November 16, 2003 - The New York Times

Who's Smoking Now?

By John Leland

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.

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