Enjoy the best longform journalism. Every Sunday.

The Man Behind the Counter by Sayaka Matsuoka for The Bitter Southerner



The week's best reads, carefully curated by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jacob Feldman.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

EDITORS' NOTE: Happy Sunday! A few exciting updates before we get to the reads…

1. We’re thrilled to introduce two new SLR teammates—Joe Levin and Emma Peaslee—who are joining us as junior producers and who, under the stewardship of Étienne Lajoie, will help us make the SLR happen every week. We’d also like to thank everyone else who wrote to us offering to volunteer. Your enthusiasm for this project genuinely moved us, and we’re hopeful we can find roles for more as we continue to grow.

2. We’re currently exploring the possibility of bringing on a single sponsor for the newsletter. At this point, we’re open to suggestions, so let us know if you think your company—or your favorite company—would be a good fit.

3. Keep telling your friends about The Sunday Long Read. Y’all rock!

Don and Jacob

Don's Favorite

   Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived—Or a Fraud?
By Lauren Collins for The New Yorker 
 (~45 minutes)

On Twitter, Lauren Collins introduced her new piece this way: “The story that broke my brain, maybe permanently.” That’s not hyperbole. This is a multi-layered, twists-and-turns Did-she-do-it? More precisely: Did Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the record old-age of 122, 5 months and 14 days, fool the world with embroidered tall tales and a dash of devious cunning? In late 2018, researchers began raising big questions about the veracity of Clement’s age. I have already given too much away. Collins’ storytelling and prose are so dazzling that I predict once you start reading, you’ll eagerly follow her down the rabbit hole.

Jacob's Favorite

   I Don't Want to Be the Strong Female Lead
By Brit Marling for The New York Times
 (~10 minutes)

I remain an OA champion, so maybe I’m biased, but I was wowed by Brit Marling’s work again here. Mixing a powerful personal essay with an analytical polemic, Marling took on gender disparities in fictional stories (as well as the real world) and explained where even seemingly feminist narratives can fall short.

This being an opinion piece, it sparked plenty of conversation online, including a worthy rebuttal from SLR contributor Heidi N. Moore. That said, Marling’s sheer ability to move an audience—in multiple formats—can’t be denied.

Anyway, #SaveTheOA.

➢ How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny

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   'The Intelligence Coup of the Century'
By Greg Miller for The Washington Post 
 (~40 minutes)

Thanks to a some-say-savvy, others-say-crooked business deal, the CIA had access to encrypted communications of allies and adversaries for decades. And now, thanks to a joint reporting project between The Washington Post and German public broadcaster ZDF, we know about it.

➢ I Used Dark Web Ransomware to Sabotage My Boss


   The Hollywood Producer, the "Heiress" and a Very Personal Quest for Justice
By Katie Kilkenny for The Hollywood Reporter 
 (~20 minutes)

Johnathan Walton, a producer of “American Ninja Warrior,” began to suspect his best friend, whom he’d loaned nearly $70,000, was not the wealthy royal she had claimed to be. Walton’s investigation uncovered dozens of alleged victims. A fabulous piece of reporting by Katie Kilkenny.


   The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake
By David Brooks for The Atlantic 
 (~40 minutes)

We take the idea of a couple living with 2.5 kids “as the norm,” David Brooks writes, “even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.” In an essay that could be spun into a whole college course, Brooks charts the history and impact of that assumption. At the very least, it ought to make for some interesting dinner conversation.


   The Chaos at Condé Nast
By Katherine Rosman for The New York Times
 (~15 minutes)

Katie Rosman brings it in this withering dissection of Conde Nast’s quickly collapsing publishing empire, as symbolized by Dan Peres, the once high-flying, fat-expense-account cosseted editor of Details, the men’s glossy title shuttered in 2015. At 48, Peres is a recovering opioid addict who just published a juicy tell-all memoir and is “a divorced dad adrift in the ’burbs.”

➢ Infinite Jerk
➢ A Visit With Andrew Neil, Spectator Publisher and Boris Johnson’s Old Boss 


   Murder in Fairfield County
By Rich Cohen for Air Mail
 (~15 minutes)

Eight months after Jennifer Farber disappeared after dropping off her children at school in New Canaan, Conn., her estranged husband, developer Fotis Dulos, was charged with her murder, a grizzly case that has fascinated our Connecticut friends since last spring. Not long after his arrest, Dulos killed himself. A terrific piece of reporting by SLR contributor Rich Cohen for Graydon Carter and Alessandra Stanley’s outstanding weekly newsletter, Air Mail.


   How Became One of the Biggest, Clunkiest Names in Valentine's Day Gifts
By Melinda Fakuade for The Goods by Vox
 (~5 minutes)

Like that massive flower company you’ve never stopped to think about, The Goods by Vox always delivers.

➢ Where Did the Love Go? In Today's Black Pop Music, Love Songs Are Harder to Find


   The Secret History of Page Six
By Kate Storey for Esquire  
 (~25 minutes)

For more than 40 years, Page Six of the New York Post peddled salacious gossip about the boldfaced rich and famous. Donald Trump was a frequent subject and occasional target, though he was pals (and an unnamed source about himself) with legendary Page Six editor Richard Johnson. In this era when celebrities closely control access and their own narratives, can—and should—Page Six survive?

   Something in the Air
By Christopher Collins for Texas Observer
 (~20 minutes)

It really is devastating to read something as painful as this article, which highlights the story of Texas Panhandle communities who are being choked by clouds of fecal dust from nearby feedlots, knowing that you read a somewhat similar story years ago with so little progress having been made in the interim.


   The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America
By Annie Lowrey for The Atlantic 
 (~5 minutes)

The American economy is enjoying one of the greatest boom decades ever recorded. So why are so many American families being bled dry? This intelligent, hyperlink-stuffed piece is by Annie Lowrey, one of our finest writers on the economy.


   Why is Bloomberg's Long History of Egregious Sexism Getting a Pass?
By Laura Bassett for GQ 
 (~5 minutes)

Mike Bloomberg is surging in all the polls. But as Laura Bassett reports, the mainstream media hasn’t written much about the nearly 40 sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits brought by 64 women against the billionaire former New York City mayor and his organizations over the last several decades.


   Macaulay Culkin is Not Like You
By Ryan D'Agostino for Esquire 
 (~30 minutes)

“People assume that I’m crazy, or a kook, or damaged,” says “Mack” Culkin. “Weird. Cracked. And up until the last year or two, I haven’t really put myself out there at all. So I can understand that.”


   Inside Mark Zuckerberg's Lost Notebook
By Steven Levy for Wired
 (~30 minutes)

One of Silicon Valley’s great scribes, Steven Levy, is always worth reading when he returns to write about one of the goliaths. This time, he spins the clock back to the early days of Zuck, who always had big visions.

➢ Behind the Scenes at Rotten Tomatoes


   The Sunday Oral History: The Members Only Jacket
By Andrew Fiouzi for MEL
 (~10 minutes)

Sixty-five percent polyester and 35 percent cotton with those military-vibe shoulder epaulettes, the Members Only jacket arrived in America from Europe in 1979 and quickly became a staple of yuppie and upper-middle-class-white-boy fashion in the 1980s (God help me, I wore one, stupidly thinking it made me cool). This fun oral history traces the jacket’s jagged journey, including how it became an “icon of post-ironic millennial hipsterdom” that was worn, not incidentally, by the Holsten’s counter customer who whacked Tony Soprano.

➢ All Your Favorite Brands, From BSTOEM to ZGGCD


   The Man Behind the Counter
By Sayaka Matsuoka for The Bitter Southerner
 (~10 minutes)

A young busboy, behind the counter of a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., is seen in an iconic photo as four young African American men sit and stare at the photographer who snapped the picture six decades ago. The young busboy is named Charles Bess; his story is the story of the Greensboro sit-ins.


   Why SpaceX Wants a Tiny Texas Neighborhood So Badly
By Marina Koren for The Atlantic
 (~20 minutes)

The folks who live in Boca Chica, Texas, didn’t ask Elon Musk to move into their lovely little town. But Musk’s SpaceX is there to stay—that rocket explosion chased away any doubts about that—and it now feels as if the company is running everything.


   Reckoning With Kobe Bryant's Complicated Past
By Roxane Gay for The Undefeated
 (~5 minutes)

“It is a galling state of affairs that it is dangerous to think publicly,” Roxane Gay writes. “Whenever a public figure dies, especially a beloved one, there is a cultural inclination to deify that figure, to erase all their flaws and misdeeds, to write a human life into a perfect life by way of extravagant hagiography.” A pitch-perfect, profound essay about how people have perceived, processed and defended the late Kobe Bryant’s complicated legacy.

➢ Remembering John Altobelli, a ‘collector of lost baseball souls’
➢ He didn't know Kobe Bryant. But he did. [$]


   The Sunday Review: J.G. Melon's Revered Burger Has Lost Its Charm—And Its Flavor
By Ryan Sutton for Eater
 (~5 minutes)

Say it ain’t so, J.G. Say it ain’t so.

➢ Algae Caviar, Anyone? What We'll Eat on the Journey to Mars

Last Week's Most Read

   The Disposables
By Lena Felton for The Washington Post 

   The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President
By McKay Coppins for The Atlantic 

   What Does Nate Silver Know?
By David Graham for The Atlantic


Lede of the Week

   Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived—or a Fraud? by Lauren Collins

People in France remember the summer of 1997 for the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Jeanne Calment. The first became a household name by marrying into royalty; the second, by caring for the world’s sick and poor. Jeanne Calment, however, was an accidental icon, her celebrity the result of a form of passivity. For a hundred and twenty-two years, five months, and fourteen days, Calment managed not to die.

Quotation of the Week

   How became one of the biggest, clunkiest names in Valentine’s Day gifts, By Melinda Fakuade

“When the world is going through a loneliness epidemic, our mission is to really combat that and bring back the human connection.”

1-800-FLOWERS founder Jim McCann

The Classic Read
from Jack Shafer

   The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson (2013)
By Michael Chabon for The New York Review of Books
 (~5 minutes)

Wes Anderson, the emperor of twee, has a new movie coming out in July—The French Dispatch—and based on the advanced publicity, we can expect another voyage to the imaginary, symmetrical, and arty worlds he conjured in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Moonrise Kingdom. In this 2013 essay, novelist Michael Chabon notes Anderson's debt to the family fictions of Vladimir Nabokov and the boxed assemblages of Joseph Cornell as he "renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence."


Classic Read curator Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.

The Sunday Long Pod
from Jody Avirgan

   Dead Eyes (Apple | Spotify)

A couple decades ago, Connor Ratliff was fired from the TV mini-series Band of Brothers by Tom Hanks for having “dead eyes.” Now he’s trying to find out why. One of those shows that starts with a simple and silly premise, then unspools into much much more as Ratliff takes pit stops to talk about his career, the acting industry, and failure. I’m totally charmed.

Jody Avirgan is a podcast host and producer, most recently with 30 for 30 Podcasts and FiveThirtyEight. You can find his work and newsletter at

The Sunday Still
from Patrick Farrell

This Little Light

“Available light is any damn light that is available,” said American photojournalist and photo essay master W. Eugene Smith. Korean photographer Ahn Young-joon spotted the light from a smartphone while shooting a mass wedding ceremony on Feb. 7 at the 25,000-seat CheongShim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, South Korea. By choosing not to expose for the dimly-lit scene and waiting patiently for the fleeting moment when the light illuminated a bride’s face, the photographer captured a compelling image as South Korean and foreign couples exchanged or reaffirmed marriage vows in the Unification Church's mass wedding despite coronavirus fears.

Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he worked from 1987 to 2019. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami School of Communication.

The Kix Picks
from Paul Kix

Marriage Story | The Opening Sequence


I'm a sucker for behind-the-scenes, let's-get-into-the-craft stuff, in particular this video, which is basically the film version of my podcast: a deep dive into a telling moment of a story,  which reveals the genius of the movie and the director's artistic worldview. Writer, director Noah Baumbach explains why the voice-overs in the opening sequence—the Why I Love My Spouse motif—show the entirety of the happy marriage. He then says why he wanted those voice-overs to gut punch the audience: Because they mediate the divorce proceedings.

Baumbach gets technical too. He shows how the opening sequence used handheld cameras and a slightly smaller frame while the rest of the movie didn't. I hadn't paid attention to these choices but love that Baumbach made me notice. 

I came across this video in advance of the Oscars and it led me to root for Marriage Story in a way I hadn't before. For an even more granular understanding of Baumbach's story, he and John August went almost page by page through the script.  

Paul Kix is a best-selling author, an editor, and the host of the podcast, Now That's a Great Story, where novelists, journalists, screenwriters and songwriters talk about their favorite work, the one that reveals their artistic worldview. For insights from writers that go beyond what's covered in the podcast, like the entry above, please sign up for Paul's newsletter.

The Sunday Cover
from Étienne Lajoie

   Living hell
By Bronwyn Adcock for The Monthly
Cover photo by Nick Moir  

Étienne Lajoie, the curator of The Sunday Cover, is a journalist based in Toronto.

The Su♬day Sou♬dtrack
from The Editors

Lemon Tree
By Fools Garden

The Sunday Comix
from Alex Segura

   Love in the Comics: The Star-Crossed Story of “Negro Romance”
By Neely Tucker for Library of Congress Blog
 (~5 minutes)

Neely Tucker, an acclaimed crime novelist, journalist, and historian—not to mention a good pal of mine—delves deep into the Golden Age of Comics to discover a singular romance comic focusing on the African-American experience titled “Negro Romance.” Tucker dives into the story and puts it in the right historical context to make for a fascinating glimpse into a formative time for the comic book medium.

Alex Segura is an acclaimed author, a comic book writer written various comic books, including The Archies, Archie Meets Ramones, and Archie Meets KISS. He is also the co-creator and co-writer of the Lethal Lit podcast from iHeart Radio, which was named one of the Five Best Podcasts of 2018 by The New York Times. By day, Alex is Co-President of Archie Comics. You can find him at

The Sund&y Ampers&nd
from The Editors
The Last Laugh
from The Editors

   As a 28-Year-Old Latino, I’m Shocked My New Novel, Memoirs of a Middle-Aged White Lady, Has Been So Poorly Received
By Carlos Greaves for McSweeney’s 
 (~5 minutes)

So it turns out Pottery Barn isn’t a barn that sells pottery. An easy mistake for any fiction writer taking a stab at writing about a subject he’s clueless about. Right?

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Founder, Editor: Don Van Natta Jr.
Producer, Editor: Jacob Feldman
Producer, Junior Editor: Étienne Lajoie
Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer
Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell
Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore
Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan
Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg
Senior Originals Editor: Peter Bailey-Wells
Sunday Comics Editor: Alex Segura


Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg
Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales
Webmaster: Ana Srikanth
Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Junior Producers: Joe Levin and Emma Peaslee


Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Jonathan Bernstein, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Kyle Chayka, Chris Cillizza, Doug Bock ClarkAnna Katherine Clemmons, Stephanie Clifford, Rich Cohen, Jessica Contrera, Jonathan Coleman, Pam Colloff, Bryan Curtis, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Jodi Mailander Farrell, Hadley Freeman, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Megan Greenwell, Justine Gubar, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Michael Kruse, Tom Lamont, Edmund Lee, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Jon Mackenzie, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Jeff Maysh, Jack McCallum, Susan McPherson, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Kim Morgan, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Elaina Plott, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bob Sassone, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Ramona Shelburne, Jacqui Shine, Alexandra Sifferlin, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Adam Sternbergh, Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Nikki Waller, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham, Karen Wickre and Dave Zirin.

Contributor in memoriam: Lyra McKee 1990-2019

Header Image: Sayaka Matsuoka

You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.

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