For Jerry McCarthy, it was a guilty pleasure.
As a young aide in the early 1970s to Gov. Linwood Holton, McCarthy — whose tastes run toward top wines and better restaurants — included in his news diet a spunky weekly tabloid, the Richmond Mercury, run by a handful of 20-somethings eager to challenge the city’s reputation as a hot bed of social rest with a menu of contrarian political reporting, investigative journalism, clever graphics, deep cultural coverage and liberal commentary.
“I don’t think I kept it on my desk,” laughed McCarthy, suggesting that to do so might have raised more suspicions about him as the New York City come-here cum environmental adviser to Holton, a centrist and the state’s first Republican governor of the 20th century. “After all, it was an alternative newspaper. I was still finding my way to the bathroom.”
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McCarthy, among an estimated 10,000 regular readers of the Mercury, sponged up its coverage. He didn’t necessarily broadcast that he did and took solace from its editorial stance, which was as reliably progressive as Richmond’s daily newspapers — the Richmond Times-Dispatch and its since-shuttered sibling, The Richmond News Leader — were then reflexively conservative, particularly on race.
Though the Mercury — no relation to the online, nonprofit news site, Virginia Mercury, launched in 2018 — was published only three years, from September 1972 until September 1975, nearly a half-century on, people still talk about it. Its founders and staff, some of whose members became boldface names in American journalism and letters and most of whom are now in their 70s, still celebrate it. They’re doing so again Saturday with a party pegged to what would have been the Mercury’s 50th anniversary.
“The people who worked for it were just stellar,” said Edmund Rennolds, the publisher.
Rennolds started the Mercury with his boyhood pals Garrett Epps and Rob Buford. The former, president of the Harvard Crimson, is a now-retired law professor and legal affairs journalist who wrote “The Shad Treatment,” a roman a clef on Virginia politics in the pivotal 1970s. The latter, an editor of The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, would go into corporate communications. He died of lung cancer in 1995.
The Mercury was dedicated to discomfiting Richmond’s establishment.
The newspaper had a keen appreciation for the establishment’s weak spots because the Mercury’s founders were sons of the establishment: Rennolds, Epps and Buford were graduated from the same boys prep school where they were nonconformists. They went to elite universities. Their families had produced lawyers and financiers who, for generations, had amassed influence and wealth as part of the city’s oligarchical fabric.
“This was the great irony,” said Edwin Slipek, the Mercury’s art and architectural critic and now a contributor to digital Richmond BizSense. “These were many of the same folks against whom we railed journalistically.”
This drove the Mercury’s coverage, a blend of the erudite and occasionally profane that targeted ideas, interests and individuals Richmond thought it knew.
There was a story on a lead smelter owned by a prominent family where workers had been getting sick for years. Another piece exposed the use by Richmond police of so-called dumdum, or expanding, bullets that can cause horrific wounds.
The Mercury spotlighted a state police investigation of drug trafficking at Virginia Commonwealth University in which officers, having slept with female students, used those relationships to elicit false testimony against defendants. An article on corporate directorships for former Gov. Mills Godwin, who was personally and politically close with many the business’ leaders, was regarded by the moneyed set as voyeurism.
Rennolds, a Harvardian, would personally bankroll the Mercury with $150,000 he received annually from his family. The provenance of his family’s fortune included the purchase and sale of Black slaves — a troubling legacy Rennolds addresses through a nonprofit organization he started to help close the Black-white wealth and health gap.
Other investors were retailing pioneers and arts benefactors Sydney and Frances Lewis and Alan Wurztel, head of a consumer appliances chain.
The Mercury — the name was lifted from The American Mercury, a magazine started in 1924 by the famously iconolclastic H.L. Mencken — emerged, along with similar publications elsewhere, as the social, political, cultural temperature was rising in Richmond and across the nation: Vietnam, the Watergate scandal that would bring down Richard Nixon, worries about clean air and water, the casualization of drugs, minorities and women confronting obstacles to advancement.
The initial staff — six men, one woman — included Frank Rich, future theater critic of The New York Times, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Lewis’ nephew, and executive producer of two popular television shows, the political comedy “Veep” and “Succession,” a drama about a scheming conservative media mogul. Also, Bill Nelson, an artist who, post-Mercury, would be renowned for the exaggerated realism of his caricatures for magazine covers, posters and sculpture.
The Mercury would hire Glenn Frankel, later The Washington Post’s Richmond correspondent. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his reporting from the Middle East. After leaving the Post, Frankel taught journalism and published six books. His latest: an examination of a film classic, “Midnight Cowboy,” released several years before Frankel signed with the Mercury for, according to Rennolds, the princely wage of $80 a week.
Because, as was once said, freedom of the press is reserved for those who own the presses, it quickly became clear the Mercury could not subsist on the generosity of a few deep-pocketed souls. Advertising was always a struggle, with prospects leery about a tabloid — they associated it with the salacious — and the four-letter words that could spice news copy, even if they were fully attributed. Rennolds was reeling in Sears, a retail giant since gone the way of the dodo, but it was too late.
After more than 150 editions, many brimming with hot news, the Mercury fell.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.