Life, Death, War and The New Yorker

By Stuart Mitchner

I grew up eating breakfast and lunch (and snacks) in the same room as a large threepart folding screen decorated from top to bottom with New Yorker covers. It was the only piece of furniture my parents owned that had no discernible purpose other than to be its own odd, cheery, colorful self. My Medievalist father, who was accustomed to working with illuminated manuscripts, had meticulously assembled and arranged it, making sure everything was precisely aligned. The screen, with all its vivid, amusing imagery refl ecting our familial infatuation with New York City was a companiable presence at a time when my diet consisted mostly of open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then and now the ultimate comfort food.

It wasn’t until the Christmas week we spent in the city when I was ten that I began to understand why the name “New Yorker” meant so much to my parents, who had submitted numerous stories to the magazine over the years; now that I think of it, that may have served as a sort of surrogate journey, as if they were submitting themselves to New York through the New Yorker. Two of the plays they’d written together when they were courting had been bought by Samuel French, so they had reason to dream of leaving the midwest to live in the city and become a famous playwriting team. To make ends meet, my father would play piano in a bar, and my mother would be a stenographer. They settled instead in a college town where my father entered graduate school and my mother went to work in a law office. We did eventually get to live a year in the city when the Medievalist was busy “Englishing” a 15th-century encyclopedia in the vaults of Columbia University’s Low Library; we also spent two memorable summers in a house on Washington Square whose interior, we were told, had been used during the filming of The Heiress. It was around the time that we began to know the city as occasional residents that the New Yorker screen disappeared, although intact copies of the magazine continued to be a household presence.

The covers on the screen dated back to at least April 27, 1940, that being the date of the one I know I saw there—a James Thurber vision of spring in all its naked glory, with pink men and women, boys and girls, and sheep and birds, all capering nakedly about on a soft green landscape under a yellow sky. Another image I’m pretty sure I saw there was William Steig’s four-panel cartoon-style kids-and-fi reworks cover from July 6, 1940. Years later when I was a sales clerk at the Eighth Street Bookshop in the Village it was a treat to say “hi” to Steig himself, always my favorite celebrity customer, a chunky, friendly, grown-up version of one of his own cartoon kids.

THE PEARL HARBOR ISSUE

As subscribers for the better part of thirty years, my wife and I have enough New Yorkers scattered around the house to decorate a dozen screens. Set apart from the contemporaries are a number of special issues, the earliest from 1941, the latest from 1986.

The only New Yorker my parents passed on to me is the November 22,1941 issue, with a Rea Irvin cover that shows a butler looking askance at a group of trick or treaters because the one in front is wearing a Hitler mask. On the top right of the cover my father has written, “This issue supposed to be full of warnings of the Pearl Harbor attack.”

According to Ladislas Farago’s book The Broken Seal (Random House 1967), the coded ads, headed Uchtung! Warning! Alerte!, were for a dice game called The Deadly Double and contained numbers—XX 12 24 on the white dice, 0 5 7 on the black dice —informing enemy agents about the date, time, and place of the attack. The smaller ads (a column wide, 2 inches high) definitely have a suspect, sinister look (in fact, the film reviewed in the same issue is Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion). The first one, on page 32, appears between an ad for Levando gloves (“beloved by every woman who treasures fine things”) and a caricature of Eddy Duchin advertising his appearance at “the new informal Wedgwood Room of the Waldorf Astoria (cover charge ranges from $1 to $1.50). The other small ones are identical and appear with ads for Crosse & Blackwell marmalade, Keen’s English Chop House, and the Persian Room at the Plaza. The smaller ads direct readers to the main event, which runs the length of a single column on page 70. At the top is a black sky criss-crossed by air-raid searchlights and starred with explosions while in an underground shelter a group of smiling men and women are rolling dice. The text begins “We hope you’ll never have to spend a long winter’s night in an air-raid shelter,” and urges you to bring along the dice and chips of The Deadly Double.

The FBI investigation, which involved a visit to the New Yorker offices, came up empty, and to this day the case is unresolved. While the coded ads give that particular issue a certain mystique, there’s pleasure enough to be had in simply turning the pages, still brightly, crisply substantial, reflecting the ambience of a great American magazine two weeks before Pearl Harbor changed everything. Of course if you own the CD-rom of the Complete New Yorker, or if you’re a current subscriber,you can scan it in the archive, but to “be there” you need to be in touch with the real thing; the character of the magazine exalts the content, an archive in the making, living history, each issue part of a continum where Imogene Coca will always be playing at La Martinque, Benny Goodman at the New Yorker Hotel, Glenn Miller at the Pennsylvania, of course (just dial “Pennsyvania 6-5000”), and Leadbelly and Josh White at the Village Vanguard.

SALINGER’S LAST?

Of the other older issues I’ve saved, three are Salingers, one from 1948 (“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”), one from 1955 (“Franny”), both with covers by Leonard Dove, and, most precious, the issue I’ve had since it came out in June 19, 1965, with one of Steig’s most most charming covers ever, man and woman kissing in a dream of spring, a pug-faced angel hovering overhead. Inside is J.D. Salinger’s last piece of published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which runs nearly the length of the magazine (pp 32- 113). I’m among those who see great things to come in this much-misunderstood and under-appreciated letter from camp by five-year-old Seymour Glass, with its sublimely (or ridiculously, depending on your point of view) comprehensive list of books to be rounded up by “the imcomparable Miss Overman” at the “customary annex branch” of the library. And as always, there’s the pageant of art and life in the city that never sleeps, where Mose Allison and Sonny Rollins are playing at the Vanguard, Charlie Mingus at the Village Gate, Dizzy Gillespie at the Metropole; where two plays produced by Mike Nichols (Luv and The Odd Couple) are at the Booth and the Plymouth, Zero Mostel’s all over the stage at the Imperial in Fiddler on the Roof, and Barbra Streisand is Fanny Brice reincarnate in Funny Girl at the Winter Garden.

CLOSER TO HOME

Two other issues I saved were dated December 18, 1978, the day my mother died, and April 14, 1986, the day my father died. In the course of writing this piece, I’ve seen a lot of New Yorker cover art, from the years of my father’s screen to the edgier Tina Brown era of the 1990s. The great majority of the imagery is peopled, active, humorous, cute, topical, satirical, rarely elegaic, which helps explain how I felt when I saw Eugène Mihaesco’s cover image of shafts of light beaming through the great windows of Grand Central, the view my parents and I saw on the day we arrived for that first Christmas week in the city. The convergence of the imagery and the date would have pleased my sentimental mother. Eight years later, Robert Tallon’s cover shows an empty chair in a barren room, just the sort of no-nonsense image my austere, unsentimental father would have appreciated. These images sealed the bond I feel with the magazine I grew up with.