By Ray Schultz
It was a fact well known in the publishing business that when Myron Fass put out a magazine, a smart person read it. Fass, the founder of the legendary Countrywide Press, was like a human divining rod when it came to spotting popular obsessions and quickly cashing in on them. The headstone was no sooner in place on John F. Kennedy’s grave when Fass came out with the first Jackie Kennedy pulp in 1963. A few months later, he hit the stands with the first Beatles one-shot, which sold millions. How did he know the Beatles were going to become the greatest pop phenomenon of all time? “Instincts,” he was reported as saying. “Voices in my mind.”
All of us should hear such voices. Fass also capitalized on UFOs, psychic phenomena, Son of Sam, Elvis, the Osmonds, Richard Nixon and the swine flu. He took a chance on history repeating itself with a one-shot item called, The Beatles Come Back, which some said was a harbinger of things to come. It was his one miscue.
I met Fass in 1977, when I was assigned to do an article on him. He offered me a job on the spot, and invited me out for lunch. “Nothing fancy,” he said. “Just a beanery.” I turned down the job, but accepted the lunch, and enjoyed getting acquainted with the then-50 year-old publisher and his product line.
In addition to his one-shots, Fass published monthly magazines on durable topics such as dogs, horses, guns, motorcycles, crime, sex and entertainment. Most of his books stayed on the stands for no more than a week or two—they appeared and disappeared like rumors. “We sell about 75,000 on each one,” he said at lunch. “Together they add up.”
Most of Countrywide’s publications had a strange uniformity of style, based on pictures and witty copy. Yet each was uniquely designed for the audience for which it was intended. The gun magazines read like they were put together by firearms experts. The rock mags—Blast, Punk, Rock, Acid Rock—were more fun than Rolling Stone, in my view.
The biggest sellers, which Fass was especially proud of, were the smut books like Jaguar, Duke, He and She, Guys and Gals and Stud. Each contained misogynous articles like, “Why Women Crave Penetration,” illustrated by hard-core photographs. For the more esoteric-minded, Countrywide published a bi-monthly offering called True Sex Crimes, which ran a story on necrophilia, titled, “Shacking Up With a Corpse Turned Them On.”
All of these periodicals were published out of a big, rambling office on Park Avenue South in New York. It had all the charm of a defense plant. Editors sat in cubicles, putting together their respective rags, and art directors worked on six publications at a time. Fass sat in an office to the side, ready to entertain any idea for a magazine, no matter how silly it seemed at first.
Some very talented people went through that mill, including Al Goldstein, the legendary Screw publisher who has since fallen on hard times. “I used to work on a scandal sheet Myron put out called the National Mirror—an Enquirer ripoff,” he recalled in 1977. “I’d sit there and write these ridiculous stories, using names of people like Franz Kafka, who Myron knew nothing about. It was a great place to learn the business, but you have to leave within six months, or you’d just melt into the woodwork. There are people there who’ll never get out. Myron is a brilliant man, but he can be abrasive. He fired me when I asked for a $15 raise from $125 to $140. Actually, it was the best thing that ever happened to me—I started Screw eight months later. Today, it’s Myron’s crowning achievement that he fired me.”
Another was Michael Gross, author of Bob Dylan—an Illustrated Biography. Gross said, “I went to see Myron with an idea for a Led Zeppelin one-shot. He offered me the editorship of Rock, and I took it, after he gave me a contract allowing me a certain amount of autonomy. He’s eminently fair about things like that, and money, but once after I did a really bad issue, he made me sign a paper saying that if I ever put out as bad a magazine as that again, I’d resign immediately. He doesn’t know anything about rock, in fact, he can hardly read, but he has a sure instinct about what sells a magazine.”
Fass emerged from Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1940s, doing art work for such long-forgotten comic books as Black Diamond and Captain Tootsie. After serving in the Army Air Corps during the war, he headed a public relations campaign for the Army, encouraging servicemen to use contraceptives. Its slogan, which he authored, was, “You may think she’s your gal, but she’s anyone’s, pal.”
After the war, Fass went to work editing an early-day sex magazine called Fotorama, which he said had “crotch shots, but no nudity, but which was arrested nevertheless.” In the mid-‘50s, he put out movie mags for an outfit called Globe Photos, which eventually backed him in starting Countrywide. In the beginning, the Countrywide catalog consisted mostly of movie books and parodies of more established magazines like Confidential, but it made money, and by the 1960s, Fass had come into his own.
Fass, who died at 80 in 2006, was a forceful man pictured by his associates as being very much an eccentric. For example, he carried on a dispute with his partner Stanley Harris over who was really boss. In court papers filed in 1976, Harris charged that Fass had a habit of opening his jacket and displaying a loaded gun during office arguments. “Even if the weapon is never upholstered, its presence has an unwarranted coercive and intimidating effect, on the employees, and other persons dealing with the company.” On at least one occasion, the dispute reportedly erupted into a fistfight.
Fass seemed to care less. “Harris is a quiff,” he said. And he went on amusing and titillating the public with his endless catalog of magazines. “Publishing isn’t a science, it’s an art,” he told me. “There are no rules. You can’t learn it.”