Fit to Print: The Changing “Times”

On the morning of March 3, 1972, readers of The New York Times were detained by a front-page story somewhat longer than the account of the Nixons’ final day in China. With no little astonisment I noticed that the face on page one, replacing the perpetually amused Mrs. Nixon’s, was my own.

The shook of recognition absorbed, I girded for enlightenment; but am still in the dark about the scoop: why the story was considered of any, let alone national and international, importance. What it pretended to be about was a book of ex-secretary-type memoirs by a former employee of Stravinsky’s impugning the impression I had given of his later years. But since this Book of Revelation had not yet been published, since most of the writings in which “my” Stravinsky had been formed were either remaindered or out of print, and since the story itself was a lot less than compulsively readable, why was it treated as “hard” news?

Why, above all, since the story patently avoided any claim to credence, had the Times failed to check the facts—the erroneous statement concerning Stravinsky’s will, for example, that being a matter of public record? After all, when a newspaper publishes a wholly irresponsible piece in a comparatively specialized field, one wonders how reliable it can be in the chaos of public affairs. But instead of verifying its informant’s facts the Times offered a paragraph of her rodomontade (a “Wellesley graduate, cumlaude“) and affidavits by two character witnesses, one of whom testified that the author, Lillian Libman, “seemed to know Stravinsky quite well,” the other that she and Stravinsky “were devoted friends,” a conclusion he had had singularly little opportunity to reach.

To conclude the personal side of my adventure, I am bound to say that somehow interest in me was not sustained, and that by March 4 I was both demoted to page 18 of the Times and abandoned by the Daily News.

Publication of books by synopsis in the Times is not an ideal method. The author’s purpose is inevitably bent to the paper’s, whose dupe he or she becomes. Thus, in synopsis, Miss Libman’s book Music at the Close appears to be about everything but. A new trend in publishing may have been born, however, as other authors follow Miss Libman retailing first drafts to the Times, and in effect scooping themselves. But how do publishers obtain such books in the first place? How do they delude the never-before writer into trying that opportunistic book whose indispensable condition is the betrayal of trust? Is it merely by preying on a susceptible ego?

Not that it is considered unethical any more for a confidante to sell the confidences of her employer, to expose the weaknesses and imperfections which for some reason are always more reprehensible in accused than accuser. Nor is the bond of the paid relationship the only one no longer honored. Consider the thriving literature of kiss and tell …

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Letters

Stravinsky April 20, 1972