Paul Swenson died yesterday after being found unconscious in his apartment. He was 76 years old.
I’ve known Paul now for over 35 years, but I never knew how old he was. When we first met, back in 1975, I would have estimated his age at 76. I suspect he was already old and “cute” as Benjamin Button when he was born, the youngest of ten children to Margaret and Dan Arthur Swenson, immigrants from Sweden who settled in Logan, Utah. Now, Logan, Utah, is not exactly a hotbed of literary activity—far from it—yet somehow Paul and his sister May, firstborn of the Swenson clan, both became poets. May moved to New York City and became famous; Paul ended up in Salt Lake City where, for a time, he helped to make me famous.
My “fame” extended no farther than 21st South Street, but no matter. All the important people in town read my column and knew my name, and thus I considered myself a player. I owed it all to Paul, who gave me a shot when no one else would.
“I’ll give you a column in the magazine,” Paul said. “What shall we call it? How about ‘Pure Mendacity?’”
“Fine,” I said. Soon as I got home I went to the dictionary and looked up the word “mendacity.” Oops, too late.
I wasn’t the only young writer to catch a break at Utah Holiday Magazine, thanks entirely to the generosity and keen editorial judgment of Paul Swenson. For a time, we at UH were the hotshots, the hip alternative to the moribund Tribune and the church-owned Deseret News. And as luck would have it, we were living in an exciting age when such publications as Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly were in their prime. Ideas were in the air, and every other week there was at least one bizarre murder case. I’m thinking of Manhattan socialite Francis Schreuder, who sent her son to Salt Lake to murder his rich grandfather in order to secure funds to underwrite his mother’s lavish lifestyle. Or Mark Hofmann, master forger who conned the Mormon Church into buying several fake documents, then began planting bombs around town to cover his tracks. And, of course, there was the ongoing homicidal spree of Ted Bundy.
But it wasn’t all blood and gore. Anything offbeat would do. For instance, the revelation that certain members of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, in order to keep bread on the table, moonlight at Loftus Novelty, the world’s foremost supplier of rubber chickens.
Swenson’s partner in the enterprise was Bob Coles, with whom he had served an LDS mission to Sweden. Swenson was in charge of editorial; Coles ran the business end. To those of us who wrote for the magazine, Swenson was the good cop, Coles the bad. Coles didn’t like to pay much, if anything, because he believed, having roomed with Swenson, that writers will write for nothing. And he was right. At first I wrote for nothing, then next to nothing, until finally I managed to break into the high two figures. I believe I was the magazine’s highest paid contributor.
Then, just as things were beginning to look up, a terrible thing happened; Coles sold the magazine to some Mormon guy who right away began meddling in the editorial department. Swenson resigned in protest and I, along with many others, went with him.
For the next few months Paul Swenson kept a little office on South Temple, but had no magazine. Try as he might, he couldn’t attract financial backing to start one, nor could he persuade the owner of the quickly fading Utah Holiday Magazine to sell. So he took over editorial duties at a tabloid giveaway called The Event, which eventually perished from want of ad revenue. Finally, he was hired as associate editor of The Salt Lake Observer, which opened with great fanfare but quickly folded after the rich benefactor decided he was tired of writing checks.
It’s just as well. The Observer was a piece of crap, and I should know because I was a contributor. What it lacked was the soul, heart, integrity, and spiritual leadership of Paul Swenson.
By the time the Observer went under, Paul Swenson was almost as old as he had always looked. He spent his last years writing a book, reviewing books, composing poems, campaigning for human rights and hoping against hope that someday the church into which he was born and for which he had served a two-year mission to Sweden would someday be happy to count a man like him a member.