The Greatest Stories Never Told

Some of the most delicious unpublished journalism gets passed around like a secret handshake

The leads whisked through the newsroom faster than … well, really fast. "It was terrifying," the metropolitan reporter David Dunlap, since revealed to be the talented wiseacre, remembers. "By the end of the afternoon Abe Rosenthal [then the editor] himself had been shown them." As a friend of mine who savored off-color limericks about Leonid Brezhnev's daughter—supplied by British intelligence—when he enjoyed a top security clearance once opined, "The narrower the audience, the more potent the satire."

Almost every newspaper or magazine generates tiny gems that circulate clandestinely. New Republic staff- ers remember "Marty's Nightmare Table of Contents," listing stories that the editor and publisher Martin Peretz would least like to see in print. (No one has a copy, so I am left to imagine the headlines: "Israel Cedes West Bank, Jerusalem; 'The Arabs Were Here First,' Sharon Admits.") Some at The New York Review of Books have held on to faded copies of a February 10, 2000, letter to the editor from Theodore John Kaczynski, "04475-046 U.S. Penitentiary Max," better known as the Unabomber. In three neatly handwritten pages Kaczynski commented on an exchange of letters about psychoanalysis, asserting, inter alia, that "it would be surprising if the field had reformed itself in a sufficiently fundamental way to become a genuine science." The letter was never published.

The wits at The New Yorker naturally generated much material for what Ivan Turgenev, facing czarist censorship, called "the desk drawer." A classic example is the forty-five-page "Sophiegimbel book," formally titled Style: A Mnemonic Narrative in Twenty-Six Chapters With Epilogue. Style was a send-up of the magazine's talmudic stylebook, which until the early 1990s could be viewed only by a select group of staffers. A typical injunction was "Indicate a proscribed word thus: '---- off,' he said. (hyphens) Do not use asterisks." Spelling was deliciously idiosyncratic: "electric-light bulb," "eyeopener," "eying."

As part of post-William Shawn glasnost the copy editor Lindsley Cameron jawboned many colleagues, including Roger Angell, Charles McGrath, and Elizabeth Macklin, into writing twenty-six short stories, each one starring the fictional copy editor "Sophiegimbel." Each story had to use every stylebook entry for a given letter, in the order in which they occurred in the manual. "Sophiegimbel" is itself a New Yorker stylebook relic, being the correct spelling of a 1930s trademark for couture made by Sophie Gimbel, who married into the department-store family and cut Lady Bird Johnson's memorable red coat-and-dress combination for the 1965 inauguration. "Miss Gould"—the legendary, recently deceased editor Eleanor Gould Packard—"was the only person who remembered what the word was," the former librarian Craig Smith says.

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Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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