The New Yorker

Admittedly, I was not a writer, at least not in the strictest definition of the word ("someone who writes"), but I was determined to be one that day in 1927 when I stepped off the elevator on the eighteenth floor at 25 West Forty-fifth Street, the offices of the soon-to-be-legendary magazine, The New Yorker.

I was arriving at a time when James Thurber, Ring Lardner, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Parker, and E.B. White roamed the hallways hurling witty insults at each other. Hoping to increase my visibility in this world, I immediately joined in the fray.

"How's the wife?" I asked Thurber. He handed me a flask filled with what I later discovered was a particularly potent form of rum. Before I knew it I was making a pass at the bespectacled Dorothy Parker, who seemed pleasantly surprised. I felt right at home.

As for the actual work of writing, the rough-hewn founder and editor of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was always around to help. After giving me my first assignment, a profile of James J. "Jimmy" Walker, New York's controversial mayor, Ross indicated he wanted to see something on his desk "in the near future." I took that to mean immediately, so I wasted no time finding an empty cubicle (it turned out to be Bob Benchley's!) and began to hammer out the best damned profile of Walker that was ever written. Or so I thought.

"Dy-no-mite!" the first draft began, and that was my first mistake. Ross was dumbfounded by my reference to a catch phrase from a TV show that wouldn't exist for another fifty years. I quickly withdrew it.

On the next draft, Ross came to me with a look of utter befuddlement. "Incomprehensible" was how he characterized my comparison of Walker to Bob Hope's portrayal of him in a 1957 movie (Beau James).

He just stood there, shaking his head.

"What if I compare him to La Guardia?" I suggested, referring to Fiorello La Guardia, the man who would succeed Walker as mayor. Ross looked at me as if I were a madman. I knew my time at The New Yorker would be brief if I didn't come up with some appealing new angle—and fast.

"I've got it!" I declared. "I'll make him an icon, a symbol of the fun-loving, devil-may-care Roaring Twenties. I'll make him the symbol of the Jazz Age…"

Ross eyed me warily, but at least he was listening. Emboldened, I continued.

"And not just a symbol of his own time, but a harbinger of things to come: the crash of '29; the Great Depression; the New Deal; the rise of Hitler; World War Two; the Holocaust; the atom bomb; the Cold War; the first man on the Moon; the collapse of Communism…" I paused, trying to read Ross's face. He said nothing. I assumed he was impressed by my concise distillation of the balance of the Twentieth Century. I assumed wrongly.

"I'm going to put White on this one," he declared. "You're fired."

Crushed, I shuffled off to the elevator, pressed the Down button, and took one last look at those hallowed halls. The elevator arrived. As I stepped on I heard a voice.

"The flask."

It was Thurber. He wanted his flask back. I didn't think he'd mind, so I took a swig. After all, it was Prohibition. He nodded unsmilingly, and I handed it to him. The elevator doors closed.

Return to Selected Works