Remembering New Yorker magazine alum Stanley Mieses, a Talk of the Town character in his own right

My friend and mentor Stanley was one of a kind, and he opened doors for many struggling writers, including me

Published February 18, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

Photos of Stanley Mieses (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of Susan Shapiro and the Mieses estate/Getty Images)
Photos of Stanley Mieses (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of Susan Shapiro and the Mieses estate/Getty Images)

It was hard to miss Stanley Mieses, a 30-year-old staff writer in baggy black pants, Hawaiian shirt, turquoise vest and polka dot tie, in the New Yorker's staid midtown office. After he introduced himself to me on my first day as an editorial assistant in 1983, my boss Helen whispered, "Watch out for him." 

I wondered why. He seemed like a harmless, nice Jewish guy, taking me to lunch at the famed Algonquin across the street, ordering salad while sharing the merits of Weight Watchers. To a 22-year-old aspiring writer from the Midwest making $200 a week, he was a fascinating raconteur and rebel, as he chronicled being the only child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Inwood, attended Boston University and spoke Spanish and German, with Yiddish sprinkled in. He'd been a Daily News copyboy when the music columnist OD'd. 

"What do you know about rock and roll?" his boss had asked him. 

"Everything!" he'd replied. 

He was promoted to music columnist, then worked at Atlantic Records where he toured with the rock band Kiss and let The Clash's Joe Strummer crash on his couch. Stan was awed when his idol and new upstairs neighbor Miles Davis stopped by to get high (until Miles came by daily, causing Stan to tiptoe around to get work done). After he interrogated James Brown on his scandalous divorce, Brown stomped out of their interview. 

"What did you do?" I asked.  

"'If you got the story tell it. If you ain't got it, write it,'" he told me. "After that, I always asked easy questions first." It was  advice I later repeated to my writing students, along with Stan's adage, "As a journalist, be cynical of everything."  

Over several fun dates, I was initially skeptical of his tales of partying with famous people, until he showed off photos of himself dancing at Studio 54 and hanging with Kiss, called me to his office with "Happy Birthday" spelled in cocaine, and brought me to a Brighton Beach club where Cindy Lauper serenaded him on his birthday. 

His iconic Talk of the Town pieces illuminated a quirky array of New Yorkers: a Russian shoeshine guy on 42nd Street asked, "You want fixen shoes?" The choreographer of a Times Square aerobic dance marathon  wore a red T-shirt engraved with "Head Aerobe."  The accountant to the stars who wrote poems and baked cheesecake said, "I like to encourage talent."  A 73-year-old actress from Warsaw making her film debut in "Crossing Delancey" told him "In Poland, they ate Yiddish theatre with bread." A Queens high school student nicknamed Zlatko shared his budget for a new three-piece suit, shoes, ticket and corsage for his prom. Each character was infused with grit, heart and humor, like him.  

I was initially skeptical of his tales of partying with famous people until he showed off photos of himself dancing at Studio 54 and hanging with Kiss.

Unfortunately, going out with Stan (as half the single women of New York learned, it seemed) involved being constantly stood up and cheated on, so I stopped. Hurt, I feared bumping into him daily would ruin an amazing job. But a friend reminded me how smart and artistically inspiring I found him and suggested we switch from a romantic to a platonic relationship — as if that ever worked. 

Surprisingly, what he lacked as a steady suitor he immediately made up for as a mentor, friend and connector.  He elegantly edited all my amateur pitches and pieces, introducing me to the famous film critic Pauline Kael, whose office he inherited, and other staffers I admired. It was as if the high school prom king had invited the nerdy new kid to join the cool gang. 

"In 1977, George Trow was working on an endless profile of Atlantic Record founder Ahmet Ertegun when he met Stan," remembered the acclaimed author Jamaica Kincaid. "George brought him in and we became the young heart of Talk of the Town — me, Stan, George, Sandy Frazier, Mark Singer. Stan's work was original and distinctive. The New Yorker was urbane, Stan was urban. We'd never seen anything like him in the magazine before." 

"He wrote one of the greatest Talk stories of all time," recalled the Thurber Prize-winning humorist, Ian Frazier, a.k.a Sandy. "I loved it. It's called 'Neighborhood Story.' He spent months writing it, maybe years. Stanley was like the pianist character Bobby, a Borges character living only for art. The fact that Mr. Shawn published it in the anniversary issue lets us know that he loved it too." 

Each Talk of the Town character was infused with grit, heart and humor, like him.  

If Stan's clothes, prose and persona were unusually colorful for the notoriously genteel Mr. Shawn, it was editor Bob Gottlieb — who took over in 1987 — that Stan didn't click with. After 13 years, he left the magazine in disappointment, the same year I did. I was overjoyed to be hired as a weekly book columnist at Newsday — the best job I ever had.

But in 1991, after being fired, I was dejected and broke. Stan became the paper's features editor and my unlikely savior, assigning me long splashy features that dwarfed the book column. 

"Publishing well is the best revenge," he said, generously giving a shot to many newbie reporters and undergraduates in the classes I'd started teaching at night. What a second act. He was a dynamic editor — until New York Newsday folded in 1995. 

Stan rebounded again as New York Post's book editor (where he assigned me regular author profiles.) Until he was fired for running a Black musicologist's double-page spread written in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) celebrating Black History Month, apparently too lefty for the Murdoch-owned tabloid. Stan also held jobs at The Village Voice, Life, Time Out, New York and Adweek.

In 1996, a male colleague watching him horah at my Soho wedding asked, "How does a guy dressed like that get any dates?" — jealous that Stan remained catnip for women, and an ailurophile too. 

His luck and his beloved city betrayed him after 9/11 when he was forced out of his apartment near Ground Zero and diagnosed with lung disease from toxic air exposure. 

Though we'd morphed into good buddies, our biggest battle was when a protégé Stan met at my book party asked me what his story was. Wanting to protect her, I admitted, "he comes with a warning label," a message she repeated to him.

"Why would you try to sabotage me?" he yelled. 

My husband — a Knicks and Mets fan, like Stan — smoothed it over by taking him to a basketball game, where Stan regaled him with sports stats. I wound up apologizing for doubting his potential for late-lurking monogamy, guessing he was in denial about his illustrious reputation for leaving broken hearts strewn across five boroughs.

"I'm the luckiest fat man alive," Stan once told David Wallis, whom he gave a first chance for bylines at Newsday in 1993. Wallis returned the favor, giving Stan his last bylines in the New York Observer. His 2015 opinion piece decrying antisemitism in France showed a picture of his late father Janusz, an Austrian Jewish refugee forced into the French Foreign legion. After immigrating to America, he became a furrier who died in 1992. 

Stan embraced his complicated past, turning on a home movie of his Bar Mitzvah at a soiree he threw in the '90s, showing him as a chubby boy doing his Haftorah. His company, Indian Road Productions, was named after the street where he grew up. 

Yet his luck and his beloved city betrayed him after 9/11 when he was forced out of his apartment near Ground Zero and diagnosed with lung disease from toxic air exposure. 

"Publishing well is the best revenge," he said.

In 2006, he moved to Queens, setting of several of his Talk stories. There he found TLC from his neighbors, the reggae scholar Vivien Goldman and Victoria Steinberg, a fellow scribe and cat lover, if not another career act. Attempting a debut book, he started showing up to my writing workshop. I was thrilled. Alas, weeks later the pandemic made everything more difficult for someone with a pre-existing condition.

This past January, Stan was hoarse over the phone, struggling for breath. He complained his computer was broken and someone reneged on selling him their used laptop. He could only write now on his iPhone. He was stunned by my offering to buy him any new Apple he wanted. 

"Don't you remember how much work you gave me? You saved my career," I told him. "And you launched so many of my students." 

"Thanks for reminding me," he said, sounding grateful to hear how much good he'd done in the world. 

He refused a new computer but agreed to take my old MacBook Pro and we planned for my Queens IT guy to set it up for him after his upcoming doctor's appointment. Instead, at the end of January, he was admitted to Beth Israel hospital where we lost him on February 3, 2023, at 70, from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), pneumonia and COVID, despite being vaccinated and boosted. 

"His last conscious act was pulling out the intubation tube," Wallis said. "He really wanted to live." 

Replaying our final conversation about the laptop, I knew he clearly wanted to keep living and writing, for Stan the same thing. 

Since he died unexpectedly, nobody in his inner circle knew his burial wishes, debating how to find a last-minute cemetery plot in the city he adored. His cousin Gail felt his resting place should be in the Austrian-Jewish section of the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in New Jersey, near his parents, since his family and heritage meant so much to him. Stan would be happy to see so many Go Fund Me donations to cover the costs from women he'd known who remembered him affectionately, as I did.

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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