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Who's Smoking Now?

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When Forbes magazine splashed a marijuana leaf on its cover last month,
John Buffalo Mailer weighed the propriety of flaunting such images in
public. Mr. Mailer, who is just starting out in journalism, said he hoped
never to run such a cover. "It's a personal thing, but I don't believe we
should be throwing that in people's faces," he said. "I don't think that's
our role."

Mr. Mailer, 25, the son of Norman Mailer and Norris Church Mailer, speaks
with the self-assurance of the handsome and intellectually well born. Yet
his words begged a little clarification. Looming over him was a blowup of a
magazine cover with Snoop Dogg holding a water pipe in each hand, accepting
the honor of 2002's Stoner of the Year. Mr. Mailer, you see, is the new
executive editor of High Times.

On a recent afternoon, he sat in his tastefully corporate-looking Madison
Square office flanked by what might be called Forbes-like covers on one
wall and his dry cleaning on another. He wore neat jeans, a black
button-down shirt and what appeared to be a permanent layer of dark
stubble. Not to put too fine a point on it, he has also been named one of
the sexiest men alive by People magazine. In conversation he is a good sport.

"The only way I can look at that is, it's making consciousness sexy," he
said of the People plug. "It helps. It gets the name out there."

Mr. Mailer's first issue of High Times, which reached some Manhattan
newsstands last week and will be available nationwide on Nov. 25, begins a
total makeover of the magazine. The cover has a photograph of the actor
Mark Webber, a question about education reform and zero references to
marijuana. Inside are a long essay on outlaw politics by the actor Peter
Coyote, who was in the 1960's anarchist group the Diggers, and a
first-person account by a drug smuggler.

"We're trying to get away from just being a pot magazine, which is what
it's been for the last 15 years," Mr. Mailer said. "It was never supposed
to be just that." (Full disclosure: I wrote about music for High Times in
the 1980's.)

In sober and idealistic tones, Mr. Mailer, who smokes marijuana
"occasionally," he said, described his plan to wean the magazine off its
dependence on "the plant" - not to eliminate coverage, but to make it part
of a broader diet of lifestyle articles.

"With the new High Times we're using it as a metaphor," he said. "So it's
not a magazine about pot, it's a magazine about our civil liberties, and
our tag line is 'Celebrating Freedom.' Our feeling is it's patriotic to be
in High Times."

Norman Mailer, reached by telephone, said he had given his son little
advice in the new job, but volunteered that he was not unfamiliar with the
subject matter. "I used to be a heavy marijuana smoker in the 50's," he
said. "I loved it, but one paid a heavy price for it. It could leave you
good for nothing for two days afterwards." Finally, he gave it up, he said.
"Not a stick of pot in 10 years."

Predictably, his son's new job does not come without a good ribbing.
"Yeah," John Mailer acknowledged. "Then they see the look in my eye and
figure I'm not the best person to have that conversation with. I don't want
to say it offends me, but it's just pointless to judge what I'm doing off
the old magazine."

As an institution that will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, High
Times has done what magazines like Smart Set, American Mercury, Lingua
Franca, the Evergreen Review, Ramparts, Punk, Spy, Manhattan Inc., Talk,
George and numerous others have failed to do: it has kept on keeping on.
But over those three decades the magazine's core constituency has moved
ever farther from what might be called cultural leadership positions. The
alternative culture of 2003 is not that of 1974.

Mr. Mailer admitted that he has not been the magazine's most devoted reader
over the years. "Honestly, I didn't know it was still in publication until
Richard and I started talking," he said, referring to Richard Stratton, the
publisher and editor in chief.

The magazine has a circulation of 100,000 copies a month and makes a
profit, largely from ads for horticultural supplies, Mr. Stratton said. The
Trans-High Corporation, which owns the magazine, is privately held by a
group that includes many former employees and the family of Tom Forcade,
the founder, who committed suicide in 1978. Mr. Mailer replaces an editor
roughly twice his age.

To reorient the magazine, Mr. Mailer and Mr. Stratton have planned a series
of theme issues that they say will go deeper than previous efforts to
document, say, the "Girls of Ganja." The February theme will be
"celebrating women," and will largely be written by women. March will be a
race issue. April is politics, and May, the official relaunch issue, will
be about rebirth. With the May issue the editors plan to spin off a
quarterly called Grow America to offload the articles, photographs and ads
dedicated to growing marijuana.

"It's going to be a lot easier to talk to mainstream advertisers and
newsstands with the new version of the magazine," Mr. Mailer said, "because
when you have a picture of someone with a mound of marijuana, not everyone
will carry that."

Mr. Stratton, who produced the movies "Slam" and "Whiteboys" and is an
executive producer on a Showtime television series called "Street Time," is
an original member of the High Times fold. In 1980, after working with Mr.
Forcade in the magazine's early years, Mr. Stratton was convicted of
smuggling marijuana and spent eight years in federal prison. Norman Mailer,
an old friend, testified on his behalf at trial, as did the historian Doris
Kearns Goodwin. On the outside, Mr. Stratton started Prison Life, a
magazine for inmates, which published articles on in-cell cooking,
long-distance parenting, tattoos and sex advice. The magazine lasted about
three years, he said.

He also wrote for High Times and eventually acted as a consultant to the
magazine's board, which includes members of the Forcade family. His idea
for the magazine is "an outlaw version of Vanity Fair," with a dash of Wine
Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, he said, a magazine for epicurean
libertarians who may or may not smoke marijuana.

Mr. Mailer said, "Even if you don't smoke pot, 90 percent of the articles
should be of interest."

Mr. Mailer comes to the job with a limited journalistic resume - he once
wrote an article for the style magazine Black Book - but lots of ambition.
He and Mr. Stratton tried to create a television series called "Hello
Herman," from a novella about a journalist and a mass murderer that Mr.
Mailer wrote while a student at Wesleyan University. Mr. Mailer eventually
turned it into a play. Reviewing the production in The New York Times in
2001, Bruce Weber wrote that its author "seems to have inherited the family
hubris; that's a good thing, more or less," but concluded, "Alas, the apple
has fallen farther from the tree than one might wish."

Beneath the talk of bud pictures and outlaw journalism, Mr. Mailer has not
given up his theatrical ambitions. Another of his plays, "Crazy Eyes," ran
for four days Off Broadway in September, with Mr. Mailer in a leading role;
he said he plans to stage a longer run next spring. "I'm still trying to
get roles in plays and movies; I'm still writing plays and screenplays," he
said. He is currently shopping around a screenplay to his father's novel
"The Naked and the Dead."

Norman Mailer gave the screenplay his blessing. "John writes better
dialogue than I do," he said.

Paul Krassner, who founded the satirical magazine The Realist in 1958 and
is often called the father of the alternative press, said he was encouraged
by the broadening of the magazine. Mr. Krassner has written for High Times
since the 1970's (he called his column Brain Damage Report, on advice from
Ken Kesey), and said he would continue to do so under Mr. Mailer. His first
assignments are for articles on Wiccans, the musician Steve Earle and the
humorist Harry Shearer.

"It fills a gap," Mr. Krassner said of the new High Times. "There's not a
magazine out there that has essentially a countercultural stance, the
feeling of being an outlaw because the laws are insane. And that goes
beyond marijuana. So before, when it was just about growing, it limited the
magazine."

Mr. Mailer said he wanted to round out the magazine with voices opposed to
marijuana use, including people who think pot has ruined their lives. If
Forbes is declaring "The Inside Dope" on the economics of "The New Cash
Crop," after all, someone has to lead the backlash.

Though if you said it would come from High Times, people might be forgiven
for wondering what you were smoking.


Pubdate: Fri, 14 Nov 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Webpage: Who's Smoking Now?
Section: Fashion and Style
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Website: Breaking News, World News & Multimedia