Wednesday, May 7, 2014


          One morning I found myself singing on my way to the train station (quietly, so as not to alarm other walkers) lines which Oscar Hammerstein could only wish he’d written: “I’m as corny as Kansas in August/ High as a kite on the Fourth of July.” The kite is my mother’s contribution; Nellie Forbush actually claims to be normal as blueberry pie. I suppose this is reasonable, since Nurse Forbush would probably not wish to warble about being habitually intoxicated on national holidays.[1] My mother had a tendency to improve lyrics and make clichés fly off at oblique  angles.

          And why was I thinking about my mother? Because I was reading E.B. White’s letters, which is the sort of book I’d recommend to her, or at least talk over, were she still around. My mother seemed to know whatever could be known about the early eras of The New Yorker and those who wrote for it. For example, I’m pretty certain that she told me what the “E.B.” stands for (Elwyn Brooks), and that White was called Andy because he went to Cornell where all men named White are so called in honor of an early Cornell grand poobah named Andrew White. She also, at different times, mentioned that Roger Angell was his step-son, and the son of Katherine White, and that White had left New York to live on a farm in Maine. I am morally certain she knew White’s father ran a piano company, and would take odds she could have specified which company it was.

          Why was it that my mother knew how John Lardner had died, or where John McNulty went to drink, or why Frank Sullivan, whose Christmas poems she always welcomed, seldom left Saratoga? What was the profit in knowing the track of Harold Ross’ career before the New Yorker, or being able to trace his relations with Jane Grant? She was like a distant member of an illustrious family who keeps up a close interest in the doings of her famous relatives. Not that she felt anything like unmixed admiration for them; Dorothy Parker’s drinking worried her; she felt Wolcott Gibbs could have been nicer, and Ross had made some slighting remarks about Jews. I will never know what she had against Corey Ford.

          She didn’t talk much about the cartoonists, except for George Price. I think she had a certain fondness also for Peter Arno, too, and perhaps for Alan Dunne (which may have stemmed from her having been given a book of his cartoons for an architecture magazine), whom she made sure I knew was married to Helen Hokinson. On request, she could have explained what Gus Lobrano did, or who Lipstick was, or who selected the newsbreaks and wrote captions for them (White, again).

          My mother came from a family into which she didn’t fit well. As a grown-up she kept track of the doings of her cousins, aunts and uncles,[2] but seldom spoke to them, and rarely saw them. (The most rational explanation of how she still knew so much about what they were doing is that she was a telepath.) Perhaps when she began reading The New Yorker and of its sort-of ancestor the Algonquin Round Table (whose every member she knew, as well as having at her fingertips an encyclopedic collection of their mots) as a bright, alienated teenager, it seemed a glimpse of another land – one where she had some claim to be a citizen. It held always a special place for her, and this feeling was, to some degree, passed down to me. I rather wish I had thanked her.

[1] Actually, a serious drug or drinking problem might well improve her; she generally comes across as someone who would lose an argument with a bag of hammers. Writing this, it has suddenly occurred to me to ask why hammers are stigmatized as dumb, as opposed to other tools which aren’t customarily chided for their intellectual lacks. It must be that they’re being contrasted to their partners, nails. While nails don’t shine in conversation either, to call them dumb would invite some riposte about their actually  being sharp.
[2] Whose number I could never get straight; she could always spring a new one on me, claiming that I must know who Bebbe was, and how Menachem, Adele and Naomi were related.

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