- Former Editor-in-Chief of the Internet magazine Salon.com
- Former Senior Editor of Mother Jones Magazine
- Anti-war and “free love” activist in the 1960s
Born in Los Angeles on September 22, 1951, David Talbot is the son of the late movie and television actor Lyle Talbot (1902-1996), who is best remembered as the character “Joe Randolph,” neighbor of Ozzie and Harriet on that popular television series (1956-66). David’s father was also a left-wing labor activist who co-founded the Screen Actors Guild and sat on its Board of Directors alongside Ronald Reagan. David’s older brother is Stephen Talbot, and one of his two sisters is Margaret Talbot.
Wired magazine’s Warren St. John once described David Talbot as having been “an activist and provocateur” during his youth. “As a teenager in the ’60s,” wrote St. John, “he’d been forced out of Harvard Preparatory School … for agitating against the Vietnam War. He campaigned to shut down Harvard Prep’s ROTC program and turned the school’s literary magazine, which he edited, into an antiwar pamphlet. The headmaster, Talbot says, deemed him a ‘disciplinary risk,’ and despite good grades, he was accepted at only one college, the hippie mecca UC Santa Cruz. There, Talbot says, he joined socialist groups, devoted himself to the antiwar and prisoners rights movement, ran with a guerrilla theatre troupe called the United Bozo Front, and spent time in jail in connection with his antiwar activities.”
Reporting that Talbot at UC Santa Cruz also became “an outspoken champion and campus guru of the ‘free love’ movement,” St. John wrote: “His [Talbot’s] parents had always been open about sex — ‘Sex and politics were always part of my family,’ Talbot says — and he did them one better by joining both a notorious swingers commune and a lesbian collective called Chestnut House. Talbot is almost pathologically candid about his sexual experimentation — he co-authored a 1989 book on the topic called Burning Desires: Sex in America — A Report from the Field.”
In 1968 Talbot supported Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and was traumatized by his assassination that June.
“After Watergate, which happened when I was in college, I became increasingly inspired by journalism as a way to change the world,” Talbot recalls, noting that in the 1970s he developed a burning desire “to wake the public up, to serve a higher cause.”
After working as a writer for the Environmental Action Foundation from 1979-81, Talbot became a senior editor at the San Francisco-based magazine Mother Jones. However, he alienated many of his orthodox comrades by criticizing what he began to call “the doctrinaire and totalitarian impulses of the organized left.” Specifically, Talbot fought to publish pieces that did not adhere to leftist orthodoxy — e.g., articles criticizing the Marxist Sandinistas of Nicaragua, or praising the achievements of Silicon Valley capitalism.
Talbot brought that same contrarian spirit to his next job as well, when in 1985 he joined the San Francisco Examiner‘s artsy and provocative Image Magazine as a senior editor (he later became editor-in-chief). As Wired.com reports: “He [Talbot] was one of the first mainstream editors to champion [the openly lesbian author and social critic] Camille Paglia, and he ran a now-famous photo spread of the author dressed in chains and bondage gear, in a porn shop. He caused an outcry running pieces on white men’s fetishization of Asian women, and an attack on multiculturalism by Gary Kamiya …”
Explaining the motives underlying his contrarian spirit, Talbot once told Terry Gross of National Public Radio in an interview: “I come out of a tradition of liberal journalism, left-wing journalism, Mother Jones, but I knew right away that that wasn’t going to be sufficiently interesting because you have to mix it up. I did want to create a virtual drawing room, a salon, where people … disagreed with each other. If everyone’s just nodding their heads in harmony all night long, it’s pretty dull. So right away, despite my own liberal background, I wanted to bring in right-wing, conservative voices, libertarian voices, people who, I thought, were intelligent and interesting and could take issue with each other.”
After a 1994 strike destroyed the economic viability of the Examiner, Talbot and several Image Magazine staffers, including Gary Kamiya and Joan Walsh, in 1995 collaborated to launch the Internet magazine Salon.com, a publication dedicated to the arts, politics and sexuality. Talbot served as Salon‘s editor-in-chief and publisher from 1995 to 2005. He was also chairman and CEO of the Salon Media Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation that effectively owned the webzine and several related entities.
Talbot stepped down as Salon‘s editor-in-chief in February 2005 and was replaced by his longtime deputy, Joan Walsh. Elizabeth Hambrecht, Salon‘s president, became its chief executive. “I think the timing is right,” said Mr. Talbot, who continued as chairman of Salon while he worked on a book about Robert F. Kennedy. “If the business was shaky, I would feel uncomfortable, but things are now stable and I think I am handing my baby off to two women I have complete trust in.” Notwithstanding his resignation, Talbot said: “I still feel this whole messianic vision. At its best, Salon is not only progressive and crusading, but also running stories about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of that joyful spirit has been trashed by recent events, and I think Salon will play a role in reviving it.”
In 2008, Talbot and his siblings launched a media production company called The Talbot Players, which has produced a number of books, films, and documentaries. In 2015 Talbot was hired as the editor of Hot Books, a new nonfiction imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. In 2016 he became a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Talbot has also authored a number of books over the years. These include: Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents (1978); Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007); Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America (a 2010 account of the life and exploits of antiwar U.S. Marine general Smedley Darlington Butler); Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (a 2013 book about the history of San Francisco and its leftist values); and The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (a 2015 biography examining the career of CIA Director Allen Dulles, who, according to Talbot, orchestrated the assassination of JFK and then arranged to have Lee Harvey Oswald take sole responsibility for the crime).
Talbot suffered a severe stroke in late 2017, but he eventually recovered.
Further Reading: “The Salon Makeover” (by Warren St. John, Wired.com, 1-1-1999); “[NPR’s] Terry Gross Interviews David Talbot” (Ibiblio.org, 6-14-2000); “The Founder of Salon Is Passing the Mouse” (NY Times, 2-10-2005).