New Yorker's New Yorkers

Monday Book Reviews

January 28, 1991|By Gilbert Sandler

A NEW YORK LIFE: Of Friends & Others. By Brendan Gill. Poseidon Press. 348 pages. $21.95.

IF YOU ARE one of the cultists unrepentantly in love with the New Yorker, you are going to love this book. In a collection of 48 profiles, you are introduced to the rich and the famous, the artistic, the eccentrics, the patricians and the poseurs in the New York world of Brendan Gill.

In the course of his long career with the New Yorker, Gill has written "Profiles" and "Reporters at Large," as well as book, movie and play reviews and scores of "Talk of the Town" pieces. Here, he profiles those he got to know in his extensive reportorial career. They are the New Yorker's New Yorkers, people you always wanted to meet but never thought you could.

Now you can.

There's John O'Hara, a model New Yorker writer, who, Gill observes, "took care to know where everybody's money came from and where it went." After a lifetime of riches and honors, he would go to his death bitterly disappointed -- because he had not gone to Yale.

And Ben Sonnenberg. For more than a quarter of a century the most famous (and wealthiest) public relations man in America, Sonnenberg was "a pleasing recent fiction," living the life of an Edwardian gentleman in the biggest and most luxurious private house in New York City. But Sonnenberg had invented himself: He had been born in a stetl in Lithuania and raised as a Lower East Side ragamuffin, the son of a failed pushcart peddler.

What New Yorker reader hasn't wanted to meet Dorothy Parker? Gill portrays her as one of the wittiest people in the world -- and one of the saddest. "There is nothing good in life," she once held, "that will not be taken away."

lTC And Alec Waugh, the well-known novelist and older brother of Evelyn, may be Gill's most eccentric New Yorker. Waugh's New York base was (of course) the Algonquin, long New Yorker writers' favorite hotel and dining room, which was located fortuitously close to Waugh's clubs and a porno movie house. "Alec," Gill says, "took comfort in attending these shows regularly."

And Joseph Alsop, George Plimpton (the elder), Edgar Kauffman Jr. (who persuaded his father to become the patron of Frank Lloyd Wright and so brought into being the famous residence at Falling Water) and Brendan Behan, who had only one tooth in his upper gum and used it to masticate steak voraciously.

Much has been made of Gill's supposed remorse at his status as an outsider Irish Catholic yearning to be an insider Irish Catholic yearning to be an insider and well-bred WASP. There is in the book much to support the notion. Gill pays a bit too much attention to a subjects' college, their clubs, their blood lines. Of the first 10 people profiled, most went to either Harvard or Yale. Gill clearly loves clubs. He writes of the Century, the Knickerbocker, the Coffee House, the New York Athletic Club, the Brook, the Piping Rock. There are long passages devoted to the role of clubs in New York and many sentences like this one: "She was gently born and carefully reared."

Perhaps we shouldn't make too much of all this cozying up. Gill is inseparable from WASPs and their society and clubs. In the end, this familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds authority.

Gilbert Sandler writes the Baltimore Glimpses column on Tuesdays.

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