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A Great Reporter at Large

The Sweet Science

by A.J. Liebling, with a foreword by Robert Anasi
North Point, 267 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Rereading A.J. Liebling carries me happily back to an age when all good journalists knew they had plenty to be modest about, and were. From the 1920s through the Eisenhower years modesty was a clearly defined style in the American press, but it was already fading when Liebling died in 1963. By then what had once been “the press” had turned into “the media” and contracted the imperial state of mind, which is never conducive to modesty, whether in tsars of all the Russias or Washington correspondents.

The modest style required letting the reader know that the reporter was not godlike, as the old-time religion of “objective reporting” presumed, but merely another frail human, maybe too woefully human to be entirely trustworthy. This meant establishing the individual reporter’s presence in the material, in violation of the old rule that the reporter was to be read, but never sensed.

Liebling was almost always present in his reporting. It is a way of treating readers with respect. A glimpse of the party who is doing the reporting helps the reader judge how far he can be trusted. Liebling almost always made his presence felt, conceding that he was capable of error, sometimes winking to let the reader know he might be improving the story with a little original invention, provided the story was anything but serious.

The modest style meant reporting a great deal that was anything but serious. It assumed that life itself, while serious enough, heaven knows, was too intractable a subject for journalism’s paltry tools and was best left to clergy, philosophers, and poets, with occasional help from Henry Luce. Whereas modern journalism’s taste in subject matter runs to the cosmic, the modest style favored subjects of no great consequence.

Here is a basket full of Liebling books, some of them reissued in observance of his hundredth birthday this October 18, and one a big new collection titled Just Enough Liebling. His subjects include prizefighting, France, eating, the newspaper business, small-time Broadway hustlers, New York City, and himself when young. He also wrote one of the most entertaining political books ever, The Earl of Louisiana. And during World War II he produced combat correspondence from North Africa and Normandy and accounts of daily life under siege in Paris, Britain, and the French countryside.

For those unfamiliar with Liebling a good place to start is in Just Enough Liebling, the big new anthology of pieces that covers most of the territory, including even a small sampling from The Earl of Louisiana and a bit of his press criticism, as well as excerpts from his books on boxing, Broadway low-lifers, and his student days in Paris. Best of all, it includes a big chunk of his World War II correspondence, among them “Westbound Tanker,” about a six-week-long Atlantic convoy crossing aboard a Norwegian tanker, and “Quest for Mollie,” about a soldier killed in combat. Both are journalism at the top of its reach.

War of course was a subject of great consequence, but the stories were still told without resort to the doom-fraught voice. Describing the experience of being strafed by German fighter planes on an open runway, he stayed in the modest vein:

As soon as there was a lull in the noises overhead, I got up and ran toward the edge of the runway to get away from the transports, but more noises came before I made it, so I flopped again. After they had passed, I got up and ran off the runway. I saw a soldier in a fine, large hole nearly six feet deep. He shouted, “Come right in, sir!” You can have Oscar of the Waldorf any time; I will always remember that soldier as my favorite host.

The style came close to perfection when the subject was boxing. Preparing to cover a heavyweight fight between young Rocky Marciano and an aging Jersey Joe Walcott, Liebling conducted preliminary interviews with well-informed sources, coming at last to the office of Marciano’s manager, Al Weill. It has been recently relocated from a West Side building overlooking Broadway to the Hotel Lexington on “the more fashionable East Side, as befits the manager of the heavyweight champion of the world, but it doesn’t smell right yet,” he observes. “It takes a heap of smoking to give a hotel suite the atmosphere of a humidor.”

Weill, smoking a cigar, says he is waiting for long-distance calls from Pittsburgh, Providence, Honolulu, and Salt Lake City. “A prizefight manager will never admit he is waiting for a telephone call that costs less than a dollar,” Liebling writes. He notices that Weill is wearing

a white-on-white shirt, fresh that morning—an evidence of prosperity—while his chief assistant was in not-so-white-on-not-so-white, out at the elbows. A prizefight manager’s assistants assist him in waiting for telephone calls, especially when he goes out for coffee. Sometimes they inherit his shirts.

Mr. Weill, aware that I don’t smoke, offered me a cigar and…

And so on. This violates at least a half-dozen of the laws laid down to freshmen in journalism school, and it is an exquisite piece of reporting.

Nowadays journalism’s tonier spokesmen tend to think of Liebling’s time as a period when the work was great fun but not really very good or, more likely, “not very professional.” (Since the onset of the imperial style the help often think of themselves as “professionals” instead of hired hands.) Yet it produced reporters whose work combined literary quality and reportorial skill to a degree rare in today’s journalism. A few of the more elegant examples, besides Liebling, included Alva Johnston, Meyer Berger, St. Clair McKelway, Joseph Mitchell, Homer Bigart, Eric Sevareid, Red Smith, and, later, Murray Kempton. All came out of the daily newspaper grind when the pay was poor and the work slightly disreputable. In the gaudy Twenties and the threadbare Thirties good men (and almost all were men in those decades) flocked to it anyhow.

Stanley Walker, the celebrated city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, thought they were attracted because newspaper work was

like attending some fabulous university where the humanities are studied to the accompaniment of ribald laughter, the incessant splutter of an orchestra of typewriters, the occasional clinking of glasses, and the gyrations of some of the strangest performers ever set loose by a capricious and allegedly all-wise creator.

In his opinion anyone who did not enjoy newspaper work after three months of experience was not made for it and ought to quit.

The mind-set that made modesty the generation’s dominant journalistic style was concisely expressed in Walker’s 1934 book, City Editor: true, newspaper work was serious business with great public responsibility, and no one should forget it, Walker wrote, but it also required an understanding “that existence is primarily a droll affair, with the horse laugh predominant not only to the grave, but after the will is read.”

Today’s journalists take themselves more seriously than Stanley Walker would have thought wise. This explains why people with respectable press credentials turn up so often on television nowadays expatiating, denouncing, fuming, shouting, snarling, sneering, and issuing oracular pronouncements, with never the slightest grin of embarrassment. No one who thinks of existence as primarily a droll affair can watch these theatrics without a horse laugh, yet many an ostensibly reputable journalist connives in staging them. So much for modesty.

How did it come to this? Well, once television transformed “the press” into “the media” and after The Washington Post demonstrated that journalism can be mightier than a president of the United States, the modest style was done for. Television, with its roots in advertising and show business, thinks of modesty the way Count Dracula thinks of sunrises.

The Post‘s work on the Watergate story was one of print journalism’s finest moments, but it spawned a sullen combative mood in other newspapers which had been scooped because they slept while Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, and Katharine Graham toiled. Suddenly government corridors swarmed with reporters itching for a fight with City Hall, though preferably the White House. Richer newspapers created “investigative reporters” to get the goods on felonious and lubricious politicians. Journalists began thinking of themselves as knight-protectors of the moral order.

Any suspicion that existence might be a droll affair was hard to sustain once everybody began trying to do something heroic for the First Amendment. In thrall to uplift, newspapers and TV journalism inevitably took on certain high-minded attitudes of the public-relations business, and suddenly the TV screen and the morning newspaper were hiring politicians, ex-politicians, temporarily out-of-work politicians, and for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder politicians to deliver news and comment, not to mention young gunslingers with J-school credentials hungry for medals.

Farewell, pale modesty.

And then of course apology-and-correction became a new journalistic art form.

Liebling was not much interested in hounding government malefactors. The only institution he viewed with constabulary vigilance and reformer’s zeal was journalism itself. “The Wayward Press,” his column of press criticism in The New Yorker, sometimes held the newspaper world up to gentle laughter, but its normal critical scan ranged from scorn to contempt.

His highest respect was reserved for the “careful reporter,” and his cruelest mockery for those who wrote in the overblown style descended from Hearst and Pulitzer. One specimen, whom he casually dismisses as “a figure-of-speech man,” writes that “the most amazing, durable antique in the museum of mayhem” (a thirty-nine-year-old boxer named Jersey Joe Walcott) is unlikely to defeat “the bull-like king of clout from Brockton, Mass., who strikes with the terrifying might of Thor and lightning suddenness of Ajax” (Rocky Marciano).

Still, “this was just about the way I saw things,” writes Liebling. It was the wretched writing that Liebling belittled, not the writer’s ideas.

Journalism produced a few characters he could not abide, including most newspaper publishers. Here, written fifty years ago, is his comment on another, one who in our own time has become inescapable:

There are three kinds of writers of news in our generation. In inverse order of worldly consideration, they are:

  1. The reporter, who writes what he sees.

  2. The interpretive reporter, who writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning.

  3. The expert, who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.

All is manifest to him, since his powers are not limited by his powers of observation. Logistics, to borrow a word from the military species of the genus, favor him, since it is possible to not see many things at the same time. For example, a correspondent cannot cover a front and the Pentagon simultaneously. An expert can, and from an office in New York, at that.

The initials stood for Abbott Joseph; in his own circle he was “Joe.” David Remnick’s introduction to Just Enough Liebling tells us that his mother came from a well-heeled San Francisco family and his father immigrated penniless from Austria and went into the fur trade. Liebling himself summarizes his father’s life in a single sentence: “His parents had brought him to America when he was eight years old; he went to work at ten, opened his own firm at twenty-one, started being rich at thirty, and died broke at sixty-five.”

His father’s money offered Liebling a comfortable life, but he seemed aimless. He was expelled from Dartmouth for cutting chapel too often. He entered Columbia’s journalism school, whose program, he later said, had the intellectual weight of “a training school for future employees of the A&P.” Remnick says he used Columbia mostly to study French, while translating French erotica “on the side.” He eventually became so fluent in the language that his dying words were said to have been spoken in French, though nobody knew what they meant.

There were beginner jobs with newspapers: The New York World, which turned into the World-Telegram; The New York Times, where he briefly apprenticed in the sports department; and The Providence Journal. He was thirty when he started working on Harold Ross’s staff at The New Yorker. The year was 1935. He had already, in 1926–1927, spent the year in Paris that changed his life, and at The New Yorker he found his distinctive voice. Luc Sante, in his introduction to the new paperback reissue of The Telephone Booth Indian, credits the assistance of St. Clair McKelway.

Liebling’s first New Yorker success was a profile of the Harlem religious figure Father Divine, in which McKelway was his collaborator. After that he only got better. For the next twenty-five years he wrote constantly, easily, and apparently with a satisfaction and pleasure uncommon among writers. Liebling’s thumbnail sketch of his father—penniless at ten, rich at thirty, broke at sixty-five—appears in perhaps the finest of all his books, Between Meals. First published near the end of his life, it is now reissued in paperback with an especially good introduction which James Salter wrote in 1986.

This is a short book (167 pages) composed mostly of articles written originally for The New Yorker. These form a delicate and longing memoir centered on his youth in Paris in the 1920s. It was not the usual tale of being young in the Paris of the Twenties. “I never heard of Gertrude Stein,” he wrote, “and although I read Ulysses, I would as soon have thought of looking the author up as of calling on the President of the Republic.”

The reader coming to Liebling for the first time may be astonished by the voluminous discussion of food, cooking, and eating. He styled himself “a man of appetite” and spoke of the stages by which one developed a “gustatory career.” Salter, a novelist with the fiction writer’s preference for vigorous diction, says he was “legendary as a glutton” by the time Between Meals appeared. Glutton or man of appetite, Liebling’s catalog of what he ate in Paris during the Twenties will make diet-conscious Americans beg for mercy: conger eel en matelote, beef heart, hot andouille and andouillette (sausages of smoked tripe), blood pudding, stews of domestic rabbit and old turkey, sheep’s tripe and calves’ feet with salt pork, suckling pig, squab, kid.

At times one suspects he may have been capable of eating it all at one sitting. He dilates on how to improve a pot au feu by adding an old pigeon or a crow. He writes with admiration of a favorite eating companion

dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot—and, of course, the fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar….

And so on, not omitting woodcock and truffles baked in ashes.

His appetite made him a difficult dinner guest. In a foreword to Liebling’s Back Where I Came From, his good friend Philip Hamburger writes that when he came to dinner, if chicken was on the menu “a chicken was ordered for all the other guests, and two chickens for Joe.”

The appetite was cultivated in Paris in 1927 when he was supposedly studying at the Sorbonne, and living frugally on monthly remittances from home. The need for financial discipline taught him how to judge restaurants. When pinched for money, he learned how to recognize a good cheap restaurant: it was one where priests often ate with priests and “sporting girls” with other “sporting girls.” These were two classes of people who “like to eat well and get their money’s worth.”

Salter’s introduction for Between Meals flirts with the psychological goings-on behind Liebling’s journey from gourmet to glutton, then sensibly leaves it alone after saying “it had become an essential part of him, a consolation, a rebellion, a plume, and in the end he destroyed himself with kidney and heart trouble and his fingers, toes, and even ears disfigured by gout.”

Between Meals was composed in these years of physical decline, and Salter gives it a novelist’s highest praise: “Though not a novel it has a novel’s grip.” He ranks it in a class with A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s late-life memoir of his own youth in Paris. Liebling’s work, however, is free of the mean-spirited tales demeaning old friends and acquaintances which put the sour edge on Hemingway’s book. Instead it contains something very close to a sentimental love story involving one of the “sporting girls” who abounded in the student quarter of Paris in 1927.

Love stories, sentimental or tough as nails, were not in Liebling’s normal line of work, so it is startling to come on this one positioned as the very last chapter of the last book he published. It is titled “Passable,” and I think he meant the word to be pronounced in French.

It helps to know first that Liebling was never a handsome fellow. Everyone who wrote about him felt obliged to make the point. Remnick, noting that he was “neither handsome nor athletic,” says that when young he was “plump and pigeon-toed, and had tiny, delicate hands,” and in middle-age “crowned his avoirdupois with thick-lensed, wire- rimmed spectacles and a bowler.”

Salter, who did not meet him until 1960, and then very briefly, thought he was shy and walked like a man in pain, “as if his feet were too dainty for the rest of the architecture.” The eyeglasses were still thick and wire-rimmed, and “his bald head seemed a little battered, like an old pie plate.”

Gardner Botsford, a World War II officer with the First Division in France, saw Liebling dressed for combat coverage and described him in his memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly:

The only Army pants big enough to button around the magisterial paunch left him with a vast, drooping seat behind, a flapping void big enough to hold a beach umbrella. The legs of the pants were tucked into knee-high gaiters left over from the Spanish-American War, leading to a pair of thin-soled lounge-lizard civilian shoes. Other correspondents generally tried to look more military and more warlike than any soldier—parachutists’ boots, aviators’ scarves, tankers’ jackets—but Liebling was not one to pretend. He was a correspondent, not a soldier, and he looked it.

Passable” begins as a defense against suggestions that he did nothing but eat during his student year in Paris. Thinking back, he recalls having done a good bit more. In those days young men liked women, he recalls:

We did not fear emasculation. We had never heard of it…. Havelock Ellis was the sage who made authority in the dormitories. Freud had not yet seeped down to the undergraduate level. Molly Bloom was the pin-up girl of the nouvelle vague, and we all burned to beat out Blazes Boylan.

The sporting girls of the Boulevard Saint-Michel were not “serious” operatives, though they might later be, once they moved from the Latin Quarter and fell under the power of pimps and the police. In the Boul’ Mich’ they were “brisk rather than chic.” He writes:

To one I owe a debt the size of a small Latin American repub-lic’s in analysts’ fees saved and sorrows unsuffered during the next thirty-odd years. Her name was Angèle. She said: “Tu n’es pas beau, mais t’es passable.” (“You’re not handsome, but you’re passable.”)

He still seems a little flustered by this great moment of long ago when Angèle “gave me the good word.” He thinks himself lucky because she hadn’t said, “You’re marvelous.” No man should hear that until he is old enough to “evaluate” it, he reflects. But to be pronounced passable!

My brain reeled under the munificence of her compliment. If she had said I was handsome I wouldn’t have believed her. If she had called me loathsome I wouldn’t have liked it. Passable was what I hoped for. Passable is the best thing for a man to be.

He does not say this was the start of a beautiful love affair: he was utterly incapable of sentimental banality. But what else are we to make of the following?

After that I was with her often. I do not know if she had a heart of gold, but she had what I learned long years later to call a therapeutic personality. She made you feel good.

Now a man of sixty years and failing health, he tells us that trying to describe a woman from a few fragmentary memories of the remote past is impossible. Yet he recalls her so vividly that the reader can easily visualize her.

He tries to remember her weight—he thinks “118, give or take two pounds.” Her legs were “well-tapered” though “a trifle short,” and “her round head a trifle large for good proportion with her torso, in which there was no room for improvement”—“solid Renoir.” She had clear skin, a sweet breath, a snub nose broad at the base, and was “well-joined—the kind of girl you could rough up without fear of damage.” Her large eyes had sable pupils, her mouth was wide, her hair a black soup-bowl bob.

This is surely the work of a man who has not forgotten a single thing about a woman he loved thirty-five years ago and can never forget. And it began with what he calls Angèle’s “concession” that he was passable. That pronouncement, he writes, is still “wrapped around my ego like a bulletproof vest riveted with diamonds.”

Angèle died of the flu in the winter of 1927–1928 while Liebling was back in the States working in Providence. Years later, visiting Paris, he reminisced about her with an aged hotelkeeper who had known them both. The old man remembered her too and said it was a pity she had died, adding, “How well she was built!”

Liebling tells us he replied, “She was passable.” The old man seemed to think this was “a trifle callous,” Liebling writes, “but he did not know all that passable meant to me.”

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