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Putting the Show Together

Renata Adler, in her spirited book Gone, pays this compliment to the editing skills of her longtime New Yorker colleague Gardner Botsford, the author of this appealing memoir:

A third kind of writer might require judicious, in fact, perfect cutting, to remove what is extraneous, to reveal a well-formed piece. For this kind of writer, most writers, there was no better editor than Gardner Botsford. He cut for clarity, humor, form.

Besides being a gifted editor, Mr. Botsford is also a reliable friend. When Ms. Adler, somewhat incongruously, gets arrested in a subway sweep, she is allowed the customary one phone call. She makes hers to Gardner Botsford, who is there waiting at the police academy when Ms. Adler and her fellow prisoners roll up.

Gardner Botsford first worked at The New Yorker in 1939, but was fired after a mere two weeks, tainted by the fact that his mother had once been married to Raoul Fleischmann, whose family published The New Yorker; despite all the good work Mr. Botsford was to do for the magazine, this taint remained, causing certain suspicious noses to wrinkle more than forty years later, when the nearly decade-long Battle of the Shawn Succession raged in the New Yorker offices on West 43rd Street. This battle, of course, centered on the struggle of the second of the great New Yorker editors, William Shawn, to keep his job at an age when many would be happy just to keep their teeth.

In the “Mostly” part of his memoir—the World War II part, when he was not conspicuously privileged—Mr. Botsford, a lieutenant in the infantry, lands on Omaha Beach, survives the Battle of the Bulge, and pushes on to the Rhine and beyond. He doesn’t discount the horrors of war, but his pages about World War II—particularly his account of skipping off to experience the liberation of Paris—have a fine, insouciant tone that vanishes when he comes to describe the last tense years of the Shawn New Yorker.

From his calm response to Renata Adler’s unexpected plight, it might be guessed that Gardner Botsford is a thoroughly urbane man, and yet I doubt that he would have the slightest difficulty making conversation with the mythical little old lady from Dubuque (or was it Peoria?) whom Harold Ross—the first great New Yorker editor—said The New Yorker would not be edited for. As a trans-Mississippian myself, that position has always seemed a little cruel. It’s us trans-Mississippians that really need The New Yorker. New Yorkers, after all, have the wondrous city itself, to which the greatest magazine imaginable would be only a bead on a bracelet of glories. Mr. Botsford’s mother, though she led a highly sophisticated life, came from Quincy, Illinois, no Paris. Her sons took her (or, at least, her ashes) back to Quincy, too, though not without a slip-up in Chicago:

Quincy was a dead end; the train had to back across the river bridge to reach the station, since there was only one way in and one way out, and nothing improved over the years. In 1950, when Steve and Peter and I took our mother’s ashes to Quincy for burial, we still had to lay over for half a day—a Sunday at that—in Chicago…. That layover almost lost us our mother. Chicago is not a great place to spend half a Sunday if you have nothing to do. We dispiritedly wandered the streets for a while, carrying Mother in her urn, and when we came across a movie theater where the stage show was just about to start, we bought tickets and went in. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and the theater was empty except for the three of us and maybe five other people, all of whom seemed to be asleep. The lights went down, the curtain went up, and there on stage was Orrin Tucker’s sixteen-piece orchestra doing its stuff. The MC, wearing a dinner jacket and throwing smiles all around the empty house, loped in from the wings to introduce the star attraction—Wee Bonnie Baker, who would sing her top-o’-the-charts hit, “If I’d Known You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake.” And out sailed Wee Bonnie, in a bouffant evening dress and outsmiling even the MC. Orrin Tucker, frantic with joy and energy, waved his baton at his employees, and Wee Bonnie, now flirtatious, now adorable, sang her wee heart out, for her audience of eight, most of them asleep. The whole thing was so disorienting that when we left (we skipped the movie), we forgot Ma in her urn under one of the seats, and had almost got back to the station before somebody remembered….

I quote that passage at length because it seems to me to indicate more or less what phase of The New Yorker Mr. Botsford most naturally belonged to; I’ll include this bit about bootleggers for the same reason:

Of far more concern to our household and to every other law-defying household in the country was the authenticity, or at least the medical benignity, of the bootleggers’ wares. Where today the chief topic of conversation at cocktail and dinner parties is real estate, then it was booze and its provenance. Having a bootlegger of moral integrity was more important than having a good cook…. As everyone knew, there was much skullduggery afoot, and it could crop up anywhere. When Richard Whitney, the well-known Harvard oarsman, Wall Street grandee, and ornament of the Social Register, went to jail for chicanery in the stock market, an auction of his effects was held at his great country estate in New Jersey, and I attended it with my mother. I wanted to buy his Harvard oar…but my mother had more catholic tastes. She had her eye on five unopened cases of Johnnie Walker Scotch…. She reasoned that anyone bearing the Whitney name would have had an honest bootlegger, possibly even a titled one, and she bought the lot. We opened a bottle when we got home, and it was full of tea. So were a third of the other bottles. Nor did I get my oar. I was prepared to go as high as ten dollars for it, but it went for many hundreds, bought in by a Harvard alumnus, presumably to save it from infidel hands….

Mr. Botsford went to Yale.

The tone as well as the subjects of such reminiscences—and there are many like them—suggest the late-Ross, early-and-middle Shawn periods, when some of the writers Gardner Botsford most enjoyed editing—A.J. Liebling and Janet Flanner particularly—were at the top of their respective games. Mr. Botsford quotes Liebling’s conclusion about Harold Ross:

He couldn’t write as well as Thurber or Joseph Mitchell, or draw as well as Steinberg. But he had his own greatness—he put the show together….

Much later, at the beginning of the endgame, The New Yorker‘s new owner, S.I. Newhouse, complimented William Shawn, the editor he was about to dismiss, by praising him to Renata Adler as a “technician,” by which it seems he meant that Shawn, too, put the show together, week after week through the decades getting a lively magazine out.

Once one commits oneself, even cautiously, to New Yorkerology there are a lot of books to read, more than half a dozen about Ross and an equal number largely about Shawn. The first thing that strikes one is that even so-so writers, such as Ross’s ex-wife Jane Grant, have no difficulty bringing Harold Ross alive on the page. The great political reporter Richard Rovere suggests why this should be so:

Ross was all of a piece, and what he was showed in his appearance, his dress, his voice, his idiom. Almost everything about him was on the exterior, visible and audible. Nothing of the sort is true of Shawn.

Several good writers have certainly tried to capture William Shawn on the page, but mostly he eludes them. That many of his writers loved him is clear, the love possibly engendered in the intimacy of one-on-one editing, perhaps his greatest skill. In the last phase he becomes so entwined in his own legend that, at times, he seems like a character from Henry James’s last phase—a distant figure, only to be glimpsed through a thicket of nuance and adumbration.

But, in fairness, if you step away from the ever-expanding literature of the succession struggle and track Shawn back into the more tranquil climes of the Sixties, Fifties, Forties, a no-less-professional but more workaday editor appears. While Ross was alive Shawn was always the normal one and Ross the maddening one. Edmund Wilson fired off plenty of letters to Shawn, telling him what he wanted to write about and when. The two men probably frustrated each other from time to time, but Wilson needed the money and Shawn needed the writer; much got written, and there was no holy water involved. The only odd thing in Wilson’s diaries is a reference in The Forties to a false retirement that Shawn seems to have contemplated in 1947. There was an office debate about what sort of present to get him, but in the end he was only “retired” for one day.

Gardner Botsford, like most other staffers, was much troubled by the conflicts that began to surface in the late Seventies, when the question of Shawn’s successor could no longer be ignored. Part of the interest in this memoir is that Mr. Botsford came from the editing, rather than the writing, side of the magazine. The ancient taint of the Fleischmann connection surfaced again; and then this was rumored and that was rumored and Mr. Shawn said this and someone else said that…and so on. It reads now like a Lear drama: an old lord doesn’t want to go; there are plots, counterplots, betrayal within the family, treachery, disorder. The world has seen it all before, and in many spheres. Winston Churchill didn’t want to go either; but, inevitably, either an election or a new boss or the Reaper insists on the departure. In this case Shawn went, and Robert Gottlieb arrived from Knopf, to paddle in troubled waters, at least at first.

From the viewpoint of a longtime reader what’s interesting is not that the magazine ultimately changed—Tina Brown came whistling through on her breezy drive from The Tatler to Talk and saw to that—but that, because of Shawn’s tenacity, it hadn’t changed sooner and more. The anarchic humor that first distinguished the magazine was, by the Eighties, mainly to be found in the cartoons; pomposity was a not infrequent visitor. Certainly, for decades, the magazine changed less than the city it reflects and describes. Joseph Mitchell’s fine career ended with a long silence; was he blocked or was it just that the parts of town he loved and the kinds of people he found there when he first began to work were gone, never more to be seen? Old Mr. Flood couldn’t live forever, and neither could Colonel Stingo, the honest rainmaker, or the Earl of Louisiana or the other eccentrics A.J. Liebling liked to write about when he wasn’t writing about food or France or both.

Lamenting the passing of a beloved editor is easy to sympathize with; sadly, for mortals, the passing parade actually passes, but for reporters in one of the greatest cities on earth there will always be not merely more parades but every other sort of wonder as well. In its more than three quarters of a century The New Yorker has left us feisty reports on a huge variety of events and happenstances. Why shouldn’t it still? If anything’s missing now it may be mainly the feist. The present editor, David Remnick, is a good feisty writer himself, but how much writing can he do while perched on the Throne of Shawn?

Mr. Botsford is a delight to read because, despite the pain of Shawn’s last years as editor, it is clear that once much fun was had in those offices on West 43rd Street. For a good long stretch of time, from the Thirties at least to the end of the Seventies, many of those who worked at The New Yorker had a work life that was not just okay. It was a work life that may have been, for journalists, as good as it gets—and to ask for more than that, from journalism or anything else, is surely to tempt the gods.

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