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Apocalypse then, A&E now

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Fall 1983. A bleak time. KAL Flight 007, with 269 aboard, is shot down when it strays over Soviet air space. Two hundred and forty-one Marines are killed when a truck bomb explodes in Lebanon. The United States invades Grenada.
Whitney Goit II doesn’t remember whether these events were on his mind as he was cruising along the New Jersey turnpike in his restored ’60s Mercury Cougar convertible, but he says,
“Maybe … maybe.” What he does remember is that he was heading home to New York from goose hunting on the Eastern shore of Maryland. He had had a bang-up time with his cousin, John Lehman, the former secretary of the Navy, as they hunted fowl on a sprawling spread owned by John McLaughlin, the outspoken Jesuit priest and talk show host.
As Mr. Goit recalls, it was raining and the ol’ Cougar was running roughly–too roughly. Mr. Goit stopped and looked under the hood.
“The next thing I know, I wake up and I’m under a car, a couple of people standing around, and one of them says, `The guy in the other car is dead, I bet you this guy’s dead too,’ ” Mr. Goit says. He remembers trying to speak to tell the onlookers he wasn’t dead, but he was unable to talk. Mr. Goit, who was covered with gasoline, which somehow didn’t ignite, managed to convey he was still alive by spitting some teeth out of his mouth before he started to feel the kind of cold that some say precedes death.
Road to recovery
He had a very severe concussion, a broken leg, internal injuries, his back dislocated in three places and a big hole in his side that had to be drained for three months; his hand, which had been run over, had to be reconstructed. “I was devastated,” Mr. Goit says, almost shivering as he remembers the accident. He was told that a sailor on leave from a submarine had fallen asleep while driving an old Oldsmobile and had plowed–full speed–into the back of the Cougar while Mr. Goit was looking under the hood. “The state police said I was thrown 30 feet into the air in the middle of the Jersey turnpike, with trucks whizzing by, and then the Cougar, which was shattered, ran over me again.”
It was not long after this perilous juncture in his life, just as Mr. Goit was recovering, that Nickolas Davatzes and Ray Joslin of Hearst Entertainment asked Whit to come over to a new cable channel being formed out of the ashes of two failed efforts at highbrow cable programming, the pay service Entertainment Channel and the basic-tier ARTS channel. Both of them had long, complicated and ultimately failed visions of what cable audiences would support in the way of arts programming. ARTS (the Alpha Repertory Television Service) was started by Hearst in April of 1981. The Entertainment Channel was a joint product of RCA and NBC and was a $10-a-month pay service. Both had impossibly large and ambitious programming budgets, including funding for live operas and the like. A new vision was definitely needed.
`Black Whit’
Mr. Joslin lived on Bluewater Hill in Westport, Conn., near where Mr. Goit had grown up, so a weekend meeting was arranged at the beginning of 1984.
“He pulls up, and he looked like one of those guys in the old Revolutionary War painting, the one with the bandage on his head,” recalls Mr. Joslin. “His arm was in a sling, he was on a crutch. He looked lucky to be alive.” But Mr. Joslin saw beyond the scary trappings. “I’ve known Whit for 17 years now,” he says. “He is one of the smartest and most dependable and respected guys in the industry. A solid citizen and a team player. He has filled so many key slots at A&E.” The decision was made to bring Mr. Goit onto the team as the first head of ad sales for the new consolidated channel, of which NBC would own 25 percent and Hearst and ABC would split the remaining equity.
Seventeen years later, Mr. Davatzes and Mr. Goit both are still at A&E. Mr. Davatzes is president and CEO, and Mr. Goit is in the No. 2 slot as executive VP. Those who know Mr. Goit best, the ones who remember his old moniker, “Black Whit”–named for both his dark countenance and adventuresome ways, are surprised he’s still there.
Roger Werner, the founder of SpeedVision and a former top executive at ESPN, loves to tell the story of an encounter he had with his longtime friend Mr. Goit a scant four months after Black Whit joined A&E. The two were in Los Angeles for an A.C.E. Awards ceremony. Out of the blue, as Mr. Werner recalls it, Mr. Goit proposed that the two of them and their wives quit their jobs and go around the world in a VW bus. It was a hippie dream, and clearly the inspiration was Ken Kesey’s legendary 1964 trip across the United States in a 1939 bus painted in psychedelic colors.
But the imminently sensible Mr. Werner wasn’t buying it. “I said, `You have a very good job. You’re poised to do bigger and better things. Why mess with it? A&E has a fabulous image.”’ Mr. Werner remembers staying up almost all night dissuading Mr. Goit from his dream.
“Whit has always been a bit of a nomad,” says Larry Divney, CEO of Comedy Central and a close friend of Mr. Goit. “He’s a very adventurous soul.” Strangely, if you spend just five minutes with Mr. Goit, what you come away remembering are his eyes–not their color, but the impression that this is a guy who’s a dreamer, a man with wanderlust in his heart.
Growing up in a media town
The guys who founded cable networks in the ’80s were often pretty wild and crazy–Tom Freston, Ted Turner and Bob Pittman come to mind. And Mr. Goit, 59, has one of the more colorful backgrounds among this group.
He was a war baby, born in 1942, and grew up in suburban Westport, the adman’s mecca of the ’50s, where “The Stepford Wives” was filmed and where “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” was set. “It was a media town,” Mr. Goit says.
As a teenager, he prepped at St. Luke’s in New Canaan, Conn., where his parents sent him because he was spending too much time playing pinball and not doing his homework–“Hanging around with the wrong kids,” Mr. Goit says. Despite his bad-boy tendencies, the Connecticut Sunday Herald printed a photo of Whit in the early ’60s in his tennis whites, hanging out on South Compo Road, that makes him look like the ultimate WASP comer. Sitting behind him in the photo is his second cousin, Grace Kelly.
An article in Advertising Age tells what happened next to the Westport Goits.
In October 1964, Ad Age told its readers about a lucky guy who escaped the media grind. Mr. Goit’s father, Charles Whitney Goit, a former ad sales executive for the old Look magazine, Fortune and 20th Century Fox, had decamped the year before to start a resort, the 27-acre St. Croix’s Cane Bay Plantation in the Virgin Islands.
“I’m down here mainly because of the New Haven Railroad,” Charles Goit told Ad Age. “I toted up the commuting time between Grand Central [station in Manhattan] and Westport for the last 20 years and came up with 10,400 hours.”
As idyllic as a Caribbean resort may sound it didn’t work out that way. Cane Bay Plantation was later destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, and the murder of eight golfers in the early ’70s by Black Panther-influenced locals has kept tourism at a low ebb ever since. Anyway, by the time his father made the move, Mr. Goit was already a senior at Dartmouth, while his younger brother, Tony, was prepping at St. Luke’s. Mr. Goit was convinced of one thing–the Manhattan media scene wasn’t for him. “That wasn’t in the cards, for sure,” he says. “The anti-establishment thing was starting to take hold.”
Cruisin’ for parties
Mr. Goit’s college roommate, Jay Regan, now a hedge-fund owner in Princeton, N.J., recalls a time when the rebels were still more or less without a cause. Both were members of Theta Delta Chi, a “fun-loving” frat. The guys once drove to the University of Wisconsin, a round trip of 1,000 miles, just because they heard it was a great party school. They painted the roof of their old clunker with a depiction of a “guy giving the world the finger,” Mr. Regan recalls. But when they got to Wisconsin, the revolt fizzled. They played a game of touch football on
the lawn and then drove back.
Upon graduation in 1964, Mr. Regan and Mr. Goit decided to see the world for free. They sneaked onto the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth and stowed away in a lifeboat. They figured that when the boat departed they could just start mingling with the paying guests, confident their Dartmouth-bred manners would allow them to fit in. But they got the departure date wrong and ended up sitting in the lifeboat for about six hours before they realized the ship wasn’t going anywhere.
Caught up in the ’60s
Then a life-changing event hit Mr. Goit. His brother Tony became “deeply involved in the antiwar thing, involved with Timothy Leary and all that kind of stuff,” Mr. Goit recalls. And as tears well up in his eyes, he says that Tony committed suicide. “We don’t know for sure why. My parents went through a divorce. The move from Westport to St. Croix disoriented him. He was a very sensitive kid, and he got into a lot of drugs.”
After his brother’s death, Mr. Goit escaped to Europe for four months. While he was there, a series of letters from the draft board arrived in St. Croix, but Mr. Goit’s father threw them out. When Mr. Goit arrived stateside, he presented his passport, only to be told he was facing arrest for draft evasion. Joining the armed services was inevitable, so he applied to Officers Candidate School, hoping that would keep him out of Vietnam.
Commissioned a lieutenant, Mr. Goit served on the USS Thuban with another young officer, Brian Lamb, who is now a highly recognizable face from C-SPAN. “We were both ensigns,” Mr. Lamb says. “Whit is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever known–with an emphasis on the word `character.’ When I think of Whitney, I break out with a big smile on my face.” In the early days, in the mid-’60s, Navy life was more like “Mr. Roberts” than “Das Boot,” but that would change fast.
In 1968, 23-year-old Lt. j.g. Whitney Goit was sent to Vietnam.
“I ended up in the outfit they made `Apocalypse Now’ about,” Mr. Goit says, “the Naval Advisor Group.” Similar to the Martin Sheen character in the movie, he found himself the captain of a gunboat. With his all-Vietnamese crew, the waters he was navigating were a long way from Long Island Sound, where he sailed as a teenager. Sometimes, in fact, they weren’t even in Vietnam. He was one of a dozen American gunboat captains who called themselves “the 12 Apostles.” Operating out of a secret location called the “Spook Base” in Da Nang, “We had missions to Cambodia, all that kind of shit,” Mr. Goit recalls. “Some of this stuff is probably still classified. You forget what is secret and what isn’t. We ran ultra-fast, turbo-powered special boats. It was a very existential experience. With this Vietnamese crew, we’d go on patrols, just me and my crew. I had learned some Vietnamese at language school. We had some wild experiences.”
Surviving Vietnam
Whitney won a couple of medals during these experiences: the Vietnamese Medal of Honor and the Bronze Star with Combat “V.” He still has the letter, dated Sept. 23, 1968, from R.W. Schumann Jr., Captain, U.S. Navy, asking him to come to Puerto Rico so the “award will be presented to you personally by Rear Admiral A.R. Matter, USN.” But for a number of reasons, Whitney never picked it up. The main reason was he didn’t believe in the war anymore. And another reason was that some things went down that he wasn’t so proud of.
“My crew tortured a guy to death on the boat,” Mr. Goit says, and again his eyes well up. … [Y]ou occasionally had to pull a gun on this crew to whip them into shape, and I should have done that. But a guy named Fitzgerald, whom I’d gone through basic training with, had been assassinated by the VC, so I was pretty pissed off, and I didn’t stop them.”
Having injured his knee in the notorious Tet Offensive of ’68, Mr. Goit was sent to the Portsmouth, Va., Naval Hospital, where he was surrounded by horribly injured men. “There was a Marine pilot on one side of me who was burned over three-quarters of his body, and I had to listen to him trying to drive his wife away to marry someone else,” Mr. Goit says. “And on the other side was a young officer with both of his legs gone. It was brutal.”
Mr. Goit got into more than one barroom fight with guys who ragged on him for being in the war. And he recalls a welcome-home party where people were so unsure of what to say to a returning Vietnam vet that he ended up all alone at his own party. That same night, Whitney drove nonstop to Norfolk, Va., to see a girlfriend. He told her that he was headed to Mexico and asked if she wanted to go. She declined. He went anyway and lived for two weeks in the Olympic Village in Mexico City, disguised as an Australian athlete and protected by some Australians he knew.
Subsequent adventures included cruising Puerto Vallerta, Mexico, with a Belgian gun-runner and palling around Mexico with some other Vietnam vets, some of whom were running drugs and doing whatever else it took to survive.
By 1969, Mr. Goit had made it back to the States, to a trailer park in Aspen, Colo., at a time when the ski resort was not quite as chic as it is today. Regulars included Hunter S. Thompson and Mr. Goit recalls, Owsley Stanley, one of the first Americans to synthesize LSD. He was also one of Ken Kesey’s group of Merry Pranksters, a group that reveled in LSD parties and whose exploits became the basis for Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Turnaround time
After a while, the party got a little too wild, and Mr. Goit began to think that he might be ready for his first regular-guy job. In the late ’60s it was fairly typical to be in your late 20s and not sure what you wanted to do with your life. But Mr. Goit was more confused than many ’60s casualties. Finally, an acquaintance and regular visitor to Aspen who ran a San Francisco-based health food business, UDYCO Industries, hired Whit as a research analyst, sent him to Brooks Bros. for four suits and ordered him to get a haircut. “Black Whit” was retired, and a new responsible “Whitney Goit” was born, although the job still had an “alternative” tinge to it.
In 1973, Mr. Goit persuaded UDYCO’s top executive to help fund a start-up wine business called Country Wine Shops, initially focused on wine departments in Montgomery Ward stores in Chicago, Florida and other areas, “Because I thought the next thing coming out of California was going to be wine.” The Montgomery Ward operation was geared toward explaining wine culture to neophytes and even offered shoppers a questionnaire with a phonetic pronounciation guide to help them decide which wine they should order. The business thrived for a few years but eventually fell afoul of Illinois’ strict liquor laws, which prohibit wholesale liquor distributors from owning retail establishments. Montgomery Ward executives received summonses from the state, thereby ending Mr. Goit’s run as a wine mogul (though as a collector he was featured earlier this year in an article in The Wine Spectator).
Still avoiding New York and the media business that was his birthright, in 1975 Mr. Goit moved to Middleburg, Va.,: “I was a free spirit, and I was just going with the flow,” he says. But ultimately, after a few years and a failed marriage, Mr. Goit found his way to New York City in 1977.
For the first five or six months, he spent more time at Studio 54 than at a desk. Finally, in his mid-30s, he got a job with the rep firm Harrington, Righter and Parsons. “I was a 35-year-old trainee for a thousand bucks a month,” Mr. Goit says.
In the media business, some people are CEOs by the time they’re 35. Mr. Goit was a $12,000 trainee in a business his father had done well in. It was the price he was paying for years of aimless career avoidance.
So he ate the required amount of crow and did well as a junior rep firm gofer. Four months later a sales slot opened up, and he started selling. A “natural salesman,” as some saw him, Mr. Goit was in a good position in 1980 when he split from HRP to co-found one of the first local cable rep
firms, Eastman Cable Rep. While at ECR, Mr. Goit created one of the first national spot sales efforts for cable interconnects and established himself as a budding expert on what was a brand-new revenue stream for cable systems.
Hitting his stride
Mr. Goit’s new prominence, which included his writing articles on interconnects for cable trades, helped land him a spot as director of ad sales at Warner Amex Cable Communications in 1981, where he oversaw local ad efforts at 149 systems. Mr. Goit climbed the ladder there, later rising to VP of ad sales at Warner Amex. He worked on the Qube system, and that’s where he first met Nickolas Davatzes.
Three years later Mr. Davatzes and Hearst’s Ray Joslin invited Mr. Goit to join the then new A&E.
After Mr. Werner talked Mr. Goit out of leaving A&E, Mr. Goit made a promise to his second wife, Irene, that he would settle down and fly right. And he has. No more escape plans, no more detours. Part of his concern, he says, is the kind of instability he had growing up, which he thinks may have led to his brother Tony’s suicide. And he has vowed that his two kids wouldn’t see the kind of family disruption Tony did.
Mr. Goit has had a remarkably consistent career at A&E. He was promoted to senior VP of sales and marketing in 1987 and to executive VP of sales and marketing in 1990. In 1998 he took over responsibility for AETN Enterprises (home video, consumer products, including books and CDs, Biography magazine and the A&E catalog) and AETN International, which has joint ventures in 66 countries and in 20 languages. So though he’s not selling ads anymore, he makes six international trips a year.
How long will he be content at A&E?
Mr. Goit says there are two things he hasn’t done yet–sail around the world, and climb a high mountain. Though the mountain climbing isn’t a priority, you get the feeling that the long sail is, and it seems likely he’ll eventually do it.
Whitney turns 60 next year, and the sea beckons. Maybe Black Whit will return after all …