This is one in a series of reminiscences by staff members of The New York Review of Books about their time working at the magazine.
I was hired as an intern at The New York Review during my last month as an undergraduate, when the previous intern was abruptly deported. After interviewing at the old office on 56th and Broadway, I started work during the first week in our light-filled place on Hudson Street, in the spring of 2008. Bob’s desk, for the only time in my tenure, had only two or three hundred pieces of paper on it. My task the first week was to restore the office’s idiosyncratic book collection to the shelves in some semblance of the order they’d previously been in. Since I’d never worked in the old office, this was difficult. “Where’s my Fowler’s?” Bob would say, and, I, not realizing this is the book that makes The New York Review possible, would tell him that it was on the top shelf of the bookcase, then stand on a precarious chair to get it as precious press week seconds ticked away. This process continued for approximately the entire length of my three-year tenure.
This was a period of transition for the magazine. Sasha Weiss and Hugh Eakin were plotting the launch of a New York Review blog, despite the fact that some of our contributors were still mailing us pieces written on typewriters. When calling writers, one would first consult the nascent electronic database, then flip doggedly through ancient rolodexes, pausing, wide-eyed, at things like James Baldwin’s number in Turkey before flipping to the number of the requested (living) person. I was amazed to find pieces being hand-edited by Bob and the other editors and assistants—it was like His Girl Friday, but less funny and more stressful, and with a constant stream of requests to Google things.
I arrived in the midst of election season, as a rotating series of writers tried to cram as much up-to-date political information as they could into pieces with inflexible print deadlines. I remember watching Sarah Palin’s first speech as the vice-presidential nominee with Bob and the rest of the staff. “Who is this awful woman?” Bob said. “She really does seem rather sinister, doesn’t she? Call Janet Malcolm.” And so we did. I remember trying to find appropriate lodging for Joseph Lelyveld near the Republican convention, and the gloomy panel we held at the Brooklyn Book Festival at which all of our chosen contributors, save for Darryl Pinckney, predicted an Obama defeat and the end of the Republic as we knew it.
The strangest experience of my early tenure at the Review involved one of our most widely read pieces of that time. Mark Danner had gotten hold of the confidential Red Cross report on torture of detainees by the CIA, and we were scrambling to go to press with the first of his pieces describing its contents. No one knew that we had this, and there was genuine worry that our phones and e-mails would be monitored and that we’d all be hauled in for treason. Bob wanted to give an advance version of the story to The New York Times, but didn’t want to send it over e-mail. What to do? Of course: send the intern! I was given cab money and a folder containing the article in a paper bag. I met the Times editorial page editor on a street corner in Union Square, where he’d been waiting in the rain, as directed, under a black umbrella. “I feel like Deep Throat,” he said. It was an exciting piece of spycraft, whether it was necessary or not. A few months at The New York Review and there I was, leaking torture memos. Somehow, this scene didn’t make it into Zero Dark Thirty.
As it was in the beginning and probably ever shall be, we assistants (I got promoted as a result of the biannual assistant ship-jump) acted as a collective brain, popping up from our open cubicles with obscure information upon request and self-enforcing a steady rotation to handle e-mail and letter dictation. Certain contributors seemed to enjoy writing their pieces in real time over the phone, and I learned to master the art of putting in their dictated changes while simultaneously typing up Bob’s memos. Daniel Mendelsohn, on more than one occasion, brought the assistants fancy chocolates to thank us for putting up with his extensive changes.
I learned so much, so quickly at the Review that much of it didn’t become clear until later. But what I know about editing and writing I learned there, and I’ll always be grateful to the editors and assistants and typesetters who taught me in the midst of that exciting chaos. The friendships I made at the Review stayed intact, even after I moved to Montana and my former assistant-mates went to work for magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. One of the typesetters even became the fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal, yet I still return his calls. NYRB loyalties die hard.
A lot happened in my years at the magazine, but the defining image of the Review’s atmosphere as I remember it is Bob holding an office phone to one ear and his cell phone to the other, attempting, as I recall, to keep the Warhol Foundation from suing us as we went to press with a piece on their authentication practices. The Review was always for fighting something, and I hope it always will be.
Andrew Martin worked at The New York Review from 2008 to 2011. He is completing his MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana.