How Popular Mechanics’ EIC Wowed Michael Keaton at the Oscars

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsMichael’s was a sea of suits today and judging by the ear-splitting decibel level in the dining room, everyone had plenty to talk about. I was happy to be tucked away at my favorite table (27, in case you’re wondering) so I could hear (almost) every word uttered by my oh-so-interesting dining companions.

I was joined today by Popular Mechanics’ dynamic duo: Editor in chief Ryan D’Agostino and publisher Cameron Connors, who both joined the magazine in 2014. When Hearst’s Lauren Demitry first invited me to lunch to meet them, I thought, how on earth am I going to talk about cars for an hour and a half? I needn’t have worried.

Diane Clehane and India Hicks
Ryan D’Agostino, Diane Clehane and Cameron Connors
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I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about the minute we sat down for lunch. While prepping for the interview I got a hold of Ryan’s new-ish book, The Rising (Crown), a sensitive and engrossing chronicle of Dr. William Petit’s recovery and re-entry into some semblance of a normal existence as the sole survivor of a crime that shocked the nation. Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters were tortured and killed by two men who broke into the family’s home in Cheshire, Conn., on a July evening in 2007. A few years later, Ryan, who was working at Esquire at the time, was visiting his parents in Connecticut when he heard Dr. Petit on a radio program talking about an upcoming race that would benefit the family foundation he’d set up in his wife and daughters’ memory.

“I wanted to know, how does a person go on from this?” explained Ryan. “Esquire tells stories about extraordinary men and Bill Petit seemed like one to me. I wanted to find out more about him.” After getting the go-ahead from EIC David Granger, Ryan covered the trial of one the attackers, Steven Hayes, keeping his focus solely on how Dr. Petit was holding up. After the trial, Ryan wrote the article with the help of friends and close family members who had been approved by Petit (who declined to be interviewed) to speak on his behalf.

When Petit re-married, Ryan once again approached the idea of a sit-down with the doctor and this time, he got it. “It took a couple of years to build trust. When he finally agreed, I was told we could talk for an hour, but I was there until after midnight.” The article became the basis of the book (written on nights and weekends over the course of two years) which is a deeply moving tale of the resilience of the human spirit. “I think it was somewhat cathartic for him to talk,” said Ryan. “His wife (Christine Paluf) helped him through the silences. I feel privileged to have been able to tell his story.”

When I mentioned that I thought the book would make a great movie, Ryan told me The Hollywood Reporter recently ran an item about the availability of the film rights. So who should play Dr. Petit? George Clooney “would ace it,” said Ryan. “And Michael Keaton would be great.”

Ryan just might have the inside track to Keaton, because of their interesting exchange on the red carpet during the Oscars earlier this week. Attending as a guest for the first time (more on why later), Ryan found himself within arm’s length of the star and felt compelled to share an interesting anecdote with him. “I went up to him and told him I took my entire staff to see Spotlight and how inspiring I thought the film was.” His reaction? “He said, ‘You did what? You’re a journalist? Where do you work?” Ryan told me he recounted the whole story to Keaton, who listened intently as Ryan explained that one day out of the blue he’d decided to take his editorial team to see the film that “reminds us why we do what we do.” Still smiling at the memory he said, “I know he’s an actor, but he seemed genuinely interested.”