McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

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9780375421020: McSorley's Wonderful Saloon


“Mitchell’s collection of portraits is the exact opposite of the books that choose an important subject, but are hastily written and have nothing much to say. These books, which form the bulk of current writing, always make you feel as if you had paid for looking into the wrong end of a telescope. Mitchell, on the other hand, likes to start with an unimportant hero, but he collects all the facts about him, arranges them to give the desired effects, and usually ends by describing the customs of a whole community. Commodore Dutch, the subject of one portrait, ‘is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself.’ Mitchell doesn’t try to present him as anything more than a barroom scrounger; but in telling the story of his career, he also gives a picture of New York sporting life since the days of Big Tim Sullivan. The story called ‘King of the Gypsies’ is even better. It sets out to describe Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, the spokesman or king of thirty-eight gypsy families, but it soon becomes a Gibbon’s decline and fall of the American gypsies; and it ends with an apocalyptic vision that is not only comic but also, in its proper context, more imaginative than anything to be found in recent novels.
“Reading some of his portraits a second time, you catch an emotion beneath them that curiously resembles Dickens’: a continual wonder at the sights and sounds of a big city, a continual devouring interest in all the strange people who live there, a continual impulse to burst into praise of kind hearts and good food and down with hypocrisy.” —Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic

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About the Author:

Joseph Mitchell came to New York City on October 25, 1929 (the day after the stock-market crash), from a small farming town called Fairmont, in the swamp country of southeastern North Carolina. He was twenty-one years old and looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. He eventually managed to find work as an apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World. He was a reporter and feature writer—for The World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram—for eight years, and then went to The New Yorker, where he remained until his death, on May 24, 1996, at the age of eighty-seven.

Aside from writing, Mr. Mitchell’s interests included the waterfront of New York City, commercial fishing, gypsies, Southern agriculture, Irish literature, and the architecture of New York City. He served several terms on the board of directors of the Gypsy Lore Society, an international organization of students of gypsy life and the gypsy language, which was founded in England in 1888. Bajour, a musical comedy based on stories about gypsies by Mitchell, ran for 232 performances on Broadway in 1964-65. He was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum and one of the original members of the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture. For five years he was also one of the Commissioners of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Mr. Mitchell was married to the photographer Therese Mitchell, who died in 1980; they had two daughters, Nora Sanborn and Elizabeth Mitchell.

From Publishers Weekly:

"I don't think anything could be as much fun as to get a good hold on a pompous person and shake him or her until you can hear the false teeth rattling," says New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno to journalist Mitchell in a World-Telegram profile from the 1930s, but the sentiment could be applied to Mitchell himself. With the ability to turn bluntness to beauty, sarcasm to sincerity and plain speech to poetry, Mitchell who worked at the World-Telegram from 1930 to 1938 and spent the rest of his career at the New Yorker was a reporter and literary artist par excellence, interested in nearly everyone and everything. His profile of a stripper who begins naked and puts on her clothes is as fascinating as his sketch of George Bernard Shaw. Similarly, he is as empathetic toward Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan (the speakeasy queen usually called "Texas") as he is to the plight of Anne Morrow Lindbergh testifying at the kidnapping trial of her infant son. These 37 pieces and profiles most from the 1938 edition of this book, but with some new material added are breathtaking in their simplicity and honesty. Written at a time when newspapers tried to be as sensational as possible without appearing vulgar "belly" would be changed to "tummy" and "raped" became "criminally attacked" Mitchell made New York City shockingly vibrant and colorful without cheapening his subjects. He also evinced an empathy for African-Americans that's startling for the period (and the genre). In all, his liberating and refreshing honesty makes these pieces as vivacious, original and important as they were 65 years ago.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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