Turning out the lights on the old New Yorker

Was it Utopia? Camelot? Paradise? Or does the possibility exist that, as fine as it once was, it was still just a magazine?

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

We're guessing it will happen on Feb. 21. That was the cover date of the very first issue, 75 years ago; and even as far back as last summer, months before the New Yorker's anniversary season had properly begun, there were signs that something odd was brewing on 43rd Street.

Those unaccountable lights burning in the magazine's old, abandoned digs, those strange chills passing through the Algonquin lobby. That hyena laugh echoing through the empty street -- was that Harold Ross' laugh? Was that William Shawn's umbrella resting unclaimed every night in the stand outside the Rose Room? Oysters had been arriving bone empty from surrounding kitchens; liquor bottles were found drained with their seals untouched. That belch -- could it be A.J. Liebling's? Was that E.B. White's mustache fluttering past outside the window?

Nobody knows for sure. And while nobody knows what it might be, some say that at the stroke of midnight on Feb. 21, the New Yorker's offices will slide free from the Condi Nast building and wheel off into the night, captained by the shade of Ross, with Shawn in the first mate's chair and White at the helm -- and crewed by all who dare to sail with them. By the time business hours begin on the morning of the 22nd, the New Yorker will have landed -- and Tina Brown's feet will be sticking out from underneath, curled gruesomely in their striped stockings and ruby slippers.

Some say this is what will happen. Others say otherwise. But there's something weird gathering, all right. Call it a "buzz."

Last year, as the New Yorker's 75th anniversary drew nearer, books on the magazine began arriving in stray bursts of two or three. Now they're coming in fusillades -- from former staff writers, relatives of former staff writers, longtime fans, the New Yorker itself and even Alexander Chancellor, an English haw-haw who whooshed in and out of an editorial position a few years back. There are also two new anthologies, put together by the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, with the help of novelist Susan Choi: "Life Stories: Profiles From the New Yorker" and "Wonderful Town: New York Stories From the New Yorker." Both are excellent; the former in fact features some of the best magazine pieces ever written.

As for the rest of these books, when you look at them alongside the New Yorker memoirs of years past, they don't have much new information to offer. Renata Adler's "Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker" not only swipes the title of Gigi Mahon's 1988 report "The Last Days of the New Yorker," it covers much of the same material about the 1985 takeover of the magazine by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse. Chancellor's thing is essentially a memoir from a minor British journalist with "The New Yorker" plastered across the cover for publicity's sake. Even Yagoda's very fine "About Town" -- the first comprehensive history of the magazine -- is a triumph of research and economy that nonetheless plows furrows already worn deep by Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker" (1975); Ved Mehta's "Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker" (1998); the Ross books -- Dale Kramer's "Ross and the New Yorker" (1951), James Thurber's "The Years With Ross" (1959), Jane Grant's "The New Yorker and Me" (1968) and Kunkel's 1995 biography, "Genius in Disguise" -- Mahon's book; the E.J. Kahn books -- "About the New Yorker and Me" (1979) and "Year of Change" (1988) -- and Mary Corey's "The World Through a Monocle" (1999). With all these books already on the shelves, there just don't seem to be that many anecdotes left to dig up.

To recap all the above works, more or less: Ross was a gat-toothed vulgarian with an abiding curiosity about the world and a distinct editorial genius. His New Yorker was a "regional humor magazine" founded in the '20s on "champagne vapors." His successor, Shawn, was a shy, incorruptible man who was very good to his writers, but also arbitrary and secretive. The postwar New Yorker was a magazine of "high seriousness" that could be heart-stoppingly, defiantly boring, but upheld a standard of journalistic integrity no other American magazine has ever matched. In 1985, the New Yorker was sold by its original owners to Newhouse, the owner of Condi Nast, who in 1987 fired Shawn and appointed Robert Gottlieb editor. Gottlieb, a rowdy-dow corporate type (although a likable one), started watering down the formula right away. Then Tina Brown, a shrieking British harpy, took over in 1992, showing that Gottlieb was, if anything, a conservator. Brown wrecked the magazine's cachet gleefully and utterly -- and now the New Yorker is only a shell of what it used to be. "Gone," Adler says. "A thing of the rapidly receding past," writes Yagoda. Mehta, a rather diffuse, polite writer under even the most trying circumstances, sums up: "As long as people know how to read, they can always turn to any of the issues that came out under Mr. Shawn."

Which is all substantially true but also veers dangerously close to truism at this point. Adler's, Yagoda's and Kunkel's new volumes reexamining some of the legendry that has built up around the magazine and its first two editors each have something to recommend it over the huge number of books already available on the subject. (Adler details the often vicious office politics that festered under Shawn. Both Adler and Yagoda describe Shawn's Hamlet-like indecision over the issue of his successor. Kunkel demonstrates that far from being a vulgarian, Ross was a brilliant and capable editor.) But each also tends to add to the myth of the old New Yorker as a mist-shrouded Albion, a playground of titans, a journalistic Erewhon unique in its virtues. Do we really need to hear that story again?

In truth, the New Yorker under current editor Remnick might not be the same sacred olive grove of gravitas that it was under Shawn (or the bastion of humor that it was under Ross), but it's not all that bloody bad, either. The key difference between the Condi Nast-ified incarnation and the old New Yorker isn't one of raw quality; it's the notion that the topic -- rather than the writer or the writer's craft -- should be the gauge of a story's interest. You used to be able to sink into a fact piece on some objectively boring or inconsequential subject like a gravel mine or a semipro billiards tournament and come out of it refreshed and stimulated and feeling that you'd learned something indefinable about the world. But a topic-based piece -- the kind that sounds good when you pitch it in a story meeting -- just tells you about some damned-fool topic or other, like Steve Guttenberg or Monica Lewinsky or e-trading or whatever.

If that sort of thing suits your interests, great -- the editor is looking out for people like you. But if, like a lot of intelligent people, you're just interested in the world in general -- that is to say, if you're something like a classic postwar New York intellectual -- then the editorial process works to screen out the kind of magisterial nonfiction you most like to read. Imagine John McPhee pitching his classic "The Pine Barrens" to Brown. He's squirming in his chair, his face alight: "It's this big wasteland, see ... An enormous watershed in New Jersey, right in the middle of the industrial East! Fascinating, fascinating!" Brown, who has been fumbling absently with the handle of the ejector seat, gives it a decisive tug.

Of course, Brown, while evil, is probably human, and is now failing safely downward with her own hypermeretricious Talk magazine, rather than upward by wrecking other people's perfectly good magazines. And anyway, was the old New Yorker really such an inspiring place to work? Until recently, nobody seemed to think so. Witness the dusty old crazy house described in Gill's memoir and the eternally stuffy cloakroom of Mehta's account. Was it unique? H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan produced two magazines of comparable quality, the Smart Set and the American Mercury. Was it always readable? Uh-uh. But the New Yorker of these recent books has taken on the glamour of distance -- as well as a hint of the unrequited, the unearthly. There's unfinished business here, made keener by the passage of time.

What haunt Adler's, Kunkel's and Yagoda's books are, in part, the same qualities of suspension and lack of closure that haunted the New Yorker itself during the later Shawn years. The magazine had become so stubbornly reserved and self-silencing toward the end, so limpidly opaque and changeless, that in a way its dissolution under the Newhouse empire was like business as usual, only more so. Adler writes of the ever wraithlike Shawn hiding out in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel shortly after his removal from power in 1987. He was 80 years old and still editing the magazine sub rosa, sending copy back and forth to the writers by secret courier. He was there but not there -- fading into his retirement and, eventually, his death without firm transition.

Adler and Yagoda both mention the ethic of ironic silence that permeated the magazine during the later Shawn period, which in Yagoda's account caused writers such as Joseph Mitchell to fade into a weird half-realm of presence and absence, writing and not writing. The once prolific Mitchell (whose stunning "Mr. Hunter's Grave" Remnick includes in his "Life Stories" anthology) came regularly to the office until the eve of his death, in 1996. His typewriter could be heard clicking away every day behind his door. But for the last 32 years of his tenure as a staff writer, not a single word of Mitchell's appeared in the magazine.

Rounding out his introduction, Kunkel recalls stumbling across a cache of Ross' old office Dictaphone recordings and finishes with an odd minor-key cadence: "I sat back, turned on my tape recorder, and listened to a man dead four decades talk to me. He was dictating letters." Ross still speaks; Shawn is even more elusive now than before; and Mitchell is still absent from every new issue, right on schedule. How do you draw a firm line between "here" and "gone" when there's all this blurring at the edges?

If the New Yorker was something of an imponderable institution in its own right, it's also a symbol of the vanished world over which it presided. In "The Designated Mourner," a play by Wallace Shawn (the late editor's son), the last remaining intellectual finds himself alone in a world of consumerism and pop culture, deputized to say kaddish for his vanished comrades and, essentially, to turn off the lights when he leaves. Adler's controversial memoir has been criticized as both an instrument of revenge against the enemies she collected during her nearly 30 years at the magazine and a collection of heedless calumnies against the friends who blundered into her line of fire. In fact, it's more like "The Designated Mourner" written in acid: a jeremiad against the shallow, heedless new order that displaced the old one, both at the New Yorker and in the culture at large.

Adler paints Gottlieb as a narcissistic prat saved from ruin by a group of Shawn loyalists who "worked in obscurity to preserve the magazine" while the new editor's favorites, content to let everything fall to hell, played politics. Lillian Ross, whose own controversial book "Here but Not Here: A Love Story" detailed her 40-year affair with Shawn, comes off in Adler's account as a bullying harridan -- the bearer of the kind of "unhesitant personality" that enabled her and certain other figures to maneuver their way to prominence at the magazine whatever their real talents. These are Adler's friends. Her enemies get roughed up even harder.

Adam Gopnik, Gottlieb's unofficial deputy and the magazine's current Paris correspondent, pops up frequently as a tragicomic symbol of everything nervous, grasping and ignoble about the modern literary scene. Adler's Gopnik is a cackling sycophant, a cartoon apparatchik. She describes him blundering into a private editorial meeting:

He was stooped, literally rubbing his hands together, and blinking against the light from the window behind Mr. Gottlieb's desk. He had a few days' growth of beard. As his vision adjusted, he was astounded and clearly appalled that Mr. Gottlieb already had a visitor. If there had been music, it might have been a moment in a horror film.

The real Gopnik, it seems, is no stranger to horror tableaux. Consider this passage from a piece of his in Remnick's "Life Stories" anthology:

John Updike once wrote that, though the newcomer imagines that literary New York will be like a choir of angels, in fact it is like the Raft of the Medusa ... In New York the raft has been adrift now for years, centuries, and there's still no rescue boat in sight. The only thing left is to size up the others and wait until someone becomes weak enough to eat.

It's not a passage to arouse one's sympathies.

Adler has tried to eat her colleagues as well, most notably in 1980, with a fulminating attack piece in the New York Review of Books on Pauline Kael. But she doesn't seem to be a bully or an opportunist; she just seems to care for ideas more sincerely than she does for people and to hew to a rather Teutonic notion of principle for principle's sake. And there's a nice sense of decrescendo to "Gone." Adler closes the memoir with a passage whose melancholy suggests that this time, once the tumult over the book has died down, she expects to be left more or less broken and alone, avoided by friends and enemies alike -- left to turn out the lights when she leaves.

With all the hagiography, the caviling, the conflicting recollections and the toting up of accomplishments and transgressions in these volumes -- from Kramer's 1951 study on through to Yagoda's masterly history -- one thing is clearer now than it ever was: In the end, it's only a magazine. And if rites are still required to dismiss its ghosts, there are enough designated mourners wailing in the chapels at this point to supply a spate of future memoirists with ghosts of their own -- if only they'd turn the lights out already and go back into the world of unsexy topics and fascinating details that the New Yorker, at its best, once provided.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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