a daily column about television.
In 1960, Whitworth graduated from OU with a BA in English and journalism. He chose the newspaper business over his other love, music. He turned down positions in bands, including the Hal McIntyre band, and began work for the Arkansas Gazette and its city editor Bill Shelton. There, he wrote a wide variety of stories on topics such as the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), the Little Rock School Board, and continuing desegregation issues in Arkansas.
While Whitworth admired the Gazette and regarded it as one of the finest newspapers in the country, he dreamed of going to New York; former Gazette reporter Charles Portis gave Whitworth that chance in 1963. When Portis moved to London, Whitworth replaced him at the New York Herald Tribune. On Whitworth’s second day on the job, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This set the tone for the next two years. Whitworth traveled across America covering the political turmoil of the 1960s, including the student antiwar movement, riots in Harlem, and Bobby Kennedy’s U.S. Senate race. Whitworth also covered entertainment stories such as the Beatles’ first two U.S. appearances.
In 1966, Whitworth left the New York Herald Tribune when Abraham Michael (A. M.) Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times, and William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, both offered Whitworth a job. The Herald Tribune tried to convince Whitworth to stay by offering to send him to Vietnam to cover the war, but Whitworth decided to take the job with the New Yorker and began work there in February 1966. For seven years, he wrote pieces for “Talk of the Town” as well as long stories on celebrities and other lighthearted subjects.
Eventually, Whitworth wanted to try his hand at editing. Shawn decided he should edit for six months and write for six months, but at the end of Whitworth’s first six months, he found he was too busy editing to go back to writing. So Whitworth became associate editor of the New Yorker. He had worked at the New Yorker for fourteen years when Shawn told Whitworth that he would be his successor. Later, the principal owner of the New Yorker, Peter Fleischmann, formally told Whitworth that he was selected to be the new editor of the magazine. As Whitworth wondered if he really wanted to take on such a task and the many problems bound to come with it, a real estate developer named Mortimer Zuckerman, who had just purchased the Atlantic Monthly, asked Whitworth to be the editor of his magazine. At first, Whitworth refused, but Zuckerman’s persistence and the idea of the stress to come with following in Shawn’s footsteps at the New Yorker caused Whitworth to take the job at the Atlantic. In November 1980, Whitworth moved to Boston from New York; his first issue was in April 1981.
Whitworth spent twenty years editing the Atlantic. In 1993, the publication received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In September 1999, however, Zuckerman sold the Atlantic with the understanding that the new owner would bring in his own editor and that Whitworth would be welcome to become editorial director of any other one of Zuckerman’s publications. Whitworth decided to not accept Zuckerman’s offer but remains editor emeritus at the Atlantic and occasionally edits some pieces. He returned to Little Rock after retirement and currently edits books by high-profile individuals, such as British media mogul Conrad Black and actress Anjelica Huston.
For additional information:
Brandon, Phyllis D. “William Alvin Whitworth.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 23, 1994, pp. 1D, 6D.