Reporting at Wit's End: Tales from the New Yorkerby St. Clair McKelway
The best of St. Clair McKelway, a longtime New Yorker writer, whose astonishing career and work have been overlooked for too long.
Named for his great-uncle, a prominent newspaperman, St. Clair McKelway was born with journalism in his blood. And in thirty-six years at the New Yorker, he made "fact-writing" his career. His/i>/b>/b>/b>/i>
The best of St. Clair McKelway, a longtime New Yorker writer, whose astonishing career and work have been overlooked for too long.
Named for his great-uncle, a prominent newspaperman, St. Clair McKelway was born with journalism in his blood. And in thirty-six years at the New Yorker, he made "fact-writing" his career. His prolific output for the magazine was defined by its incomparable wit and a love of New York's rough edges. He had a deep affection for the city's "rascals": the junkmen, con men, counterfeiters, priests, beat cops, and fire marshals who colored life in old New York. And he wrote with levity and insight about his own life as well, a life marked by a strict Presbyterian childhood, a limited formal education, five marriages and divorces, and sometimes debilitating mental illness.
Like Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, McKelway combined the unflagging curiosity of a great reporter with the narrative flair of a master storyteller, and he helped establish the New Yorker's unique brand of journalism in its most storied years. William Shawn, who began as McKelway's assistant and became the magazine's revered editor, described McKelway as a writer with the "lightest of light touches," his striking style "too odd to be imitated."
Reporting at Wit's End collects McKelway's most memorable work from the 1930s through the 1960s, creating a portrait of a long-forgotten New York and of one of its consummate chroniclers.
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REPORTING AT WIT'S ENDTales from The New Yorker
By St. Clair McKelway
Bloomsbury USACopyright © 2010 Estate of St. Clair McKelway
All right reserved.
One night in August, 1912, when Thomas Patrick Brophy was the Fire Marshal of Brooklyn, four men were getting ready to build a fire in a stable far out on Johnson Avenue, in one of the more desolate sections of the borough. That day the men had removed from the stable seven sound horses, which had been insured for two hundred dollars apiece, and had led into the stalls seven old, decrepit horses, all of them lame and one blind, which they had bought at auction sales for three and four dollars apiece. The men laid the fire carefully. They piled straw against the wooden walls of the stable and around and under the horses in the stalls. They poured kerosene oil over the straw and with sponges rubbed kerosene into the coats of the seven horses. There were no houses near the stable, which stood in the middle of a wide meadow, but to be on the safe side the men made another big pile of hay in the doorway so that anybody who might happen along would have to go through flames to get to the horses. They poured kerosene over that, and then they got out their matches. But this arson plot didn't succeed, because Brophy had found out about it in advance. He was hiding in the tall grass outside the stable, with seven assistant fire marshals, four firemen carrying fire extinguishers, and a couple of police detectives. Two blocks away, Engine Company No. 237 waited in an alley ready to rush to the stable. As soon as the first flicker of flame could be seen, Brophy fired his revolver twice into the air, which was the signal for the engine company to come on, and with his men closed in on the stable. The fire was put out, the horses were saved, and the four men went to Sing Sing.
Brophy was able to be there, hiding in the meadow, because of nothing more complicated than his habit of going for long walks by himself, talking to people, trying to keep track of everything that was going on in Brooklyn. He had known that about a third of the stable fires in the city that year had been of undetermined origin, which is the fireman's way of saying that they may have been incendiary. So on his customary walks, on which he systematically covered the whole borough of Brooklyn, he had been making the acquaintance, among hundreds of other people, of horse auctioneers. He knew that among the myriad forms of fire-insurance fraud was the system of burning up worthless horses which had been substituted for valuable ones, adequately insured. Worrying about this, he went about asking auctioneers for the names of men who were buying up worthless horses. He got the names of dozens of people who bought that kind of horse, and his deputies investigated them all. Some of them were representatives of firms that shipped horses to France to be eaten by the French, or were otherwise in legitimate, if curious, trades. But after many such horse-buyers had been investigated, one was found who seemed to have no legitimate business. Yet he owned seven sound horses, which he kept idle in a stable out on Johnson Avenue. His name was Louis Evansky and he was clearly not a racing man or a polo player. The rest was a comparatively simple matter of watching the stable and shadowing Evansky.
This coup of Brophy's received wide publicity at the time, and editorials appeared in most of the papers calling attention to the hideous cruelty of the firebugs who had tried to burn up horses. The notice it attracted probably was an important factor in Brophy's eventual elevation to the post of Chief Fire Marshal and the establishment of the Bureau of Fire Investigation of the New York Fire Department, which he directed until his retirement in 1948. The public interest in that case has always puzzled Brophy, because it seemed a minor one to him, since only horses were involved. He had saved the lives of dozens of people before that by the same general method of painstaking detective work, and the public had shown hardly any interest at all.
In December, 1911, for instance, a citizen of Brooklyn had taken out an insurance policy on his furniture in a flat on Cleveland Street and had hired two professional firebugs to set fire to the place. When the firebugs arrived at the apartment house on the afternoon appointed for the fire, they looked up and down the street to make sure they were not being watched. All they saw were two peddlers with a vegetable wagon down at one end of the block and a couple of street-cleaners sitting on the curb in front of the corner saloon, drinking beer from a growler. They went up to the flat, started the fire, and came down to the street again. Brophy, who had been hiding in the areaway, grabbed them both, and when they resisted knocked them down with two efficient blows of his fist. The street-cleaners at the end of the block fished fire extinguishers out of their wagons and came running. The peddlers produced three hundred feet of hose from the vegetable wagon, connected it at a fireplug, and rushed into the flat with it. The fire was put out before it spread to adjoining flats, in which, among the other tenants, were two invalids and several babies.
Brophy kept on engineering feats of this kind until the day of his retirement. The Plaza Hotel at Rockaway Beach would probably have been burned down in 1932 if Brophy had not been there to intercept the professional firebugs before they lit the fire. Only two or three years ago he caught a professional firebug and put out the fire he had started in a Bronx tenement house in which fifty-four families were sleeping.
Just where Brophy fits into the scheme of civic evolution is a little uncertain. He might be catalogued as a sort of municipal freak, part fireman, part detective. The distinguishing characteristics of both the Police and Fire Departments may be observed in Brophy, which suggests that firemen and policemen do not represent two distinct species, as might be supposed, but must have sprung from some common source. When he was a fire marshal, he had a fire-alarm signal in his home, but wore neither boots nor helmet, and carried a gun. He went to fires in a red automobile, with bell clanging, but never touched hose or ladder, and usually turned his back to the blaze and watched the crowd.
The New York Bureau of Fire Investigation itself is an anomaly, originally built around Brophy. When Brophy took a civil-service examination and entered the Fire Department in 1907 as a young assistant fire marshal in Brooklyn, arson was a crime that usually fell halfway between the Police and Fire Departments, and lay there indefinitely, unsolved. The function of fire marshals was to inspect all fires and to find out which ones were incendiary. They traveled about on streetcar or afoot, and usually did not get around to the scene of a fire until hours after it had been put out. If a dwelling or a store appeared to have been saturated with kerosene and eyewitnesses had seen a man run from the place before the fire broke out, the chances were that the fire marshal would report that the fire was "suspicious," but the task of catching the firebugs was usually left to the Police Department. After the Fire Department had thus dropped a case, and before the Police Department had picked it up, a good deal of time and enthusiasm was lost, and incendiarists, as a result, were seldom caught.
Brophy had been a district reporter on Bennett's Herald before he became an assistant deputy fire marshal, and the idea of going to a fire after it was out seemed to him too ridiculous to be considered. There was no provision in the Fire Department bud get for the rapid transportation of fire marshals, so Brophy bought a motor cycle with his own money. He used to rush to fires as soon as an alarm was turned in and often got there before the engines. The fact that he did not have explicit powers of arrest did not bother him; he would follow up clues until he was sure of his man and then call in a policeman. He solved a number of cases of professional arson in his first few months on the job, and his work began to attract attention at Fire Headquarters. After three years he was appointed Fire Marshal of Brooklyn. In a few more years it had become clear that something extraordinary would have to be done with the Brooklyn Fire Marshal. He had begun, by then, to arrive at fires not only before the engines but before the alarm had been turned in, and several times he had nabbed incendiarists at the moment they applied the match, as in the case of the stable fire. Brophy had also begun to study intelligently that singular type of city dweller known as the pyromaniac-the lunatic who sets fire to things for fun. He had installed a cross- index system in his Brooklyn office in which were filed the names and peculiarities of all known pyromaniacs and people he suspected of being pyromaniacs. He had learned more about their habits than had been known before, and had caught a number of them. In 1915, Fire Commissioner Adamson decided that Brophy was the man to deal with the problem of incendiarism for the whole city. He abolished the fire marshals' offices in the various boroughs and set up the Bureau of Fire Investigation, with headquarters in the Municipal Building. Brophy was given the new title of Chief Fire Marshal and a staff of twenty-eight deputies to assist him. He could subpoena witnesses and take legal testimony, but when he decided that he had a prima- facie case against somebody, he would call in a policeman to make the formal arrest. In every other way, Chief Fire Marshal Brophy acted like a detective rather than a fireman, and the Bureau of Fire Investigation still seems like a branch of the Police Department rather than a branch of the Fire Department.
The idea of searching for potential firebugs and embryonic pyromaniacs in a city of this many million people makes a needle-in-haystack hunt seem about as simple as a two-handed game of who's-got-the-button. No other type of criminal is as hard to catch as a professional firebug who burns up buildings in order to collect insurance. If he is an expert and does his job well, all of what might be evidence against him is destroyed by the blaze he sets off. He does not have to be in the building when the fire breaks out. He can light a candle and fix it so that he will be blocks away by the time it burns down and ignites a bundle of oiled rags. He can use a piece of Chinese punk and a little gunpowder, and be in Philadelphia when the blaze starts. Or, having wired the doorbell of the place so that it will start the fire, he can call up Western Union and get a boy to go there and ring it. The pyromaniac is even harder to catch than the professional firebug. No rational motive is involved, only an insane whim. Yet the pyromaniac is cunning, and often his intelligence has been polished by good breeding and higher education. These are the two types of townspeople that Brophy had to keep ahead of.
Brophy was a practical man rather than an imaginative one, and his outlook was prosaic in the extreme. To begin with, he treated the largest metropolis in the world as if it were a village. He worried about New York. Street by street and section by section, the city troubled him, and sometimes he grew anxious about all five boroughs at the same time. He went about his work not so much with enthusiasm as with a grim, almost morbid determination. He had what would have been called, a generation ago, a sense of moral responsibility. He was shocked and outraged by a crime which endangers, and often takes, human life. When a case of professional arson was discovered, he would be genuinely indignant. He is a Catholic, and a devout one. He is one of those Irishmen whose eyes glisten perceptibly when they say "mother" or "little child." When he was Chief Fire Marshal, he never slept well or with any regularity. He was always getting up and going out at night to make sure everything was all right. He would ride to the district that was bothering him, leave his car at a fire house, and walk around by himself for hours at a time, seeing how things looked, making a note now and then in a little book he carried in his vest pocket, talking to people-storekeepers, bartenders, taxi-drivers, the policeman on the beat. Sometimes on these informal excursions he was following a tip, some bit of information he or his deputies had picked up somewhere, but usually when he left his home in Brooklyn after a few hours' rest and went riding to some distant neighborhood in Manhattan or the Bronx or Queens, it was merely because that neighborhood had been on his mind and he wanted to look it over.
Brophy walked up and down nearly every sidewalk in New York at one time or another. He carried in his mind a picture of the whole city as graphic and full of detail as the picture most New Yorkers have of the block they live in. In his fire-alarm signal books (one at his office and another at home), he wrote down the names and telephone numbers of at least one resident for every fire-alarm box in the hazardous districts of the city, so that when an alarm came in he could call up that person and get quick first-hand information about the nature of the fire, often before the fire engines got there. He maintained a speaking acquaintance with hundreds of people besides-two or three, perhaps, in every square mile of the city-and through them kept abreast of a great deal of what was going on in all the hundreds of neighborhoods. If there had been a suspicious-looking fire in the garment district, Brophy was extremely likely to know whether the firm whose stock was destroyed had been doing well, or whether it was in such bad shape that its proprietors were desperate. He knew a good deal about business conditions in general-how things were going with manufacturers of women's hats, for instance, and which of the ware houses down on the waterfront were packed with perishable goods that owners would never be able to sell. His cross-index of pyromaniacs covered all five boroughs, and filed away in it are case histories of some four hundred known pyromaniacs, and the names and peculiarities of several hundred other people who he suspected were pyromaniacs who had never been caught in the act.
Brophy and his deputies checked up on all these people discreetly and systematically, and when suspicious fires broke out in Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx or on Manhattan Island, the search for the person who applied the torch became a great deal easier. And there was always the possibility that Brophy might find out that a professional firebug had been hired to set fire to the clothing store or the hat factory or the ware house, and be waiting there to grab him; there was always the chance that Brophy would catch a wild-eyed lunatic sneaking into a tenement hallway with a bundle of excelsior under his arm. That kind of thing happened just often enough to keep Brophy from relaxing very much or sleeping more than three or four hours at a time.
Brophy had practically no personal life as Chief Fire Marshal and did not seem to care about anything very much but his work. He had no hobbies and indulged in no luxuries to speak of. He would forget even the necessities when he was preoccupied with an important case. Brophy's deputies often had to lead him into a restaurant, order something for him, and hand him a knife and fork. It was not unusual for him to work on a case for thirty-six hours without going to sleep at all. After a stretch like that, he would go home and go to bed, but never for more than six or seven hours. Then he would reappear at his office in the Municipal Building, look over the record of fire alarms, and, if there was nothing much doing, go out for one of his walks. He lived in a brownstone house on Park Place in Brooklyn, not far from where he was born. His mother and two sisters lived with him. He never married and had only a few intimate friends, mostly men he had known all his life. When he went to their houses for dinner he nearly always brought along a box of candy for their wives and a present of some kind for their children. When he used to work late, and couldn't go home for dinner, he usually dined at the Schrafft's across the park from the Municipal Building. He had never been fond of drinking, and until recent years an occasional shot of straight rye at the home of a friend was all he ever cared for. Toward the end of his career as Chief Fire Marshal he usually had a couple of drinks before meals and sometimes a couple afterwards. His friends used to accuse him of being behind the times. A few years before his retirement, he was having lunch with one of them at Luchow's and they happened to sit near a young mother who was lunching with her small son and daughter. The mother had a cocktail or two and, between courses, smoked a cigarette. "Now, look at that!" said Brophy. "A mother oughtn't to set an example like that for those little kids." He was sincerely troubled about it. This incident occurred in 1947.
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I really love it when a reporter is able to do an in-depth article that includes volumes of research and subtle details that make you really know the subject, and that is what the New Yorker is famous for. For example, last month they had a very detailed and fascinating article about some Serbian diamond thiefs, the "Pink Panthers". It didn't just cover their crimes, but went on to their upbringing, their techniques, the methods of searching for them, and on and on. Most magazines are not willing to give up the space for such depth. That's why Reporting at Wit's End "Tales from the New Yorker" by St. Clair McKelway, is such a treat for me. It's a collection of the best articles New Yorker has offered, but in a totally inventive way. It selects feature articles from different decades, the 1930s, 40s, 50s and concludes with two from the 1960s. These aren't famous people biographies or even well-known articles, just well-written articles about subjects fascinating at the time. One is "Average Cop", a very long study of one of New York's finest, as he goes about his day, from a 1930s issue. Big details and little details are combined to make a complete character study, and it's done uniquely: there's no mockery or subtle elevation of his character. It's just about him. As he is. There's no effort made to push a political agenda or disclose social ills. It's a simple story about a man, and it's fascinating. From the 1950s, an article called "The Rich Recluse of Herald Square" about the death of an elderly hoarder, and her mysterious life. Little details make it painful and tragic, and yet there's this strange sense of power that this woman and her sister had, in order to put the world in its place (and out of theirs). Little pictures of human kindness abound. This is a great collection, and one that I personally enjoyed very much. I thought it was interesting to see the changes in writing and social details between the decades discussed. What was considered improper in the 1930s is handled without note in the 1960s. A great supplement to American history for the 20th century.
The best gift you can buy a literate person. Journalism perfection.