How to win friends and influence Playgirl: A Q&A with Amherst author Lou Cove

  • Lou Cove, of Amherst, starts a slide show during a launch party and reading of his book  "Man of the Year", Thursday at A.P.E. Gallery. The slides shown are of Cove as a boy with the subject of the book, a Playgirl centerfold model. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lou Cove of Amherst reading from his book “Man of the Year,” last Thursday at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lou Cove, of Amherst, speaks during  a party held to launch his book "Man of the Year", Thursday at A.P.E. Gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cove hugging Stacy Klein of Ashfield GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cove signing a copy of his book “Man of the Year” during the launch party and reading at A.P.E. Gallery GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rachel Simmons introduces Amherst author Lou Cove during a party to launch his book "Man of the Year", Thursday at A.P.E. Gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lou Cove of Amherst reading from his book “Man of the Year,” last Thursday at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Friday, May 26, 2017

“I looked at more Playgirls while researching this book than I care to admit. It’s a weird excuse for work,” says Lou Cove. It’s also an understandable one: Cove is the author of a new memoir, “Man of the Year,” which tells the story of the year he spent, at age 13, helping his father’s friend, Howie Gordon, campaign for Playgirl’s highest honor: Man of the Year. “I came for the adventures with the male centerfold, but I stayed for the break-your-heart portrait of a nuclear family teetering between enlightenment and core meltdown,” as one of Cove’s early readers, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, put it. Cove, who lives in Amherst, recently celebrated his book launch at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. We caught up with the man of the hour to learn more.

Howie Gordon was your father’s friend — and the first male centerfold to appear in Playgirl with an erection. Take us from there, will you? 

Howie was (and still is) a real-deal hippie from Berkeley, California. He went to Antioch and worked as an intern for my dad in Washington, D.C. in the early 70s. They were fighting the war on poverty and actively committed to the cause. D.C. was just one of the many cities we lived in when I was young. I had already lived in eight different houses by the time I was 12. The house in Salem, where most of the book takes place, was the eighth house. Howie and his wife, Carly, had driven on a cross-country trip from Berkeley, California, and their last stop was to see us. They were supposed to stay for two weeks, but they ended up living in our house for a year. During their stay, Howie revealed that he had posed naked for Playgirl and was chosen to be Mr. November, 1978. The decision to have him be photographed at “full mast” was controversial. For many, this crossed the line and transformed their perception of Playgirl as being glossy erotica for women to something more akin to straight-up pornography. No pun intended.

What qualities must one have to be a male centerfold?

The editor who chose Howie appeared on the Donahue Show with him after he won Man of the Year, and, from her comments, it seemed that approachability and a “guy next door” vibe was very important. That, and a six-pack. 

And what does it take to be a Playgirl Man of the Year?

Playgirl’s editors and executives knew that if the magazine was going to be successful on the newsstands, it needed its Man of the Year to attract the broadest cross-section of readers possible ... Howie was the perfect face for the magazine: Not only was he handsome, he was articulate. A beefcake who could speak well on national TV was harder to find than you might imagine. Plus, Howie was a sensitive guy who came off as more Dustin Hoffman than Clint Eastwood. He was so approachable, and that came across.

How does Howie stack up to, say, Burt Reynolds, who took it all off for Cosmopolitan in 1972?

Burt managed to keep more hidden than Howie did. But I will say that Burt’s Cosmo spread was critical for one very important person: Howie’s mom. Howie grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Pittsburgh, and his folks were less than thrilled by his new vocation. His mom came around to the idea with the following rationalization: “Well, Burt did it, and look at his career now!”

At 13, you played Hutch to Howie’s Starsky, running his campaign to be Man of the Year. Take us through the streets of Salem in the ’70s as you canvassed for this cause.

Salem, Massachusetts was a weird place to be in 1978. I had been living in New York City before that, so I went from Central Park and the Empire State Building to a city of witches, sea captain wannabes and old blue bloods. Now imagine two guys, one is 29, the other is 12, and both have long hair and the older guy is generally dressed in silk flowered drawstring pants and a dashiki and the young one has dirty dungarees with paisley patches. He was an out-of-work freak and I was the only Jewish kid in town. We didn’t fit. But we got noticed! Howie was just trying to keep me busy, and this was a fun way for him to kill time while trying to get his career off the ground. But for me? It was the most important political campaign in modern American history.

Since then, you’ve been very active in fundraising and campaigning — as a former vice president for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, and as a senior advisor at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, where you helped raise millions to support the PJ Library program, which gives free Jewish books to children throughout the country. Can you tell us more about this work? 

I’ve always been committed to books, literature and the printed word. In the case of the Yiddish Book Center, we were working to rescue and preserve a literary canon that was literally on the brink of extinction. But today, it’s been saved, secured and turned into the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, and now the work of translating and celebrating and studying that work is in full swing. PJ Library, on the other hand, is the inspiration of Harold Grinspoon, an octogenarian philanthropist who had the brilliant idea to introduce young families to their own Jewish identities through bedtime stories. In so doing, Harold has literally ushered into being an entirely new literary canon for young people. It’s ironic that Jews, who are known as the “people of the book” hadn’t come up with this idea sooner. Harold is an outside-the-box thinker, and a staggeringly creative force. So is Book Center founder Aaron Lansky. And so was Howie, in his own kooky way. Those are my favorite kinds of people to work with and to support. Show me purpose, imagination and drive, and I will show you how to turn those elements into a winning campaign.

What did you learn about fundraising and campaigning from your time with Howie?

Two key lessons spring to mind. One: Use humor to disarm the skeptics. Anyone who has ever asked another person for money knows how uncomfortable that conversation can be. Almost as uncomfortable as asking a total stranger to vote for Playgirl Man of the Year. Get them laughing, and suddenly the inconceivable becomes a little more likely. Howie was never afraid to laugh at himself. “I didn’t always look like this,” he’d say when folks ogled his washboard stomach in the Playgirl photos. “I was a heavy kid. I had the biggest boobs in the seventh grade!” Not only did the comment make people chuckle, it also humanized him. If I can’t make a prospective donor laugh or establish a personal connection in the first five minutes of our meeting, I know I’ve got an uphill climb ahead. Two: Unplug! Show Up! Although we were campaigning in the late ’70s, before social media, the Internet or cell phones, I still make the case for pounding the pavement. We roamed Salem’s streets, met unusual characters and experienced rejection again and again. We got better at asking, refined our pitch, and we started winning. More than ever, I find clients asking me if it’s OK “to send that five-figure ask by email?” No. People give to people, and that means looking them in the eye, asking with a sincerity, purpose and urgency. It means sitting with that awkward silence while someone else considers your request.

Do you have a connection to A.P.E. Gallery? Why did you decide to launch your book here in the Valley?

The Valley is where I started writing, and it’s where I’ve chosen to raise my kids. When I was asked by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation to run Reboot, which had offices in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I told them I would only do it if I could live here. Gordy Thorne rented me my first office for Reboot in his building, right above A.P.E., which is a really sleek and versatile space. The launch was a great homecoming.

Some people may not know that, back in the day, you covered the area as an editor-in-chief of an alternative newspaper. Tell us about the Valley Optimist.

Let’s put it this way: I didn’t get a vote when the Valley Optimist got its name. I wanted to be a part of the next Village Voice or Boston Phoenix — cutting-edge alternative journalism! But as the editor of a local alternative weekly, it was my job to figure out how we could cover the positive trends in the community without coming off like Pollyannas. We were going head-to-head with the Valley Advocate and we took the following approach: We’re not going to shy away from tough issues, but we’re going to talk about the people in the community who are doing something to fix them. We were just out of college and had no idea that what we were working on was part of a larger national trend called civic journalism. But my attitude was simple: We call this place the Happy Valley because it’s a great place to live. We didn’t need another newspaper to muckrake, we needed a newspaper to hold up a mirror to the community and say “Look at how many amazing things are going on right here. It’s a rare quality of life where nature and culture can coexist. Let’s celebrate it.” More than ever, I feel like we could use more of that kind of journalism today. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that such a project started here. 

Salem vs . Amherst. Compare and contrast.

Similar literary highlights: Nathaniel Hawthorne vs. Emily Dickinson. Radically different geography: gray harbor vs. green hills. Politically, more similar than you might think: a conservative, crusty history on the outside with a gooey, kooky liberal center seeping out on all sides.

This memoir tells the story of your thirteenth year. Why do you think you’re doing more writing now that you’re in your fiftieth year?

In 1974 Ally Sheedy, who most people know as the actress from “The Breakfast Club,” published a book called “She Was Nice to Mice.” She was 12. I was eight at the time, and I promised myself my first book would be published before I turned 12 so I could beat her record. No such luck. I’ve been writing all this time, but there’s always a reason to put it off, and it was the business and fundraising side of media and nonprofits that paid the bills. Still, I knew if I got past 50 without giving it a serious try, I would regret it forever.

Can you tell us a bit about Reboot and some of the people and ideas it helped mix together?

Reboot is a think-tank and incubator for modern Jewish culture. We brought an elite group of creatives to a mountaintop resort outside of Park City, Utah, each year to ask ourselves three questions, as Jews: Who am I? What am I inheriting? And what, if anything, am I going to do about it? Those are questions we should all ask ourselves at various points in life, but when you do it with the creator of “Lost” and the head of MTV Digital, the director of Google Apps and the founder of Atlas Obscura, something cool is going to come out of it. 

I know authors hate this question, but gotta ask: What are you working on next?

Believe it or not, when I started writing this book it was going to be about my grandmother. She ended up being an important part of Man of the Year, but she doesn’t get much “page time.” With any luck, she’ll be the star of the next one.