A Life of Privilege, Mostly
by Gardner Botsford
St. Martin’s, 260 pp., $24.95
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 …