An extraordinary friend, father, entrepreneur, soldier and writer
Bob Nylen was much respected and beloved magazine executive (The New England Monthly), entrepreneur (Beliefnet), soldier (Vietnam), civic leader (Ashfield town moderator), husband (to Kit) and father (to Cassie).
Although he earned his way as a businessperson, he was also a great writer -- and wrote a brilliant memoir shortly before his death. So this LifeStory article pulls together obituaries, personal testimonials and Bob's own words.
By MARGALIT FOX Published: December 31, 2008
Robert Nylen, Magazine Founder and Publisher, Is Dead at 64
Robert Nylen, a founder and the publisher of New England Monthly, a highly regarded regional magazine published from 1984 to 1990, died on Dec. 23 at his home in Ashfield, Mass. He was 64.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Katharine Nylen, said. At his death, Mr. Nylen was a magazine consultant and freelance writer.
In 1986 and 1987, New England Monthly won National Magazine Awards for general excellence in the under-100,000-circulation category. In 1990 the magazine had a circulation of 140,000.
Based in Haydenville, Mass., New England Monthly was founded by Mr. Nylen and Daniel Okrent. Among the writers whose work appeared in its pages were John Gregory Dunne, Tracy Kidder and Annie Proulx.
Mr. Nylen was previously the associate publisher and advertising director of Texas Monthly magazine. With Steven Waldman, he founded Beliefnet (beliefnet.com), a Web site devoted to spirituality, in 1999; Mr. Nylen was Beliefnet’s first president and remained a director until it was bought by the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s company, last year.
Robert Nels Nylen was born on April 15, 1944, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bucknell University in 1966 and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. He served with the Army in the Vietnam War, receiving two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Mr. Nylen’s memoir, “Guts: One American Guy’s Reckless, Lucky Life,” is scheduled to be published by Random House in May.
Bob's memoir was extraordinary, especially the parts about Vietnam, which critics said was one of the most honest description of life as a grunt soldier.
Here, Bob's long time friend, Richard Todd, reads excerpts from the book.
Some of the best appreciations of Bob came in the form of reviews of his memoir.
It is haunting to read a memoir by a writer who was racing against incurable cancer to get his words on paper, and died in December 2008 shortly after completing his work. You open Robert Nylen’s book, “Guts,” with a mixture of sadness and curiosity, braced for the inevitable. Damn, he is going to make me care about him, and mourn his untimely death. I was torn between rushing through this absorbing and disjointed story or deliberately slowing the pace, aware that once the book ended, Nylen’s raw, funny, urgent voice would be forever stilled.
Book titles are often mere clever marketing gimmicks, but this one aptly highlights Nylen’s themes and narrative. The word “guts” refers to his meditation on American manhood and the toughness this Army officer showed in Vietnam — as well as to Nylen’s own internal parts bursting out of his body during treatment for colorectal cancer. His “reckless” nature is presented as an out-of-control character flaw: throughout his life, Nylen was driven to perform colossally stupid acts, large and small, including endangering his platoon through cowboy antics. Brash and unrepentant four decades later, right after major surgery he defied common sense by pushing a car off an ice-slicked road, with predictably disastrous results. With ample reason, Nylen asks himself, “Why do I take such dumb risks over and again?”
The son of a gregarious DuPont executive whose constant transfers kept the family on the move, Nylen learned at a young age that even a prudently lived existence can go awry. His older sister, Sue, born with cerebral palsy, was taunted by schoolmates as a “spaz”; he still feels guilty that he did not offer her more protection. A traumatic event subsequently derailed the household when Nylen was in high school: his father took a wrong turn coming out of the den one night, fell down a flight of stairs and fractured his skull. Permanent brain damage left Bertil Nylen bewildered and unemployable. Also, Robert Nylen’s grandfather had died as the result of a bad fall and a head injury; the author mordantly describes his relatives as “lucky, just not good-lucky.”
Yet this is neither a whiny nor an angry-at-the-fates book, but rather a helter-skelter romp, an episodic effort to defend, explain and understand a life. In rollicking prose, Nylen exhibits pure exuberance as he throws himself into the world, a cocky, fearless soul anchored only by his endlessly tolerant wife, Kit. The most vivid section recounts Nylen’s time in Vietnam: grenades pop, snipers fire, and fear, blood, foolhardy risks and the joy at surviving near-death experiences animate each page. The stories are not new contributions to the genre, but they are his, and he tells them well.
After his Army service ended, a weary Nylen attended the Wharton School and then embarked on an enterprising career in magazines, starting out as an ad salesman for Look. “Unlike grunts, few of my new glad-handing comrades had bled on the job, so I had an edge in carnage delivered and received,” he writes. “Business and combat are linked by the grim prospect of failure.” Nylen’s triumphs include being a co-founder of both the quirky, much-admired and now defunct New England Monthly and the award-winning Web site Beliefnet.com.
Marking his 60th birthday in 2004 by submitting to a routine colonoscopy, he learned he had third-stage colorectal cancer. Nylen presents gruesomely honest descriptions of his multiple surgeries, infections and relapses; this tough-it-out guy has no uplifting inspiration and spiritual comfort to share. But he lovingly describes how a fatally ill Ulysses S. Grant, desperate to support his family, scrawled out what would become a best-selling memoir, dying four days after correcting the galley proofs
Here's a rave review from Peter Kann, the publisher of Dow Jones, in the Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2009:
Mr. Nylen, by way of Officer Candidate School, winds up as a lieutenant in the First Air Cavalry Division leading a platoon into combat in I Corps, the zone of the Vietnam War's most ferocious combat, during 1968, the year of the war's most murderous casualties. To have served in Vietnam was an unpleasant experience for most men; to have served as an infantry platoon leader humping the jungle was the stuff of dark memories and nagging nightmares. Mr. Nylen lived with plenty of both, though his telling is often tinged with black humor.
He describes a mortar shell landing in the midst of his unit, blowing off the legs of two soldiers and killing them almost instantly. A soldier carrying a dismembered leg approaches Lt. Nylen. "Should I stick it in its own body bag, sir?" he asks. "The thing is, neither of these guys have legs. I don't rightly know who this one belongs to."...
On another occasion a helicopter has just flown into Lt. Nylen's hilltop landing zone to drop off supplies. "A dumb-ass mortarman has decided to leave the shelter of his hole to dig into the thermos of cold ice cream," Mr. Nylen writes. "Zap, thwack. Our mortarman has been shot through the thorax. . . . [He] crawls, slides and burbles his way back to his hole. He is choking on his own blood."
Mr. Nylen is deft at describing the little absurdities of war, like sending a squad to dig up the putrefying remains of four North Vietnamese soldiers so they could be added to Gen. William Westmoreland's all-important body counts. Above all, Mr. Nylen conveys the terror of combat. At one point he gives a riveting account of a jungle ambush, including the effort to extricate wounded platoon members from a hot landing zone in triple canopy jungle with encircling North Vietnamese trying to shoot down the hovering medical-evacuation helicopter. Lt. Nylen, himself twice wounded in the ambush, is finally winched by a dangling cable onboard the chopper, where he asks the pilot if his two wounds will merit two Purple Hearts. "All wounds in one action, sir, that's just one heart," replies the pilot. "Don't make no never mind how many holes you got." (Lt. Nylen later gets another Purple Heart in another engagement.)
Few writers have captured Vietnam combat as well as Mr. Nylen does in "Guts." Most reporters, and there were many of us there, did not spend many days slogging through steaming jungles with rifle platoons; and most soldiers who did so lacked the ability or opportunity to write their memoirs. There are a few exceptions, like Tim O'Brien, Tracy Kidder and Michael Herr. Mr. Nylen writes roughly to their level in his Vietnam chapters....
The last and most painful portion of "Guts" relates Mr. Nylen's five-year struggle with colorectal cancer -- operations, chemotherapy treatments, infections, bladder fistulas, bone breaks and more. Cancer battles are the subject of many books and indeed, courtesy of Farah Fawcett, of TV specials as well. What Mr. Nylen uniquely brings to his cancer narrative is a degree of philosophic insight and a dose of sometimes bright and sometimes dark humor.
He plays down cancer patients as "brave combatants, warriors who resisted disease as Marines resist enemy attack." Rather, he says, "we aren't the combatants in this kerfuffle any more than the green fields of south central Pennsylvania fought the Battle for Gettysburg. . . . Our bodies are the battlefields, not actors moving on them." Agree or disagree, the reader comes away in awe of the battlefield and the battler.
Mr. Nylen explores Greek stoicism though eventually rejects it because he discovers that stoics smiled not only on promiscuity but also on cannibalism. He muses on the overlapping qualities of toughness and courage. "Courage," he concludes, "is to toughness as reticence is to chastity." And last December he died, leaving us to marvel at his resilience, fortitude and, yes, guts.
Blurbs from literary friends and admirers:
“Like the best memoirs, this book brings to life the voice and spirit of a remarkable person. It also contains some of the best, and most honest, war-writing I know.”—Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
"What a life! Love and sickness, war and work, told with wit, with an honesty that sometimes burns, and a compassion that brings tears to the eyes.”—Jonathan Harr, author of The Lost Painting
“This is a tough book about a tough man. Nylen explores the interior landscape of an archetypal American man—himself—with courage, honesty, and the gallant humor of a soldier who knows he's fighting his last campaign. Although his voice is as raw as an unhealed wound, it lingers powerfully in your mind. I feel like I have just been through a boot camp on how a man should live, and how he should die.”—Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower
“Its antic, self-mocking charm only enhances the deeper truth of this book: it is a story of extraordinary courage.”—Richard Todd, author of The Thing Itself
“No one braver than Bob Nylen was funnier; no one funnier was braver. And very, very few have ever been more honest about why men behave the way we do. His personal story is singular, but its lessons are universal.—Daniel Okrent, author of Public Editor #1
"Robert Nylen gets it right in Guts: what it takes for a man to go off to war, to kill, to be wounded, to make a living, to raise a family and even to die. Why me? Why them? Who dodges what bullets, and what do you do when the one with your name on it catches up to you? Guts is what it takes to be a man. Guts Bob Nylen had—and in his book he spills them all. "—William Broyles, author of Brothers at Arms
This fellow seems to impute to Bob a libertarian philosophy. Bob would find this particularly amusing:
Robert Nylen's poignant memoir was written in a bold, no nonsense & engaging manner that seems to deliver a clear message: "Have guts; no wimps allowed in life!"
Without a doubt, Robert Nylen's message of personal accountabiltiy needs to be heard in all sectors of society. It's time we stopped blaming others when things go wrong; look instead to our own resoursefulness to figure out the best course of action. With the right attitude, nearly anything can be accomplished.
His treatment of our mortality, the frailties of the human body, and the inexorableness of death are as good as I have ever read anywhere.
I was lucky enough to know Bob Nylen, the author. But as I read his remarkable book, I thought about the gift the book is to the many people not fortunate enough to have met Bob. His humor and voice are truly remarkable. As Peter Kann said in the Wall Street Journal rave review, Bob's writing about Vietnam is in a class with the greats. Bob's humor, self-deprecation and bravery are on display throughout this unusual memoir.
Starred Review. Vietnam vet, cofounder of New England Monthly and a media consultant, Nylen, who died last year, shares with punchy humor and tremendous grace his tough approach to taking risks and staring down exacting bosses as well as cancer. Cherishing such stoical role models as Don Quixote and Ulysses S. Grant (as well as his own father, who spent his prime years as a DuPont executive before a traumatic fall altered his life permanently), Nylen celebrates America's admiration with gutsiness, and his own lifetime attempts (frequently foolish) to make the Cool Guys Hall of Fame. The bulk of this memoir is Nylen's facetious though moving account of his stint as an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968, and the men he loved and lost—the ghastly experience, he assures readers, was never accurately depicted in popular movies. Shell-shocked, married after release from the army, simulating a normal person and appearing unemployable, he began his accidental career as a media ad salesman starting at Look magazine, dealing with tough bosses like Bill Dunn at U.S. News and World Report and Mike Levy at Texas Monthly before embarking on his own. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer stage III when he was 60, he endured treatments, surgeries, pain and frequent accidents of his own making, but preserves his cheerful, frank, optimistic and ever competitive spirit in the face of mortal adversity. (July)
Bob co-founded the multifaith religion and spirituality site with Steve Waldman in 1999. He was its first President and after that served on its board of directors. He wasnt particularly religious -- he used to tell potential partners that he was in charge of "self-righteousness." But he was a constant source of great advice and comfort.
Bob referred to this picture, which appeared in the New York Post, as his "Star Trek look":
Bob Nylen, Beliefnet's Beloved Co-Founder
Remembering a man of great integrity, humor and bravery
By Steven Waldman
Bob was a lovely, honest, smart man with great integrity and heart. A soldier, husband, father, writer, publisher, and gifted businessman, I was so blessed to have had him as a partner and friend.
Beliefnet certainly would not exist if not for Bob’s work and wisdom. Bob inspired us, and instructed us, in many ways.
He led by example. When we were first hitting financial hard times, it was Bob who volunteered not once but several times to cut his own pay. His philosophy was, "Do the right thing and, eventually, others will follow." It was at the heart of the strategy as Beliefnet filed for Chapter 11 (and later recovered).
Bob taught us that successful entrepreneurs have to do the big things, and the little things. He helped craft the overall strategy, and raised the money, but he also found the office space, bought the computers, etc. That’s the way small businesses get built, and it is the way leaders can help create a business culture that draws the best out of everyone.
He believed in what he was doing. His willingness to work his tail off was absolutely essential fuel, especially in the early days.
Bob’s judgment and instinct about good ideas was always remarkable, even when it was the conventional wisdom to scoff.
Bob also had a warm and witty eye for irony and a good sense of humor. My greatest memories are simply of us laughing together.
He valued honesty. One of the biggest surprises in my short career as a “small businessman” is how often people justify dishonesty on the grounds that it’s good for the business. Bob never did. He always seemed to take the posture that the point of the game is not winning but winning while playing by the rules.
He was a person of great strength. A heroic Vietnam vet, Bob was never intimidated by people with more money or bigger egos. Though often a diplomat, he never absorbed the idea (so common in this world) that people with money or power deserve undue respect just because of their position.
Beliefnet would not have launched, and survived, without him.
Of course on a personal level, Bob’s friendship is what mattered to me most. I count the special bond we shared among one of the most important in my life over the last decade. He was a great man, and a good man. And a great friend.
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