Saturday, January 31, 2015

THERE at THE NEW YORKER: TALES OF MY TIME ON THE STAFF OF ''GOINGS ON"

those were the days

"The Talk of The Town" in this week's New Yorker (Feb 2, 2015) is about the staff making "its final preparations to leave 4 Time Square, its headquarters for the past fifteen years, to join the rest of Conde Nast, the parent company down at 1 World Trade Center."  The article goes on to describe how some of the staff remember fondly the offices at 20 West 43rd Street. And a select few,  going back, it seems, to the very beginning of time, even remember where "the magazine spent more than fifty years at 25 West 43rd Street." That was the office Brendan Gill described as "bureaucratic squalor."

And yes - that was my era!  When I think of The New Yorker, I think of the building at 25 West 43rd Street, home of the magazine when I was hired by Tony Gibbs to write for Goings On.

So I thought I'd take you on a trip down Memory Lane. When I got that job, I felt as if I'd struck gold. I thought I would stay at the magazine for the rest of my life, if they'd have me. However my stint was sadly all too short - since my husband joined the US Foreign Service and we moved to Caracas Venezuela.

Nevertheless, when I worked for The New Yorker, I wrote art gallery and museum listings, and I worked on the famous 19th floor, the editorial floor, which was completely separate from the other departments of the magazine, except that it was joined by a staircase to the 18th and 20th floors.

It was all very shabby.  The paint was on the grimy side, the floors were ordinary discolored linoleum, and there was none of the high end glamor one might have expected from such an exalted place as this -  none of your mahogany bookcases or Persian rugs.  You sure came across some interesting people though: Ann Beattie sitting on a chair in the hallway, or Jay McInerney, shuffling down the hall as he worked for the Fact Checking department.

Goings On was a separate little group. Our office was small and it was run by Marjorie Quinn, who lived in the same Manhattan apartment building as Katherine Hepburn. She was conservative, soft spoken and religious, and talked about such things as going for cocktails to the 21.

I worked primarily with Jane Olds.  Jane was the most intelligent woman I had ever met. She was meticulous about our work and knew a lot about art, literature and music and she'd been writing the art listings for years.

Another person in Goings On was Sally Ann Mock, who did all Pauline Kael's movie listings and made sure everything went in the magazine correctly.  Sally Ann was always at work early and she always left early - and although our office was a communal space, her section was separated with bookcases.  Sally loved gossip, but was not enthusiastic about much else.  She tended to drive everyone else in the office a little bit crazy, but I didn't mind her so much.

Then there was Joan Manion. She handled all the Brendan Gill and Edith Oliver listings.  Joan was very sporty and made a lot of coffee. She was extremely social and her favorite subject was food preparation.

Lastly there was Susan Thompson, who came from the south and who helped Sally Ann.  Susan was very bright, fresh faced and sweet. When I moved away from New York, she took on my two beloved cats.

Jane and Joan had facing desks in the center of the room and old fashioned space heaters to ward off the cold on winter days. We sometimes ate scones, we made endless cups of tea and at Christmas we all went to the Algonquin for drinks.

I remember telling Jane that I thought ours was the perfect job.  This was The New Yorker, after all. We had press passes and were invited to all the important gallery openings in Manhattan.  We frequently spent our Wednesday afternoons doing the rounds at galleries and museums.  Even though I wanted most of all to be a writer, I felt as though this job had set me up for life.  I had made it, if not in my own mind, at least in the minds of others. I only had to say that I worked at The New Yorker for jaws to drop. 

But Jane was not as enamored as me. "I'd rather have Tony's job," she said, meaning Wolcott Gibbs Jr, our boss.  "Except I have one terrible flaw. I'm a woman."

You see,  even though The New Yorker in those days was mostly staffed on the editorial side, by women, all the respected positions were held by men.  Loo Burke, and Eleanor Gould Packard who were primarily responsible for how the magazine's style remained the same, were only "query editors" not full editors - and yet Mr Shawn, who was the editor back then, couldn't have run the magazine without them.

Mr Shawn, and I remembered him well, was very elderly and rather small, with a red, baby face. Whenever you encountered him in the hall on his way to lunch (and he never went out without a hat) he tipped his hat at you. He knew everyone on the staff.  Even two years later when, with my baby Rosalind, I returned to say hello to my friends, Mr Shawn remembered me, and made polite inquiries.

Once, when Tony was out of the office, I had the distinction of having my copy edited by Mr Shawn himself.  He wrote his comments in black ink. I wish I had kept that copy sheet - but Jane, who was neither sentimental nor terribly impressed, dropped it into the trash can. I was too embarrassed to fish it out.

Brendan Gill was often in our office.  What a handsome and charming man. There were so many interesting people there - the cartoonist, Ed Koren, for instance, or  Edith Oliver who wrote the Off-Broadway reviews.   She was hunched with a deep gin voice and she always had a cigarette in hand. Every time she caught sight of herself in the mirror of the ladies room, she pretended to be frightened, and screamed.

One of the people I worked with a lot with was Mr McMillan.  He was a large gentleman with white hair and he did some of the spot drawings and some of the gallery reviews.  He tended to drive me and Jane a little bit up the wall because he was so stubborn and self important. I never dared challenge his word. The trouble was, he often made mistakes, and it was my job to check everything he wrote with the galleries before we ran anything, especially the colors. Because you see, Mr McMillan was colorblind.

This was our weekly routine.  On Mondays we went to press, so the mornings were very busy for Marge and Jane, while I was making up the Art section for the following week.  On Tuesdays, Jane and I checked what I had roughed out against the press releases and on the phone to the galleries.  On Wednesday, we continued this process and on Thursdays we read everything through and altered last minute things.  We were never to editorialize. We were simply to describe the work in specific terms - for instance, primary colored stripe paintings in oil.   On Fridays we checked the hours and the addresses. And we did this absolutely meticulously. One of us would read aloud, and the other would check every last comma, dot and dash.  On Fridays we almost always left the office at 2:30.

Bear in mind, we didn't have computers. All the galleries and the painters and sculptors who we had written up in the past, were recorded on index cards in a tatty file cabinet.  The index cards had the listings on them, cut from the magazine and glued there, with handwritten dates beside them.

I learned about art, about writing and especially about editing while working at The New Yorker. But most of all,  I learned that there's a very thin line between those on the outside and those on the inside.  It seems like a gulf when you are on the outside, but actually it isn't.  It was a job. It was a serious job but it wasn't particularly glamorous on the day to day level.  In fact, it was rather like something out of a Barbara Pym novel.  There again, it was The New Yorker.  And I was there!

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