Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker

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9780375508905: Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker
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WINNER OF THE SPERBER PRIZE · NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE AND PUBLISHERS WEEKLY · This fascinating biography reveals the untold story of the legendary New Yorker profile writer—author of Joe Gould’s Secret and Up in the Old Hotel—and unravels the mystery behind one of literary history’s greatest disappearing acts.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Joseph Mitchell was Southern to the core. But from the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the voice of New York City. Readers of The New Yorker cherished his intimate sketches of the people who made the city tick—from Mohawk steelworkers to Staten Island oystermen, from homeless intellectual Joe Gould to Old John McSorley, founder of the city’s most famous saloon. Mitchell’s literary sensibility combined with a journalistic eye for detail produced a writing style that would inspire New Journalism luminaries such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion.
 
Then, all of a sudden, his stories stopped appearing. For thirty years, Mitchell showed up for work at The New Yorker, but he produced . . . nothing. Did he have something new and exciting in store? Was he working on a major project? Or was he bedeviled by an epic case of writer’s block?
 
The first full-length biography of Joseph Mitchell, based on the thousands of archival pages he left behind and dozens of interviews, Man in Profile pieces together the life of this beloved and enigmatic literary legend and answers the question that has plagued readers and critics for decades: What was Joe Mitchell doing all those years?
 
By the time of his death in 1996, Mitchell was less well known for his elegant writing than for his J. D. Salinger–like retreat from the public eye. For thirty years, Mitchell had wandered the streets of New York, chronicling the lives of everyday people and publishing them in the most prestigious publication in town. But by the 1970s, crime, homelessness, and a crumbling infrastructure had transformed the city Mitchell understood so well and spoke for so articulately. He could barely recognize it. As he said to a friend late in life, “I’m living in a state of confusion.”
 
Fifty years after his last story appeared, and almost two decades after his death, Joseph Mitchell still has legions of fans, and his story—especially the mystery of his “disappearance”—continues to fascinate. With a colorful cast of characters that includes Harold Ross, A. J. Liebling, Tina Brown, James Thurber, and William Shawn, Man in Profile goes a long way to solving that mystery—and bringing this lion of American journalism out of the shadows that once threatened to swallow him.
 
Praise for Man in Profile
 
“[An] authoritative new biography [about] our greatest literary journalist . . . Kunkel is the ideal biographer of Joseph Mitchell: As . . . a writer and craftsman worthy of his subject.”—Blake Bailey, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
 
“A richly persuasive portrait of a man who cared about everybody and everything.”London Review of Books

“Mitchell’s life and achievements are brought vividly alive in [this] splendid book.”Chicago Tribune

“A thoughtful and sympathetic new biography.”—Ruth Franklin, The Atlantic
 
“Excellent . . . A first-rate Mitchell biography was very much in order.”The Wall Street Journal

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About the Author:

Thomas Kunkel is the president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. He has served as president of American Journalism Review and as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He is the author or editor of five previous books, including Genius in Disguise, Enormous Prayers, and Letters from the Editor. He and his wife, Debra, have four grown daughters.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Wonderful Saloon

Throughout his life Bill’s principal concern was to keep McSorley’s exactly as it had been in his father’s time. When anything had to be changed or repaired, it appeared to pain him physically. For twenty years the bar had a deepening sag. A carpenter warned him repeatedly that it was about to collapse; finally, in 1933, he told the carpenter to go ahead and prop it up. While the work was in progress he sat at a table in the back room with his head in his hands and got so upset he could not eat for several days. In the same year the smoke- and cobweb-encrusted paint on the ceiling began to flake off and float to the floor. After customers complained that they were afraid the flakes they found in their ale might strangle them to death, he grudgingly had the ceiling repainted. In 1925 he had to switch to earthenware mugs; most of the pewter ones had been stolen by souvenir hunters. In the same year a coin-box telephone, which he would never answer himself, was installed in the back room. These were about the only major changes he ever allowed.

—From “The Old House at Home,” 1940

The low, late-afternoon sun fills the front of McSorley’s wonderful saloon with light the same color as the ale they’ve been dispensing here since before the Civil War. Even at this quiet hour, laborers from the East Village, NYU students, and a few stray sightseers fill most of the tables and the stools along the (again) sagging bar, across the top of which is carved the legend Be good or be gone. About half the patrons are women, a fact that would have dismayed “Old John” McSorley, the tavern’s founder and namesake, who enthusiastically enforced his male-only policy, to the point of personally showing bolder offenders the door. But progress nudges even landmarks, and McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of New York’s most venerable. It has been operating here, on East 7th Street just off Cooper Square, longer than any other tavern in the city.

Now a trim, erect man walks in to the tavern, bringing with him a bit of the season’s chill air. He removes his coat to reveal a smartly tailored Brooks Brothers suit, white shirt, and dark tie, all topped with a handsome fedora. He hangs the coat on a hook and takes a seat at a table near the back wall. At age seventy, he has the look of a much younger man, made all the more attractive by a small smile that he usually gets when he is back at McSorley’s. He is, in a word, exactly what people have in mind when they call a man “dapper.”

The elegant patron is the writer Joseph Mitchell, who has lived just a few short blocks from McSorley’s since he moved to Greenwich Village in the early forties. It is late autumn of 1978, although because this is McSorley’s it might just as well be 1878. He orders a tall mug of ale—at McSorley’s you can have light or dark, your only two choices of the house specialty, although they also have porter and stout. McSorley’s has never been big on choice, or change. The presence of women, in fact, is about the only accommodation the place has made to a postmodern age (and to its court rulings frowning on gender discrimination, even in quirky saloons). Certainly McSorley’s is much as it was in 1940, when Mitchell immortalized it in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. The same wavy plank floors are still slick with sawdust. Generations of names are carved into the same oaken tabletops. The same dust, only thicker, coats the same gaslight fixtures and firemen’s helmets and stopped clocks. Crowding the walls above the wainscoting are photographs of the same cops and pols and sports heroes, mostly Irish, all as dead as the New York they belonged to.

Mitchell watches the young man at the bar expertly draw another mug of ale, and he considers the establishment’s unbroken chain of Irish ownership. Old John McSorley opened it back in 1854 and was its sole proprietor until 1890, when he made his son, Bill, the head bartender. Bill took over in 1910 when the old man died. In 1936, Bill sold McSorley’s to a friend, Daniel O’Connell, and it would remain in O’Connell’s extended family for several generations until just the past year, when it was sold to Matthew Maher, yet another Irish immigrant who had worked at McSorley’s for fourteen years before taking it over. On this lazy afternoon Mitchell appears to be nursing a drink, but what he really is doing is watching, and listening—always listening. He overhears snippets of conversation off to one side or another, and once in a while, maybe catching a well-turned phrase, he removes a folded piece of paper from his jacket and makes note of it. (His note-taking regimen has never changed: Before he goes out for the day, he takes a piece of New Yorker copy paper, folds it in half, then neatly folds it again into thirds—the perfect size to slide in and out of a coat pocket, where he also keeps his ever-ready pencil.) In other words, Mitchell is doing precisely what he did back in 1940—hanging out, becoming a McSorley’s fixture himself, until the language, rhythms, and lore of the place are second nature and ready to be carried to the page.

Though Mitchell comes here often, on this particular afternoon he has a kind of mission. A friend has asked him to produce an essay in an effort to have the New York City Council proclaim a special day honoring McSorley’s when it reaches its soon-approaching one hundred twenty-fifth birthday. To his immense satisfaction, Mitchell’s appraisal is that McSorley’s not only has changed little since he profiled it almost four decades earlier, but it has changed little since Old John first opened the doors in the middle of the nineteenth century. “It is a landmark that has never had to depend on the Landmarks Preservation Commission or any other commission for its preservation,” Mitchell would write. “Its owners and bartenders and pot-boys and waiters and customers have preserved it without any outside help at all.” In his fifteen-hundred-word essay, which he apparently never intended for publication, Mitchell testified to the remarkable fact that McSorley’s somehow had managed to retain its crusty character even after becoming one of the most famous bars in the world. It did that, Mitchell said, by resolutely clinging to the tried and true:

As in [Old John’s] time, fresh sawdust is spread on the floor every morning. And, as in his time, the place is heated by a big potbelly stove. Some days in the dead of winter the coal in the stove is punched up so often that the belly turns cherry red. Several overfed cats sleep in corners or roam around under the chairs and tables, and they are reputed to be descendants of cats owned by John McSorley, who was a cat lover. The old man was especially fond of a cat named Minnie—a picture of her is on one of the walls—and to this day all cats in McSorley’s male or female are called Minnie.

At this point in his life, Mitchell finds the saloon’s resistance to change particularly gratifying, and it’s one of the reasons he keeps coming back. As he recorded in a kind of journal he kept sporadically in his later years, he liked to “find a chair at one of the round tables up near the front window and sit there and look out on the street and drink a few mugs of ale and meditate on times gone by.” In subsequent journal notes he would write that “most of the NYC that I knew has disappeared—the Red Devil, the Pantheon, the Villanova, the Blue Ribbon, Perry’s Pharmacy in the World Building: coffee urns, counter stools.” The Red Devil, Pantheon, and Villanova were but a few of the restaurants Mitchell used to frequent with his great friend and eating companion A. J. Liebling, as well as other New Yorker colleagues. The Blue Ribbon was the restaurant where New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross recruited Mitchell, back in 1938. Now the Blue Ribbon, like Liebling—like the immortal Ross himself—was gone. McSorley’s was one of the few places left where Mitchell could “escape for a while from the feeling that the world is out of control and about to come to an end.”

His gloom is understandable. Outside these smoke-infused walls, inflation is galloping and America is stuck in its post-Watergate, post-Vietnam miasma of frustration and cynicism. And New Yorkers have things even worse. Their city is basically broke (only three years earlier, the Daily News published its infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead headline), a crime-ridden punch line, a living symbol of despair and dysfunction. It’s dirty and dangerous, with rampant crime and an army of panhandling homeless. Perhaps worse for Mitchell, a champion of New York’s historic preservation, the city has been knocking down its architectural patrimony, including such magnificent examples as McKim, Mead & White’s original Pennsylvania Station. The combined circumstances have helped put Mitchell in a discouraged frame of mind, more or less permanently.

Yet Mitchell’s discouragement goes a good deal deeper than watching the atrophy of his adopted home, a place he has come to know as intimately as the swamps and tobacco fields of his native North Carolina. By his own admission he has been “living in the past,” carrying around a heavy melancholy, for years. He has waged a fierce but worsening battle with depression, or what he would call “the black dog.” Just a few years earlier he lost his father, whose approval he sought his entire life and who cultivated in him a still-raw guilt about having left the family homestead half a century ago. His long-term employer, The New Yorker, is no longer America’s uncontested arbiter of culture, and under its eccentrically brilliant editor, William Shawn, there are now times when it seems to almost parody itself. Then there is the deepest cut: It has been fourteen years since Mitchell has published a piece in the magazine. A man who for decades had been an avatar of literary nonfiction, a role model for a generation of journalistic acolytes, is becoming something of a punch line himself, to jokes about the world’s longest case of writer’s block. Whispers are turning to outright questioning: What is Joe Mitchell doing?

That, alas, is rather hard to answer, especially since, in all those intervening years, Mitchell hasn’t exactly been suffering from writer’s block; indeed, he has been writing quite steadily throughout. It’s just that he isn’t finishing anything. Some who are close to Mitchell and have watched him become ever more deliberate over the years feel he has turned into such a perfectionist that nothing he produces is good enough for him—and there is at least some truth to that. In his anxious, unsettled state, he is moving from one ambiguous subject to another. Even now, besides the short McSorley’s essay, he is hard at work on a book project that is attempting to merge autobiography with an overarching mosaic of his beloved New York City—a kind of Gotham version of what the writer he most reveres, James Joyce, had done with Dubliners. But will he be able to do it? By this point he has absolutely no confidence that he can.

Literary journalism is the convergence of superior reportage and writing that manages to be both penetrating and transcendent. Put another way, it is everyday life transported to the realm of art. It is a union that occurs rarely. Joseph Mitchell was the greatest literary journalist of his time—some would have it of all time. With prodigious skills of observation, with curiosity and empathy, with prose as unforced as it was precise, Mitchell crafted some of the most memorable characters in the nonfiction canon. Other New Yorker writers, like his stablemate Liebling, would travel the world or turn to politics or business or war to find compelling subjects; Mitchell found his around the corner, virtually without leaving the city limits of New York, which as a young newspaperman he came to know intimately by walking neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. To say that Mitchell wrote about New York, however, is to say that his hero wrote about Dublin. Mitchell, like Joyce, simply used his city as the canvas for stories that went to the heart of the human condition. So it is that we have Mazie, the tough Bowery ticket-taker with the heart of gold. And Commodore Dutch, who gave an annual ball to benefit himself. And Ellery Thompson, world-wise captain of a Connecticut trawler. And the bearded circus performer, Lady Olga. There are the oystermen and clam-diggers and fishmongers of Mitchell’s treasured waterfront haunts, as well as the courageous Mohawks who worked in high steel. There is the strange, mesmerizing figure of Joe Gould, who was compiling a massive Oral History of Our Time. And there is George Hunter, who oversaw a remote cemetery on Staten Island and who perfectly channeled Mitchell’s own pervasive sense of melancholy and mortality.

Mitchell seemed to prove the journalist’s adage that there is a story in anyone if only you take the time to listen. That’s not really true, of course; everyone may have a story, but it takes a connoisseur to ascertain the handful worth telling. In Mitchell’s hands, outwardly unremarkable people yielded remarkable tales, all conveyed with novelistic detail and the explorer’s sense of delight. “He is a reporter only in the sense that Defoe is a reporter, a humorist only in the sense that Faulkner is a humorist,” said the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Malcolm Cowley was the first significant critic to point out that Mitchell’s work was rising to the level of art. His characters “might have come straight out of Dickens,” Cowley wrote in the early forties. As it happens, some who knew him well viewed Mitchell himself as a kind of Dickensian character, idiosyncratic enough to rival his own colorful subjects. Whether in pursuit of good stories, good talk, or good food, Mitchell walked the city incessantly, and little escaped his notice. He was fascinated by architecture and building materials, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to return to the tiny Greenwich Village apartment he shared with his wife and two daughters with bricks (all the manufacturers had their distinctive signatures), or discarded posters from the Fulton Fish Market, or pickle forks from hotel dining rooms (Mitchell wound up accumulating nearly three hundred), or the colorful glass insulators from telephone and electric lines. He saved restaurant menus and matchbook covers and the tiniest of receipts, and he was a faithful member of both the James Joyce Society and the Gypsy Lore Society. He was fastidious to the point of mild eccentricity. He never went outside without his hat, even if he was taking out the trash. If that trash included discarded razor blades or the lids of opened tin cans, he wrapped these carefully and then put them into Mason jars to protect the garbage collectors from accidental cuts. He routinely dusted his extensive book collection. He also enjoyed vacuuming, so much so that, later in life, he was known to turn up at his daughter’s apartment having lugged his own Hoover onto the train.

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