The New Yorker at 2 (and-a-Half)

March 09, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The New Yorker magazine has just observed its 70th birthday, with a perfumed double issue and a party. The celebration might better have been denominated in fortnights rather than years, though, since today's New Yorker came into being in October 1992, and is not the magazine founded by Harold Ross in 1925.

The new New Yorker is a journal of gossip and insider reports on show-business and fashion, Washington politics, Madison Avenue and Wall Street dealing. It is a publication at the expensive end of a market which has the sordid London tabloid at its low end.

I don't say the American tabloid, which has always been sophisticated, with a disabused and knowing attitude toward power and celebrity, a wise-guy attitude, whereas the London tabloid, like the new New Yorker, is in connivance with the people it writes about, whom it envies and indirectly flatters.

Thus the new New Yorker's birthday party in Manhattan was a gathering of celebrities and business figures. The imagination cannot stretch to a birthday celebration for William Shawn's New Yorker that featured Hollywood stars (excep- tion made for Louise Brooks, a great favorite of Shawn's, who liked the movies; but the singularity of Louise Brooks was that she refused to be a Hollywood celebrity).

I say this as an interested party, as between 1971 and 1992 I wrote what were called ''Reflections'' on politics and history for the magazine. But that was the past and one has no right to complain that a new owner should turn a magazine into something new. The gossip paper is an ancient form of journalism, possibly its most ancient, and undoubtedly its most popular, even among those who criticize it.

The old New Yorker was undoubtedly in a slow, if dignified, decline, as the kind of American who read it departed from the changing American scene -- although until the end it made money, whereas the new New Yorker is reported to be losing between $10 million and $20 million dollars a year.

I am sorry, however, that by keeping the old name on the new magazine the new owner has diminished something with enormous influence upon American culture between the 1920s and the 1980s. Not American ''high culture,'' as the foreign press likes to say, getting it wrong about America, as usual. American high culture is -- or was, at least -- served by the university and the intellectual quarterly or monthly. The old New Yorker was a magazine which addressed the American general audience.

It was founded by a newspaperman. It started out as a comic magazine. It prospered editorially at a time when the modern American novel and American poetry were being created in the spare time of newspapermen, movie and magazine hacks, insurance executives and bank clerks. The academy had not yet appropriated our literature, and a vital current flowed between writer and general reader.

The New Yorker flourished in that situation, demanding of its writers intelligence, clarity, precision, accuracy and intelligibility -- newspaper standards imposed by Harold Ross, its founder. He would publish anything he thought good, and nothing that was vulgar, as he, like his successor, William Shawn, was a puritan -- which is to say, an essential American. The vulgarity and obscenities of the new New Yorker are its most flagrant betrayal of Shawn's and Ross' magazine.

There have been many other good American magazines but the phenomenon of The New Yorker is that it also became a huge commercial success. This most serious of American general magazines became in the postwar decades a highly successful vehicle of luxury advertising, frequently of so grotesque and transparent a snobbery as to make one wonder who the advertisers thought the readers were, or, a more disturbing thought, who the readers were to have such advertising directed to them.

The faults of the old New Yorker were the result of one of its virtues, its loyalty to its writers. It would publish multi-part articles, lethally boring, on such matters as the origin and manufacture of bread, and political campaign chronicles that provided hour-by-hour accounts of events of infinitesimal interest even at the time, weeks earlier, when they had occurred. Shawn was not a man to cut.

The magazine's fundamental quality under Ross, Shawn and Robert Gottlieb, the old magazine's last editor, was its integrity. It would publish whatever the editor believed in and nothing he did not believe in. Shawn correctly said he had never published anything ''in order to sell magazines, to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be 'successful.' '' In editing The New Yorker, the writer was invariably given the final decision on how his or her work would appear.

This respect for the craftsman, and for the intelligence of writer and audience, is what set the old New Yorker off from others. It was an example of that principle of serious journalism which says that a magazine or newspaper exists to publish what writers and editors think is right, important, valuable and entertaining.

This is a principle which assumes that the relationship with the reader is an exchange between serious people, and not primarily a commercial transaction.

Thus while one may be pleased that through the generosity of Mr. Newhouse, its new publisher, the magazine we may call the former New Yorker can celebrate two and a half years of publication, we must also recognize that the true New Yorker magazine stopped publication on September 18, 1992 -- its final cover a painting of Cinderella rushing from the ball, her carriage already turned to pumpkin.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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