Brendan Gill and The New Yorker

Nora Ephron

Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker was issued to coincide exactly with the fiftieth anniversary of The New Yorker magazine, and, as such, it became The Event of the anniversary, an occasion for critics to pat the magazine on the back and, in addition, to undo some of the devastation that was heaped on it and its editor, William Shawn, some ten years ago, when Tom Wolfe took them all on in the Herald Tribune’s New York magazine. The New Yorker has come through this round with garlands, and so has Gill’s book. It is a charming book, the critics say.

The people who work at The New Yorker do not think Brendan Gill’s book is charming, but they try to be nice about it. The ethic of Nice is, in its way, as much an editorial principle at The New Yorker as the ethic of Mean is at New York magazine, and you can see, when you bring up the subject of Gill’s book, that the people who work with Gill really want to be polite about it. What they generally say is that they would not object so much if only Gill had presented it simply as a memoir, or if he had made it clear that he knew nothing whatever about The New Yorker after the death of Harold Ross, or if he had managed not to publish it at a time calculated to cash in on the anniversary. Any of these things would help, they say. Well, I don’t know that any of this would help. Here at The New Yorker seems to me one of the most offensive books I have read in a long time.

Brendan Gill is now sixty and went to work at the magazine in 1938, and someone I know there suggested to me that he arrived too late to understand its early years, and too soon to understand the late ones. That is unfair: the explanation for Gill’s insensitivity probably lies more in his character than in bad timing. Gill’s character is the shall-I-compare-me-to-a-summer’s-day variety: he is a joyous, happy man, he tells us, who has never suffered a day’s pain in his life. Compared to other New Yorker writers, whom he describes as unsociable moles, he is uncommonly gregarious and fun-loving. He attends five or six parties a week. “I am acquainted with far more people out in the world than anyone else on The New Yorker,” he writes. Life has been a lark. He was born into comparative wealth, went to Yale, made Skull and Bones (an achievement he mentions a half-dozen times), had a rich father to aid him in the purchases of his town houses and mansions and country homes, several of which are actually pictured in his book. The smug self-congratulation of all this extends to his professional achievements. “In sheer quantity of output—most trivial of measurements!—I am by now something of a nonpareil,” he writes.

The book Gill has written is not really a book; it’s a series of anecdotes star-dashed together at four hundred pages length, a sketchy memoir masquerading as history. The omissions in it are gigantic: there are bare mentions, captions really, of Lillian Ross, J. D. Salinger and Robert Benchley; on the other hand, there are oddly lengthy descriptions of pseudonymous minor writers and clerks who dressed badly, had oily hair, hung their wash in the men’s room, committed suicide, or turned out to be homosexuals. The so-called younger writers at The New Yorker are virtually omitted. “I don’t know the younger writers,” Gill said recently, by way of explanation.

The people Gill does write about are a good deal less fortunate than the ones he omits. Part of the problem here is the form he has chosen; the anecdote is a particularly dehumanizing sort of descriptive narrative. But the main problem, once again, is Brendan Gill. Most of the people he writes about are, for the most part, people he clearly thinks of as friends. God help them. The stories he tells, stories he seems to mean to be charming and affectionate, are condescending, snobbish and mean. Here, to take one interesting and subtle example, is Gill on cartoonist Alan Dunn and his wife Mary Petty: “[They] were cherished by their friends like prizes that had been won in some incomparable secret lottery; none of these friends wanted to risk making the Dunns known to the world at large, and the Dunns were content within their small circle and with the superb consolation of their work.” Wolcott Gibbs, the subject of a long section in the book, was a man who we discover married beneath himself not once but twice, was rude, would like to have been tapped for Skull and Bones, wore a brown fedora with a tuxedo, smoked and drank too much, and “had as many affairs as the next man.” And what of Gibbs’s work? Gill tells us Gibbs was brilliant at parody, “a form favored by writers of the second or third rank,” and then goes on to devote several pages to an analysis of Gibbs’s only play, A Season in the Sun, which contained a character based on Harold Ross. The play, Gill tells us, was a waste of Gibbs’s talents and was unfairly praised by the critics, who were fond of Gibbs. Stanley Edgar Hyman, another writer who had the bad luck to be Gill’s friend, surfaces in his book to chase girls, wear multicolored socks with sandals, and drink himself into a stupor. He and his wife, writer Shirley Jackson, attend an anniversary party at the Gills’ country home. “On a stretch of lawn between our house and the surrounding woods,” Gill writes, “we had pitched an enormous white marquee; metal-lined boxes, ordinarily used to hold potted flowers, were filled with ice and scores of bottles of Piper-Heidsieck, and a very satisfactory occasion it turned out to be.… Shirley was wearing a shapeless, reddish coverall, which served to exaggerate her size and not, as she must have hoped, to diminish it, and with her sharp writer’s eye she cannot have failed to note that to many of the other guests she seemed an apparition, impossible to account for in their world of strict bodily discipline.”

I feel squeamish even quoting all this; it seems to me I am compounding Gill’s cruelties by repeating them. I want to make one more point, though, before moving on to Shawn and Ross, and that is about Gill’s prurience. Brendan Gill is uncommonly prurient, and his book is full of leering references to women, sex and adultery. Gill notes several times that he does not understand why his friends persist in thinking of him as a Catholic when he is in fact a lapsed Catholic; my guess is that they think of him this way because he is as prurient in person as he is in print.

Brendan Gill’s book is dedicated to William Shawn, who has been The New Yorker’s editor since 1952, and he provides a number of anecdotes about Shawn that are meant to be jolly. They mainly concern Shawn’s fear of automatic elevators and his extreme discomfort about sexual references. I cannot imagine that a man who is constitutionally incapable of taking an automatic elevator finds anything but pain in the situation; that does not seem to have occurred to Gill. He has even less comprehension of what Shawn has done for the magazine: there is only one reference in his book to The New Yorker’s coverage of Vietnam and Watergate.

It is generally accepted over at The New Yorker that Gill’s greatest sin is in not understanding Shawn. I’m not even sure he understands Shawn’s predecessor, Harold Ross. He paints him as a buffoon, a gat-toothed, ill-dressed social incompetent who made typographical errors and disdained Freud. All of this is doubtless true; but it is, like everything in Gill’s book, only a small part of the picture. Shawn provided Gill with a seven-page essay on Ross that closes Here at The New Yorker. The essay tends to give Shawn’s imprimatur to the book—it is said he regrets having done it. At the same time, though—and I have no idea whether it was intentional—Shawn’s essay is a gentle but thorough rebuke to Gill: it has all the complexity and depth that Gill’s book lacks. As Shawn writes of Ross: “He lent himself to anecdote. Because of this, and because his personal qualities were large in scale and included a formidable charm and magnetism, the serious and inspired work that he did as an editor tended at times to be lost sight of.” The articles Ross published by Liebling, Mitchell, Bainbridge, McKelway, Hamburger … the list is endless, really, but the point is simply that The New Yorker has always published brilliant magazine writing; it has always been a serious publication—if not about its subjects, at least about its prose. Under Ross, the profiles had an edge and bite that have been sadly missing—and this is Shawn’s weakness as an editor—in recent years. (In many ways, the war in Vietnam, and Shawn’s decision to hammer at it, rescued the magazine from the blandness that still characterizes some of what it prints.)

Gill’s New Yorker—under Shawn and Ross—is no more serious than Gill’s view of life. It is a parody of The New Yorker, the Eustace Tilley stereotype, the frivolous, upper-class publication with a sensibility best described as Jaded Preppie, the old “Talk of the Town” column, we went to a party last night. Gill has written a history of the magazine to conform to his image of it. As he himself admits, albeit in another context: “I am always so ready to take a favorable view of my powers that even when I am caught out and made a fool of, I manage to twist this circumstance about until it becomes a proof of how exceptional I am. The ingenuities we practice in order to appear admirable to ourselves would suffice to invent the telephone twice over on a rainy summer morning.”

June, 1975