At the N*w Y*rker. Here and There

How to begin to set down a record of a publication to which I owe everything? Though I have perhaps published more material in The N*w Y*rker than has anyone else in its long and distinguished life (some 14,087 pieces by casual reckoning, as against Tibbs’s 745, Gerber’s 530 or so, and someone named Fletcher’s 16), it occurs to me that, being far from impartial where The N*w Y*rker is concerned, I may not be ideally suited for the happy task at hand.

But now I hear Kross bellowing from beyond the grave, “Get on with it, get on with it!” so I shall trust in the possibility that this undertaking will prove enlightening not only for me but for those among you whose appetites have been whetted by the anonymity in which we at The N*w Y*rker have ever chosen to labor.

I arrived at The N*w Y*rker in the blush of youth, having attained some distinction as editor of several school literary journals at Choate, Loomis, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. I had received reports that Kross admired a piece I had submitted concerning the alligators people were flushing into the city sewers. But if my piece had given him pleasure, there would be no indication of it from Kross himself when I arrived trembling in his office for a job interview.

“Take seat,” he sputtered, spewing Saltine fragments from those flobbering lips, and pointed to a chair piled high with manuscripts.

I perched myself atop the precarious heap and put my hands in my pockets to stop their shaking. For almost an hour I sat there in silence as Kross angrily rummaged through his desk, searching for something. Finally, with a startled grunt, he squinted up at me and, with a wave of those simian, carbon-smudged fingers, directed me to the door.

“Are you hired?” his secretary asked as I left his office.

“I think so,” I blurted, and I was shown to the office I have occupied ever since.

Though foul-mouthed and irreligious, Kross abhorred vulgar language. Once, he objected to my use of “Lubbock” in a piece I was doing about Texas oil towns. In the end, he changed it to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to the dismay of our not inconsiderable Texan readership. While waiting in line at the water cooler one afternoon, Kross overheard one of his writers say “fecund.” and slumped to the floor in a faint.

Often, Kross showed up at the office stark naked, causing ungaugeable alarm among the aspiring contributors who crowded the N*w Y*rker lobby. When timidly questioned as to his state of déshabille, Kross would exclaim, “Clear the halls!" in that amplified death rattle of a voice, and hightail it to the men’s room. There, in the second stall as you enter, which has since been bronzed, Kross would conduct his business with customary bluster until his clothes were dropped off by one of his wives.

If we had a golden boy at The N*w Y*rker, it was Foolscap Tibbs, whose wit enlivened every facet of the magazine. Everyone at The N*w Y*rker has his own favorite Tibbs anecdote; here is mine.

Once, Tibbs and I were lunching at what has come to be called the N*w Y*rker banquette (the seventh banquette counting from the second potted palm as you enter The Argyle’s dining room —how many would-be N*w Y*rker writers misguidedly sought places at the second banquette from the seventh potted palm!). “Say,” Tibbs said, pointing to a distinguished-looking gentleman seated several tables away, “isn’t that Bruno Walter?”

Having met the maestro at several dreary formal functions I could confidently reply, “No, Tibbs. It isn’t.”

“Funny,” Tibbs shrugged, buttering his hard roll. “I could have sworn that was Bruno Walter.”

One of the more distressing incidents in which I was involved (however indirectly) was the suicide of my dear friend and officemate J. R. Mott, who, under the nom de plume R. G. Tomes, wrote Portrait pieces which were to set the standard for the rest of us. Accused of having dangled a participle by some young jack in the rewrite office, Mott climbed out onto the fire escape and threatened to hurl himself thirteen stories to the pavement below. As such threats were more or less commonplace. I took it calmly and remained seated at my desk. “How will you jump thirteen stories.” I asked him. “when we are on the fourteenth floor?” I remember Mott, ever the stickler, frowned, and seemed to be about to climb back into our office when Gerber, that vile prankster, leaned out his window to inform Mott that since the floor numbers in our building ran directly from twelve to fourteen, skipping that unlucky numeral in between, our floor was, in fact, the thirteenth story, and there was nothing whatever to prevent Mott from carrying out his threat. Thus reassured by Gerber, whom he witlessly idolized, Mott followed through.

Many writers put their offices to more than the prescribed use, if you get my drift. I remember breezily barging into the office of one distinguished fellow staffer (who will be grateful to remain nameless) to find him performing an odd and untimely feat involving Scotch tape, a feather boa, and one of the girls from the Review department.

“Why, Butch,” my colleague exclaimed, twisting around from his loinlocked position to greet me. “How delightful.”

Kross used to post a sign outside his door which read, WHO ARE YOU, ANYWAY? and no wonder. No one knew who anyone else was at The N*w Y*rker, least of all Kross. He once mistook Marshall Pumbo, the critic, for his wife, and dragged the dismayed old gentleman home with him before realizing, en toilette, his error.

The aforementioned nameless and feather-boa’ed colleague always called me “Butch,” and it was not until years had passed that we discovered he had been mistaking me for Lois Lang, whose At the Gate remains, week after week, a model of dog-track reportage. I many times confused Gerber with Franklin Delano Fillmore, that cheerful soul who ran small errands around the office in that shambling way which endeared him to all. (Fillmore was shot to death in 1957 by a jealous lady friend in an “Uptown” “joint” one Saturday night, and is missed.)

I have yet to meet Charles Desmond Brider, though I was instrumental in his admittance to The Century Club (which has since become so inundated with so-called “public servants” and “philanthropists” that I hardly drop by there anymore, even for the mail). Perhaps if Brider is reading this he will step forward so that I might express my gratitude for the joy his annual fleld-of-daisies springtime covers have given me over the years.

When I was first introduced to that tiresome literary dilettante Stephen Landy, he bewildered me by behaving as if we had known each other since birth. For years I suffered his confidences, his inquiries after my family, his offering of loans. It was not until after his death that I was informed that he had been my younger brother Edward, whom my wife and I had often had over for Sunday brunch.

Liquor is no stranger to us at The N*w Y*rker, as it is no stranger to serious writers anywhere. But it did seem to run especially deep through those woebegone halls on West Forty-third Street.

I shan’t quickly forget my encounters with Brite, that shy soul, who was heard to urinate into whatever was handy rather than risk an encounter with someone (least of all a naked Kross) in the men’s room or the hall. To get on easy speaking terms with Brite, it was necessary to surprise him in his office (Gerber had a skeleton key), hold him down, pry his jaws apart, and force liquor down his throat. Thus fortified, Brite would regale us with pleas to let him loose. These failing, he would then slobber piteous tales about his wastrel father, his tubercular wife, the dead pets of his boyhood. At that point we would release him, pronounce him drunk, and leave him weeping on his office floor.

After these sessions Brite would disappear from the building for many weeks, and it was a wonder to all of us that he could so steadily grace the pages of The N*w Y*rker with his slight and lucid prose.

I was fast friends with Roland Patrick, that grand old curmudgeon, and such mutual admiration had developed between us that there was little question but that I should succeed him as resident critic when he died, of shingles, in 1962. To the end he ground out those stunning critiques like nobody’s business, and reading them now, one can sense the stir they caused among America’s resident literati. With all confidence I can quote countless Patrickisms verbatim, and do, often, over sherbet at The Argyle.

It was Patrick, in his feisty fighting prime, who described Emma Journeyman Wheeley’s Load Off My Feet as “the worst piece of crap I ever read.” He once described Hemingway as “owes me money.”

Of Fitzgerald he wrote, “a really good writer. One of my favorites,” though here, one suspects, Patrick could just as well have been writing about himself.

When Kross passed on, like some receding bank of thunder, the torch was passed to his successor, and what account of The N*w Y*rker could be complete without mention of him?