My Years At “The New Yorker”

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February 12, 2014 by jamesessj

James Thurber welcomed me to The New Yorker with a punch to the stomach. In those days that was an acceptable form of greeting, as were shouting expletives at one’s wife and flinging jars of spittle toward one’s parish priest. They were different days, you must remember. A rougher time. Yet also a gentler time, once you got past the ruptured spleens and the broken glass. No man ever spoke to me with more kindness in his voice than John O’Hara when he said, as he stood over me after collapsing a brick wall on my taxi, “You still breathin’?”

I was a cub reporter. I reported on young bears. No, that’s not true, that’s a joke they used to tell, as they were taking turns slapping me with my own hands and asking me why I was hitting myself. I’d come from Omaha, Nebraska, wet behind the ears — with my own viscera, from where my paper’s editor had caught me with the lid of a hastily-hurled tin can — because Harold Ross had seen my work and been impressed by my ability to take one on the jaw. Some of his staff writers, like Wolcott Gibbs and A.J. Liebling, couldn’t stand up to a stiff wind, and others, like E.B. White, had enough trouble just dealing with gravity. Ross wanted to toughen up the joint, so he called in Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Gould, and me.

I was nothing special, a 128-pound featherweight originally from a small town in Idaho, but I’d learned early how to receive punishment like an artillery range. A nerdy kid who liked to read novels and write poetry, I was singled out from an early age for severe lashings not only from my siblings and schoolmates, but also from the novels and poetry themselves, which resented the affiliation. I developed a thick skin — in reality layer upon layer of muslin — and by the time I entered college I could undergo a pummeling at breakfast and still be on time for my first class of the morning.

Thurber may have been testing me, when I arrived at the offices of The New Yorker on April 17, 1948. He certainly put all his strength into the blow he leveled at my midsection. If it was a test, I passed with flying colors, for I responded, not only with a spray of hemoglobin and gastric juices, but with the quip, “My World — And Welcome To It!“, which had been the title of his first book.

*   *   *

My duties initially were to empty the office trash cans and stand in front of the office dart board, but within a few months I was opening suspicious parcels and pouring coffee on my wrist to see if it was too hot. It was a measure of Mr. Ross’ growing trust, that he tasked me with these vital functions. I wrote home to my mother in late 1948, “Need more ipecac,” as I’d been given the responsibility of test-swallowing the office cleaning products to make certain they were free of carcinogens, a job that William Shawn, who would succeed Ross as editor of the magazine, assigned me when Roger Angell came down with a convenient head cold.

By March of 1949 I was doing some actual writing, if only on intake forms at Mt. Sinai. Ross had elevated me to the status of “Errand Boy,” a position whose duties involved brushing staff writers’ teeth, shining their shoes, and lint-rolling their outer garments three times a day. In this role I excelled — S.J. Perelman referred to me in a police report as “the best damn eyebrow-plucker ever to wield a tweezers.”

Yet my true ambition remained unfulfilled. I petitioned Mr. Ross on a daily basis with new ideas for “The Talk of the Town” or with ad-lib reviews of Broadway shows I’d either seen or heard about from the doorman at my apartment as he accelerated the revolving door to trap me inside and pepper me with day-old pastrami slices. Slowly I wore down Mr. Ross’ defenses, in much the same manner as my own immune system had been worn down by constant exposure to Kiwi brand shoe polish fumes. He relented on — I recall the exact day — July 17, 1949. “Kid,” he said as he whittled a badger from the raw material of my thumb, “do me up a piece on Bess Truman. Who is she, where is she, what is she, why is she?” He slapped me on the back good-naturedly, to set me on my way as a New Yorker staff writer and as a continuing patient at Sol Wasserstein’s Chiropractic Clinic & Stationery.

*   *   *

My article on the First Lady ran in the January 28, 1950 issue. I had been given very little access by the White House and had sustained multiple beatings by the Secret Service (who willfully ignored the handwritten “Press” pass given me by John Hersey), but with what scraps of reportage I was able to scrounge from the Trumans’ dry cleaner-cum-bookie I pieced together a moving portrait of the home life of the First Lady’s bunions. Mr. Ross was quite pleased with the effort — he congratulated me by shaking my hand so vigorously that my shoulder later had to be relocated — and offered me an immediate increase in insurance coverage, in addition to the title of “Page.”

*   *   *

My career aborning, I acceded to Saul Steinberg’s proposal that we room together in Chelsea. I had moved most of my stuff out of the U-Haul onto the sidewalk before realizing that the building behind me was nothing more than an elaborate painting by Saul. “View Of Your Future On 9th Avenue,” he called it. Ironic, as without Saul’s half of the rent check I was forced to spend the next ten years commuting from Harlem.

*   *   *

My next big story for the magazine was a think-piece on Sino-Soviet relations. Who should play Madame Mao, I asked, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford? J.D. Salinger telephoned me to say it was the most trenchant work of commentary he’d read since Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism.” The next time we saw one another, across the room at Sardi’s, he was kind enough to have the sommelier pour a glass of ’47 Cheval on my head.

Mr. Ross was now giving me more, and more important, assignments. I traveled to his chriopodist’s to pick up his lifts. I traveled to West 28th Street in search of a nice bouquet for his wife. I traveled to Atlantic City to take a beating in lieu of his gambling debts. And in the summer of 1951 I traveled uptown to cover the first color television broadcast by CBS (estimated to have been watched by as many as seven people), which is where I met Francine, the woman who would become my wife.

Francine was a gofer for CBS Television, a position roughly tantamount to mine at The New Yorker. Our first date was spent mostly comparing scars, and receiving fresh ones when we ran into Ogden Nash and William Paley and their wives. Francine’s dream was to be a television actress — a daring, nonsensical hope, in those early days of the medium — and she was as passionate about her dream as I was about seeing my name in print somewhere other than a restraining order. Our ambitions were, in the beginning, complementary; soon enough, however, pursuit of our individual aspirations would cause us much heartache and numerous corrective surgeries.

*   *   *

I was hiding behind Dorothy Parker’s typewriter when the news came in that Harold Ross had died. Dottie had promised to reenact the Jake LaMotta/Sugar Ray Robinson fight with me in the role of LaMotta, and I’d already used up my deductible for the month of December. We knew that Mr. Ross had been ill, but his death still came as a shock to us. His funeral was a who’s who of the literary world, each of whom tossed a rose on his coffin and a right hook at my chin.

My patron and great champion, the man who founded The New Yorker and underwrote my orthodontic bills, was gone. What would I do without him?

*   *   *

William Shawn took his place. Shawn had been managing editor for twelve years and could hold his own in a street brawl against the likes of Hemingway or Faulkner. He was a shy man, but could pull out a shillelagh when it was called for — and sometimes when it wasn’t, for instance at my wedding.

Shawn had never liked me. He’d treated me with a decency and respect that bordered on the farcical. He sent me cards when I was in the hospital and was quick to provide a commiserating ear when the vicissitudes of life paid visits to my doorstep. But he didn’t fool me. Shawn always had an angle. At my wedding, he was the one who stepped in and stopped a drunken John Updike from upsetting the punch bowl, but that was simply Updike’s way of apologizing for having invited Sylvia Plath to my bachelor party.

Shawn had it in for me, I could tell. My days at The New Yorker were numbered. When he invited me to take his place as managing editor, I refused and tendered my resignation. I had been at the magazine three and a half years.

*   *   *

Thereafter I moved from job to job. My marriage deteriorated. My morale faltered. I fell into a protracted depression. My wife left me. I could not find employment. I returned to Idaho to work my parents’ farm. It was not an easy life, not when Dad had such ready access to sharp-edged farm implements, but what alternative did I have? The Atlantic? The Saturday Evening Post? It didn’t bear thinking about.

Eventually my father died and I took over the farm. I remarried in 1967, my bride a strapping blonde of Norwegian stock who would go on to give me three children, one of whom today writes for Maxim. I send his orthopedist cashier’s checks, from time to time. My other two children are in advertising and publishing and have children and grandchildren of their own. They are happy and, within limits, healthy.

I have never returned to New York. Nor did I see any of the old guard again, before their passing. Woollcott — Cheever — Gill — Lardner — Addams — Mitchell — Maxwell — a litany of bruisers, and I have the bursitis to prove it. My only association with the magazine since my brief tenure as a staff writer came some years ago at its seventieth birthday party, when Eustace Tilly, The New Yorker‘s longtime cover mascot, set my shoe’s laces ablaze with his monocle.


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