In October 1974, two kids named Wick Allison and Jim Atkinson launched this magazine. The Dallas Times Herald noted: "Strangely, neither Allison nor D’s youthful editor, former Times Herald staffer Jim Atkinson, are exceptionally smooth talkers. Both, however, have an obviously sincere belief in their product and its marketing potential." Much has changed since then. Wick learned to talk smoothly, Jim is no longer youthful, and the Herald folded. But we’re still here, doing our darnedest to prove their sincere belief was well-founded. In celebration of our trigentennial issue—even though "trigentennial" is a made-up word—we bring you this look back at the last 30 years of Dallas through the pages of D.
I MUSTERED THE COURAGE to look at the first issue of D Magazine the other day and had three immediate reactions. One was that I liked it a lot more than I did 30 years ago when I was its founding editor, probably because I no longer had to worry if it was rife with typos. I knew it was. Second, we certainly were a serious bunch for a group of 25-year-olds. That first issue alone took on the questions of who really runs the city and whether private schools are best for your children—this from some kids who’d just figured out how to pay their taxes. Finally, it struck me that despite all that—despite our not knowing what we were doing—we always knew where we were going.
D has always had a kind of blessed quality. By this I don’t mean to say we were lucky. We suffered plenty of the bad variety back in the day. True, Wick Allison and I could have done worse than to start a city magazine with the financial backing of Ray L. Hunt, Jerrie Marcus Smith, Carl Sewell, and John Johnson, just as the Sunbelt was beginning to boom. But those nice, generous folks only said yes after about 100 had said no. It wasn’t luck—just a lot of Wick’s shoe leather.
We did have competition in the form of another new magazine, Austin-based Texas Monthly, which had already won a National Magazine Award by the time we published our first issue. Besides that, the Dallas Chamber of Commerce had long since taken the name we wanted, Dallas, for its dreary monthly house organ, so we had to settle for the enigmatic D, which people tended to confuse with "Big D"—precisely the Dallas we were trying not to portray.
Also, people forget that the best reason for such a magazine—with its feckless newspapers, Dallas lacked anything remotely resembling a journalistic tradition—was also the best argument for why it couldn’t be done. From day one, I tried to put out a literate and readable magazine with exactly no writers; indeed, I wrote pretty much everything in that first issue, which, as they say, explains a lot. That included the cover story, "Power in Dallas: Who Holds the Cards?" which first came out of the typewriter of the late Dallas historian A.C. Greene but passed through mine and colleague John Merwin’s and Wick Allison’s at least twice before making it to print. The issue also included eight pages of terrifically useful information about the pros and cons of private schools, though, as Jerrie Marcus Smith politely pointed out to me later, "It might have been a bit more timely to run that in the early summer, when kids aren’t already in school."
Most memorably, it included a column by our first film critic, screenwriter and actor L.M. Kit Carson, that I had to torture out of him with thrice-daily phone calls to his hideaway someplace in the Hollywood Hills. At one point, Wick was alert enough to wonder, "Aren’t you spending more on long distance to LA than you would just getting another film critic?" Long distance phone bills—along with cost of the coffee maker—were a really big deal in those early days.
Fortunately, I secured just enough words from Kit to fill the space we’d allotted for his column, though when deadline rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. He remained out of reach for a couple of months until I received a letter of apology from him explaining, "You have treated me with a largeness of soul, but I was in a situation where if I didn’t come up with $30,000 real quick, I’d have to kill someone." That’s still the best excuse I’ve ever heard from a deadline-busting author, including several of my own.
But we were blessed. My strongest sensation of this came long before we published a single word, when I joined Wick on his first call to raise seed money from a distinguished Dallas oilman. For weeks beforehand, I teased Wick that he wasn’t going to be able to utter the payoff sentence: "So what we’ll need, sir, is $300,000 to get started here."
"The money part is going catch in your throat," I told him. "It’ll be, ’Three hun ... hun ... hun,’ just like that."
Well, the old man couldn’t have been nicer, though I did see him nod off a bit as we launched into an explanation of how this little magazine could save the entire city of Dallas. "Does it really need saving?" his tired eyes pleaded. "And why do I have to hear about it?"
Not surprisingly, he said thanks, but no thanks. But Wick didn’t flub the critical sentence; it rang out loud and clear. Listening to his detailed business plan in a fresh light—meaning the light of the real world—I realized that this really was a terrific idea and that I was lucky that Wick had asked me to be his first editor. Even if it took time to make it good, it would always be right.
That’s what I mean by blessed. Somehow we automatically made it onto that elusive and enigmatic Dallas institutional A-list without even proving ourselves. Maybe it was those big names on our board of directors—although they weren’t that big—or the fact that Stanley Marcus, after hearing Wick’s irresistible sales pitch, agreed to write an endorsement letter for our initial direct-mail effort, which garnered us 20,000 subscribers before we’d even published a word.
I came to understand the magazine as a kind of harmonic convergence. We were beginning to form ourselves at the same time that Dallas was trying to shape itself into something more than Big D or the place where Kennedy was killed. It was the same time the publishing industry was going regional and the nation was rearranging its political and economic power structure southward to the Sunbelt. Understanding all that now, I can see that it really would have taken a kind of cosmic incompetence for it not to work.
Not that we didn’t try. But part of being blessed is that you can be all things to all people and get away with it. In time, the name "D Magazine" proved ingenious in ways none of us could have planned. If it reminded old-timers of "Big D," that was fine, because to newcomers it had an edgy, tongue-in-cheek quality that seemed to be taking a playful swipe at Big D-ism. Indeed, as D’s editorial persona developed, this sort of strategic schizophrenia was not only unavoidable but also advantageous. Some folks thought we were in bed with the "establishment," but if so, no publication before or since has ever exposed and explained that establishment as often or as well as D did. Whether it was a story on the city’s power structure or a guide to social climbing or wondering whether the Neiman Marcus label still measured up, we invested quite a bit of effort in savaging the establishment we were supposedly in bed with.
There are few prouder—or more fun—times in my career than the single week in 1977 during which I had lunch with the legendary civic father John Stemmons and, a few days later, interviewed a young black inmate at the Dallas County jail who claimed that the district attorney’s office had railroaded him on a rape case. As I saw it, both men had interesting stories to tell, and the fact that they resided at opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale made it more imperative that I include both.
When people ask me about the essence of the early D, I tend to mention those big institutional stories. In truth, D’s soul—as with many city magazines—has always been most compactly contained in its restaurant reviews. Honestly, it was not so much our readiness to take on City Hall or the district attorney’s office in those early days that earned us our readers’ respect and a certain reputation of fearlessness. It was our willingness—no, eagerness—to name names when it came to good and bad restaurants.
Our restaurant reviews and listings were the first and most dramatic sign of the essential paradox that governed this thing we had created. The magazine was designed, among other things, to be a conveyor of certain types of local advertising, which had not had a home (restaurants being a prime category). At the same time, the editorial mission of the magazine was to introduce critical journalism into a market that had never had its institutions scrutinized (restaurants being a prime category). So we found ourselves in an awkward, almost Sisyphean pose: on any given day, as many restaurants would cancel their ads as would buy them No words printed in the magazine ever inspired as much nasty mail as our restaurant reviews, and none incited more internal conflict.
"I’m not going to make my sales quota because you all panned Der Schnapps and Snacks," wailed one ad representative.
"We actually wrote something about Der Schnapps and Snacks?" I replied.
Whenever I felt my editorial spine weakening, I’d reread old dining reviews. They were easy enough to think of as so much trivial froth, but in retrospect, they were the purest expression of D’s original mission—to make life in Dallas easier and more rewarding for people who read the magazine than for those who didn’t.
Of course, for 25-year-old men, the line between integrity and self-importance can be a hazy one. No single story generated more of that than our 1976 exposé of corruption in the Dallas Police Department’s narcotics division. It started out as a legitimate investigative piece centered on a Dallas police officer who blew the whistle on nefarious doings in the narcotics division and got fired for his trouble. But as the story developed, it became a kind of Mel Brooks script, with one of the story’s writers calling me every other hour for more expense money to pay for beer and hamburgers to keep the aforementioned officer—our primary source—happy. The other writer wandered into my office daily, outfitted in a trench coat in mid-August, to remind me that he was developing material "that will blow the lid off this town."
I didn’t don a trench coat, but even I was overheard at my favorite drinking haunts proclaiming that we were "going to blow the lid off this town." That became a weird mantra around the office, and it was only after several months that it was repeated in a joking manner. Of course, the real lesson learned was that the story didn’t, but that was partly because, to the extent that Dallas could or should have had its lid blown off, we’d already long since done it—probably with our review of Der Schnapps and Snacks.
We spent quite a bit of time, as I recall, telling Dallas how it could better itself. We even published an entire issue called "100 Ideas to Make Dallas a Better Place." Now, if you wanted to call that pretentious, it would be hard for me to argue with you. But damn if there weren’t a lot of interesting ideas in there, and looking back at it, there’s something so refreshingly earnest and naïve about it that I can understand why our readers forgave us our occasional ineptitude. Dallas has always been a sucker for good intentions, and if nothing else, we always meant well. In fact, if I learned anything from helping start D Magazine, it’s that good intentions are sometimes enough.
But did all those good intentions do any good? I suppose one could argue that because our principal causes célèbres in those days—revitalizing downtown, doing something with the Trinity River, showing "How to Make Fair Park into a Fair Park" (my favorite cover line of all time)—still seem to be occupying the headlines, we didn’t. But recalling my worldview as a 25-year-old, I’ll choose to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty. After all this time, after all those studies, after all those bond programs, that Dallas still has these projects at the top of the stack says that D not only succeeded in penetrating the collective consciousness of the city but also its subconscious as well. Mayors and police chiefs and downtown skyscrapers have come and gone; so have several editors of the magazine. But they’re still talking about downtown and the Trinity River and Fair Park. When the subject comes up, I sometimes wonder if Dallas isn’t subliminally following the agenda we laid out during those first few years of publication, if only a couple of decades late. And though I certainly can’t prove that our introduction of critical journalism to the city’s civic conversation had a direct impact on any particular institution, I do know one thing: Dallas has turned into a helluva good restaurant city compared with when we published that first dining review.