People in a magazine

Recalling a man of letters

Joseph Goodrich signing a copy of “People in a Magazine” for fellow IAW&A member Maureen Hossbacher at the book’s launch. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT

By Peter McDermott

Sally Rooney, a novelist from Castlebar, Co. Mayo, who turns 28 next month, was the subject of a major profile in the Jan. 7 issue of the New Yorker. The occasion was the upcoming U.S. publication of her second book, “Normal People”; her first, “Conversations with Friends,” was greeted with great enthusiasm by the same magazine in 2017. You could say, then, that Rooney has made it in America, just as Frank O’Connor did long ago and also Mary Lavin. In those two cases, it was because many of their short stories appeared in the magazine over the years.

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The Canadian Alice Munro, a more recent regular, has cited the profound influence of reading in the New Yorker in the 1950s both Lavin and Maeve Brennan, another Irish writer. In 2013 at age 82, Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee calling her the “master of the short story.”

So, being in the New Yorker means something, now and always. That might explain why the Jan. 28 issue on newsstands this week sounds a little distressed when referring to one of its prized writers as “a figure of mid-century glamour who, all too soon, lapsed into literary obscurity.”

But Joseph Goodrich, a member of the Irish-American Writers and Artists, is going some way towards rectifying that with his latest book, “People in a Magazine.” Its subtitle is “The Selected Letters Of S.N. Behrman and His Editors at the New Yorker.”

S.N. Behrman was a predecessor to Lauren Collins, the author of the Rooney article, in that he wrote profiles about people like George Gershwin, for example.

The New Yorker is delighted with the book: “To read these dazzling letters between him and his editors is to know Behrman better in all his wit, drive, and penchant for social observation.”

We asked Goodrich a few questions about “People in a Magazine.”

Who was S. N. Behrman and why have you edited a book of his letters?

S. N. Behrman (1893-1973) was that rare thing – in this day and age, certainly – a man of letters. Best known as a playwright for the Broadway stage, he also had a parallel career as a long-time contributor to the New Yorker. From 1929 to 1972, the magazine published Behrman’s reflections on his childhood in the Orthodox Jewish community in Worcester, Mass., (“The Worcester Account”); his study of the art dealer Lord Joseph Duveen (“Duveen”); his warm and witty reminiscence of his friendship with the writer and caricaturist Sir Max Beerbohm (“Portrait of Max”); his memoir of the literary and theatrical words of New York and the Continent (“People in a Diary”); as well as other profiles, reviews and pieces of fiction. He loved the magazine and its staff, and they loved Sam Behrman. Each brought out the best in the other.

I’m fascinated with documents of all types – letters, telegrams, manuscripts, postcards, anything and everything. I suspect the reason for this is that I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and the post was the main conduit to the larger world. This fascination is the impetus behind another book of mine, “Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950.”

Around 2002 or so, I re-read many of the plays that first interested me in the theater: Kaufman and Hart, Philip Barry, Robert Sherwood – playwrights who flourished between the two world wars. I’d never read Behrman, though I had a vague idea of who he was. I was knocked out by his plays – witty comedies with a hard, intellectual core – and I quickly read his prose work. Wanting to know more about the man and his writing led me to the New York Public Library’s archives, which house the Behrman papers. His correspondence was extensive, and I knew there was a book there, but it was only in the last couple of years that I found the right focus for such a work – Behrman’s 43-year relationship with the New Yorker. The magazine’s records are also at the New York Public Library, so it was only natural to collect, select, and edit the material from both sources. I transcribed approximately 1,500 pages of material, ranging from Behrman’s New Yorker pay stubs to editorial notes to fan mail for his articles to rough drafts of the articles themselves. If it dealt with Behrman and the magazine, I made sure I had it.

Tell us about your contact with David Behrman, S. N.’s son. How important was he to the project?

I first met David in 2006, when I spoke with him about collecting his father’s correspondence. David is a pioneering figure in new and electronic music; he studied with Stockhausen and composed music for Merce Cunningham’s dance company, as well as releasing his own albums such as “Leapday Night” and “On the Other Ocean” – beautiful, contemplative music featuring natural and computer-generated sound. He and Terri Hanlon, his wife, have been generous and supportive figures since the inception of the project. David was rightly concerned with the disappearance of his father’s work. My goal was to bring some new attention to Behrman’s writing, and making the New Yorker connection was the key. David and Terri read and commented upon the manuscript throughout the process. It pleases me greatly that they like the book – which is dedicated to them, by the way.

There is a particular New York Irish connection to the book, isn't there?

Behrman’s stepdaughter — and David’s half-sister — was Barbara Gelb (1926-2017) who, with her husband Arthur Gelb (1924-2014), wrote a series of biographies about Eugene O’Neill, the most influential American playwright of the 20th century. Behrman knew O’Neill; both had plays produced by the Theater Guild. When O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, he noted in a letter to fellow playwright Russell Crouse that he had received “congratulations from all over the world, including cables from dramatists such as Hauptmann, Pirandello, Lenormand, etc. but none from home front playwrights with the exception of Ned Sheldon, Sam Behrman, George Middleton and your esteemed self.” In 1946 Behrman introduced Barbara Gelb to O’Neill when “The Iceman Cometh” was in rehearsal for its premiere in New York. It was the only time Ms. Gelb ever met the playwright. The Gelbs, by the way, were married for more than six decades and in latter years attended several of the IAW&A’s Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award ceremonies.

Did anything in your research surprise you about the New Yorker and more generally about the era covered?

Editing at the magazine was notoriously rigorous and idiosyncratic. Vladimir Nabokov (to name one writer) was greatly put out by the various changes his work underwent on the way to publication. In Behrman’s case, the editing process, while often a lengthy and involved one, was much less fraught; he and his editors worked well and effectively together. The level of care and concern, the desire for perfection, the willingness to take the time to get something right and not rush to publication – these are rare qualities in today’s world. Everyone associated with the New Yorker cared deeply about the magazine’s contents and how they were presented to the world. The dedication of its staff was phenomenal, and thousands of documents bear that out in stunning detail.

I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of Behrman’s relationship with his editors. Harold Ross, William Shawn and Katharine S. White were not merely professional colleagues – they became lasting friends. White, in particular, is a vivid and fascinating character in her own right.

Research for the book was studded with little delights and discoveries for a devotee of the New Yorker such as myself: postcards from James Thurber to Ross; a note from Maeve Brennan to Behrman on a sheet of the most gorgeous blue stationery; a lengthy (and unpublished) piece on Bellevue by St. Clair McKelway; telegrams to Behrman from Greta Garbo; these and other items evoked Behrman’s eras in the most vibrant way.

Do you read the New Yorker today?

I do. The magazine has lasted for 94 years now, weathering world wars, recessions, and the digital age. That it’s still going is an amazing testament to its current editor and staff, and to the strength of founding editor Harold Ross’s vision.

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