30 Years at The Atlantic: A Tribute to Avril Cornel

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>Her desk overlooked Marlborough Street and was, in turn, overlooked by a dour marble bust of Charles W. Eliot, perpetually adorned with natty seasonal accessories: knitted mufflers, straw hats, aviator shades, Christmas lights. Visiting luminaries and Pulitzer Prize winners were brought up short by the sight of our jaunty mascot: what was with the sunglasses? Did we not take ourselves seriously here at The Atlantic (Monthly)? Did we not have a grand and glorious tradition to uphold?

Well, yes...but. There was room at the magazine for other things, too, matters of equal concern to the souls treading the planks of the storied halls: friendship and romance, empathy and merriment, holiday parties, birthday lunches, fashion consultations, advice for the lovelorn, consolation.

For 30 years, Avril Cornel was The Atlantic's string of glittering lights. From desks on Marlborough, Boylston, and Washington Streets, close at hand to editors Robert Manning, William Whitworth, Michael Kelly, and Cullen Murphy, Avril saw to it that the joys and sorrows of the moment were not crowded out by the drive toward the future or the weight of the past.

Thirty years. At the beginning of which, everybody smoked at their desks, used carbon paper in their typewriters, went home at six or seven at the latest, and spent hours every day walking around to other people's offices, picking things up and dropping them off, chatting about work and just about everything else. And at the end of which, there weren't too many offices to walk to, writers and editors alike working by email at all hours of day and night, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the bust of Charles W. Eliot. Not smoking, of course. And not having two-hour birthday lunches. Avril haunted Filene's Basement, now a hole in the ground. She bought shoes. She endured with grim wit the cancer that nearly took her life, twice. She didn't live for her work. She lived for her husband and family and friends, for time in New Hampshire, in Florida, on the boat, in England. In between, she planned parties, advised fretful authors, tracked down checks, swept up the lonely, counseled the drifting, and generally functioned as the living, beating heart of The Atlantic. She will be missed.

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Maureen Foley, a former staff member at The Atlantic, is a screenwriter and filmmaker. She wrote and directed American Wake and the award-winning Home Before Dark.

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