Gardner Botsford tells the fascinating and humorous story of his W.W. II experiences, from his assignment to the infantry due to a paperwork error to a fearful trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary, to landing under heavy fire on Omaha Beach and the Liberation of Paris. After the war, he began a distinguished literary career as a long-time editor at the New Yorker, and chronicles the magazine's rise and influence on postwar American culture with wit and grace.
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About the Author
Born in 1917, Gardner Botsford was a distinguished editor at The New Yorker from the late 1940s, following his military service in W.W. II, until his retirement in 1982.
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For anyone old enough to have been born during the First World War, like me, and damn near killed in the Second, also like me, war was a regular presence in the course of growing up. Our generation moved from a backward look at one war to a nervous forward look at a new one, waiting in the wings. The First World War took shape for us in the enthralling and terrifying stories told by our parents' friends who had been Over There. (One of these gave me nightmares for a week: an infantry replacement, riding in the first truck of a long convoy, fell off the tailgate and was squashed by the next truck in line, and then squashed again by every succeeding truck.) These cautionary tales were reinforced by a steady barrage of war-inspired books aimed right at our generation — books like The Boy Allies series, and books with less flat-footed titles, like Arnold Adair and the English Aces. The Boy Allies books, though ubiquitous, were not very believable: even our galloping imaginations could not be persuaded that the boy allies — twelve years old, like us — would have been allowed to traipse around the front-line trenches in France. But books like Arnold Adair were all too convincing, and scarier. ("The Boche pilot, his twin Spandaus chattering a hymn of death, came screaming back to the attack....")
In the thirties, we moved from reminiscence and fiction to reality. The Japanese in Manchuria, the Italians in Ethiopia, Franco in Spain, Hitler wherever he was — all made the twin Spandaus seem trifling. In the last year of the decade, with the start of the Second World War, the transition was complete, and in the forties — well, we all know about the forties. Pearl Harbor, when it came, put our generation — put me, at any rate — in a moral pickle. The war had to be won, of course, but war, as I had come to know, was a dangerous business. I was an outspoken hawk — had been one since Hitler's early days — but when it came to replacing words with action, I was out of town. "Every new generation will respond anew to war's great seduction," Samuel Hynes writes in his excellent book The Soldiers' Tale, a consideration of many writings about war by men who did the fighting. Mr. Hynes not only was a Marine combat pilot in the Second World War but is a professor emeritus of literature at Princeton, so it is hard to argue with him, but I must say that I felt no tug of seduction — nothing beyond the tug of a lousy conscience. The only thing that saved me from lasting ignominy, in fact, was the draft.
My rescue from ignominy started on September 16, 1942, at four o'clock in the morning, when I switched off the alarm clock before it could ring and tried to get out of bed without waking Tass. I had a date at 6:00 A.M. with the U.S. Army Induction Center. Tass was my wife of barely two years; the bed was in my mother's house in Manhattan's East Seventies, where Tass and I were more or less camping out in anticipation of this date I couldn't break.
My efforts to go off to war unnoticed were in vain, of course; Tass hadn't slept any better than I had. This was the first of some hard times for her — six months pregnant, convinced that she would have to raise a fatherless child, with no place of her own to live. I, at least, knew where I was going next.
The Induction Center, in Grand Central Palace — New York's old and only exhibition hall, on Lexington Avenue at Forty-fourth Street — was in a state of delirium. To increase space for the Army, workmen were tearing down walls all over the place, while I and scores of other recruits, each hugging a cardboard carton both practical and symbolic — for mailing home one's civilian clothes and cutting the final bonds to civilized life — were sent from one line to another and yelled at. Most of my future comrades in arms seemed very young, and they were — eighteen or nineteen, to my venerable twenty-five. Eventually, in groups of ten or so, we were marched into the men's room — the construction workers had left no other space available — and were sworn into service, to the music of flushing urinals. Then we were bused to Pennsylvania Station and dispatched to Camp Upton, on Long Island.
Camp Upton was the camp where one was turned from a confident, competent civilian into an insecure and incompetent Army private. The place was just as mad and seething as Grand Central Palace. Night was indistinguishable from day. Over a period of seventy-two hours, we were issued uniforms, given shots and tested for our IQs, fitted for boots and examined medically, and lectured on venereal disease and vetted for homosexuality by psychiatrists. Finally, we were sent through the shed where we would be classified as to branch of service: Artillery, Engineers, Special Services, Infantry, Signal Corps, or whatever. This was the recruit's big moment; it would determine the whole course of his Army life — even, in fact, whether he was likely to survive. What I wanted was a nice, interesting, safe job, and I figured that I was a strong candidate for Special Services, a very safe unit that published the Army magazine Yank and escorted important foreign dignitaries around military installations and such. My hopes were plausible: I was a college graduate, I spoke French, and I had a reasonable IQ. Because of my experience as a reporter on various newspapers, and most recently on The New Yorker, I figured that I would end up on Yank. Or maybe in Army public relations, although that lacked cachet.
In any case, I was of a calm and confident disposition when I reached the head of the line and sat down at a table to be interviewed. My interviewer, a corporal, examined my chart, made little cabalistic computations, and finally put a decisive X in one of the boxes.
"What's it to be?" I asked.
"Infantry," he said. He might just as well have hit me with a baseball bat.
"Infantry?" I yelped. "Not the infantry! What about the four years at Yale? What about the French? What about —"
At this moment, a corpulent sergeant came up and laid a hand on my interviewer's shoulder. "How's it going, Bernie?" he said, and looked over the pile of completed dossiers on the corporal's desk. "Not bad for your first day on the job. So what did you do with this guy here?"
"This guy was a little tough," the corporal said. I felt like a side of beef being inspected by two restaurant chefs. "He's got no qualifications on the MO list that I could see, so I put him in the infantry."
"Let me see his chart," the sergeant said, and took a look for himself. "Oh, no — you goofed on this one, Bernie," he said. "Look here. See those four years of college? And 'Foreign Language, Spoken'? No, he should have gone into Special Services, or maybe that new diplomatic branch."
I perked up. What a smart, perceptive fellow!
"But what the hell, let it go," the sergeant said, dropping my chart onto the completed pile, and me, irretrievably, into the infantry.
On January 1, 1943, the day my daughter Susan was born, I was in Camp Croft, South Carolina, halfway through my basic infantry training. My request to go to New York to see the new arrival was turned down. Two weeks earlier, another request had been turned down. This one asked for a transfer out of the infantry — to the Signal Corps, to the Coast Artillery, to the Norman Luboff Choir, to anywhere at all that was not the infantry. Its denial caused me to reassess my position. If I had to stay in the infantry, I reasoned, I would at least stay as an officer and be relieved of KP. This resolve came to me on Christmas Day, 1942. I was on KP — specifically, up to my elbows in one of the giant garbage cans behind the mess hall. The Army had two kinds of garbage — wet garbage and dry garbage — and the greatest sin against the Holy Ghost and the War Department was to put wet garbage in the dry-garbage can. Some numbskull had done just that on Christmas Eve, and the mess sergeant had ordered me to rectify the error — to get every teaspoonful of wet oatmeal and brown gravy and canned fruit cocktail and discarded bacon fat out of the dry-garbage can and into the wet-garbage can. The day was perishing cold, and the brown gravy had glued itself onto the waste-paper that was legitimately in the dry-garbage can, and the freezing oatmeal was giving me chilblains, and nobody in the whole U.S. Army felt as sorry for himself as I did on that Christmas Day. Officers, as I have said, did not have to do KP.
In March, I transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, to go to infantry-officer training school, and on June 17, 1943, after thirteen weeks of the most prolonged, punishing physical work I had ever done, I was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. My graduation orders were so spectacularly fine that I could have written them myself: I was to report to the Army Intelligence School, at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, for an eight-week course dealing with the French Army and the Resistance. The downside was that after the ball was over I was to report back for assignment as an infantry officer, but I would worry about that later.
Camp Ritchie, where I reported on June 30, was known to be more a country club than an Army camp. In peacetime, it had been the summer training ground of wealthy reserve officers from Baltimore — young dandies who did most of their training on the camp's golf course and tennis courts. Moreover, there were houses for rent off the base, where I could be joined by Tass and new Susan.
There was, however, one hurdle to leap: I had to be tested for fluency in French. My examiner was an infantry captain — a tough and burly Frenchman now in the U.S. Army. Somehow, he looked familiar to me, but I couldn't place him. We talked for a bit, and suddenly I got it: he was the former maître d'hôtel at Spivy's Roof, a nightclub on East Fifty-seventh Street, where Spivy, a French chanteuse of some note, used to sing, and where I used to go to hear her. He was a reserve officer in the French Army who had transferred to the U.S. Army when he couldn't get back to France. Once we had connected, my test became a cheerful social occasion. He even steered me to the off-camp living quarters I rented the next day.
Within a week, Tass and Susan had come down from New York and settled in. Life in the Army suddenly became idyllic. The weather was perfect, and the food at the camp was astonishing, cooked and served by Italian chefs and waiters, now prisoners of war. There was good company at table, too — friends I still have, like Henry Huguenin and Lucien Wulsin. The work was fascinating. It was primarily a course in the methods, operations, and makeup of the French Resistance, plus instruction in how to extract useful military information from civilians. It was taught by Frenchmen who had actually worked in France — in from England by parachute, out by submarine. The high point of the course was an all-night exercise that had a strong streak of theater about it. The stage was the command post of a make-believe infantry battalion, somewhere in France, that was trying to cross a river by capturing a well-defended bridge. The battalion commander (a staff officer at the camp) sat at a map in a blacked-out tent, directing his troops' forward progress. Periodically, reports would be telephoned in from the front: G Company has reached the river; E Company is running into heavy machine-gun fire. The map would be adjusted and new orders issued. Then a French civilian (one of the Resistance instructors, in peasant clothes) would be escorted into the tent, and turned over to us for interrogation. Underneath a quantity of ordinary peasant chaff, he would have a few nuggets of useful information — e.g., that the machine-gun position in front of E Company was manned by disabled veterans of the Russian front — which he would give up only if properly questioned. There were eight or ten of these encounters during the night, each one producing a change in the map, and at dawn the river would have been crossed — or not, depending — and we would be graded on our effectiveness.
But, of course, this idyllic life couldn't go on forever, and in September I got my orders: Prepare for overseas embarkation (destination secret) and reassignment as an infantry officer.
The day of my departure was another of those fearful drubbings for Tass. My orders were to present myself, along with twelve or fifteen others, at 5:00 A.M. in front of camp headquarters, ready for transport to a port of embarkation. Now all my training is over; this is the real thing. Tass drives me from our rented house to the camp. Pitch dark. Raining furiously. Tass in tears. We are late. No time to say good-bye properly — the other men are already lined up in formation, and I race to join them. The officer in charge of us yells at Tass — her car is blocking our route. She tries to turn it around and, in the wet and dark, backs it into a ditch, where its wheels spin helplessly in the mud. The last I see of her as we are marched off to a train — the last I see of her for more than two years — she is crumpled over the steering wheel and helplessly sobbing as the car digs itself deeper and deeper into the mud.
The train from Camp Ritchie left us at Camp Kilmer, on the Jersey side of the Hudson, opposite New York City. That night, we were ferried across the river to a landing stage huddled under the stern of a huge black ship that towered above our barge. I barely made out its name overhead: Queen Mary. We clambered up a gangplank to a low-level hatchway, and as each man came aboard his last name was called out, to which he was supposed to reply with his first name. When my turn came, I inadvertently almost called out "Gardner!" but I had my wits about me and shouted "Robert!" instead, and I was checked off. "Robert" was indeed my first name, though nobody but the United States Army had ever used it in all my twenty-six years. However, this was no time for a discussion of nomenclature, so I gave them the name they wanted. Then I was handed two plastic disks: one indicated the times I was to eat during the crossing, and the other the place where I was to sleep. My food disk said "3 o'clock." That meant I would eat at three o'clock in the morning and three o'clock in the afternoon — two meals a day. My sleep disk put me in a cabin on one of the lower decks — tourist class in the old days. It was a two-person cabin, now fitted with two vertical racks, each holding five canvas hammocks. In addition, the gear of all ten men had to be stowed somewhere in the cabin — helmets, bedrolls, barracks bags. The vertical space between the hammocks was so tight that you couldn't turn over unless the man above you turned over at the same instant. The air was foul; there was a porthole, but it was sealed shut and blacked out.
Since there were not nearly enough cabins on the ship to hold all the troops on board — thirteen thousand soldiers, plus one thousand in crew and staff — less conventional dormitories had been created from the barbershop, the hairdressing salon, the dress shop, the newsstand, the dog kenel, the wine cellar (empty), the gym, and the squash courts; even the enormous ornamental-fish tank on the reception deck had a resident soldier. And still there was not enough room. Consequently, a great many men had to sleep on the open deck, in shifts. Outlines of a human form had been painted and numbered on every deck of the ship, leaving only a narrow walkway along the rail. Each outline had two men assigned to it, and they alternated as tenants every four hours — four hours on the chilly deck, four hours inside in the warm. The ship's public rooms were given over to the inside men; the smell was indescribable. Every officer aboard had a shipboard duty ranging from supervising the mess lines to fire prevention. Mine was to enforce the blackout. I would patrol the body-laden decks looking for chinks of light, and when I found one — there were surprisingly many — I would go inside to smother it. A single torpedo could have produced the greatest, cheapest victory ever imagined by the German High Command. Speed was the Queen's best defense against submarines; she could outrun any U-boat, so unless one was lying in wait directly in our path our chances were good. As a further defense, we zigzagged the whole way across, slowly, creakingly listing from one side to the other every two or three minutes as we shifted direction. Even so, not an hour went by without a submarine's having been sighted — or, rather, said to have been sighted — and at least a dozen torpedoes missed us by no more than six inches, according to wildfire report.
Excerpted from "A Life of Privilege, Mostly"
Copyright © 2003 Gardner Botsford.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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The Priest-King of Nemi,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was drawn to this book after reading Roger Angell's witty memoir, LET ME FINISH. Botsford's book doesn't quite measure up to Angell's, but that's mostly because, unlike Angell, his stepfather wasn't E.B. White. But he did have a couple of other stepfathers, one of which was Raoul Fleischman (of the yeast fortune). While Botsford grew up very well-to-do, by the age of 11 he was shunted off to boarding schools and camps. He attended Hotchkiss prep and then Yale, where he was on a pretty tight budget, considering the family fortune. The best parts of this memoir are his stories from the military, as a young infantry lieutenant who survived Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. The later anecdotes about his life at The New Yorker are a little less interesting, with stories about a drunken Jean Stafford and a temperamental A.J. Liebling. Central to Botsford's tale is his long-time relationship to the magazine's managing editor, William Shawn, which ended, sadly, not on the best of terms. Botsford died in 2004, the year after A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE, MOSTLY was published. If you are a reader of The New Yorker (I am), you will like this often overlooked memoir. (I did.)
Very remarkable, entertaining autobiography. Forty yrs as an editor for the New Yorker. Very candid account of his army experiences in WW ll including landing @ Normandy in 1944. Lived a life of luxury as a child, yet hes environment was a precarious balance between art & genius on one side & madness & narcissism (especially his mother) on the other.