"Why does A. J. Liebling remain a vibrant role model for writers while the superb, prolific St. Clair McKelway has been sorely forgotten?" James Wolcott asked this question in a recent review of the Complete New Yorker on DVD. Anyone who has read a single paragraph of McKelway's work would struggle to provide an answer.
His articles for the New Yorker were defined by their clean language and incomporable wit, by his love of New York's rough edges and his affection for the working man (whether that work was come by honestly or not). Like Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, McKelway combined the unflagging curiosity of a great reporter with the narrative flair of a master storyteller. William Shawn, the magazine's long-time editor, described him as a writer with the "lightest of light touches." His style is so striking, Shawn went on to say, that "it was too odd to be imitated."
The pieces collected here are drawn from two of McKelway's booksTrue Tales from the Annals of Crime and Rascality (1951) and The Big Little Man from Brooklyn (1969). His subjects are the small players who in their particulars defined life in New York during the 36 years McKelway wrote: the junkmen, boxing cornermen, counterfeiters, con artists, fire marshals, priests, and beat cops and detectives. The "rascals."
An amazing portrait of a long forgotten New York by the reporter who helped establish and utterly defined New Yorker "fact writing," Untitled Collection is long overdue celebration of a truly gifted writer.
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About the Author
St. Clair McKelway came from a family of newspaper journalists and ministers. Born in 1905, in Charlotte, NC, he grew up in Washington, DC, and worked his first job as an office boy at the old Washington Times-Herald. He went on to report and edit for the New York World, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune. He eventually became a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he wrote for thirty years, and its managing editor from 1936-1939. He married five times, each of the marriages ending in divorce, and died in 1980 at the age of 74.
Read an Excerpt
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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Table of Contents
ContentsNote on the Text....................vii
Introduction by Adam Gopnik....................ix
Place and Leave With....................27
The Innocent Man at Sing Sing....................43
Who Is This King of Glory? (with A. J. Liebling)....................80
Some Fun with the F.B.I....................125
The Cigar, the Three Wings, and the Low-Level Attacks....................173
The Wily Wilby....................197
The Blowing of the Top of Peter Roger Oboe....................255
A Case of Felony Murder....................329
This Is It, Honey....................353
The Perils of Pearl and Olga....................371
The Rich Recluse of Herald Square....................392
The Edinburgh Caper....................413
The Big Little Man from Brooklyn....................524
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
I¿m always astounded by the number of my native North Carolinians who made such memorable contributions to the 20th century world of New York journalism, and St. Clair McKelway is no exception.. The New Yorker has always been a stellar magazine since the editors they¿ve employed also happen to be fantastic writers. This is a collection of the best of McKelway's stories about the seamier side of crime in a NYC that has all but disappeared from living memory. One is reminded of Joseph Mitchell¿s Up in the Old Hotel, only more alarming. If you¿ve ever had fantasies of being a pre-television, pre-internet reporter in old New York, then Mr. McElway¿s tales of badly behaved and occasionally charming criminals will leave you feeling the need for a smoke and a drink as you keep one eye on the door.
Early Reviewer ReviewAs a longtime reader/subscriber to the New Yorker magazine I had high expectations for ¿Reporting at Wit¿s End.¿ This compilation of St. Clair McElway¿s writings (with a not-to-be-missed introduction by Adam Gopnik) more than satisfied me.McElway, who died in 1980, had been in service in WW2. Opening the book at random rewarded me with a remarkable vignette. While in uniform he had accused Admiral Nimitz of high treason yet escaped court-martial (though he did spend some time in a locked psychiatric ward). Knowing this perhaps helps us understand his penchant for writing about those whose experiences were on the edge of law. One of his longer pieces, ¿The Wily Wilby,¿ details an emblezzer so skillful that an auditor said it was a real pleasure to discover them.This book is truly a treasure-trove. A jacket note tells us McElway was a high school drop-out. In light of that we can marvel at the extrordinary career he built, moving from newspaper to newspaper and finally serving over thirty years at The New Yorker.
I first discovered St. Clair McKelway in Roger Angell¿s piece, ¿The Guam Caper¿ published in the February 15, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, so I was delighted to find the early reviewer¿s copy of Reporting at Wits¿ End: Tales from the New Yorker propped against my door. Aside from a year or two when I cancelled my subscription out of a guilty inability to face the stacks of glossy pages I could not read when I was consumed with graduate school or new motherhood, I¿ve been reading the New Yorker almost since I could read. Thurber, both Angells, White, Gopnik, McPhee, and editors from Shawn to Remnick have been on my shelves for years, but not McKelway; he disappeared, despite the many pieces he published in the magazine. A few of those essays and articles are gathered here, and most deliver on The New Yorker¿s promise of quirky stories told in clear, stylish prose. McKelway was a master of a New Yorker style of the black-and-white era, when the magazine was published in dense rows of type and the phone numbers in the ads started ¿MUrray Hill.¿ Times were different¿people drank more, for one thing¿and it¿s clear that these pieces are of another time, not only from the quantities of Scotch or pink gins the author consumes in ¿The Edinburgh Caper,¿ but from a kind of softness in the telling. There¿s a kind of innocence to these stories, despite McKelway¿s obvious bouts of paranoia, an innocence and acceptance that¿s hard to find in current writing. McKelway¿s style is present, but he isn¿t; only the pieces that are about his experiences have any trace of him in the telling.McKelway¿s style is good enough, clear enough, to carry along pages of prose that can lag; ¿The Edinburgh Caper¿ nearly did me in, but I got through on his descriptions and on the bounce of his narrative. The profile of Walter Winchell published here was one of a series of articles, as was ¿The Cigar, the Three Wings, and the Low-Level Attack.¿ I wished that all four of the ¿A Reporter with the B-29s¿ pieces had been reprinted here, and others omitted, though that would give an erroneous impression of McKelway as a war reporter when, as he makes clear in ¿The Blowing of the Top of Peter Roger Oboe,¿ he ended up in the Pacific in an kind of accidental patriotism. The vignettes of life in New York among criminal elements both guilty and not resonate today, and after reading Let the Great World Spin, ¿The Innocent Man at Sing Sing¿ was more poignant. ¿Mister 880¿ was sad and hilarious as an account of a low-level counterfeiter trying to get by on a pensioner¿s income. ¿The Big Little Man of Brooklyn¿ is a tale of serial impersonations by a grandiose character, a real-life version of screwball fraud not unlike those portrayed in Meet John Doe or Nothing Sacred. These examples of his work are fine and representative of his abilities, but McKelway wrote more biting satire than is included here, as well as fiction, and one hopes that the strength of this anthology will encourage republication of some of his other work.
I¿ve had a continuous NewYorker subscription since the early 80¿s and one of my greatest regrets is that I could never look forward to picking up the magazine that arrived at my door every week and open it to a story by Joseph Mitchell, A.J.Leibling or St. Clair McKelway (not to mention E. B.White, James Thurber and many others).Mitchell and Liebling have recently been published in new editions but as far as I know McKelway has been out of print for decades. Until now.Bloomsbury has just published Reporting At Wit¿s End, a hefty volume of eighteen of McKelway¿s stories from the Golden Age of the New Yorker, from the 1930s to the 1960s.McKelway specialized in gritty true crime stories about arsonists, fire investigators, embezzlers, counterfeiters, suspected Communists, Secret Service men, and FBI agents. His profiles are alive to the ambience of life in New York in the first half of the Twentieth Century. His most famous New Yorker tale was a six-part 1940 profile of Walter Winchell, the dean of America¿s gossip columnists. McKelway began his career as an office boy at the Washington Herald. He went on to become ¿one of the twelve best reporters in New York¿ at The New York Herald Tribune. He served as a managing editor The New Yorker from 1936 to 1939, and then a staff writer. During World War II, he held public relations posts and left the service with the rank of Lt. Colonel.This book is a delight from beginning to end, 620 pages later. It¿s a book about another age, a different New York, and one I still look for every week in The NewYorker.
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.
I must admit I feel misgivings any time I set out to read a 600+ page book. Six hundred pages seems utterly interminable when I¿ve chosen poorly, and I cast longing glances at all the unread books on my shelf ¿ each impatiently waiting their turn for my attention. So when the LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Reporting at Wit¿s End arrived in the mail and I hefted it for the first time, I felt a tingle of abject fear. I revere, but rarely actually read The New Yorker. St. Clair McKelway¿s work for that august publication sounded wonderful in the advance blurb, but what had I gotten myself into?It is with great delight (and no small amount of simple relief) that I can say I thoroughly enjoyed Reporting at Wit¿s End. Rather than being too long and too ponderous, it was -- if anything -- too short.McKelway¿s writing is crisp, sly, and deceptively straightforward, and although the various events he recounts took place between 1910 and 1968, they are as vivid and as ¿present¿ as today¿s news. He was writing not as an historian, but as an observer of the quirky aspects of human nature ¿ people on the edges of what is found acceptable in a civil society. Embezzlers, counterfeiters, imposters, and con men, the delusional, the vengeful, the monomaniacal, and the unlucky. Rather than bringing you into the past, his articles make the past seem as fresh and relevant as this morning¿s headlines. Anyone who enjoys masterful writing that flows with an ease that seems effortless (but must have been hewn out by sweat and sheer force of will) is bound to find many pleasures in this book.Going through the other LibraryThingers reviews, I saw that some readers felt the article entitled ¿The Edinburgh Caper¿ dragged. It was indeed long, the longest piece in the volume, and I grant it wasn¿t the breeziest. In it McKelway tells of a trip he took to Scotland where he became convinced he was embroiled in a complex international kidnapping plot involving the Queen of England, President Eisenhower, and Nikita Khrushchev and invasion/overthrow/bombing of their countries. McKelway is giving a first hand account of what it is like to descend into insanity, part of you understanding it¿s all in your head, but more parts of you utterly sure that you¿re the crux of a huge and catastrophic conspiracy. The pacing and length of ¿The Edinburgh Caper¿ are central to the effect: mapping the process of losing touch with reality. For me it induced cold terror.¿The Edinburgh Caper¿ is paired with one other of McKelway¿s pieces from the 1960s, ¿The Big Little Man From Brooklyn,¿ which recounts the adventures of a master imposter who assumes identities (physician, diplomat, Naval Officer, lawyer) as his whims move him. Together the two articles peel away the comforting notions we hold about the stability of ¿self,¿ and our ability to discern deception from truth. Concluding Reporting at Wit¿s End with that one two punch was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the editors. Where exactly is ¿wit¿s end¿ and will any of us recognize it when we arrive there? McKelway sends his dispatches from that weird in between world and makes us wonder how close we are to that edge.
The master of the classic New Yorker character driven long profile, McKelway largely ignored the Park Avenue bluebloods and the silk stocking crowd, and instead plumbed the depths of the great city's underclass, focussing on its unique and singular "rascals" with near affection and an amazing forensic attention to detail.
For a modern reader (well, for me, anyway), it can take a little while to get into the rhythm of St. Clair McKelway¿s ¿Tales from The New Yorker,¿ which are gathered in this 600-page volume under the title Reporting at Wit¿s End.McKelway typically starts off with a tantalizing situation, often the discovery of a theft or fraud of some sort. Then the story meanders, layering detail upon detail, until we know more than we ever imagined we¿d want to know about forgers, or embezzlers, or religious cult followers.Each of these stories is, as Adam Gopnik describes them in his introduction, a ¿short, significant parable.¿ But the word ¿parable¿ is misleading. At first, unconsciously, I kept waiting for the kind of conclusion we get from a parable¿an object lesson or, at least, a ¿so, therefore...¿ moment, when the story would connect up to some larger observation about what motivates people to embark on a life of crime or self-delusion. But this sort of generalization is precisely what we don¿t get. As Gopnik explains it: ¿The typical magazine `trend¿ piece says, almost always falsely, `More and more people are acting this way!¿ The classic McKelway piece says, accurately, `Very, very few people act this way, which is what makes the ones who do so interesting.¿¿The overinterpretation of societal trends is hardly a new phenomenon (and if I describe it as a growing one, I¿ll just be providing an example of it). But it can be hard to find a respite from the ubiquitous summing up, in old and new media alike, of what things signify. As a temporary escape, I enjoyed spending a little time with McKelway¿s embezzlers and forgers, who don¿t signify anything, or represent anybody, but themselves.After a couple of false starts, I picked up the book one evening last summer after watching a classic 1946 film noir, The Blue Dahlia. I was happy to sustain my noir-ish mood through two short McKelway vignettes, ¿This Is It, Honey¿ (1953) and ¿The Perils of Pearl and Olga¿ (1946), both set firmly in that heartless, amoral, but often drily humorous world we know from forties noir. In ¿This Is It, Honey,¿ a man confesses to killing his girlfriend in a failed suicide pact, but we soon realize that something else¿something very peculiar¿is going on. And in ¿Pearl and Olga,¿ the naïve Pearl is persuaded to follow Olga onto a subway and ¿take a picture¿ of her with a camera concealed in a shoe box¿but is the ¿camera¿ really a camera?My appetite whetted, I read a few longer pieces. ¿The Wily Wilby¿ gives us an emblematic McKelway character¿an embezzler who, according to one of his wives, is ¿an admirable man except for that one quirk, or whatever it is.¿ In ¿Mister 880,¿ a 63-year-old man sets about guaranteeing ¿a modest independence¿ in his old age by embarking on what McKelway calls a ¿restrained career as a counterfeiter,¿ specializing in fake one-dollar bills. And in ¿Who Is This King of Glory?,¿ a profile of the charismatic preacher Father Divine, McKelway¿largely steering clear of stereotype and cliché¿takes this self-styled ¿God¿ straight, on his own terms, letting the reader decide what it all adds up to.This unemotional stance is typical of Reporting at Wit¿s End, and it¿s probably why, in the end, I was content to read just a sampling of these stories. For McKelway and his whole generation of New Yorker writers, says Adam Gopnik, who first encountered these pieces when he was just starting to write for The New Yorker himself, ¿The reformer¿s rage was as alien to the style as the reactionary¿s revulsion.¿ Without a commitment to strong emotion, to rage or revulsion, the challenge for this kind of story is to keep it interesting. In this¿not always, but certainly at his best¿St. Clair McKelway succeeds.
I've picked up this book a half dozen times in the past few months trying to interest myself in McKelway's writing. I'd read several pages of his stilted prose before giving up on a story and moving on to the next. It was such a fruitless effort that I grew to hate the sight of the book on my table. It seemed to threaten hours of tedious reading. I'm now officially throwing up my hands and admitting that I only read about half the collection and, despite all my discipline, I simply can't go any further. I also can't recall much of what he wrote, just the frustration of trying to interest myself in it. So my apologies for the nonspecific review. I just found the book quite dull.
This book was a most serendipitous discovery for me, browsing through the Early Reviewers selections and clicking it sheerly because it was a writer from the New Yorker and how could it be bad? It turned out to be a good instinct, because otherwise I never would have deliberately picked up a book of "true crime" type essays. Of course, this "true crime" is quirky New York true crime. The best of the bunch for me were the "rascality" essays (as the intro puts it): "Firebug Catcher" about a insomniac cop who catches arsonists in the act, "Who Is This King of Glory?" about a religious charlatan, "Mister 880" about the most elusive counterfeiter of old time who turned out to be an old man who confined himself to $1 bills, "The Wily Wilby" embezzler, and "The Perils of Pearl and Olga" who are sucked into the vortex of a psychotically jealous husband. In a similar vein and style are profiles of curious New Yorkers such as "Place and Leave With" about a process server of extraordinary gifts, "Some Fun with the FBI" about a non-criminal who nevertheless is followed by the FBI and knows how to bait them, "This Is It, Honey" detailing a depressed lover's personal conviction that he'd strangled his girlfriend when in fact she'd committed suicide, and "The Rich Recluse of Herald Square" about a millionaire old lady who lived in squalid filth in a run-down hotel for a quarter of a century. A few deal with questions of serious justice, too, like "The Innocent Man at Sing Sing," "A Case of Felony Murder," and "Average Cop." I couldn't quite bring myself to read the war memoir stories, and though I made it about 3/4 of the way through "The Edinburgh Caper" I'd pretty much gotten the trick of it and didn't care enough to finish. Despite these mild drawbacks, McKelway is a great discovery. He is a wonderfully lucid writer, chock full of fascinating detail, and not inflated with his own prose style--his writing never detracts or distracts from his content, which is a matter of high importance to me. The stories themselves fall mostly into the category of "truth is stranger than fiction," for there are a lot of oddballs out there, and McKelway managed to find them. It's a shame no one at the New Yorker is left to fill his shoes; whenever I've tried to read their articles in the past 15 years I've been bored out of my skull. Cancel your subscription and buy this book instead.
What a great discovery! McKelway was an amazing witer with a gift for the tiny details that describe a life, like " Average Cop", or the quirky underside of a city,"Having Fun With the FBI". I truly enjoyed this book and have already recommended it to freinds as a must read.Kris Alsbrooks
This collection of essays is ordered chronologically. For me, the most exciting bits were the brief pieces in the first section and then the WWII pieces in the middle (including "The Blowing of the top of Peter Roger Oboe").I have read all but the last, longest piece. McKelway writes with a beautiful lightness when he is describing New York stories and New Yorkers. In his WWII pieces he writes well of the AAF's situation in the southwest pacific.
The best gift you can buy a literate person. Journalism perfection.