Around the Block with A.J. Liebling
Thirty years later I had a prolonged return match with Côte Rôtie, when I discovered it on the wine card of Prunier’s in London. I approached it with foreboding, as you return to a favorite author whom you haven’t read for a long time, hoping that he will be as good as you remember.
—A.J. Liebling, “Just Enough Money”
Since his death at the age of fifty-nine in 1963, the New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling has had a good posthumous run. His books have been in and out of print and then back in. He is often anthologized. His name pops up with some regularity, in the way that H.L. Mencken’s used to do. Ah, people say, wistfully, if only A.J. Liebling were alive to write about this or that event or personality!
Most frequently, they say this in connection with some piece of scandalous behavior on the part of the press—for Liebling was one of the first journalists to make the behavior of newspapers a part of his regular beat. But it was only a part. Francophile, gourmand, boxing aficionado, flâneur on an expense account, Liebling had the splendid luck to be able to write about anything that interested him for a good wage and for the large audience the New Yorker provided in what are generally considered to have been its glory days.
There were four hardy perennials in the magazine’s garden in those days. Liebling was one, and E.B. White, James Thurber, and Joseph Mitchell were the other three. (I make an exception of Edmund Wilson, who wrote regularly for the magazine but was never, strictly speaking, a New Yorker writer.) None of them has worn all that well. Aside from a couple of essays and his two popular children’s books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, White’s writing seems thin, overly delicate, self-approvingly sensitive. A few years ago, the Library of America devoted a volume to Thurber; reading through it, I found him, at best, only faintly amusing. As for Joseph Mitchell, who suffered a writer’s block of some 30 years’ duration, his career underwent a revival not long before his death with the appearance in 1992 of a retrospective collection, Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories; admirable though much of the writing seemed as reportage, it also seemed closer to history, or to historical curiosity, than to literature.
Which leaves A.J. Liebling. A new collection of his writing, Just Enough Liebling, has just come out, with an introduction by David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker. The book offers ample portions of journalism in his various bailiwicks: as World War II correspondent, boxing writer, gastronome, press critic, and chronicler of colorful urban characters. How has he held up?
Of the four regular New Yorker contributors, Liebling was the one whom I read with the greatest pleasure in my early twenties. Thurber and E.B. White, after all, wrote chiefly about small-town America, and Joseph Mitchell, whom I eventually came to know a little and like a lot, was a Southerner writing about the wonders of New York as essentially a refined and sympathetic tourist. Only Liebling seemed intensely urban and, to my mind, elegantly urbane.
He also happened to be the only Jew among them—or so one assumed from both his name and his sensibility, which was, in a phrase, worldly-ironic. His beat, too, was partly “Jewish”: New York bookies, promoters, people around the fight game, hustlers, and characters like Morty Ormont (formerly Goldberg), the manager of the Jollity Building on Broadway, the tummler Hymie Katz, and the gang at Izzy Vereshevsky’s I. & Y. Cigar Store.
Apart from some pieces he wrote about the Middle East late in his career, Liebling never mentioned his Jewishness. In Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling (1980), Raymond Sokolov makes the case that he was uneasy about it. His father, an immigrant from Austria, had come to America with nothing as a boy and done well. His mother was of a moderately wealthy Jewish family in San Francisco. In most ways, his was a privileged youth: German governesses were on the premises for him and his younger sister, and there was even a butler at their Long Island home.
Liebling would claim his parents had no social aspirations, but even his first name, Abbott, a pretentious Americanization of Abraham, bothered him; as early as he could, he insisted that friends call him Joe. On more than one occasion, he went out of his way not so much to put down as to cast aside his Jewishness. Part of the impression he wished to give was that of a citizen of the world: a man beyond mere religion or even ethnic identity.
One way in which Liebling was not privileged was in his physique. Near-sighted, a fat boy with dainty hands and disproportionately small feet, ill-coordinated, two years ahead of himself in school, he came to admire the Irish kids in the neighborhood who were better athletes, tougher, and generally more at ease than he. He was one of those little boys who become absorbed with military history because they know that they are unlikely to create any on their own.
As a schoolboy writer, Liebling must also have known that his was to be a spectatorial life, a life spent leaning against the wall watching other people dance and then running home to record his impressions. But if one was condemned to live life at a second remove, journalism offered the best ringside seat. H.L. Mencken, with whom Liebling is often compared, remarks in one of his autobiographical volumes that when he finished high school he had the choice of going to college, which would mean listening to the prattlings of boring German professors and on Saturdays sitting in the football stands wearing a raccoon coat, or of getting a job on a newspaper, which would mean flying off to fires, attending executions, and going along on raids of bordellos.
No real choice here, as Mencken saw it, and he took a pass on college. Liebling himself, although he went to Dartmouth at sixteen, soon cut loose to enter the larger world of metropolitan journalism. He worked first in Providence, then in New York, and eventually pitched up at the New Yorker, where he found a permanent home.
Right out of the chute as a journalist, Liebling set himself up as a man of the world. Not yet truly worldly, he gave a fine impression of it even when young, and would keep it up all his life in whatever he wrote. If cynicism, as he would later write, “is often the shamefaced product of inexperience,” worldliness is the product of more than one walk around the block; and he managed to get around that block quite a few times.
Three things he admired above all else: courage, craft, and con. He honored gallant soldiers, hardworking boxers who knew their craft, and con men in possession of panache. He wrote about soldiers in his dispatches from Europe during World War II, a period he would later recall in his memoir, Normandy Revisited. About boxers he wrote mostly in the 1950′s, which is when the sport was in the midst of a great era in every weight division. I never thought a championship fight was quite over until I read Liebling’s account of it in the New Yorker a week or so later. Although he claimed that the English essayist William Hazlitt was a dilettante when it came to boxing, he took Hazlitt’s famous essay, “The Fight,” for his model of how to proceed, writing about preparations for the fight, getting to the fight, the fight itself, and the aftermath of the fight.
Liebling’s writing on boxing tended to shade into his pieces on New York low-lifes: men who could turn a quick buck through ingenuity and without undue perspiration. Preeminent among them was an old racing writer for the New York Evening Journal named J.S.A. Macdonald, who also called himself Colonel John R. Stingo. Liebling published a number of pieces on the Colonel, brought together as a fake as-told-to book titled The Honest Rainmaker (fake in the sense that Liebling probably supplied lots of what movie credits used to refer to as “additional dialogue”).
In an early chapter of his last book, The Earl of Louisiana, Liebling reported on a tour he had taken of the Council Chamber of the city of New Orleans, his guide announcing that “each session of the Council is opened with a prayer by a minister of one of the three great faiths, Catholic, Protestant, and Hebrew. They take it in rotation.” To which Liebling adds, rounding out the paragraph, “I touched my breast, to make sure my wallet was still with me.”
Always on the qui vive for scam artists, he was also inordinately fond of them. His own great scam, or so he allowed his readers to think, was journalism itself. He could make the writing of a New Yorker piece sound more like a night on the town than the kind of effort that craft of the kind he commanded requires. The picture he would draw of himself, a fat man stopping for a snack of pork chops and bourbon in a Harlem restaurant before taking off for a championship fight at the Garden, all expenses paid, was itself pleasing to contemplate. Whatever his subject, he caused his readers to believe that life was a great amusement, a sweet adventure, and even if they could not participate in it directly, in him they had the best possible cicerone, the man in possession of the real lowdown, the true gen, on all the proceedings.
Of Liebling’s various subjects, food, mostly the food he had eaten in Paris as a young man, was the one with obsessional standing. It pops up almost everywhere; he mined it for metaphors; and, no mere theoretician, he consumed it in sufficient quantities that, bald and round-pated and wearing round wireless glasses as he did, he came to resemble nothing so much as an octopus without the advantage of tentacles.
Unfortunately, Liebling proved unable to follow the sensible regimen of his idol Colonel Stingo, who proclaimed: “I have three rules of keeping in condition. I will not let guileful women move in on me, I decline all responsibility, and I shun exactious luxuries, lest I become their slave.” Liebling had three marriages, two of them disasters and the third, to the writer Jean Stafford, no déjeuner sur l’herbe. Despite his impressive literary productivity, his high living kept him always in debt. Food and drink gave him the gout as well as the systemic kidney and heart troubles that eventually killed him. Luxuries hardly get more exactious than that.
If Colonel Stingo was, in Liebling’s description, “the best curve-ball writer since Anatomy Burton and Sir Thomas Browne,” Liebling himself threw lots of knuckleballs. You could never know where many of his sentences were going, though they invariably managed to wind up smack in the catcher’s mitt for a clean strike. In writing about the European theater in World War II, his prose was plain but efficient, with occasional ironic touches. But the older he got, the lower his subjects became, the more rococo grew his prose. As a stylist, he belonged to the category of deliberate overwriters for comic effect. Other famous practitioners in this line include Mencken, Westbrook Pegler, and Murray Kempton, who, when the mood struck him, could write about Jimmy Hoffa in the cadences of Lord Macaulay.
A characteristic Liebling sentence is stoked with an unexpected allusion snugly woven into complex syntax, usually topped off with a striking image. Here he is on a secondary corner man at Wiley’s Gym in New York:
His thin black hair was carefully marcelled along the top of his narrow skull, a long gold watch chain dangled from his fob pocket, and he exuded an air of elegance, precision, and authority, like a withered but still peppery mahout in charge of a string of not quite bright elephants.
A 19th-century boxing writer named Pierce Egan is said to have given Liebling his clue to the device of applying high reference to low subject. But no one could have taught him his gift for metaphor and simile, which, as Aristotle instructs in the Rhetoric, is god-given. He could do the quick, sharp simile: “Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly.” He could do the complex simile: “The moon slipped into a cloud abruptly, like a watch going into a fat man’s vest pocket, and didn’t come out again.” And he could do the elaborately extended metaphor, as when he strung a 4,000-word essay about Stillman’s Gym out of its jokey metaphoric title, “The University of Eighth Avenue.”
His style gave Liebling a nice comic distance from his subject, allowing him to view the world as if he were an anthropologist from another planet, or perhaps an ironist from an earlier century. In this capacity he wrote an exceptionally large number of amusing sentences, and no one was more amused by them than he. At the office of the New Yorker, he could be heard laughing out loud in the act of composition. His own assessment of his talent was that he “could write better than anyone who could write faster, and faster than anyone who could write better.”
Not all the similes came off. “Newspapers can be more fun than a quiet girl,” for example, isn’t even on the dart board. And sometimes the whole bit could seem gratuitous and overworked, as when he brought in Henry James while commenting on a boxer who had strangled a monkey; reading such stuff today, you can almost hear the shriek of a whistle, the spray of ice, the referee calling a penalty for high schticking.
Liebling’s attitude toward his subjects was another matter. The New Yorker had three writers on the low-life beat: Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and the now nearly forgotten John McNulty. Mitchell entered into the low-life scene with genuine sympathy. McNulty did not have to enter into it, having come out of that life himself as the child of working-class Irish parents; if he reported the elevator man in his building playing the ponies every day, he did so without condescension, for he was playing them, too.
Liebling’s view of the low-life scene gives a clue to his limitations. It was almost consistently condescending; in the end, his was a form of highly amusing slumming on behalf of middle-class readers. He played the bad grammar and mispronunciations of the trainer Whitey Bimstein for laughs; he regarded anyone not from New York or France as a yokel; and he never really moved beyond treating his subjects as other than colorful characters. “I never married,” the boxing manager Charlie Goldman says, “I always live a la cart.” Raymond Sokolov thinks “this bending down of Liebling’s to his material” not snobbish but rather “a trick of perspective that did not diminish Liebling’s subject but did serve to enlarge and exalt Liebling.” This, however, is precisely how snobbery works.
Much of Liebling’s writing seems dated now, as dated as Joseph Mitchell’s and for some of the same reasons. Something grim has happened to the culture. Today we no longer have “characters” but only “cases.” The interesting drunks in McSorley’s saloon, written about so sympathetically by Mitchell, have been reduced in our understanding to alcoholics suffering from a genetic disease; the outlandish Joe Gould, who confided in Mitchell that he was writing a history of the world, strikes us as little more than a pathetic homeless man edging into psychosis.
Most dated among all of Liebling’s writings are the ones for which he is currently most honored: his essays on the press. In his time, he was considered heroic for taking on his own medium of journalism, but neither the press he was critical of nor the issues he thought central really exist any longer. He regarded nothing as more dangerous than a one-paper town, and looked upon the swallowingup of one newspaper by another—as happened in the early 1960′s in New Orleans and elsewhere—a disaster for democratic discourse. He felt newspaper ownership was largely in the hands of Republican fat cats who tyrannized over their reporters, forcing them to write both news and editorials the way they, the owners, wanted. “Freedom of the press,” he wrote in what has become his best known aphorism, “belongs to them who own one.” Today one can only say: tell that to the publishers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, who, far from tyrannizing over their staffs, seem to have acquired their inadequate education and ideas from reading their own employees.
Liebling’s other criticisms seem similarly irrelevant today. A one-paper town is now a smaller problem than the fact that fewer and fewer people read newspapers at all. Journalism is less and less about scouting stories than about cultivating leaks—Pulitzer prizes in our time go to those with the best undisclosed sources. The editorial page has increasingly given way to the op-ed mentality, in which an editor finds people who could not possibly agree on anything and turns them loose in the hope that something mystically known as “dialogue” will ensue. Then there is what appears to be the lessening of the national attention span, first understood by USA Today, whose editors picked up on the hard truth that people do not want more but briefer news, and most of it, thank you very much, about sports and celebrities.
Next to these and other matters, Liebling’s complaints about unfair coverage of labor disputes or journalists faking things when they lack real information—an example included in Just Enough A.J. Liebling is the reporting on Stalin’s illness and death when no one could be quite sure of either—now seem quaint and not especially readable.
Worldliness, alas, pales and very quickly stales. It is a fine thing to know the score; but the problem is, the score is always changing. Charm, too, can wear thin if there is not much else behind it, and it is difficult to say what else but charm there was behind Liebling’s writing. Is it sufficient that he was indeed vigilant in his refusal not to let anyone, in the phrase of E.E. Cummings, pull the wool over his toes? In the end we want to know what a writer thinks of life.
The writer to whom Liebling is most frequently compared is H.L. Mencken. The comparison much favors Mencken. He, too, prided himself on being worldly and unconnable, but he was deeper, more thoughtful, and more learned than Liebling, whose own reading and general culture were thin. Although Liebling rarely missed a chance to mock “the boys from the quarterlies” or take a shot at people who got a charge out of using the word “dichotomy,” Mencken’s attacks on intellectual quackery were wider-ranging and more penetrating because they had philosophical backing. In an essay in one of his Prejudices volumes, Mencken wrote:
No one knows Who created the visible universe. And it is infinitely improbable that anything properly describable as evidence on the point will ever be discovered. No one knows what motives or intentions, if any, lie behind what we call natural laws. No one knows why man has his present form. No one knows why sin or suffering were sent into this world—that is, why the fashioning of man was so badly botched.
It is difficult to imagine Liebling writing such a passage, or having such thoughts about such things, even inchoately.
What did Liebling think? Politically he was a liberal, in the old-fashioned and honorable sense of being on the side of the underdog. He was generally for fairness, though he was not always fair himself, to put it mildly. To his credit, his political sentiments did not extend to sharing a taste for the strong anti-Americanism espoused by a writer like Graham Greene. (One of the last pieces he wrote for the New Yorker was an attack on Greene’s The Quiet American.) Yet nothing like a vision or view of the world emerges from his voluminous journalism.
When John Lardner, his colleague at the New Yorker, died, Liebling was assigned the obituary. Lardner “was a funny writer,” he wrote, “and, though he would never have admitted it, an artist.” I suspect Liebling, if so accused, would have been pleased to admit it. Sokolov’s case for Liebling’s artistry is that he “possessed a first-rate literary sensibility and worked intricately in genres the world dismisses as second-rate.” I prefer the assessment of the New Yorker‘s cover artist Saul Steinberg: “He was out of an 18th-century world of elegance based on artificiality, and he had prepared a sort of personality for himself.”
In its day, that personality not only charmed but suggested inner depths that, sadly, were not really there. In that sense, Just Enough A.J. Liebling, the title of this newest collection, is peculiarly apt. Rather than enticing us to read on, it suggests satiety: we’ve had just enough. About a writer I once admired, even adored, I derive no pleasure in saying this.
In his biography of Whittaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus reports that Liebling not only repeated stories about Chambers’s paranoia but at one point became a “clandestine operative for Alger Hiss,” tricking the Columbia literary scholar Mark Van Doren into “handing over his Chambers correspondence and then deliver[ing] the letters to Hiss’s attorney Harold Rosenwald.” With what Tanenhaus calls “remarkable audacity,” Liebling then “continued to report on the case in his ‘Wayward Press’ columns [in the New Yorker] even as he tweaked the nation’s dailies for their biased coverage.”