James Lavelle Townsend
1932 – 1981
Illustrator: Robert Carter
James Lavelle Townsend was born in the cotton mill town of Lanett, Alabama in 1932. The youngest of eight children, Townsend knew from very early on that he wanted to write for a living, and at the age of 16 made two impromptu trips to Atlanta to seek the advice of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and executive editor and publisher of The Atlanta Constitution, Ralph McGill, on just how to go about doing that. According to Townsend, meeting McGill, whose writing always “struck a warm and responsive chord with him,” was a watershed moment in his life, leaving an indelible mark that would strongly influence the course of his future and his relationship with the city of Atlanta.
Returning to Alabama after his visit with McGill, Townsend got on with the business of living, doing what budding writers do best: gathering experiences based on occupations held and people met. Among the priceless bric-a-brac that made it into Townsend’s writing are tales of his being: one of the worst bank tellers ever to work on the West coast for a bank manager who prophetically knew his life’s work lay in writing; a front-man to a wealthy retired insurance man turned faith-healing evangelist; a freelance writer of modern romance stories; and last, but not least, a radio-script writer/speech rewriter/novel ghostwriter for H. L. Hunt, former oil tycoon, political activist, and one of the richest men in the world at the time.
In May 1961, responding to an advertisement for an editor, Townsend made his return to Atlanta permanent when he was offered and accepted the job to create and edit “the official monthly publication of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce”: Atlanta magazine. If the chamber had plans for a banal boosterish pub in mind when it placed its ad for an editor, Townsend, who is said to have possessed a physically imposing stature, a maturity of demeanor belying his youth, and an unabashed joie de vivre, convinced its executive members otherwise, and insisted that what Atlanta needed was a city magazine that would gain it national credibility.
What Townsend ended up creating according to novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, one of his many protégés, was a magazine that succeeded “not by blowing Atlanta’s horn louder than anyone else in print, but by blowing it so seductively, colorfully, irresistibly, and excellently that even in its raw-edged infancy, Atlanta magazine was a publication that was hard to put down.” In Atlanta magazine, Townsend produced, among 30 other publications, the prototype of the modern city magazine, something he would go on to replicate for the cities of New Orleans and Cincinnati.
Townsend stood at the helm of Atlanta magazine for 20 years, enveloping each and every one of the people who ended up in his “charmed circle” of writers with the encouragement, care, and respect needed to allow their talents to flourish. Along the way, he also set his own thoughts down on paper in the magazine’s “Dear Heart” columns, some of which were collected into a book of the same name.
On April 5, 1981, succumbing to the cancer he had impishly nicknamed “Louie,” Jim Townsend passed away at Northside Hospital, leaving behind a wife, two daughters, a bevy of friends, and a legacy of writing and publishing excellence.
Writing Protégés/Friends on Jim Townsend
“He is friends with people whom Francis of Assisi would have cheerfully strangled. Jim lives as though he were perpetually walking through rainbows and his days are spent delivering garlands to the world around him.”
“Because he could so lovingly offend the truth–he obviously could see beyond the truth–there is a thriving, respected community of authors in Atlanta. In the 1960s and 1970s, if you were a newspaperman, a plumber, or a housewife and you thought you had a story to tell, he would listen intently and then exclaim, ‘Brilliant, dear heart. Write it down. Write it all down.’ Thankfully, a lot of them did.”
“Townsend was fire and ice, thunder and lightning, power and light. He, like McGill, was a force and a presence. God knows where it came from—some evangelist of his youth? H.L. Hunt? Ralph McGill? Bear Bryant? But he possessed the one trait shared by every leader we call great. He could, quite simply, make you do better than you thought you could.”
“I say this with love about him: He was a con man. Not an amateur flim-flam fellow doing tease-talk behind the table of a carnival tent, but a genius. The kind of con man who could see into you and know that you had quit conning yourself and needed a boost from an expert.”
“Writing is often a lonely and excruciating pursuit. But on many occasions, when I’ve been at the computer and the music of my thoughts has died to a faint whisper, I can still hear Jim Townsend praising me, coaxing the words from deep inside my mind until they, somehow, appear on the page.”