Appreciating Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, and the Legacy of his Writing

I spent the past couple weeks, amid so much disturbing upheaval in the world outside my reading, deeply enjoying Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel, which Random House published last June. (I had first shared about it on this blog last May.) From Kunkel’s acknowledgments at the end I’ve learned the book was commissioned by Bob Loomis*, the great editor there who, before his retirement in 2012, signed up the book, though the manuscript was evidently delivered after his departure. Mitchell grew up in a tobacco- and cotton-farming family in North Carolina (b. 1908) and, disappointing his father, moved to New York City at twenty-one, determined to become a newspaperman, even amid the Depression; he found work as a copy boy, and soon began reporting and writing, including at the Herald Tribune (where my longtime author, photojournalist Ruth Gruber later worked) and for the World-Telegram, which Mitchell joined in 1930. He began writing for The New Yorker in 1932, and joined the magazine’s staff in 1938. Kunkel’s book is a superb portrait of Mitchell’s whole life, to his death in 1996, and a rich appreciation of his writings.

While reading and really savoring the whole book, every anecdote, every chapter it covers of Mitchell’s life, I took down from a bookshelf my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, the 1992 collection that gathered Mitchell’s Profiles on true-life New York characters, and other work, which back then put Mitchell back on the map for many readers. Until then, his magazine pieces had frequently been gathered up and published between hardcovers—his first My Ears Are Bent, came out in 1938, followed by McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943); Old Mr. Flood (1948); The Bottom of the Harbor (1959) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965)—but it was more than two decades between books when, at the urging of Dan Frank of Pantheon Books, Mitchell published this full omnibus of his work, gathered from those books, and other sources. It made a big splash at the time, getting stellar reviews, and Kunkel tells us that Mitchell welcomed the spotlight that came with being remembered by so many readers, and discovered by even more. 
Mitchell back

I’ve had the book since soon after it came out—my copy’s a first edition. I was around that time editing and preparing to publish a comparable book, A Diary of Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, by Edward Robb Ellis, a near-contemporary of Mitchell’s, who also worked at the World-Telegram, arriving there in 1947. Like Mitchell, Ellis savored writing about memorable NY characters, people like Fred Bronnenkant, riveter for more than thirty years on the Brooklyn Bridge, who had such affection for the span he regarded it as a kind of mistress**. Though Eddie was not quite the consummate stylist that I now see Mitchell was, like Mitchell, he aspired to make great work. Both men learned writing in the same milieu—the midcentury American newspaper, entirely at NY papers for Mitchell, partly true for Ellis, who before coming to the metropolis for what became the last twenty years of his career as an on-staff feature writer, had worked at papers in New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Peoria, and Chicago.*** They deployed vivid imagery, showed a fondness for lengthy list-making (a penchant embraced in more recent years by New Yorker writer John McPhee), a keen interest in what things cost back in the day, and an appreciation for character, with great skill at presenting to readers the people they encountered.

Seeing the success of Up in the Old Hotel, I recalling buying the book in hopes of imbibing some of that vibe and investing Eddie’s book with it. Though I was interested in Mitchell and his work, as happens for professional editors I got sidetracked from it, and had in fact never read it thoroughly, nor really sensed the charms of Mitchell’s writing until the past couple weeks. During the weeks I was reading the Kunkel bio, I leafed through the 700+page anthology, shown here, and now that I’ve finished the biography, I’m fully able to dive in to it. Last night, I read and enjoyed the third Profile in the anthology, about Mazie Gordon, a denizen of the Bowery, who ran a “moving-picture house” called the Venice Theatre, and who “Detective Kain [of the Oak Street police station] says that she has the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.” Mitchell chronicles her working life, seated in a glassed-in booth along Park Row, selling movie tickets, and greeting her patrons, some of whom are by her own description “bums” that live in nearby flophouses. She is a key player in the street life near Chatham Square, and the piece includes many conversations she had with bums, cops, priests, and all kinds of urban operators which it seems certain Mitchell overheard. His chronicle of Mazie’s proprietorship of the theatre, and her status in the wider neighborhood, is among the most enjoyable things I’ve read this year.

Here’s the first paragraph of the 1940 profile, titled ‘Mazie’:

“A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery in the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change….’In my time, I’ve been as free with my dimes and as old John D himself,’ she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre.”

Now that I’m finished with the biography, I’ve also sought out reviews of it, such as a good one by John Williams in the NY Times, and a very insightful essay by Janet Malcolm in the NY Review of Books; she was a colleague of Mitchell’s at The New Yorker. Kunkel wrote an earlier biography of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, who hired Mitchell for the magazine, after his several-year audition as a contributing writer. I’ve never met Kunkel, but I’m glad to say I feel connected to him anyway. As it happens, he reviewed Edward Robb Ellis’s A Diary of Century when it was published in 1995, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, concluding his review in the Washington Post with the praise that Ellis’s diary of an Everyman, “produc[ed] something akin to Copland’s glorious ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.'” I’ll find a way to share this blog post with him, so I can belatedly let him know how glad I am that he enjoyed Eddie Ellis’s book, and I can tell him I felt the same for his superb book on Joseph Mitchell.

* Among Bob Loomis’s authors was William Styron; the courtly editor helped me enlist Styron’s aid in a championing a book I edited in 1999, about an arguably innocent inmate on Virginia’s Death Row. I wrote about that episode in my editorial career in an essay for the BN Review called “William Styron: A Promise Kept.”

**Ellis’s beguiling entry on Frank Bronnenkant is found on pgs 173-75 of A Diary of the Century (Kodansha America, 1995; republished by me at Union Square Press in 2008). Clicking on this link will take you to all my blog posts about Edward Robb Ellis, which includes one that examines the legacy of notorious faker Joe Gould, the subject of Mitchell’s last published Profile, the recently discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, and Ellis, in a 2014 piece I titled “Vivian Maier Was the Real Deal, the Ultra-Opposite of Joe Gould.” The relevance here is that Ellis—whose book was drawn from his diary, a journal he began keeping at age 16, and which he stayed with until 89, the longest-kept such record in the history of American letters—and the secretly great and prolific street photographer Maier did each create a magnum opus, while Gould never did, though Mitchell did believe for a time that he really was writing a seminal work, “The Oral History of our Times.” And yet Mitchell, even after publishing two long profiles of Gould (‘Professor Seagull,’ ’42, rather credulous) and (‘Joe Gould’s Secret,’ ’64, not credulous any longer) did not rebuke Gould. He generously concluded that Gould, some writings by whom he had actually read in the 1940s, had perhaps at least been writing in his mind, as Mitchell did with an uncompleted memoir and novel he never published.

*** For her part, Ruth Gruber, before and after WWII, wrote for the Herald Tribune and the NY Post. Unlike Mitchell and Ellis, she oscillated in and out of journalism, working for a time in the federal government during the FDR Administration, as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’ special representative to Alaska. Ruth is, so far as I know, the eldest surviving member of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. This post is about a 104th birthday gathering with her this past October.

 

Celebrating with Ruth Gruber on her 104th Birthday

The 104th birthday of my longtime author—the storied photojournalist Ruth Gruber, with whom I’ve published six books—was last Wednesday, so yesterday Kyle and I joined Ruth and her daughter Celia to celebrate the latest milestone in Ruth’s remarkable and event-filled life—from meeting Virginia Woolf in the 1930s to journeying through the Soviet Arctic later that decade to working in Alaska as a representative of the FDR administration to chronicling the voyage of the real-life Exodus ship in 1947 to being honored by the International Center of Photography (ICP) in 2012, aspects of her life I’ve chronicled several times on this blog. Photos from our birthday celebration are below, but first note that the ICP’s exhibit of Ruth’s work is now at Brooklyn College where it will be up until February 12, 2016, with an opening this Thursday, October 8. NB: Five of the six books I published w/Ruth in the 1990s and 2000s, including her two remarkable memoirs Ahead of Time and Inside of Time, as well as her book on Virginia Woolf, are available from Open Road Media.

Ruth birthday cake 2Ruth birthday cake

Helping Authors Reach their Goals as an Independent Editor since 2009

It’s always gratifying when I know I’ve helped an author make his or her book better than when I received the manuscript from them, and even better when they show their appreciation with a recommendation that I can use in marketing my editorial and publishing services to other writers. Professor Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel is an extremely important and timely book, just the kind of title I enjoyed acquiring when I was an in-house editor, one that I am proud to have worked on with Prof Waxman under the rubric of Philip Turner Book Productions. I look forward to seeing it in print in 2016. Meantime, I’m pleased to share his recommendation of my services:

“I was looking for someone to edit my book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016) and my agent recommended Philip Turner.  His recommendation was excellent.  Philip turned out to be exactly the kind of editor I was looking for—thorough and detailed, with a keen understanding of my goals as a writer, my intended audience, and my book’s arguments.  His careful editing has certainly improved my book, and I recommend him wholeheartedly.”—Dov Waxman, Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies, Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University

#FridayReads—Marilinne Cooper’s Suspenseful “Blue Moon”

For my ‪#‎FridayReads‬ this week, I just finished reading Marilinne Cooper’s excellent suspense novel Blue Moon, set in a New England town reminiscent of Franconia, NH, where she and I went to Franconia College. I was engrossed in discovering how the clever plot resolves, and delighted with the suspenseful ending, and the goodwill among major characters. I was with Marilinne at our FC Reunion last weekend, where I was excited to pick up a copy of this, her latest novel featuring her 6-book series character, investigative reporter Tyler Mackenzie. I read and love this genre, and this book is very well done. Good job by Ms Cooper, whose books are available via this link.

 

I Savored “The Ecliptic,” Benjamin Wood’s Novel about Artists and the Creative Process

I really enjoyed reading The Ecliptic, a novel recently published in Britain by English author Benjamin Wood. It's narrated by a female painter named Knell, set in part in London in the early 1960s. The story opens at a mysterious refuge for artists where Knell and other creative people (a playwright, an architect, a composer) have found safe harbor. Ensconced in the protective cocoon of this colony, to which benefactors have sent them so they could work only on their artistic pursuits, they think are far away from all worldy concerns, until a new artist turns up in their midst, a troubled young man. Wood is a maker of great sentences—the kind your mind likes to chew on and re-read, making leisurely progress through the book a delicious process—and his story is an engrossing one with characters you come to really care about. The Ecliptic is the second novel by Benjamin Wood, whose first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, I am eager to read next. Here's a picture of well-thumbed the galley I read, with my business card out the top, which I used as a bookmark over the couple of weeks I savored this novel of ideas that explores the creative process in entertaining and thoughtful ways. The book will be published in the States in May 2016. I highly recommend you watch for this one.

 

 

Editing SMARTS Made Me Smarter; Reading it May Do the Same for You

Excited to note publication for all my readers here of a new nonfiction book I edited in manuscript, SMARTS: The Boundary-busting Story of Intelligence. It’s by the award-winning science writer and talented narrative journalist Elaine Dewar. A more expansive subtitle appears on the half-title page in the printed book the author just sent me:

Computing slime moulds, political primates, masterful plants, altruistic robots, amoeba machines, high IQ chips, philosophers of mind using screwdrivers,
signals, spies, the brilliant life and mysterious death of Alan Turing, and the boundary-busting story of intelligence.

An intellectually stimulating aspect of this edit was discovering that, in astonishing variety of ways, as Dewar writes, “the process of natural selection can lead to the evolution of adaptive behaviors.” I learned that these creative adaptations occur in even the most primitive life forms, such as the slime moulds referred to above. Even more startling are neural networks, a product of artificial intelligence, whose development Dewar chronicles.

“A neural network is a radically simplified computer version of the real thing. Real neurons build physical connections to neighbor neurons which link together in a network as they receive and send electrochemical signals back and forth. The more neuronal connections, and the greater the intensity of these interactions between neighbors, the stronger the information bond between them: thus, we learn. Neural network-style computation enables modern computers to learn by changing or weighting the frequency of interactions between one part of a network and another.”  

Dewar earlier wrote BONES: Discovering the First Americans, on the ancient peopling of the Americas, and THE SECOND TREE: Clones, Chimeras and Quests for Immortality, a kind of nonfiction version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel ORYX AND CRAKE. I published both those nonfiction books when I was with Carroll & Graf last decade, after they had been edited and published in Canada, where Dewar lives. Suffice to say, I relished the chance to finally edit one of her manuscripts!

While each of the earlier books dealt to a large extent with the human past, here Dewar—who in the course of writing SMARTS visited with and interviewed a dozen or more top thinkers, inventors, and scientists working in the Smart realm—synthesizes their work, boldly imagining where research and emerging technology may take intelligence in the years and decades to come.

SMARTS is published by a new company called Debonaire Books, and is available via this link in a quality paperback edition and as an ebook. I’m tickled to have a copy of the quality paperback, shown below, and especially excited that during a visit to Toronto later this month I’ll be attending a party to launch the book. Here’s what it looks like:

Glad to Be Part of Publishers Weekly’s Coverage on Post-Corporate Life in the Book World

I’m glad to be one of three editors featured in a Publishers Weekly article about how editorial professionals with long careers in-house have re-made themselves post-corporate life. The other editors are Pat Mulcahy and Joan Hilty. It’s up online today, and will be a spread with photos in the magazine’s print issue on Monday. I’ll scan a copy of the print story to share on this blog when I get a print copy, but meantime here is a link to the story, headlined “Publishing, After a Life in Publishing.” In particular, I was happy to explain to PW reporter Calvin Reid the role that my blogs have played in my post-corporate career, which Calvin characterized it this way: “He launched a blog, the Great Gray Bridge, on his website, philipsturner.com, and got his first job, ‘by word of mouth.’ He credits the blog and his writing with bringing in work. ‘People come to my blog and find out that I’m offering editorial services,’ he said.”

Also very glad my author client Mike Orenduff and his superb six-book POT THIEF mystery series are both mentioned in the article, along with a mention of Open Road Integrated Media, the company where I licensed the books in 2013, to editors Tina Pohlman and Philip Rappaport. Until I get the print issue, Below are scanned images of each of the story’s three pages, and then a screenshot of the online story’s first six paragraphs. Please note I submitted three corrections for the story that have been input on the online version.

Readers of this blog, please note, I submitted three corrections for the story that have been input on the online version. For the record, they are: 1) In the 4th paragraph, while I was first “executive editor” at Carroll & Graf, I was “editor-in-chief” my last couple years there. 2) In the 5th paragraph, the author of the POT THIEF series is “J. Michael Orenduff” (not J. Michale Orendoff). 3) In the 14th paragraph, the correct quote about my writing is that I found I had the “psychic elbow room” to write, not “psychic space.”
 PW Turner Jan 23, 2015