Terry McDonell’s ‘Irma’ Reflects on the Art of Teaching Boys to Read

For decades, Terry McDonell helped define American masculinity as a prominent editor at magazines such as Esquire, Men’s Journal, Outside, and Sports Illustrated—never mind stints at Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and US Weekly. This version of manhood was largely inspired by Ernest Hemingway—who was, after all, the lynchpin contributor to Esquire when the magazine launched 90 years ago in 1933. How McDonell came to understand this brand of masculinity is the subject of his lyrical and self-lacerating new memoir, Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son.

McDonell never knew his father, Bob, a fighter pilot who died in World War II—only his absence. Instead, young Terry endured a bigoted stepfather for close to a decade before he was left to sort out the man thing, without the benefit of a man. The constant in his life was his mother Irma, a schoolteacher who taught her son how to think for himself and keep his own counsel. “The love he felt from her did not make him more dependent and timid,” says McDonell, in the middle section of the book, written in the third person. “Somehow it made him stronger and more independent.”

Irma taught her son to love reading, to crave and treasure it. She especially taught him how to pay attention. “Her lessons in seeing things for what they were—how to look,” says McDonell, proved essential in the development of his worldview. Irma played a tree-naming game with her son—they named birds, too—as a kind of meditation. Nature, for McDonell, is sacred, and testing yourself against the vagaries of the natural world is a logical inclination.

It’s a beautiful story, Irma’s story with her son. And McDonell’s mastery of this story—a child’s story—is something to behold. The book isn’t long—just 244 pages, with plenty of white space on the page. Chapters are a page to a couple of pages long: discreet, contained, and wondrous like a Joseph Cornell box. At first, I found myself slowing down, because it’s the kind of book you can devour in one sitting.

When McDonell was eight years old, Irma brought home a copy of Life magazine featuring Hemingway on the cover, and his story “The Old Man and Sea” inside. She told her son that he’d love it, and he did. She wanted him to take something about it to heart, which he also did: when the old man in the story remembers the lions he’d once seen as a sailor playing on a beach in Africa, Irma told her son that he could chase dreams like that in life. He could go to Africa. Young McDonell translated seeing the lions “as a kind of promise from Irma that he could live out whatever he read.”

And so he did—as a journalist, novelist, and especially as a magazine editor and executive (McDonell covered his professional life in the excellent 2016 memoir, The Accidental Life). When he lived in San Francisco as a young man, McDonell worked on a novel and “cultivated a combination of toughness and sensitivity, wanting to write with integrity and make literature in manly ways. He knew it was a pose but had not considered where he had picked it up or where it might lead.” McDonell didn’t make his mark as a novelist, though he became known for his association with novelists like Robert Stone, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison.

McDonell, then, was one of the last of the larger-than-life magazine editors who drank hard and ate big steaks, vestiges of the Hemingway aesthetic filtered through the ’60s hipster irony of an ’80s corporate ninja. McDonell’s reputation as the manliest of literary men preceded him when I first encountered him in the Time/Life Building in New York City twenty years ago. I’d spot him occasionally in the lobby: expensive suit, expensive haircut, a blunt, handsome, square-jawed guy, with thin lips and a guarded expression, his eyes alert and squinty. The kind of man who could dominate a business lunch with wild stories about getting twisted with Hunter Thompson, but who was also exceedingly comfortable with silence, even if it makes you squirm.


After he left Time Inc. in 2012, I got together with McDonell a few times for breakfast to discuss a magazine archiving project. He was generous with his time, attention, and advice. He was also funny. I marveled at his facility for taking concepts and ideas and turning them into a pitch that sounded better and more convincing than anything I could have ever come up with. Here’s a guy who can walk into a room and talk people into spending money, I thought. A remarkable skill, especially when you don’t have it.

The strong and silent type has always made me uncomfortable—I’m always the guy who speaks first—though I am not immune to its power. (Would I be more of a man if I were just strong, quiet, and kept to myself?) I admire how the calculated, invulnerable tough guy facade served McDonell in his professional life. Still, this book is nothing if not a refutation of Hemingway.

“The so-called Hemingway Code, that sensitive-tough-guy pose—was his too, and had gotten it from Ernest,” McDonell writes of himself. “He had known the stories and the myth, but he had not known that Ernest started all three of his sons drinking before they were teenagers, and took Jack, the oldest, to a whorehouse when he was thirteen. He had had not known that on a driven hunt during a school vacation, Ernest encouraged his younger sons, Gregory and Patrick, to kill eighty jackrabbits each, and that even as a father he bullied and seethed and raged on, beating his chest until his boorish and nasty behavior reflected all the horrors of the manhood he had created not just for himself but for his sons until he put both barrels in his mouth and died in his bathrobe.”

As an adult—which covers the last two-thirds of the book—McDonell takes a hard look at his privilege, including a conscientious, post #MeToo examination of his behavior with women. There’s also his struggles with depression, drinking, and anger. But the book does not unfold into a recovery tale, and there’s much about each of these topics that’s left unsaid.

McDonell comes across as a restless soul. He rationalizes, justifies, dissembles. Perhaps it’s the occupational curse of an editor, who’s seen every story told every kind of way before. McDonell is dogged by self-awareness; occasionally, it gets in the way. Take, for example, a lovely scene at Irma’s house in California overlooking the ocean—she reads to his two sons as he looks at the sea: “Irma was reading Treasure Island. Maybe her art was teaching little boys to read. Corny, but that is what he thought.” Maybe her art was teaching little boys to read. That’s a beautiful sentiment about the Irma we comes to know in these pages. And a damn noble art to have. But McDonell adds how corny he is for thinking it. It’s not corny, it’s just true.

This is not a book about Irma—though it’s often at its best when she’s around—but about her son, about fathers who aren’t there, about what it is to be a man. McDonell reserves his deepest affection for his own sons, whom he writes about with admiration and pride. But something about their courage and character also brings him back to Irma. She keeps him at arm’s length and vice versa—these were not huggers and smoochers. McDonell never said “I love you” to his mother while she was alive. He’s saying it now.

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