Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorkerby David Remnick
One of art's purest challenges is to translate a human being into words. The New Yorker has met this challenge more successfully and more originally than any other modern American journal. It has indelibly shaped the genre known as the Profile. Starting with light-fantastic evocations of glamorous and idiosyncratic figures of the twenties and thirties, such as Henry Luce and Isadora Duncan, and continuing to the present, with complex pictures of such contemporaries as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Richard Pryor, this collection of New Yorker Profiles presents readers with a portrait gallery of some of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century. These Profiles are literary-journalistic investigations into character and accomplishment, motive and madness, beauty and ugliness, and are unrivalled in their range, their variety of style, and their embrace of humanity.
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It used to be said around the New Yorker offices that our founding editor, Harold Ross, invented the Profile. But if a Profile is a biographical piece-a concise rendering of a life through anecdote, incident, interview, and description (or some ineffable combination thereon-well, then, it's a little presumptuous to stick Ross at the Front of' the queue ahead of Plutarch, Defoe, Aubrey, Strachey, or even The Saturday Evening Post. And yet in 192 5. when Ross launched the magazine he liked to call his "comic weekly," he wanted something different something sidelong and ironical, a form that prized intimacy and wit over biographical completeness or, God forbid, unabashed hero worship. Ross told his writers and editors that, above all, he wanted to get away from what he was reading in the other magazines-all the "Horatio Alger" stuff.
James Kevin McGuinness, a staffer in the earliest days of the magazine, suggested the rubric "Profile" to Ross. By the time the magazine got around to copyrighting the term, it had entered the language of American journalism. Most of the initial Profiles in the magazine were fairly cursory and bland (and not worth anthologizing). The first was a sketch of the Metropolitan Opera's impresario Guilio Gatti-Casazza: it ran just over one page and showed scant evidence of even the most rudimentary reporting. It wasn't terrible funny. either. By 192 7, however, the reporting was getting stronger and the writing more irreverent. John K. Winkler's Profile of William Randolph Hearst, a five-part piece, was both uproarious and well researched, and Janet Flanner had begun perfecting a shorter form with a Profile of Edith Wharton.
The most influential of the early Profiles was Alva Johnston's delightful dissection, in 1932, of a phony Russian prince named Mikhail Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff. The prince's real name was Harry F. Gerguson, late of Illinois. (Like Joseph Mitchell's great subject, Joe Gould, Gerguson was an irresistible fake. Obolensky was so irresistible, in fact, that Ross eventually befriended him and sent him off to Los Angeles, where he could freeload off Dave Chasen, the restaurateur; eventually, Obolensky mooched off enough of Chasen's customers to open his own place.) While the mainstays of Ross's New Yorker E. B. White and James Thurber, did the most to develop the magazine's urbane tone and sensibility, Johnston, who had won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter at The New York Times in 1923 and later moved to the Herald Tribune, gave the Profile form real literary and journalistic weight. Johnston was the first to combine a natural wit and sense of storytelling with the legwork of a first-class newspaperman. His Profiles, especially those of Obolensky and the Florida architect Addison Mizner, influenced generations of New Yorker writers and Profile masters, from A. J. Liebling to John McPhee to Mark Singer. His obituary in the magazine read, in part, "When The New Yorker in its earliest days was trying, establish the Profile as a new journalistic form, it was Alva Johnston more than anyone else who set the pace, clarified the idea, and produced the pieces. He gathered and assembled facts in such a way as to give a fresh, candid, gay, and occasionally satirical picture of an individual."
Ross was a man of enormous social energy and mischief, and he was not reluctant to use Profiles in The New Yorker as a means of settling feuds and even starting them. St. Clair McKelway's Profile of Walter Winchell enumerated hundreds of errors and bogus items in Winchell's gossip column; the piece was so thorough a trouncing that it provoked Winchell to report in the Mirror that Ross wore no underwear. Evidently, Winchell had erred again; Ross mailed him the very pair of undershorts he was wearing when he read the offending column. Winchell, for his part. demanded that the owner of the Stork Club ban Ross from his tables.
Wolcott Gibbs's skewering of Henry Luce in 19 3 6 heightened the rivalry between The New Yorker and the Time-Life empire, a rivalry that had started with a long, nasty, and well-informed piece on Ross and The New Yorker in Fortune by one of Ross's earliest colleagues, Ralph Ingersoll. Gibbs's Profile, which enjoyed Luce's cooperation, made a buffoon of its subject and, even more effectively, undermined "Timespeak," the queerly stentorian, neologism-studden artificial language of his magazines. (In Gibbs's devastating summary, "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.") Leaning heavily on the reporting of his colleague John Bainbridge, Gibbs subjected Luce to a reportorial strip search, detailing his income, the decor of his colossal apartment, his odd habits in the office, his taste for pompous middlebrow journalism, and his megalomania. The Profile ended with a stunning flourish: ". . . Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!"
When Luce was shown the galleys he was furious and demanded a meeting with Ross.
"There's not a single kind word about me in the whole Profile," Luce complained to Ross at the late-night summit.
"That's what you get for being a baby tycoon," Ross replied, showing his command of Timespeak.
"Goddamnit, Ross, this whole goddamn piece is ma ... ma ... malicious, and you know it!"
Ross hesitated. Finally, he said, "You've put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice."
The New Yorker Profile has expanded in many ways since the days of Ross. What had been conceived of as a form to describe Manhattan personalities now travels widely in the world and all along the emotional and occupational registers. There are Profiles of malice (Gibbs on Luce) and Profiles of praise (Joan Acocella on Mikhail Baryshnikov). There are Profiles about identity (Gates on Broyard) and Profiles about the strangeness of American fame (Tynan on Carson), One quality that runs through nearly all the best Profiles the Profiles represented here and the many, many more for which there was, finally, no room this time-is that sense of obsession. So many of these pieces are about people who reveal an obsession with one corner of human experience or another. Richard Preston's Chudnovsky brothers are obsessed with the number pi and finding the pattern in randomness; Calvin Trillin's Edna Buchanan is an obsessive crime reporter in Miami who visits the scenes of disaster four. rive times a day; Calvin Tomkins's Phillipe Petite has walked from one World Trade Center tower to the other on a tightrope and now wants to walk across the Grand Canyon; Mark Singer's Ricky Jay is obsessed with magic and the history of magic. In every great Profile, too, the writer is equally obsessed. It's often the case that a writer will take months, yes, even years, to get to know a subject and bring him or her to life in prose.
The Profile is ubiquitous in modern journalism. We are awash in pieces calling themselves profiles that are about one celebrity or another's inner thoughts; more often than not they are based on half-flour interviews and the parameters set down by a vigilant publicist. The New Yorker has not been the only home for better work. But whether it's in 'The New Yorker or elsewhere, the Profile is a terribly hard form to get right. Susan Orlean manages it with a subject who can 011]v bark: Nancy Franklin does it with a subject who has been dead for many years. Janet Malcolm, in her piece about the painter David Salle, says a great deal about the difficulty of settling on the right details, the right angle of vision in a Profile that consists, as she says, of "Forty-One False Starts."
In trying to assemble a collection of Profiles that would represent, to some degree, the form as it developed over the seventy -five-year history of the magazine, I needed at least a couple of guidelines to limit myself and the book.
After gathering suggestions from colleagues on the staff of The New Yorker and from contributors around the country, I discovered that, with the help of our library, I had amassed a box of photocopied Profiles larger than one's first refrigerator. Rule number one was that no writer could appear more than once. Even more painful, I decided to publish pieces only in full. I wanted the reader to get the real thing-no excerpts, no snippets. As a result the reader will have to go elsewhere for a range of long or multipart Profiles: Dwight MacDonald on The Ford Foundation; John Betjemen's self-Profile in verse; George W, S. Trow on Ahmet Ertegun: Arlene Croce on Edward Villella; Rachel Carson on the sea; Marshall Frady on Jesse Jackson; Liebling on Earl Long; Susan Sheehan on Carmen Santana; William Whitworth on Roger Miller; Jane Kramer on Allen Ginsberg; Alec Wilkinson on a bounty hunter; Hannah Arendt on Bertolt Brecht; Jervis Anderson on Ralph Ellison; Janet Malcolm on the psychoanalyst 'Aaron Green"; S. N. Behrman on Joseph Duveen; Lawrence Weschler on Robert Irwin; Brendan Gill on Tallulah Bankhead; John Bainbridge on Toots Shor; Connie Bruck on Hillary Clinton; St. Clair McKelway on Walter Winchell; Philip Hamburger on John P. Marquand; Richard Rovere on William E Howe and Abraham H. Hummell; Pauline Kael on Cary Grant; and Joseph Mitchell on Joe Gould. As you can see, the history is rich. Some of these, like Malcolm's "Psychoanalysis" or McPhee's many Profiles, are in print and fairly easy to come by in bookstores; some, like Mitchell's Joe Gould, have recently emerged in new editions; finding many of the others will depend on the industry of the reader, the local library, the serendipity of used-book stores, and the increasing quality and range of the various online websites for used books.
Beyond giving pride of place to Joseph Mitchell's "Mr. Hunter's Grave" (because I love it so), the rest of the pieces are arranged mainly to vary lengths and tone and, sometimes, to compare treatments of a similar theme, as with the two dance pieces and a few of the pieces about public success (Capote on Brando) and public failure (Angell on Blass). The truth, however, is that this is an anthology designed strictly for pleasure. There are no hidden lessons. Swim around in it as you like.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
DAVID REMNICK is the editor of The New Yorker. He began his career as a sportswriter for The Washington Post and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Lenin's Tomb. He is also the author of Resurrection and The Devil Problem and Other True Stories, a collection of essays. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.
From the Hardcover edition.
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