One day when we still received mail from the mailman, I received a letter from The New York Times and inside was a note from James Greenfield, the managing editor, (and the man who gave the go ahead to publish The Pentagon Papers) telling me that the paper of record was going to give me a “kill fee” for an article of mine that they had rejected. On first reading it sounded as if they were hiring me to off myself so I would stop bothering them with my annoying ambition. Here, take this money and go shoot yourself.
That wasn’t it but it may as well have been because when I found out what a “kill fee” was, I wanted to kill myself. “The writing is nice but this is not right for us,” said the note. “Attached is a kill fee.”
I have never writhed physically, spiritually and mentally as much as I did as I read that note. It was as if I was wearing a scratchy wool turtleneck two sizes too small. I remember standing on the second floor of my house and looking down at a giant Schefflera tree that was growing through the house and feeling desolate. This is how I interpreted the kill fee: “We don’t like your writing. We don’t much like your thinking or your topics or anything about you. To forestall any pleading or whining and to thwart any attempt on your part to contact us again, we are paying you to go away.”
This happened a long time ago and since then I’ve had several pieces on the Times’ Op Ed page but I still remember the “kill fee.” We all feel stupid when we trip or fall. We feel inconsolable when there’s a break up and ghastly when we inadvertently hurt someone we love but the “kill fee” letter was a singular moment of humiliation. I thought about it when I saw Ann Curry on her last day of the Today Show.