I attended a memorial service this morning for Chris Porterfield, the editor who, more than anyone else, shaped my writing and critical thinking at TIME Magazine for the better part of three decades. I wrote a little personal obituary for him after his death a few weeks ago, and wanted to share it — as a tribute to a great editor of what once was a great magazine:
Christopher Porterfield, one of the most accomplished, versatile, and beloved editors of TIME Magazine over nearly 40 years, died on October 22, at his home in New York City, at age 84.
During most of the 1980s and ‘90s, Chris edited the magazine’s cultural sections, overseeing a murderer’s row of outstanding critics — among them Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss on film, Robert Hughes on art, Bill Henry on theater, Jay Cocks on rock music, and Paul Gray on books. Managing that brilliant, eclectic, sometimes headstrong group of writers was a formidable task, but Chris carried it off with delicacy, intelligence, and unfailing calm under pressure. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, with catholic tastes but admirably open-minded to the passions of others. “Our entire staff recognizes in Porterfield a journalist who embodies the sort of grace, civility and honesty that the rest of us can merely strive for,” an editor’s letter noted when Chris was promoted to assistant managing editor in 1993. “Yet he would swallow his tie before endorsing such a view.”
I became TIME’s television critic in 1984, and I’m sure Chris privately rolled his eyes at having to fix up the shaky prose of this upstart newcomer to his dream team of writers. But over the next couple of decades, Chris was my North Star at TIME: the embodiment of the magazine’s traditions and high standards: the love of language, the passion for clarity and concision, and the sense of a journalistic mission that superseded any single writer’s ego. He taught me how to write, how to edit, and how to behave.
Chris was born in West Virginia, graduated from Yale, and played clarinet in his own jazz band, before starting his journalism career as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Hired by TIME in 1963, he spent time in the magazine’s Washington and Chicago bureaus; covered the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. in 1964 (you can see him on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary The Beatles: Their First U.S. Visit, asking Ringo Starr whether the group is simply a put-on); served as the magazine’s music critic; and moved to London in 1969 as European cultural correspondent. There, among other accomplishments, he managed to convince a brash, motorcycle-riding Aussie art critic, Robert Hughes, to join the magazine.
He took a break from TIME in 1974, to co-write the memoir of his friend and former Yale roommate, Dick Cavett (a bestseller that is cast largely as a dialogue between Porterfield and Cavett), and then to serve as executive producer of Cavett’s PBS talk show. But he returned to TIME in 1980, and steadily rose through the management ranks, mentoring dozens of young writers and editing virtually every section at the magazine at one time or another. (He even spent a stint as a guest editor at People.) In his later years, as executive editor, Chris was the respected eminence grise at TIME, the editor everyone admired and looked to for counsel and support.
We kept in regular touch after his retirement, in 2003, and I saw him last for lunch in May. He had been through a not-insubstantial bout with Covid (which he talked about animatedly), as well as with cancer (which he didn’t). But he was in good shape and good spirits, as engaged and stimulating as ever. He is survived by his wife, Stevie; two sons, Christopher and Kevin, and four grandchildren; and a community of former TIME journalists who loved and learned from him.