A Life of Privilege, Mostly
‘One of the best, most beautifully written, memoirs I have read for years,’ trumpets the quote from Sean French on the cover, while a couple of similarly effusive encomia, one from a Pulitzer Prize winner, garnish the back of the book.
Moreover it is published by Granta, which as far as I am aware is a sort of kite mark of approbal when it comes to belles letters. I mention all this because for much of this book I felt I was missing something: I had the same sort of sensation I get when sitting down in a restaurant that is critically regarded, that I am supposed to enjoy – all Michelin stars and Gault et Milla Toques – but wishing I were eating a plate of spaghetti or fish and chips.
Perhaps I misunderstood the title. I Life of Privilege, Mostly, and the puff on the inside flap about the fancy upbringing, the job at The New Yorker, and so on, somehow hinted, to me at least, a part Simon Raven, part Chips Channon survey of New York café and literary society.
I hoped for Benchley, Parker, and Fitzgerald, with a bit of Evelyn Waugh’s war memoirs; instead I got the story of a man with a moderately Bohemian mother from a rich Midwestern family who married three times. The second of her husbands, Raoul Fleischermann, scion of a cadet branch of a yeast dynasty, published The New Yorker magazine as something of a hobby.
The first part of the book, meanders between the author’s civilian life as a struggling cub reporter in America and an American soldier in Europe, recounting the difficulty in adjusting from one to the other, and back again.
The second chunk deals with his childhood and upbringing as a Fleichsmann stepson. While certainly comfortable and leisured, with a fair amount of name dropping, some observations about servants (the usual stuff about children spending time below stairs etc, etc), the number of motor vehicles owned by the family, the size of the Long Island summer house and the fact that he and his siblings once travelled to France on board a luxury liner that his mother and stepfather had failed to catch because they were at a dinner part, it falls a little short of the out-and-out privilege promised by the title.
I had hope for an insider’s view of life among Flaglers and Fricks, Vanderbilts and Astors, Schemmerhorn and Schuylers and Stuyvesants; once more I was disappointed. Instead, what I got was an account of a moderately eccentric bourgeois upbringing; of a stepfather who wore silk shirts (an understandable, if unremarkable, taste) and a mother who refused to visit any public lavatory in New York, except that of the Colony, preferring to be driven home when the need arose, (again an understandable, if slightly inconvenient preference).
However, I am pretty sure that I am at fault for wanting a cross between the novels of Gore Vidal and Edith Wharton rather than the recollections of a life lived either trying to work for The New Yorker, working for The New Yorker, and then retiring from working at The New Yorker.
As the memoirs of a journalist looking back over a long working life, this book is genuinely interesting, absorbing and entertaining. I enjoyed passages about life on a smalltown newspaper and his portraits of New Yorker writers are deft and assured, affectionate and insightful, balancing sentiment with critical appraisal of the written word, born out of decades spent poring over some of the best writing in the English language.
His portrait of long serving editor William Shawn, who retired in 1987, shows a talented, brilliant, egotistical, myopic, manipulative despot, who feels he can live forever – the intervention of mortality circumvented by the installation of a clones successor. What Shawn fails to realise is that there is life outside editing a magazine, and his years of carefully wrought Borgia-like intriguing are brought to nothing when the proprietor, who presumably has had enough, sells up and the new owner, as is reasonable, has his own choice of successor.
What this book does convey is how much The New Yorker matters to a constituency perhaps best described as the East Coast intelligentsia; I use the term to describe an attitude, rather than a geographical location. The sense of patrician loftiness and the seriousness with which its editors go about their work is cleverly, almost unconsciously, conveyed in this book, which manages to capture the sense of The New Yorker and those who work for it being an elite, which is probably where the sense of ‘privilege’ comes in again.
It is an institution in that although privately owned, it finds that its doings are the cause of much analysis and speculation; and in today’s world with its bulimic appetite for meretricious celebrity and fast cheap notoriety, it is comfort to know that things like The New Yorker still have a place.
A book called something like Memoirs of an old bloke who enjoyed a bourgeois upbringing, fought in the Second World War and then spent his life working at The New Yorker might not have been so appealing to a publisher. Nevertheless, when read as such, it is enjoyable.