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December 5th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

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.

 

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October 3rd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Working with Authors, in to Their 100s

Comments Off on Marking Photojournalist Ruth Gruber’s 103rd Birthday

October 2nd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Book Biz; Personal history, Family, Friends

Marking Photojournalist Ruth Gruber’s 103rd Birthday

As a book editor, I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of talented authors. Amid all the superb writers one sub-group stands out: authors in their 80s, 90s, or even older, in their 100s. This group has included Edward Robb Ellis (1911-1998), author of A Diary of Century: Tales by American’s Greatest Diarist. Here is a collection of posts Ive written about him. Another of these remarkable authors is Ruth Gruber, also born in 1911, with whom I’ve published six books, including her memoir Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, also the title of a documentary about her. Ruth turned 103 this week, and is still going strong. This is a collection of posts I’ve written about her. Please join me in celebrating her amazing life and career.

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March 30th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling; Urban Life & New York City

Vivian Maier Was The Real Deal, the Ultra Opposite of Joe Gould

I was stunned by the new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Kyle and I saw yesterday. Below is the trailer, if you haven’t seen it yet, or the film, which was directed by John Maloof, and two of her photographs. He bought a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. At the time, neither he, nor anyone, yet knew who Maier was, or that she’d been making a photographic record in Chicago where she lived since around 1949.

vm_newsstandVM hands
I continued thinking about the movie all day after walking out of the noon screening. Today, I’m still mulling some major points that struck me. Below is an attempt to corral what I’ve been thinking about the film.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009) embarked on and then sustained over many decades the production of what we can now see as a truly monumental visual and documentary legacy. It’s a microcosmic yet vast history of modern urban America and many Americans, seen through the sensitive eye, lens, and mind of one person, a woman whose work as a nanny somehow allowed her the means and opportunity to conduct this personal journalistic enterprise. Until Maloof’s discovery, the enterprise was completely unknown, yet it was hiding in what amounted to (somewhat plain) sight, in auction houses, storage lockers, and in the records of the families she had worked for over the years. Some of them were still paying storage fees on her property. With impressive industry and inspired sensitivity to Maier’s mission, Maloof has excavated the extant physical record. I’m very thankful to him for doing this, for his open-heartedness and his willingness to plunge in to Maier’s work. In bidding at the fateful auction, he went all the way up to $380 for the box of negatives,* not small change. He said on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show last Friday that when he bid on and won the box he hoped to be able to harvest images from it for a photographic history of Chicago he was organizing for Arcadia Books (the publisher that does city histories). Turned out the pictures weren’t good for the book, and he put them in a closet. But sometime later, he posted more than 100 images on his Flickr page, essentially blogging with them. The reaction was a palpable “Wow” from street photography lovers and has led ultimately to this amazing documentary, which I want to see again.

Thinking more about Maier’s dedication, I’m amazed at how pure her motivation was in producing it all. She created this legacy, even though she never, so far as is known, sought an audience for her work, and had no child, relation, friend, or agent–not a single person–to whom she could leave her work; I wonder if she even had a will. Nor does it seem Maier solicited the interest of another photographer or an institution that might have taken an interest in her archive. Perhaps Maier knew best, not wanting to broach rejection. In the film, Maloof reports on what became a futile attempt to interest MOMA in the work. Even with their storied photographic collection, curated for many years by Peter Galassi, who didn’t retire until 2011, they perfunctorily declined. There ought to be some embarrassment at the museum over this and I think it would be a good thing if an arts journalist with a source at MOMA would seek on-the-record comment from them about their refusal. I concede that everybody makes mistakes–like editors who turned down On the Road and Catcher in the Rye–but it’s best to own up to them when they occur. So, instead of falling in to the hands of a responsible party at the time of Maier’s death in 2009, the hundred thousand negatives, many 8 mm and 16 mm film reels, and cassettes of audio recordings she made with people she interviewed–making her a veritable podcaster, decades before the term was coined–were basically put out to sea, cast adrift, and headed perhaps for a destructive crack-up on the rocky shores of time. That they didn’t suffer shipwreck–or submersion in a landfill–borders on a secular miracle.

I’m also thinking of Maier’s lack of an audience in a personal way, in relation to my own creative output, my two blogs (to be sure, humble by comparison). Here and on Honourary Canadian, I write and share about what interests me, what compels me, and hope that readers will care about these things, too, and appreciate the way I express and present them. I do like knowing that readers are finding items of interest and mutual relevance, though I wouldn’t change what I’m writing about just to gain more readers. It doesn’t matter greatly to me if some pieces aren’t widely read, because I’m also writing for myself, for the clarity of mind that I derive from the effort and experience. Fortunately, I do have readers, and what amounts to my own printing press, the WordPress blogs themselves. Maier, in this regard, didn’t seek, or at any rate, didn’t have the opportunity to have her work seen by others. Yet, she seems to have hardly flagged or despaired over not having a speck of an audience or appreciation, and no way to get them. This makes what she did all the more singular and remarkable.

On America’s most prolific diarist, Edward Robb Ellis; “Joe Gould’s Secret” by The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell; and Vivian Maier

Readers who follow the books I’ve edited and published over the years may recall my author Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), whose A Diary of the Century was quite a popular book for me, published in 1995, republished in 2008, still easy to find, still highly recommended. I mention it here because Eddie, as friends knew him, is the writer in my experience with an enterprise most closely analogous to that of Vivian Maier, though interesting distinctions exist between them. He kept a diary longer than anyone in the history of American letters, beginning his enterprise at age 16 during the Christmas vacation of 1927, when he dared a few pals, and himself, to start keeping a diary, and then they’d see who among them could keep it the longest. In his 20s, he also became a newspaper reporter. Basically, Eddie never stopped writing until the year he died. As Pete Hamill observed in his Introduction, Eddie wrote in print for the public, yet also for himself in the diary, which years later he wrote helped him become a more mature, an even happier, person. But even with the diary’s private reflections on intensely personal matters, Eddie also showed an interest in writing for the sake of the future, for posterity; he ultimately wanted the diary to be read by others, in hopes it might enrich the future with useful knowledge and pertinent information on his times–his entries cover the quotidian; the cost of things; which songs were on the hit parade; what movies were shown on a weekend when he worked his part-time job as an usher at the local cinema; along with current events and historic incidents that shook the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which certified Ellis’s achievement in the early 1990s, his diary comprised more than 22,000,000 words, nearly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a work with hundreds of contributors, while like Vivian Maier, Eddie created his work entirely on his own.

Ellis’s prodigious achievement was so well known among his fellow journalists that when Diary was published the week after Labor Day in ’95, Eddie scored a rare publicity hat trick: He was invited to appear, and went on all three network morning chat shows all within that week, interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Matt Lauer, and Harry Smith (on ABC, NBC, and CBS respectively) each network overlooking the usual policy they had against booking a guest who’s just been on a competing show. In the last decades of his life, the diary by then grown to many bound leather volumes and associated boxes, Eddie spent much anxious energy contemplating where his magnum opus might end up–he tried deeding it to a number of institutions, but even with the Guinness stamp of approval, there were few willing takers. Fortunately, as I wrote in a Preface to the 2008 paperback reissue of Diary, Eddie’s life work found “a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus.” I added that I hope to publish another volume of the Ellis Diary someday, for it had been “my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the diary…and I promise the reader that I found no dross there.” A Diary of the Century

While working with Eddie Ellis from 1993-98, bringing out three other books of his, including The Epic of New York City, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s classic New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In it, Mitchell chronicles for the reader his lamentable discovery that a longtime legendary denizen of lower Manhattan, Joe Gould, who for years had purported to be writing a magnum opus/History of the World was ultimately a bluffer, a failure, and a fraud. (In the pretty good movie version Ian Holm plays a grizzled Gould while Stanley Tucci takes on the role of Mitchell, a North Carolina writer working for the magazine.) Working with Eddie, I used to think how lucky I was to be working with a real-life Joe Gould-type, only Eddie was the real McCoy.

But now, thinking once more about Vivian Maier, I can see that unlike the others, she created her magnificent magnum opus without an audience, nor hope for one. By contrast, Gould hoped for adulation from others, though he did little to earn it, while Eddie Ellis, though not creating his work primarily for others, did enjoy praise, and came to see how his diary could be useful to others, and so arranged to share it with the world. But not only did Maier disclaim an audience for herself, she didn’t even claim posthumous credit for her achievement, like say with a “To Be Opened on the Occasion of My Death” letter, with information on where her affects could be found. She just died, and fortunately John Maloof was there to connect with her work. This is all a striking contrast to her male predecessors Gould and Ellis, the former phony, the latter authentic. It leaves me in greater awe of what she accomplished, and all the more appreciative of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”

*I objected to the penultimate paragraph in Manohla Dargis’s NY Times review of the documentary, where she quibbles with the fact that Maloof stands to gain financially as Vivian Maier’s star rises higher. The guy has unearthed this magnificent work, and devoted several years of his life to it, at much expense I’m sure–I hope he does well from it all. Glad to see that art critic Jerry Saltz and I are in agreement on this point, as he wrote this in his New York magazine review of “Finding Vivian Maier”:  “The Times’ otherwise excellent Manohla Dargis churlishly labeled this documentary ‘a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work.’ This sort of cynical snappishness is cropping up a lot in many critics’ work of late—the idea that if there’s any profit involved, the work must be less pure, less good, more suspect. Whatever: I love this advertisement. Besides: Maloof tried to get MoMA interested in Maier’s work. In the film, he shows us and reads the perfunctory rejection letter he got from the museum. He was on his own. No one else wanted to take on the responsibility of unearthing and bringing to light this truly great artist. History will be grateful to him, and no one should look back cynically at his commitment to Vivian Maier.”

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February 22nd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Edward Robb Ellis, Our Most Prolific Diarist, Born Feb 22, 1911, Remembered Today

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January 25th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

#FridayReads, Jan 24–Barry Lancet’s Gripping Thriller “Japantown”


From 1992-97, when I worked for Kodansha America, the US division of the major Japanese publisher, I had many interesting and talented colleagues, some of whom worked in New York, and others at the home office in Tokyo. My colleagues included both Westerners and Japanese. I didn’t often meet the ones who worked in Japan, but would occasionally see their names on inter-office memos and catalog materials. Among this group was Les Pockell, a lithe and witty fellow who after many years with the company in Tokyo came back to New York, working for Warner Books, later called Grand Central. He was also an anthologist of poetry and story collections. Sadly, Les died in 2010 at age 68. A Japanese colleague working in New York those years was my boss, Minato Asakawa, whose idea it was to publish Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, the autobiography of two African-American sisters, Sadie and Elizabeth Delany, then both more than 100 years old. It became a huge bestseller in hardcover and paperback, and was adapted into a Broadway play. Under Asakawa, I had the opportunity to acquire and publish many terrific books, such as A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist by Edward Robb Ellis, and his one-volume hsitory, The Epic of New York City. Together, Asakawa and I published the Kodansha Globe series, which in many ways anticipated the fine list published nowadays by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint. Kodansha Globe combined titles in cross-cultural studies, anthropology, natural history, adventure, narrative travel and belle lettres. By the time I left Kodansha in 1997 we had published more than ninety Globe titles, including the first paperback edition of Barack Obama’s first book Dreams From My Father.

Another Westerner in the Tokyo contingent, though one I never met face-to-face was editor Barry Lancet. Last year, I read in PublishersMarketplace.com that Barry was going to debut as an author, publishing his first novel, a thriller. I made a mental note of that good news, and before I could get in touch with Barry to renew our old acquaintanceship, a mutual friend in the book business, publicity professional Jeff Rutherford, put Barry in touch with me. We exchanged personal and professional news and I congratulated him on publication of his first book. I was pleased then when in December I got a copy of Japantown from his editor at Simon & Schuster. After working through a lot of reading that piled up during the holidays, I started Japantown this week, and am totally engrossed by it. Here’s a rundown with no plot points you wouldn’t pick up in the first quarter of the novel.

The book is at first set in San Francisco where protagonist Jim Brodie works as a dealer in Asian antiquities** at the same time maintaining connection with the private detective agency his late father founded and ran in Tokyo, with many local employees. In the wake of the death of the younger Brodie’s wife Mieko in a mysterious and unsolved fire, Brodie’s a single dad living with his grade school age daughter, Jenny. Combining his two areas of expertise, Brodie is the new go-to-guy when the San Francisco Police Department find itself investigating a grisly mass murder with Japanese victims and characteristics: A Japanese family of five has been gunned down after dark in a public park. At the scene, Brodie finds only one clue, a paper artifact emblazoned with the same written character (kanji in Japanese) as was found at the scene of his wife’s death. Brodie doesn’t realize, though the reader knows, that even as he surveys the scene of the brutal killing he and Renna are being surveilled with lenses and cameras by unknown agents. Though not knowing the extent of the surveillance he’s under, he senses someone’s watching him, at his gallery and even at home with Jenny. With the obscure kanji in hand, Brodie undertakes an investigative trip to Japan, first putting Jenny in to the protective embrace of a police safe house. Once in Japan, the malign forces behind the killings begin taking aim at Brodie and one of his most trusted colleagues, Noda.

All the past work week I was looking for more time to read Japantown, and I’m glad it’s now the weekend, with some uninterrupted time for reading. Lancet’s writing is vivid and economical and the plotting assured. If you want to learn more about Lancet and his background, including some very good advice for aspiring writers, I suggest you visit his website or follow him on twitter @BarryLancet. I’ll post more about his book later, but for now I want to say I recommend it highly.

WEDNESDAY JAN 29 UPDATE I finished Japantown the other day and it was great to the last page! A totally gripping international thriller. I’ll post more about it later. Best thing is, I believe Barry Lancet’s already working on Book II.

** Antiquities dealer is a profession I’m partial to in mysteries, like the POT THIEF series for which I’m the agent, with J. Michael Orenduff’s six books which went on sale this week from Open Road. In the POT THIEF books, set in an Albuquerque, main character Hubie Schuze is a dealer in Native American ceramics, and a capable ceramicist himself. The books are memorably titled:  The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras,The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy,The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein,The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier,The Pot Thief Who Studied D. H. Lawrence, and The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid. As the titles suggest, Hubie’s reading and appreciation of classic texts by, and the venerable lives of scientists, writers, a chef and an outlaw, make for enjoyable mystery fiction.

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November 4th, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Romare Bearden and Albert Murray Enjoying a Harlem Afternoon

The important African-American artist Romare Bearden was at one time good friends with my late author, Edward Robb Ellis, author of A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist (1995). Ellis wrote at length about their friendship in that book, which reflected on Bearden’s upbringing in Pittsburgh, and the life he lived that led to his distinctive style of collage-making and painting. In the years since I worked  with Eddie, whenever I read about Bearden, I feel I almost know him, from Eddie’s fulsome recollections. When the writer and critic Albert Murray died last August, he was eulogized in many venues, most memorably for me by Paul Devlin in Slate, where I was delighted to be reminded that Bearden and Murray had also been very close, as friends, and indeed as frequent collaborators (when Bearden needed something written, Murray often wrote it). Typifying their relationship is the revealing video I tweeted out earlier tonight, and which I’m eager to share here, too.

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February 22nd, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner Book Productions; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Remembering Edward Robb Ellis, Feb. 22, 1911-Labor Day, 1998

[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]

Book business friends who’ve known me for some years may recall that I’ve been extremely fortunate in working with remarkable authors of advanced age. There’s the distinguished photojournalist Ruth Gruber, who turned 102 on her last birthday, with whom I’ve had the privilege of publishing six books over the past decade and a half, including Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman–a republication of Ruth’s 1931 seminal thesis on Woolf, the first feminist reading of the author, written before she’d become an international icon–and Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation and Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth’s still going strong, with a bio-documentary out on her, also called “Ahead of Time.”

Another author I began working with who was then in their eighties was Edward Robb Ellis, who like Ruth Gruber, was born in 1911. In 1985, Ellis was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific diarist in the history of American letters. By the time I met Eddie in the early 90s he had already published tremendously readable narrative histories, A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-39; Echoes of Distant Thunder: Life in the United States, 1914-1918; and one his adopted hometown, The Epic of New York City**. In 1995 I published his magnum opus, A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, based on the diary Eddie began keeping in 1927 at age sixteen, which he kept faithfully until the year of his death seventy-one years later. This is part of the flap copy I wrote for a 2008 reissue of the book:

Press credentials granted the eagle-eyed Ellis a front-row seat to many major events of the twentieth century, and he captures them with candor and verve, in a vivid pictorial style–whether covering politicians like Huey Long, move stars and performers such as Grace Kelly and Paul Robeson, or history-making news events, including the creation of of the United Nations. He recounts his encounter with the legendarily witty Mae West–whose press agent turns out to be feeding lines to her. He chronicles a new Orleans jazz joint where he interviews a talented young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. He writes of taking long strolls with Harry Truman, and of observing Senator Joseph McCarthy for the first time (“His mouth is thin and long, like a knife-gash in a melon.”).
Born in Kewanee, Illinois (“Hog Capitol of the World”), Ellis moved to New York City in 1947, and lovingly documents the city’s cosmopolitanism and post-war ebullience. The sparkle in Ellis’s writing comes not solely from his meetings with the rich and famous, but from his attentiveness to, and enjoyment of, everyday life. In Ellis’s own words, this is “not a record of world deeds, mighty achievements, conquests” but “the drama of the unfolding life of one individual, day after day after day.”

When I published the book with Eddie on Labor Day in 1995, we scored a rare kind of hat trick, booking interviews on all three network morning shows. Matt Lauer interviewed him on the TODAY Show, Cokie Roberts on “Good Morning America,” and Harry Smith on CBS’s “Early Show.” It was clear that Eddie’s status as a reporter from journalism’s golden age–or at least what morning show hosts and producers believed had been a golden age–had endeared him to them. I have videos of those appearances, but unfortunately haven’t transferred them to the Web and they are not on youtube. Picture Eddie wearing a red neckerchief with a khaki safari jacket and looking very dashing on TV.

In the 2008 reissue of A Diary of the Century I included an Editor’s Note explaining that at even 200,000 words and more than 600 pages, the book had constituted less than 1% of the entire Ellis Diary. A reference book aficionado, Eddie was fond of saying that his whole diary clocked in at more than 20,000,000 words, or roughly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. My Note explained that in his later years Eddie arranged for the Ellis Diary to find

“a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes, were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus of NYU. . . . It was my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the Ellis Diary, and I promise the reader that I found no dross there. With this revival, on behalf of Eddie’s literary executor Peter Skinner and literary representative Rita Rosenkranz, I take this opportunity to state that it is our intention to revive interest in A Diary of the Century, and then go on to create new books drawn from the Ellis Diary.”

With the possibilities afforded by the Internet clearer than ever, the above goal remains high among my personal priorities. Though Eddie was suspicious of new technology, and the World Wide Web was still new when he died, A Diary of the Century, with every entry  bearing the date he wrote it, will lend itself beautifully to blogging someday; in fact, it’d be fair to say that Eddie was a kind of proto-blogger before the term was known. In addition to this recollection of Eddie, I have posted a selection of readings from his diary, and here’s a link to a recent story I wrote about Eddie’s work with Letts of London, the diary publisher who’ve been selling blank journals since 1796.

** After publishing A Diary of the Century in 1995 I also republished the three backlist books by Ellis named above. The Epic of New York City has had more than ten printings since then.