The Fun of It: Stories from the Talk of the Town

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William Shawn once called The Talk of the Town the soul of the magazine. The section began in the first issue, in 1925. But it wasn't until a couple of years later, when E. B. White and James Thurber arrived, that the Talk of the Town story became what it is today: a precise piece of journalism that always gets the story and has a little fun along the way.

The Fun of It is the first anthology of Talk pieces that spans the magazine's life. Edited by Lillian Ross, the longtime ...

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William Shawn once called The Talk of the Town the soul of the magazine. The section began in the first issue, in 1925. But it wasn't until a couple of years later, when E. B. White and James Thurber arrived, that the Talk of the Town story became what it is today: a precise piece of journalism that always gets the story and has a little fun along the way.

The Fun of It is the first anthology of Talk pieces that spans the magazine's life. Edited by Lillian Ross, the longtime Talk reporter and New Yorker staff writer, the book brings together pieces by the section's most original writers. Only in a collection of Talk stories will you find E. B. White visiting a potter's field; James Thurber following Gertrude Stein at Brentano's; Geoffrey Hellman with Cole Porter at the Waldorf Towers; A. J. Liebling on a book tour with Albert Camus; Maeve Brennan ventriloquizing the long-winded lady; John Updike navigating the passageways of midtown; Calvin Trillin marching on Washington in 1963; Jacqueline Onassis chatting with Cornell Capa; Ian Frazier at the Monster Truck and Mud Bog Fall Nationals; John McPhee in virgin forest; Mark Singer with sixth-graders adopting Hudson River striped bass; Adam Gopnik in Flatbush visiting the ìgrandest theatre devoted exclusively to the movies; Hendrik Hertzberg pinning down a Sulzberger on how the Times got colorized; George Plimpton on the tennis court with Boris Yeltsin; and Lillian Ross reporting good little stories for more than forty-five years. They and dozens of other Talk contributors provide an entertaining tour of the most famous section of the most famous magazine in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Since its inception, witty journalistic pieces of under 1,000 words ("talk stories," as they are referred to by staff) have appeared in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column. Ross (Here but Not Here), a contributor for 45 years, has collected the best of these essays, spanning the entire 75-year history of the magazine. Until the 1990s, stories were never signed, so it is a pleasant revelation to discover how many of the most engrossing were penned by well-known and respected writers. Under the editorship of Howard Ross, the focus was and is now again on New York City. There is a humorous profile by E.B. White of a scholar at the Brooklyn Public Library who sent noted authors unsolicited critiques of their works (1930). Among other gems are James Thurber's impression of artist Diego Rivera (1931) and author Gertrude Stein (1934) when they were in Manhattan, he to prepare for an exhibit of his work at MoMA and she to autograph books at Brentano's. It wasn't until WWII, when male reporters became scarce, that women, including Andy Logan, were hired for the column. Logan interviewed Tennessee Williams (1945), and Lillian Ross herself spoke with a 25-year-old Norman Mailer (1948). Although there are many enjoyable articles from more recent decades by gifted writers like Susan Orlean, John McPhee and Julian Barnes, it is the earlier selections that appeared under the editorial stewardship of Howard Ross and his successor William Shawn that evoke the deepest nostalgic pleasure. (May 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Over 74 years ago, the legendary Harold Ross introduced "The Talk of the Town" to readers of The New Yorker, and this pithy and droll column on life in New York remains an acclaimed favorite of the magazine's readers. Ross (Here but Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker, LJ 6/15/98), who began writing for The New Yorker in the Fifties and who regularly contributes to the section, here gathers a scintillating selection of stories from "Talk" in chronologically arranged sections that begin with the 1920s and end in 2000. Many of the early contributions were unsigned, but through archival research Ross ferrets out and reveals the authors of many of those initial pieces. Included in this lively collection are pieces by writers some of whom became New Yorker regulars such as Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, John Updike, Garrison Keillor, Ann Beattie, Bill McKibben, Roger Angell, Steve Martin, and Susan Orlean. Stories range from Thurber's hilarious take on Gertrude Stein at a book signing, Liebling on Albert Camus, Ross on Glenn Gould, Hendrik Hertzberg on Elvis and David Cassidy, and McKibben on the opening of a Bojangles chicken stand in Manhattan. These energetic sketches capture brilliantly the moments and memories that comprise the daily life of the city. Libraries that already own other Modern Library collections of New Yorker stories Wonderful Town (LJ 2/1/00), Life Stories (LJ 2/1/00), and Nothing but You (LJ 2/1/97) will certainly want to purchase this volume, and it is otherwise recommended for most collections. Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Seventy-five years' worth of the New Yorker's pithy, upfront mini-portraits of people and their times. Robert Benchley (1925) sets the tone—at once haute-monde, whimsical, and urban-sophisticate throughout—and Ross (herself a 45-year veteran of the section) caps it off (in 2000). America's preeminent belletrists of the 20th century—Updike, Thurber, Liebling, E.B. White—here get their due for what was once an unsigned hallmark of the magazine. Harold Ross and, later, William Shawn make occasional appearances, and Jackie Onassis signs her name (in 1975) to a treatise on New York landmark preservation. There's a trip to the dress shop with First Lady–elect Roosevelt on the eve of inauguration (1931); a talk with Norman Mailer, "whose novel ‘The Naked and the Dead' has been at the top of the best-seller lists for several months now" (1949); a visit to a young playwright-turned-politician named Gore Vidal (1960); plus the best of the best from recent years. An irresistible little treat for the New Yorker purists and latter-day fans all the same.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375756498
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2001
  • Series: Modern Library Classics Series
  • Edition description: MODERN LIB
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 1,409,202
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

David Remnick
As Lillian Ross writes in her Preface, Talk stories have today evolved into the sharpest, funniest, and often timeliest short-form writing in the history of the magazine. These little (a thousand words or less) gems now bear out the ultimate refinement of what Harold Ross wanted his magazine to be.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1



Among the major menaces to American journalism today (and there are so many that it hardly seems worth while even beginning this little article) is the O. Henry-Irvin Cobb tradition. According to this pretty belief, every reporter is potentially master of the short-story, and because of it we find Human Interest raising its ugly head in seven out of every eight news columns and a Human Document being turned out every time Henry H. Mackle of 1356 Grand Boulevard finds a robin or Mrs. Rasher Feiman of 425 West Forty-ninth Street attacks the scissors grinder.

Copy readers in the old days used to insist that all the facts in the story be bunched together in the opening paragraph. This never made for a very moving chronicle, but at least you got the idea of what was going on. Under the new system, where every reporter has his eye on George Horace Lorimer, you first establish your atmosphere, then shake a pair of doves out of the handkerchief, round off your lead with a couple of bars from a Chopin étude, and finally, in the next to last paragraph, divulge the names and addresses and what it was that happened.

A story which, under the old canons of journalism, would have read as follows:

"Mary J. Markezan, of 1278 Ocean Parkway, was found early this morning by Officer Charles Norbey of the Third Precinct in a fainting condition from lack of gin, etc."

now appeals to our hearts and literary sensibilities as follows:

"Up the dark stairs in a shabby house on Ocean Parkway plodded a bent, weary figure. An aroma of cooking cabbage filled the hall. Somebody's mother was coming home. Somebody's mother was bringing in an arm-full of wood for the meagre fire at 1857 Ocean Parkway. Soon the tired form would be at the top of the shadowy stairs. But Fate, in the person of Officer Norbey, was present, etc."

A fine bit of imaginative writing, satisfying everybody except the reader who wants to know what happened at 1857 Ocean Parkway.

Most of the trouble began about ten years ago when the Columbia School of Journalism began unloading its graduates on what was then the N. Y. Tribune (retaining the best features of neither). Every one of the boys had the O. Henry light in his eyes, and before long the market report was the only thing in the paper that didn't lead off with "Up the dark stairs at-"

Fine writing in news stories was actually encouraged by the management and daily prizes were offered for the best concealed facts. The writer of this article (Robert Benchley) was a reporter at the time-"the worst reporter in New York City" the editors affectionately called him-and one day he won the prize with a couple of sticks on the funeral of Ada Rehan. This story consisted of two paragraphs of sentimental contemplation of old-time English comedy with a bitterly satirical comparison with modern movie comedy, and a short paragraph at the end saying that Ada Rehan was buried yesterday. Unfortunately the exigencies of make-up necessitated the cutting of the last paragraph; so the readers of the Tribune the next morning never did find out what had inspired this really beautiful tribute to somebody.

From the Tribune the scourge of fine news writing has spread to all the other papers with the exception of the Times. Your Monday morning copy of the World reads like something you find on the table by the guest room bed-"Twenty Tales of Danger and Daring" or "My Favorite Ghost Story: An Anthology". The news of the day is dished up like the Comédie Humaine with leads running from: "Up the dark stairs at-" to "This is the story of a little boy who lost his kitty." A picture of the City Room of the World, by one who has never been there, would disclose a dozen or so nervous word artists, each sitting in a cubicle furnished to represent an attic, sipping at black coffee, with now and then a dab of cocaine, writing and tearing up, writing and tearing up, pacing back and forth in what the French call (in French) le travail du style. There must be a little hidden music, too, to make the boys write as they do. One feels that back copies of the World should be bound and saved for perusal on rainy days when the volumes of "Harpers Round Table" have begun to pall.

Soon it will creep into the foreign dispatches, hitherto held somewhat in check by cable rates. From a debt conference in London we may have something like this:

"Up the dark stairs at 17 Downing Street trudged a tired figure in a silk hat. Under his arm he carried a brief case. Outside, the unheeding swirl of London swept by, but in the heart of the tired man there was peace. Austen Chamberlain had brought to a conclusion the negotiations for the day."


"The twilight falls quickly on the left bank of the Seine, and yesterday it fell even more quickly than usual. At a table on the sidewalk of a little café on Montparnasse, a pale man sat figuring on the back of an envelope. Not a man that you would look at a second time, perhaps, but, as Kipling says, that is another story. This man was Jules Delatour and he ran a little shop on the Boulevard Raspail. And Jules Delatour was sad last evening as the quick twilight fell over Montparnasse. For yesterday the franc dropped again, to twenty-six to the dollar."

When this has happened, we can have newstickers installed in our homes and let the newspapers give themselves over entirely to the belles lettres.




Gloria swanson is back with her titled husband, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraie. A day or so after her arrival, she journeyed over to the Famous Players' Astoria studio, accompanied, of course, by the marquis. The reception was a touching one.

Attracted by advance announcements, a large crowd had gathered in front of the studio. The whole studio force was assembled on the steps and four policemen struggled to keep a lane open for Gloria's car.

Suddenly the cry went up, "Here she is!" The crowd surged forward, the quartet of police officers labored with might and main, and a smart foreign car slipped up to the steps.

Out stepped a dapper chap. "The marquis!" gasped the assembled stenographers in one breath. News cameras clicked. Cheers shook the studio. Bushels of confetti were tossed into midair.

When the air cleared it developed that the dapper chap was James R. Quirk, editor of Photoplay.

When Gloria and the marquis did appear a few seconds later, it was an anti-climax. Still, it was prettily done. The marquis looked pleasantly democratic, Gloria burst into tears and everyone cheered all over again.

The marquis is tall, smartly garbed and speaks excellent English.

There is, as was inevitable, a little story of the trip over from Paris. Gloria and the marquis had been pursued daily by curious passengers and finally the star decided to grace a ship's concert. Ranged alongside were some friends of the old lady in Dubuque. Gloria's nose tilted a bit in midair.

The marquis leaned close to his stellar wife. "Don't be a snob, Gloria," he said.




They were pink and they positively set the exclusive social circles of Asheville and Biltmore, N.C., agog, for the pajamas in question belonged to King Babe Ruth himself.

In Asheville it was, as all the world knows now, that the King first swooned away. The fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride had upset His Majesty. Doctors were called. Consultations held. It was decided that the indisposed monarch must be sent home to New York. Then came the question of moving him from the hotel to the train. It was suggested that it might be better for His Majesty if he were carried out on a stretcher. The King was not adverse and, between pinochle hands, so expressed himself. A stretcher was ordered held until His Majesty should tire of cards.

But what of the royal raiment? The King had no pajamas. Being a democratic monarch he frowns on unwonted luxuries. A messenger was despatched to obtain the going out outfit, the King specifying that it must be pink. Search in every store in Asheville disclosed only one pair of pink pajamas in the city. They were size 42. The King measured a goodly 48. In the end the messenger had to take the small size. By discarding the trousers altogether and splitting the coat up the back, they were made to do, the King being cautioned to stay quiet on the stretcher.




Abie's irish rose" is three years old today, and one wonders how Mr. and Mrs. Augustus Pitou are celebrating the event.

Mr. Pitou, it should be remembered, is one of the best known and most experienced of theatrical managers. He has not, to be sure, been as well represented along Broadway with productions as have others, but he has for many years operated profitably and extensively in the hinterland, where they also pay real money at box-offices.

A little over three years ago, then, "Abie's Irish Rose" was in great distress. Despite a lengthy run on the Pacific Coast, the New York production had been icily received and most of the critics had been openly contemptuous of it. The show was in a bad way and it seemed likely that it would have to close.

Miss Anne Nichols, its author and producer, had never for one second lost faith in it. But you can not, under the Equity rules, pay off your cast in faith, and theatre owners have a way of wanting to be paid for the use of their property. What to do?

Miss Nichols sought out Mr. Pitou and offered to sell him a twenty-five per cent interest in "Abie's Irish Rose" for $5,000. Five thousand dollars, she calculated, would be enough to keep the play operating until its public found it in remunerative numbers. She herself had parted with her jewels, with everything she had, to keep the play going.

Mr. Pitou promised to look into the matter, and the following Saturday he attended a matinee of her production with Mrs. Pitou. He instantly recognized the cheap quality of the play, but Mr. Pitou is too experienced a manager to let his personal reaction interfere with his judgment of a box-office attraction. The audience, he could not help noticing, was wildly enthusiastic about it and howled its head off with glee at the slightest provocation. The lobby, at intermission time, was filled with people who were announcing that they could hardly wait to see Cousin Minnie and Uncle Abe to advise them by all means not to miss this great human document, this gorgeously comic play.

And so Mr. Pitou ventured the opinion that he might buy the twenty-five per cent interest for $5,000. Mrs. Pitou for some minutes thereafter seemed to believe that Mr. Pitou had suddenly gone mad. The play, she announced, was horrible and had not the ghost of a chance for success. Mr. Pitou, in her opinion, could do better by just taking $5,000 and lighting cigars with them.

Mrs. Pitou's opinion was echoed by Louis Cohn, the ticket broker, who further informed Mr. Pitou that he had not sold a single ticket for "Abie's Irish Rose" in three weeks. . . . Mr. Pitou then told Miss Nichols that he could not accept her offer.

Miss Nichols, in some way or other, managed to keep the show going until it had hit its stride. That stride, by now, would have returned Mr. Pitou well over $1,000,000 for his investment of $5,000. And one somehow imagines that Mr. and Mrs. Pitou have a good deal to talk about on such an occasion as the third birthday of "Abie's Irish Rose."




Mr. coolidge is, beyond denial, a bachelor of arts and, as such, eligible to be stamped "inspected and passed as educated" whenever the Congress gets around to creating a bureaucracy to supervise learning. But, one reflects, governmental standards are likely to be low.

At any rate, Mr. Coolidge, looking upon his standing with his countrymen, was led to reflect that it would not pain him too deeply if the nation held for its president a warmer feeling, which reflection he put into words while talking lately with one of the Washington newspaper correspondents.

The correspondent, wise man that he is, knew the observation for a presidential hint that suggestions were in order.

"Why not recognize the arts, Mr. President?" he proposed. "You have had leaders of almost every other line of endeavor for breakfast in the White House; why not invite some of the leaders in one of the arts-some poets, perhaps?"

"Who are the leading poets?" came from Calvin, after the customary silent interval.

"Oh, Edward Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Lee Masters, Elinor Wylie," Mr. Sullivan tossed off.

The President considered this.

"When I was in College," he observed, presently, "there was a man named Smith-who wrote verse."

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Table of Contents

Editor's Preface
"Up the Dark Stairs -" 3
A Marquise at Home 6
The King's Pajamas 8
Might Have Been - 9
Cal and Belles Lettres 11
Modest Mr. Shaw 12
Vachel Lindsay 14
Fence Buster 16
The Sin of Adams 18
Dime Novel 20
The Old Lady 22
Music Makers 24
Potter's Field 26
Harriett 28
Dancing Couple 30
Big Boy 32
Newsreel 34
Calder's Circus 36
Isadora's Brother 38
Soup of the Evening 41
Corsets de Luxe 43
Painter in Town 45
Severest Critic 47
Angel 49
The High Place 51
Trivia 53
Tex and Ella 55
Al 57
The Flying Spot 59
Oxford Man 61
The Frescoer 63
Inaugural Blues 65
Long Range 67
High Hats 69
Great Men 71
The Blues Man 73
As Millions Cheer 75
House of Brick 77
Lenox 1734 79
Jeann and Jimmy 81
Bronx Tiger 83
The Dakota 85
Gtde 87
Miss Rand 89
The Joyces 91
Met's Maitre 93
Dark Contralto 95
Walter's Banks 97
Knock of Opportunity 99
Deshabilleuse 101
Dead Pan Joe 103
Et Tu, Shadow? 105
Leftist Revue 107
Exiles in Princeton 109
Interne 113
The Admiral's Chair 115
Cookless Congressman 117
Prepared Pianist 119
Masterpiece 121
The Celluloid Brassiere 123
Last Word 125
One Man's Family 127
Absurdiste 129
Twelfth Night 131
After Ten Years 133
Lugubrious Mama 135
Live Merchandise 138
Fugue 215
Beckett 220
Red Mittens! 224
The McLuhan Metaphor 228
Long-Winded Lady 231
Runouts, Kickouts, and Popouts at Gilgo Beach 234
Bike to Work 239
Questions at Radio City 242
The Postmaster 245
Elvis! David! 248
Almanac 252
Mays at St. Bernard's 254
Elsewhere 257
"Wonder Bar" 260
Dylan 262
New Boy 265
Fancy 268
Being Present 272
Leaving Motown 276
Minnesota Fats 280
Taxi Jokes 282
Twenty-five Thousandths of a Second 285
Film 287
Turnout 289
Still Wonderful 293
Flimmaker 296
Intensive Care 391
Word Perfect 393
Cyberspace Has a V.I.P. Lounge, Too 395
Tou-Tou-Toukie, Hello 398
Russian Tennis: Advantage Yeltsin 400
The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue 402
After Midnight 406
A Battalion of Bellas 409
A Dickensian Task 411
The Times Embarks on New Ways to Get Out the Gray 413
Son of est: The Terminator of Self-Doubt 415
Do the Rookies Know How Willie Mays Played? 418
Al Hirschfeld Blows Out His Candles 420
The World Was Invited to Noam Chomsky's Virtual Birthday Party 422
A Postmodernist Goes Shopping 424
Elegy for a Parking Space 426
A Little Bit of Audrey for Everyone 428
Bill and Hill, Meet Rob and Laura 430
Nostalgia for the Bygone Days of Feminist Family Feuding 432
The New Year Stumbles In 437
The Well-Heeled and the Wonky Toast the Millennium 440
Two Menus 442
The Book to Have When the Killer Bees Arrive 444
The Fast-Food President Goes Haute Cuisine 446
What's in a Domain Name? 448
How to Make the Most of Some Sexy Snapshots 450
The Guy Who Makes The President Funny 453
Naked and Truthful in the Bronx 455
Nudie Pix Redux 458
Balloon Diplomacy for Elian 462
An Ode to Golf 464
A Rubin's Guide to Getting it All 466
Quiz Whiz 468
Proverbs According to Dennis Miller 471
The Goodest Guys 472
An Analog Toast to the Digital Age 476
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