Buzz Knight 00:00:05
So this is Buzz Knight. I’m the host of the Taken a Walk podcast series. And one of the things I love about the Taking a Walk series is I get to connect with a lot of old friends, but I get to reconnect with new friends. But Jonathan Sorof for my time in Boston, I feel like I’ve known you since you’ve been here forever, being the Pulse of Boston. So it’s nice to formally meet you.
Jonathan Soroff 00:00:25
Likewise. Thank you. I’ve known your voice forever.
Buzz Knight 00:00:29
So we’re at this amazing place, the Public Garden in Boston, one of my favorite places, and I know yours. For those that don’t know about this beautiful place, set the scene.
Jonathan Soroff 00:00:44
So this park was built in the late 19th century. Frederick Law Olmsted designed it as the beginning of the Emerald Necklace, which is a series of parks that sort of encircle Boston. But this was landfill. This was originally all salt marsh, and it’s across the street from the oldest park in America, the Boston Common. And I’m so proud of this place because it was such a visionary thing for Bostonians in the late 19th century. All these beautiful trees here that you see that are three stories tall, they were little saplings. They knew that it was not going to look like this for 100 years. And now you have the iconic swan boats on the Swan Pond. You have the world’s smallest suspension bridge. Going over the Swan Pond. You’re surrounded by the city, but you feel like you’re just in this oasis. And no matter what the time of year is in the middle of the winter or now, it is absolutely stunning. I’ll put this park up against any park or garden in the world, and I bumped into tourists from everywhere in the world, japan, France, and England and wherever places that are known for gardens. And they all marvel at how incredibly beautiful it is.
Buzz Knight 00:02:06
It really is. It’s special. I miss coming here as regularly as I used to because I would have my routine in the morning, stop the gym over on Boylston Street, but before going to the gym, have to walk through this place here and just watch people and just take in the beauty purposefully.
Jonathan Soroff 00:02:28
If I’m in a bad mood, I purposefully make a point of putting this somewhere on the route so that I walk through here because it never fails to kind of lift my spirits.
Buzz Knight 00:02:38
We’re going to come back to that because I’m going to follow up on that piece of the interview a little bit later. Do you remember the first time that you came here?
Jonathan Soroff 00:02:46
I had to have been a child. I remember being very young and my parents taking me on the Swan Boats. But I was born and raised in Boston. Neither of my parents were. So they were transplants. And when we were kids, they brought us to every sort of landmark in Boston because they were experiencing it for the first time. So this was a place and I remember my friends in school I went to an independent school. So when you go to a private school, you have friends who live everywhere. So I lived out in the suburbs, but I had lots of friends on Beacon Hill. And we would run around. This was our playground and where we misbehaved during high school. I love it.
Buzz Knight 00:03:28
Now, did you ever imagine, as somebody who grew up in this area, you would leave and go to Duke, right to college, and that you would come back here and that you would have this job where you get to soak in the beauty of the community? Is that what you set out to do?
Jonathan Soroff 00:03:48
Buzz Knight 00:03:50
Let’s hear the story.
Jonathan Soroff 00:03:51
So I grew up my parents divorced when I was about eight years old, and my father moved to New York because he had an opportunity to build a hospital, and he was a surgeon and to build a hospital to his specifications and to put together, like, a world class. So anyway, he moved to New York. And so I partially grew up in New York a little bit because I went to see him every other weekend. And I thought in college and high school, I pictured my adult life in New York. And then I graduated from college, and it was time to find a job and get a life. And I realized that what I did when I visited my father, like going to the theater, going out to dinner, all those things were never going to happen on whatever salary I was going to make. And all of a sudden, New York went from being this place I always envisioned myself living to being someplace I had zero desire to live. And I came back to Boston, and my only sort of real skill was writing. And I sent my resume to every publication in the Boston area, and the Boston Herald hired me when I was right out of Duke. And that was the beginning of my career. Yeah.
Buzz Knight 00:05:07
So you were at the Boston Herald for a few years.
Jonathan Soroff 00:05:10
I was there for about four years, and it was wonderful, despite the fact that I work for Rupert Murdoch, which, looking back, is something that’s somewhat objectionable to me.
Buzz Knight 00:05:25
You didn’t know how objectionable it would be?
Jonathan Soroff 00:05:28
No, and it was very different back then. But they gave me just tremendous opportunities. I was an editorial assistant on the city desk, which means I wrote obituaries, and I did the weather page, and I did spot news, little things like somebody spotted a whale in Charlestown or something. And they took me from that to they let me write about Nightlife. I guess they noticed that I came in, hung over to work.
Buzz Knight 00:06:01
What year was this?
Jonathan Soroff 00:06:02
This is okay. I graduated from Duke and 87, so 1988. And so they gave me the Beat of Nightlife columnist, and I also did a lifestyle trends, like what’s the latest book to read? What’s the latest restaurant to go to? What’s the coolest movie? And so I was this kid and I was getting paid to go out at night, which I was going to do anyway, and they let me go to the best new restaurants and it was the most unbelievable opportunity, and I owe the Boston Herald a huge debt of gratitude. And Ken Chandler, who was the editor then, who could have said, who the hell is this kid? He took a major roll of the dice on me, and I’m forever indebted.
Buzz Knight 00:06:53
It was on the job learning.
Jonathan Soroff 00:06:54
I’m taking this absolutely. I remember the first story I ever did. I very quickly learned how to do obituaries, which are very formulaic. But the first story I had to write, I just seized up. And I forget who the columnist was, but one of the Harold’s Big columnist, he saw that I was struggling with this news story and he said, just write like you’re talking to a milkman from Topeka, Kansas. And I was like, okay. And that was how I got my first story done, because I was just terrified, absolutely terrified.
Buzz Knight 00:07:32
And that was that time. Certainly in a lot of cities, Boston included, those of us that certainly sort of followed journalism and print journalism, it was really kind of a gift to be a two newspaper town, really. Right?
Jonathan Soroff 00:07:48
Absolutely. And it’s very important. I certainly exist at one end of the political spectrum, but I have many people who are very close to me who exist at the absolute opposite end of the political spectrum, and we have to talk to each other. And not talking and not having more than one voice is, I think, harmful to democracy. And as much as I feel strongly about my views, I understand other people feel strongly about theirs. And once it gets so loud, all the shouting and the sort of living in an echo chamber, that’s when things really become problematic. So it’s very important to have the number of communities that the small community newspapers that don’t exist anymore, the number that have closed down, it’s very disheartening. And I don’t think it’s healthy for our society or for the democracy.
Buzz Knight 00:08:53
And they’ve been gobbled up by larger entities based on some of them don’t have anything.
Jonathan Soroff 00:08:59
It’s unbelievable. And Tip O’Neill was the one who said all news is local. And he’s absolutely right. And I will say so. I never read the Herald before I went to work there. I grew up in a household where we got the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and that was it. And so I went to work for The Herald. And there was this attitude. There was a sort of intellectual. Sort of academic attitude that the Herald was not quite up to snuff well. I will tell you at the time. And still I think to this day. The Herald breaks local news because the person who’s emptying the waste paper baskets in the State House isn’t a globe reader necessarily. They’re probably a Herald reader, and if they come across something incriminating or something, they’re going to go to the Herald with that information. So we broke really important local news stories, and the people who worked at the Herald were just incredible journalists. And this idea that this sort of high and mighty idea that it was a tabloid or that it wasn’t a good newspaper, absolute nonsense. My days there, we broke the Charles Stewart story, which was a terrible murder situation. We broke lockerbie. I think I was one of the first people to know about the Locker b explosion, the plane only because I was working overnight. And the phone call, it came from the Canadian whatever it is, the equivalent of the Coast Guard or whatever, and I answered the phone and they were like, there’s been a plane over Scotland that was headed and I was one of the first people in the United States to know about it.
Buzz Knight 00:10:58
Wow. You remember exactly that moment.
Jonathan Soroff 00:11:00
Oh, God. Yeah. I was close enough in age to there was a lot of kids coming back from some semesters abroad, and so I was still close enough to that age. And I knew people who had siblings on the plane.
Buzz Knight 00:11:14
Oh, my God.
Jonathan Soroff 00:11:14
So, yeah, it was crazy, but there were a lot of things like that. And I’ll never forget the reporter’s name. Her name was Michelle Caruso, and she’s gone on to do amazing things, and she was an amazing reporter, the most dogged. But she came back in as soon as the Charles Stewart story, when he was a man who his wife was pregnant. They were supposedly coming from a laman’s’class, and he said that they were Carjacked. He said the guy was African American and that he had killed the wife who was pregnant and shot him. And he was shot, like, in the leg. And we were all in the newsroom when she came back from the initial press briefing or whatever it was, and she said, he did it. And we were like, oh my God, you’re so cynical. That is the sickest thing I’ve ever heard. And she said, I think he did it. Well, and I don’t know how much later. It was probably weeks or it could have even been months. They determined that he was the killer and that it was a whole set up. And he threw himself from the Tobin Bridge. Yes.
Buzz Knight 00:12:26
Jonathan Soroff 00:12:27
Wow. Yeah. I just remember thinking, oh my God, Michelle, it’s so sick. Who would ever like that’s? Like the darkest thing? And turns out she was right.
Buzz Knight 00:12:34
Right. Well, paint this picture right now, Jonathan. This is so beautiful. And there’s actually, on a near 100 degree day, there’s actually a little breeze coming off here because of all the shade trees.
Jonathan Soroff 00:12:48
Look at these unbelievable weaving willows and oaks. And I’m not good at identifying trees, but that’s what I was talking about before, when this place was originally designed and built. The people who built it, we’re never going to see it reach this point of incredible beauty. These are all little saplings. They certainly didn’t throw this kind of shade. Who knew that this was going to be it was, I don’t know, 1877, I think, when they or no, sorry. You know what? I don’t know the date, but whenever the Swan Boats started there’s nothing more iconically Boston than those Swan Boats. I mean, look at that.
Buzz Knight 00:13:33
Jonathan Soroff 00:13:34
Buzz Knight 00:13:35
Jonathan Soroff 00:13:35
I just don’t know how the drivers do it. They’re all peddling those things, right? Those are pedal boats.
Buzz Knight 00:13:41
It’s so good to see them back. Right?
Jonathan Soroff 00:13:43
Yeah. And the same family, I believe. I believe that the Paget family still owns the concession for the Swan Boats. That’s awesome. And they’ve had it since the inception.
Buzz Knight 00:13:55
That’s awesome. My God. So then after the Herald, you went to Improper Bostonian.
Jonathan Soroff 00:14:00
So yeah, I was at the Herald for about four years, until the early ninety s. And then an old copy editor from the Herald, she had gone to work for this completely crazy scrappy nobody’s ever heard of. It slapped together publication called The Improper Bostonian, and they were looking for someone to do a social column. And because I had done the Nightlife column, I kind of had the sort of feel for it. And I think it was freelancing. And freelancing is a tough thing to make a living doing. And so they called me and they said, do you want to do this? And I said, absolutely. And I was still freelancing. But it was a regular gig. And that was 30 years ago now, because we were in publication for 20. We shut down in 2019. But that was in the early ninety s. And I started out, it was tabloid format, unbound news print, black and white. And then slowly we went to Color. Slowly as we grew, we went to Perfect Bound, then we went to Glossy, and we had a good 20 something years as a really gorgeous magazine. And the last issue we printed was as good as any issue we ever printed. There was never a decline, and I’m really proud of that. And a lot of people say, oh, I missed the Improper, and the Improper was so great. Absolutely. I do, too. It was the most fun thing ever, and I’m very proud of it. But we had a 28 year run.
Buzz Knight 00:15:45
Jonathan Soroff 00:15:46
Yeah. Most magazines don’t get 28 issues. We put out two issues a month for 28 years.
Buzz Knight 00:15:53
Jonathan Soroff 00:15:54
Yeah, it was a hell of a feat.
Buzz Knight 00:15:56
Is it fair to say, as I observed this, I observed you really finding your voice and your style and your rhythm in terms of your brand during that run. Because they gave you a lot of rope to hang yourself. Is that fair?
Jonathan Soroff 00:16:12
Yeah, they gave me like they used to do anything and we got away with a lot of we wrote some outrage, we published some outrageous things that were just hilarious. There was a period where we did some hard news, but we quickly got away from that and really concentrated on arts and entertainment and the cultural life and sort of the social life of the city, which there was nobody really reporting on that. And if they did, they were doing it in a way that was very kind of journalism school who, what, where, why and when we were doing it in a very cheeky, irreverent, snarky way. So I started doing the social column and then my editor, Nancy Games, was brilliant, brilliant editor, and she was one of the people really responsible for making the improper grow into what it became. She said, I think you’re really good at interviewing people. And so she gave me another column, but I did the social column. But then she came up with the idea, saw off on and it was an interview in every issue and I interviewed everyone from I mean, yeah, let’s.
Buzz Knight 00:17:24
Talk about some of your favorites.
Jonathan Soroff 00:17:25
So when people say the favorites, the favorites that come to mind are the ones who are gone now. Like the Julia Child who I had like a friendly acquaintance with, and she was amazing. Maya Angelou, Mike Wallace, like these tremendous Art Buchwald, these people who are giants in their fields who are no longer with us. But then on the other end of the spectrum, where the people where I was like, oh, they’re going on the cover and they are 23 years old and they’ve done one TV show, what could they possibly have to say? And then I talked to them and we’d end up becoming friends because I would prejudge them and say, oh, they have nothing to say. And they were ended up being really cool, fun, fascinating people from and it was just fun because again, they gave me the rope to hang myself with. I would ask outrageous questions. I think it might have been one of the guys from Baywatch, David Chokachi, who is still a friend. I think my first question too, in the interview was, so you want to make out.
Buzz Knight 00:18:34
There’S nothing like getting to the point, right?
Jonathan Soroff 00:18:36
It could have gone either way. He just laughed and he was like, yeah, but my wife might not like that. But they allowed me to ask these questions that were kind of just off the wall. And I think that’s what people gravitated to, because I would just kind of asked these questions that in a million years another publication would say, what the hell are you asking these people like, this is crazy. And people really ate it up. And the subject I’ll never forget during an interview, he was promoting a movie, but Matt Damon. And we were the first magazine that really gave Matt Damon and Ben Affleck any attention before Good Will Hunting. And I did an interview with Matt Damon, and when I turned off the recorder, he said, that was the most fun interview I’ve done all day or I’ve ever done. And I was like, Why did I get that? And I’m lucky enough to have several people say that to me.
Buzz Knight 00:19:38
That’s awesome. What did you learn from in terms of your interview style?
Jonathan Soroff 00:19:43
I didn’t. I learned on the job. I learned on the go. I’m still learning. And sure, there were two or three people who shut it down because they were like, this is not what I was expecting. This is not fine. But that happened over 30 years, very rarely.
Buzz Knight 00:20:05
So then ultimately, you’ve migrated over to Boston Magazine, another enduring publication, Boston Magazine. So are you having fun?
Jonathan Soroff 00:20:14
Yeah, I love it. It’s a very different beast because it’s a bigger magazine. The culture is much more corporate. I have more than one editor. I have fact checkers who will ask me things like, I did a travel piece about an island in the Caribbean, and they said, I got this email, I can’t confirm anywhere that on the boat ride from the airport to the hotel, they give you a rum drink. I don’t know what to tell you. I had a rum drink on the boat. That’s as good as it’s going to get. It’s a very different beast, but at the same time, it’s reassuringly familiar, and it’s just an amazing staff, and I think the magazine looks great. We had a big party last night, our Best of Boston party, and it was amazing.
Buzz Knight 00:21:10
Oh, that’s great. Now, where was the party?
Jonathan Soroff 00:21:13
It was in the seaport at one of the old cruise ship terminals. And a lot of the winners, the restaurants provided food. A lot of the advertisers provided beer and wine and liquor, and it was just a great crowd. And people are so excited to win an award like that. And it’s funny because it’s a big issue. And we did a competing one, which we kind of tried to steal Boston Magazine sunder when I was at the improper. And when we started it, I wrote the whole thing by myself, which was a beast, and this time I just contribute, like, a very tiny bit. But all these people who I had nothing to do with it are sending me thank you emails and messages, texts saying, thank you for the Best Boston Award. And I’m like, I had nothing to do with it, but you’re welcome.
Buzz Knight 00:22:13
Now, as somebody who has his finger on the pulse of the community, thinking of how horrible it’s been the last few years, what’s the current vibe of the restaurants and entertainment these days?
Jonathan Soroff 00:22:31
I think it is rebounding, and it’s going to be bigger than ever. I think that we’re entering the Roaring 20s, if there’s such a thirst for especially after the pandemic, to get out and to go out to dinner or to go see a movie or a play or the opera or the ballet or the symphony. And the thing about this city and one of the things that makes me so proud to be from here, we’re tiny. It’s a tiny little city. We punch so above our weight. If you’re a music fan, first of all, you have the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which the hall is one of the world’s two acoustically perfect concert halls with one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras. That’s one end of the spectrum. Then you have the schools like the New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall. Anybody, any city in the world would be proud to call those students who perform in that hall their symphony orchestra. Then at the absolute other end of the spectrum, Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. It’s a beautiful neogothic church. Episcopalian. They’re one of the few churches, I think maybe two churches in the world that perform box liturgical music in the order, in liturgical order, and it’s magnificent. And that’s just classical music. I’m on the board of Boston Ballet, and we are one of the world’s elite ballet companies. The Museum of Fine Arts is an encyclopedic art museum. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of the best house museums in the world. The Nichols House Museum on Beacon Hill is a fascinating glimpse of Victorian era America. And you have all these things in this tiny little city, and it’s like you can walk from one side of the city to the other and, I don’t know, an hour or two, but you have everything in the world.
Buzz Knight 00:24:33
Tremendous walking city is one of those great joys, obviously. And we’re taking a walk. But, yeah, the neighborhoods, obviously, from the outside, if you were speaking to someone who isn’t a Bostonian and you would try to address any bad wraps Boston has, what would you say to them?
Jonathan Soroff 00:25:00
So I think that people have a very outdated notion about what this city is in the early 21st century. This city is leading the way. It’s not accidental that the coronavirus vaccine was less than 2 miles away from where it was invented. This city is not people think it’s a racist city. Yes, we have our problems, and, yes, race is still an issue in this city, but we have come so far from the days of busing. It is a much more diverse, much more inclusive, much more eclectic city than it was then. And it’s also growing like a mushroom. I mean, the whole Seaport District that didn’t exist 15 years ago, that was a bunch of train yards and cruise ship terminals and docks, and now you have this incredibly vibrant neighborhood. It’s not stodgy old Boston. This is not your grandfather’s Boston. It’s very much a city of the 21st century and becoming more of one every day.
Buzz Knight 00:26:07
Well, I have another take also on the racism piece, which of course it exists here, it exists other places, it exists everywhere. But I wanted to get your reaction to this. I think part of the problem is we’re an amazing sports city, obviously, with completely crazy, passionate fans, and I didn’t.
Jonathan Soroff 00:26:28
Even mention that part. I’m not a big sports fan. That’s the only reason. Sure.
Buzz Knight 00:26:32
But I think part of the perception issue as well is if you watch the games, there’s generally not many people of color in the stands. And I think in general, isn’t it harder for anybody, the common person, whether they be black or white, to afford to go to these games?
Jonathan Soroff 00:26:55
Well, I think that’s a huge I mean, that speaks to inequities and built in inequities in general, yeah. And systemic problems. But yes, and the people who can’t afford but I think that’s changing. I didn’t interview within the last six months, I think, unless time is with Tommy Amacker, who he and I were at Duke. I was at Duke when he was playing for Duke, and he’s now the head coach at Harvard. And one of my questions for him was he grew up in either Baltimore or Virginia, like near the DC. Area. And one of the things that I asked him was, have you and your wife found Boston to be as racist as people say? And he was like, Absolutely not. We have had nothing but a wonderful experience. Maybe that’s an anomaly, maybe it’s not. But, yeah, I think perception and reality really diverge, and some of it is optics, because who can afford to go to who can afford I mean, I know what my brother pays for his season tickets to the Red Sox. It’s crazy. But then again, if you really love the Red Sox, if you really love the Celtics, if you really look, you’re going to go see them no matter what, you’ll figure out a way.
Buzz Knight 00:28:18
I think I heard the other day the average price for a family of four to go to the Red Sox game is $345 or some such thing. So, I mean, that’s an expensive night out, but it’s an amazing place to go see a game, obviously, for sure. So, yeah. In closing, I want to come back to the notion that you put up about this beautiful place that we’ve been fortunate to take a walk and how it’s a bad mood altering place, which I love. Right. Really? I can identify with that. What other places in the Boston area have that same effect?
Jonathan Soroff 00:28:57
I think there’s so many. I would say the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has that effect. I think if you walk along the waterfront, the pathway along the harbor, I think that sitting and drinking coffee in the North End, I think that just walking down the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, going to see something at the Strand Theater, going to Franklin Park, my nephews were at the zoo last week and they were like their heads exploded, they were so happy. There’s just so many everywhere in the city. There is something absolutely amazing, and I just really love it. Walking down any street in this city, you’re going to come across something that’s going to surprise you, delight you, and sort of leave you with a feeling of, wow, this place is really cool.
Buzz Knight 00:30:01
And Newbury Street, my God, one of the greatest walking cities were right near discovered it in the last few years. The New Newbury Hotel, where the old Ritz Carlton was with that amazing restaurant up there, Contessa, which I better get in the line six months in advance, but a sensational take and beautiful building, beautiful staff.
Jonathan Soroff 00:30:25
Well, full disclosure, I’m on the board of advisers for the trustees of the reservations. But we are creating a park on the waterfront in East Boston. And if you haven’t been to East Boston, to the waterfront in a while, it’s magnificent. If you haven’t been to Nubian Square in Roxbury in a long time, it is unbelievable. If you haven’t checked out the cool shops in JP and Roslyndale, unbelievable. You think that you’re in a cool, weird neighborhood in London or, like, the groovy place in Brooklyn. It’s just incredible.
Buzz Knight 00:31:02
I love it. Well, I’m so grateful that you and I got to take a walk. It would not be a special Boston edition if it didn’t have your stamp on it and your insights and your passion for this wonderful place. And thank you for all the great work over the years. Okay, last question. Who that you haven’t interviewed? Do you really want to interview?
Jonathan Soroff 00:31:27
That’s funny. Right now I’m waiting, and I think I have interviewed him in the past, but I’m waiting for Steven Tyler’s publicist to get back to me about whether or not I’m going to interview him. I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that, but I actually have a funny story because Ben Affleck, I’ve never actually interviewed him. I’ve interviewed his brother, and he told me that he has the cover from the Improper and it framed in his office in La. And he came here to do a screening of one of his movies, and I left before I got to the party. Afterwards, when it was just him and his assistant and his publicist, I walked in and I said, Jesus Christ, Affleck, I wasn’t sure you had it in you. And he was like, that’s really wonderful to hear, thank you. And he said something about the interview that I had done with Casey. And I said, yeah. And I said, You’ve never been on our cover. And he said, Why is that? I was like, I don’t know. We’ve tried a million times. I just don’t know. And so there are a couple of big Boston icons. I’ve interviewed the rest of the Wahlberg, I’m not sure I’ve ever interviewed. Mark interviewed. Yeah, there aren’t that many people, and I’m really thankful for the sort of the iconic Boston people who I have, but there are one or two who have slipped through the net. But I’ll get to them eventually.
Buzz Knight 00:32:45
I love it. Don’t give up. Right? Thank you, Jonathan, for taking a walk.
Jonathan Soroff 00:32:50
Buzz Knight 00:32:51
Taking a walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.