Can Continuity Continue With Tina?

ALICE STEINBACH

July 05, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

When I arrived at the office last Wednesday, I found this message from a friend waiting in my voice mail:

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Call me the minute you get in."

It's funny. But right away I knew the message referred to the earthquake in New York. The one that occurred when it was announced: "Vanity Fair's Tina Brown to Take Over at the New Yorker."

It was stunning news. And as word spread that the 38-year-old, British-born Vanity Fair editor -- the one who last year featured a naked, very pregnant Demi Moore on the magazine's cover -- was to take up the reins at the venerable New Yorker, it quickly became the Talk of the Town.

"The idea of the editor of Vanity Fair being made editor of the New Yorker is like moving Trump Tower to the middle of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden," said John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine.

It's "a little bit like a head transplant: daring but risky for the patient," said New York magazine editor Edward Kosner, describing the job facing Tina Brown.

"Naming [Tina] Brown as the New Yorker editor-in-chief was viewed as akin to choosing Madonna to direct the New York City Ballet," wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Everyone, it seems, had specific concerns. Worried friends called or appeared at my desk to speculate:

Do you think Tina Brown will get rid of the cat cartoons by Booth? Do you think she'll add photos to the magazine? Do you think she'll start doing profiles of celebrities? And, horror of horrors, do you think she'll tamper with the traditional February cover of Eustace Tilley peering at a butterfly through his monocle?

Speculation ran high that we might be facing The End of the New Yorker As We Know It.

Which raises the question: Why do so many people care so much about a magazine?

Well, for one thing, in the 67 years of its existence the New Yorker has been home to such writers as James Thurber, Robert Benchley, J. D. Salinger, Dorothy Parker, A. J. Liebling, John Cheever, S. J. Perelman, John Updike and Wolcott Gibbs.

Harold Ross, the founding genius and first editor of the magazine, charted its course at the very beginning by setting out its purpose in a prospectus: "Its general tenor will be one of gaiety, wit and satire," he wrote. "It will hate bunk" and, he added, would not be "edited for the old lady in Dubuque."

For gaiety, wit and satire in the early days of the magazine, one had to look no further than the small office shared by two young staff writers, E. B. White and James Thurber. Just imagining these two minds contained in one room is a thrilling thought. In a reminiscence written in 1961, E. B. White suggests what it was like to sit next to Thurber:

"The whole world knew what a funny man he was, but you had to sit next to him day after day to understand the extravagance of his clowning, the wildness and subtlety of his thinking. . . . His waking dreams and his sleeping dreams commingled shamelessly and uproariously."

When Harold Ross died in 1951, his protege William Shawn officially took over as editor. After Harold Ross' original decree that "Talk of the Town" pieces were to be written in the style of a small-town newspaper, Shawn once dispatched "Talk" writers to cover the Democratic National Convention with this instruction: "Remember, please -- no politics."

And it was Shawn who argued for the publication of articles that were not only consciousness-raising but conscience-raising as well -- articles such as John Hersey's "Hiroshima," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time."

It was in the New Yorker tradition to remain, in practical matters, somewhat grounded in the 19th century. Even the arrival in 1987 of the New Yorker's third editor, Robert Gottlieb, did little to change the manual typewriters, cell-like offices and old-fashioned phone system.

But last year, after 60 years in the same drab but cherished offices, the magazine made a bold move from its location at 25 W. 43rd St. They moved across the street to 20 W. 43rd St. Still, the move unsettled the New Yorker staff. One writer, Philip Hamburger -- who joined the New Yorker in 1939 -- explained to the New York Times why the staff felt this way:

"There is a tendency in America to forget things, and we don't want memory wiped out," he said in 1991. "Continuity has been part of our essence."

It's as good an explanation as any I can think of as to why we care so much about what happens at the New Yorker. In a changing world it has remained a constant.

And we don't want that memory wiped out.

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