Brief Interlude at the New Yorker

In his search for an assistant genius for the NEW YORKER, Harold Ross would try anything once. CHARLES W. MORTON, the associate editor of the ATLANTIC, was a news reporter on the BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT when he became the subject of one such experiment. The following article is the last in a series of three.

CHARLES W. MORTON

THE New Yorker’s office day began at 10 A.M., ending toward 6. I found that the hours, slightly later than the Transcript’s, were taken by the staff at both places with equal gravity; the ThurberWhite-Gibbs stratum arrived just as punctually as the others, and we seldom took the full hour for lunch. Ross was around the place at all times, rarely seen but constantly felt as an all-knowing near presence, and it was much better for a man to be there than not, if Ross happened to want him.

I saw practically nothing of other contributors and writers while I was there, but the people who worked in the office were wonderfully friendly and helpful in trying to make a newcomer feel at ease. They were remarkably few in number, in comparison with the magazine’s later roster: Thurber, White, Gibbs, who did most of the writing produced in the office and who were equally capable in editing, rewriting, condensing, and manuscript reading; Mrs. White, a first-class editor in her own right; Charles Cooke, the great fact-gathering legman who supplied much of the bizarre — and always true — detail for which the Talk of the Town stories became famous; Raymond Holden, whom I came to know scarcely at all, so heavily was he occupied with what I believe was the function of managing editor; Bernard Bergman, who seemed to be in charge of all dealings with me and who was also thought to be the managing editor, provided Holden wasn’t; Miss Terry, the office manager, unfailingly efficient and goodhumored; Whitaker, the makeup man, who was responsible for the final layout of text, drawings, and filler, widely regarded as just about the best in the business; and John Mosher, film reviewer and manuscript reader, with whom I was to share an office. Of all these, I believe the Whites and Miss Terry were still actively with the magazine some thirty years later.

What impressed me most, and still does in retrospect, was how the seemingly fragmented efforts of these diverse personalities were made to produce on schedule each week a perfect published result. An evening newspaper with four or five editions in the pre-radio days called for the maximum in speed and correctness, and even a monthly publication must live successfully with an inexorable calendar, but I doubt that anything else has quite the pace of a weekly meeting the requirements that Ross established for the New Yorker: prose of all sorts, ranging into multi-part articles of much complexity and controversial risk; comic art and captions; beautiful covers; the insistence on being topical and up-to-date, and on many occasions ahead of the daily press; reviews and departments, verse, and always the quest for more innovations, better quality, and fresh talent.

“The Madhouse on Forty-fifth Street” was a description of the New Yorker frequently heard in the early years, but I believe most of its currency was among writers and newspaper people whose work had failed to commend itself to Ross. There was certainly no sign of the madhouse in the unparalleled success of his magazine through the very bottom years of the Depression and ever since.

John Mosher and I turned up at about the same time, shortly after 9:30, on my first Monday morning. I remember him as dark, aquiline, carefully dressed, and working in complete silence save for an occasional ejaculation of disgust when he found himself reading an exceptionally bad manuscript. He was the reader par excellence, needing only the few revelatory clues, all but instantaneous, to determine whether to go on or to give up. By late forenoon he would have worked his way through a tall pile of offerings, between fifty and a hundred I judge, and he would then begin rereading his gleanings and writing them up for further comments by others.

Mosher was reading stories and articles. I would be reading, I learned, the short offerings for the Talk of the Town pages — anecdotes, tips, oddities, and to my amazement in this first experience as a manuscript reader, a large number of old jokes, many of them venerable classics, all masquerading as the bona fide personal experience or original invention of those who had sent them in. I suppose it is characteristic for a man to feel, at any given age, that his experience up to that time represents the total of all human enlightenment. Three years of news reporting had afforded me, I thought, a broad and detailed understanding of human depravity. But nothing had ever led me to expect such infamous cheating as some of our contributors were attempting. It was shocking.

My reading instructions were simple enough: any manuscript at all promising I would pass along to Bergman with a comment; to each of the others I was to clip a rejection slip, and on each slip, so Bergman suggested, write in longhand the word “Sorry” and scribble a meaningless initial beneath it. Mr. Ross, it was explained, felt this would lend a personal touch to the otherwise terse formality of the rejection slip. I followed this instruction in all cases, but it seemed to me a crazy idea at the time, and it still does: why express regret to would-be plagiarists and frauds?

The only other office duty assigned to me during those first two weeks was interviewing insistent strangers in the New Yorker’s reception room. These callers were usually women who wanted to write something for the magazine and who, untroubled by any thought of trying to make an appointment, had dropped in and demanded to see The Editor — Ross, or whatever his name was. The visitor was angered at not seeing Ross, and my own arrival as a small-bore substitute always struck her as a calculated insult. Anyone who actually would see her, the visitor seemed to feel, was not worth talking to, but so great were her generosity of mind and devotion to her craft that she would rough in her project, even to such a nincompoop as now confronted her.

No part of the project was yet on paper, it transpired, and what the visitor wanted, before sitting down to her task, was assurance that the New Yorker was eager to have her go to work on it. And what, by the way, would be the fee? These women were almost an identifiable type — expensively dressed, not bad-looking, and confident that their personal charms would more than make up for any deficiencies that their nonexistent writings might prove to have. A conversation with one of them was an exercise in mutual frustration, both parties retiring in dudgeon.

None of this work was worth anything like the wage Ross was paying me. I was worried on that score but enjoying the place immensely, and I was somewhat cheered when Ross asked me to draw up a report on the New Yorker’s book reviewing, which at that time was undoubtedly the weakest department in the magazine. I spent about four days on this assignment, bringing to bear several pages of documentation on significant omissions, the somewhat unaccountable selection of books that were reviewed, tardiness in comparison with other publications, and similar ills. I am sure, today, that Ross was much more acutely aware of these failings than I was, analyzing as he did every line in every issue, but I believe he said something encouraging to me about the report. At any rate, in the spring of 1933 Clifton Fadiman took over the department, and Ross’s troubles with that part of the magazine were over for the duration of Fadiman’s ten years in charge of it.

I AM frequently startled in retrospect by the enormous gap between my own ignorance on some given occasion and the confidence I had felt at the same time in the sophistication and the fund of experience which I was sure I possessed. I am still encountering reminders of my greenness on matters which, as a hardworking newspaperman, I felt that I understood as few others did. A glimpse that was afforded me of how the New York reporters dealt with city officials is a case in point.

The glimpse resulted from the only large assignment that fell to me at the New Yorker, an attempt by Ross to bring up to date the story of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a home on Staten Island for aged and indigent seamen. Endowment of the home came from a trust created in perpetuity by Captain Randall, a retired sea captain turned farmer, who left as its main asset his farm, which was to become valuable metropolitan real estate. Such buildings as Wanamaker’s department store, the Brevoort and Lafayette hotels, and many apartment houses in the Washington Square area were built on Randall acreage, and the value of the trust — regarded by many lawyers as the very model of muddleheaded philanthropy — stood at somewhere around $15 million by the time of the thirties. There was simply more income pouring in on the trustees than the available supply of old salts, from a diminishing merchant marine, could reasonably consume.

The trustees were all ex officio personages of the municipality: the rector of Trinity Church, the president of the chamber of commerce, as I recall them, and possibly the mayor or governor of the state as well. These seemed to be mere background figures, and the administration of the properties was carried on by salaried managers. The whole subject had been a recurring Sunday story for decades, and I began my quest by getting a few photostats from the newspaper files in the periodical room of the Public Library.

Feature stories about Snug Harbor over the years were inevitably jocose: true or false, the idea of a handful of old sailors trying to live it up on the captain’s excessively profitable endowment was too much fun to resist. All the principals, in consequence, with the exception of the superintendent of the home itself—a harmless institutional type who simply made do on whatever budget the managers allowed him — were extremely press-shy. Rumors of the managers’ fat salaries, of low rents and boons granted to tenants, and the high cost per old salt per annum were blandly ignored. No, Mr. Blank had nothing to say and was not answering questions — end of interview.

My first need, plainly, was an up-to-date map and valuations of the Snug Harbor holdings. Bergman suggested that the New Yorker’s City Hall man, whom I shall call Burton, could help me get the data from the city officials. Burton was covering City Hall for Hearst and doing odd jobs on the side for Ross; it seemed to me characteristic of Ross to have in his employ so tough and immediately effective an operator as Burton proved to be.

A quiet, wiry little man in a rumpled old suit, Burton was leaning back in a chair with his feet on a pressroom desk when I came in one midafternoon. In its furniture the room was almost as ramshackle as the Transcript city room. The man to see, Burton told me, was the comptroller of the city of New York, who had charge of all valuations and such, and he would introduce me to the acting comptroller, whose name was Prial. I suggested that we ought to make an appointment, but Burton said it would not be necessary. We walked over to the Municipal Office Building and got off the elevator at an upper floor, where we found ourselves at the threshold of a vast waiting room.

Ranged around the room were perhaps fifty men and women, waiting despondently to see the great man. They looked as if they had been waiting for years and were expecting to keep on indefinitely. Getting to see Prial was obviously slow business, and I was not reassured by the greeting we received from the receptionist, an elderly Irishman, skinny and mean, the sort of underling who bullies in the name of his master wherever he thinks it safe. There was certainly nothing impressive in our appearance, and the receptionist made no attempt to hide his contempt as we approached his desk. He did not know Burton, and Burton omitted to identify either of us.

“Prial in?” demanded Burton.

This was absurd; the receptionist seemed hardly to know which of his many choices of squelch he might most enjoyably apply. He looked us up and down derisively. “Got an appointment?” he asked. We had none, but I was hardly prepared for Burton’s answer to the question, in a voice audible to the whole room.

“Get in there, you son of a bitch,” said Burton, “and tell Prial that Burton wants to see him.”

Even more unexpected — to me — was the behavior of the receptionist. He jumped to his feet, beaming. “Oh,” he said, “are you newspapermen? Just one minute,” and off he went on the run for Prial’s office.

Prial appeared immediately in his office doorway with gestures of welcome, and the receptionist showed us in. He greeted Burton as if the Hearst reporter were a long-absent friend. He was equally solicitous, I might say almost anxious, about what I might be wanting. It would, he assured us, be ours for the asking. He listened tensely as I recited my needs: the map and a list of valuations of land and buildings. His relief, when he finally realized that what I wanted was, after all, a bit of commonplace clerical work, was noticeable: Whatever we were, we were not Trouble. He summoned secretaries, laid out the specifications, and asked me how soon I needed the material. A day or two later would have sufficed, but Burton spoke up. Tomorrow morning at ten, he said. Nothing to it, said Prial, and if the job called for some work that night, the map and list would most certainly reach me the next morning at ten, and so they did. What a milder approach might have yielded I do not know, but Burton’s particular style of toughness seemed to be just right.

I am embarrassed by one other recollection of Jimmy Walker’s New York; it has to do with a racing tip for which a profligate friend of mine told me he had paid $100. My feeling was that it must be an awfully good tip, something really dependable, to be worth $100, and I begged my friend to let me in on it. For a time he refused; if the word got around, the whole arrangement would be ruined, he said, but he finally swore me to secrecy and named the horse — Buster Boy in the first at New Orleans.

It seems absurd that I did not know where to find a bookie in New York, but I did not. When I asked a friend at Variety to direct me to one, he was incredulous. “Why, anywhere along Fortysixth Street,” he said, with a wide gesture. “Anywhere at all.” I pressed him to be more precise, and he stepped out on the sidewalk with me, pointing to several nearby cigar stores. “Any one of them,” he said. I picked the nearest.

The cigar store was so crowded I could barely squeeze inside. A policeman in uniform kept bawling at the crowd, “Keep moving, folks! Keep moving.” I bought a $5 betting slip — Buster Boy on the nose — and struggled through the crowd into the back room, where a Morse operator shortly began to call the race. Buster Boy, to my astonishment, finished out of the money, and a second uniformed policeman in the back room took up the cry, “Keep moving. Plenty of room if you just keep moving — ”

WITH the Snug Harbor story to write, I spent three days in a series of false starts and heavyhanded lumps of composition, working at all hours, in the New Yorker office and in my pleasant room at an East Thirty-seventh Street lodginghouse. I have never enjoyed writing a long article, which was always hard work for me and often unsuccessful, nor have I ever quite understood how one man can turn a set of facts into easy, persuasive reading while another, with the same material, becomes only a conscientious bore. A short piece, some 1500 words, of light purport is the only kind of article in which I have ever felt at ease, and the more I pounded away at the Snug Harbor stuff, which was really quite a rich haul of absurdities, the more lugubrious the result seemed to be. But it was a test case for me, and I had to turn in a draft or assert my own defeat.

The draft was just as bad as I judged it to be. It came back to me with many queries and marginal comments. My second attempt was no better. I am sure, and a few days after I had finished it. Bergman stopped at my desk with these words, which I had sensed were impending but which I could scarcely bear to hear: “Mr. Ross thinks you should plan to go back to Boston when your three months are up.”

Two or three weeks of my trial period remained. It was quite proper of Ross to give me that much notice. But I felt that every hour I remained was an intrusion: the undesired tyro overstaying his welcome, the failure who would not leave, a hanger-on, an object of pity. I was sending home $100 of my $150 salary each week, and I knew that the relapse to my Transcript earnings could be postponed, but I felt that I should vanish as quickly as possible. I called the office boy, who distributed the pay envelopes, and told him that I was leaving and needed my pay. It was a Thursday, nearing noon. A marvelous contretemps ensued, putting the final seal on my embarrassment and self-disgust.

The office boy, who had been especially helpful to me during the previous weeks, brought me the pay envelope in a few minutes. I said good-bye to Thurber, Gibbs, the Whites, and Miss Terry, and, returning to snatch my hat and coat, to John Mosher. A couple of hours later, as I was packing my belongings and about to leave my lodginghouse for a Boston train, I was waited upon by the office boy, who was in a great state of jitters. Ross had just told him that by leaving on Thursday instead of finishing the week I was beating the New Yorker out of two days’ pay, and if I did not return the money, Ross was going to take it out of the office boy’s pay, a calamitous prospect in 1932 for any office boy.

So, I was leaving not only as an incompetent, but also as untrustworthy, if not downright dishonest. I reimbursed the office boy. I apologized to him. I hoped he would not think, I told him, that I had foreseen any such mix-up, but he was too relieved to get the money back to engage in any review of my motives. He thanked me enthusiastically.

At the Transcript the next morning, the city editor, as I had expected he would, blandly disclaimed any understanding that I had been away on a leave of absence and was entitled to return to my job. A firm word or two from Henry Claus ended this harassment, and I am still warmed by the recollection of Henry’s unquestioning friendliness when that was what I needed more than anything else. I had difficulty in trying to explain to anyone what had gone wrong in New York, or even why I had not stayed on for the full period of my leave. As I look back on it, I am sure that the real cause of my trouble was quite commonplace, so much so in fact that I could not possibly have understood it at the time: Ross was simply not as tirelessly interested in me as I was.

Not until more than four years later did I make good my escape from the Transcript, and it was six years after that — a decade after my return from the New Yorker—that I finally found employment completely to my taste and liking.