A column in which Jon Michaud and Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s head librarians, answer your questions about the magazine's past and present. E-mail your own questions for Jon and Erin; the column has now moved to The New Yorker's Back Issues blog. Illustration for Emdashes by Lara Tomlin.
Q. How and when did A.J. Liebling start writing for The New Yorker? Was it under his own name, or was it as an anonymous Talk of the Town reporter? Can one recognize his style from his early work in the magazine?
Jon writes: Liebling was hired by The New Yorker in 1935, when he was thirty years old. Prior to joining the magazine, he had worked as a newspaper reporter, most recently for The New York World-Telegram (where Joseph Mitchell was a colleague). During his last two years at the World-Telegram, Liebling had begun contributing freelance Talk of the Town stories to The New Yorker. His first (unbylined) story in the magazine was "Prosperity Pens," in the January 7, 1933 issue, about a pyramid scheme involving the sale of fountain pens, wallets, and flashlights.
According to Raymond Sokolov's biography, Wayward Reporter (Harper & Row; 1980), Liebling initially had some difficulty making the transition from newspaper journalism to the longer-form reporting practiced at The New Yorker. His first bylined piece was a three-part profile of the preacher Father Divine (June 13, 20, and 27, 1936), co-written with St. Clair McKelway. By then, Liebling had published more than twenty-five unbylined Talk stories. Because the Talk section was so heavily rewritten and edited at that time, it is difficult to make a comparison between Liebling's mature style and his writing in these early pieces. It is not difficult, however, to notice that, from the beginning, Liebling was an omnivorous reporter. Among those early Talk stories are pieces on subjects as diverse as the Bronx County Motor Vehicle Bureau, the Ethiopian Consul General, a retired fireman who had become a parrot merchant, and the bell-ringer at Riverside Church. There were also several pieces about boxing, one of the numerous subjects Liebling would go on to write about with distinction during his thirty-year career at the magazine.
Q. Who does those little line drawings found throughout the magazine, and why is no credit ever given them? Have "spots" always been listed in the table of contents?
Erin writes: The "spot" drawings that run throughout the magazine have appeared in The New Yorker since the very first issue, in 1925. Initially, there were just a few spots in each issue. The drawings were small and often playful, and many were unsigned. From the 1940s onward, the spot illustrations appeared more frequently. Early spot illustrators included Victor De Pauw, Roger Duvoisin, H. O. Hofman, George Shellhase, Virginia Snedeker, Beatrice Tobias, Edward Umansky, and Garth Williams. Several artists known for their cartoons and covers--such as Constantin Alajalov and Abe Birnbaum--also contributed spot drawings.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, artists like Raymond Davidson, Pierre Le-Tan, Kenneth Mahood, Jenni Oliver, and Gretchen Dow Simpson all published spots in the magazine. During the 1900s and early 2000s, a stable of illustrators was used, and spots were sometimes rerun after six months or so. These artists include Laurent Cilluffo, Jacques De Loustal, Philippe Petit-Roulet, Emmanuel Pierre, Robert Risko, and Benoit Van Innis. Beginning with the February 14 & 21, 2005 issue, the magazine began running credited spots by a single artist. In April 2005, spots started being listed in the Table of Contents.
Q. When was the last typewriter spotted in the office?
Jon writes: Today. There are three typewriters in the library (two IBM Wheelwriters and a Brother ML 300). Though the majority of our work is done on computers--and has been for some time now--there are still a few archival resources we maintain with typewriters. We're the only department in the office that still uses typewriters on a regular basis.
Q. When did Calvin Trillin start writing food pieces? How many different kinds of cuisine has he covered?
Erin writes: Calvin Trillin has had a long career at The New Yorker, writing about subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement ("An Education in Georgia," 7/13/63), female coal miners in Pennsylvania ("Called at Rushton," 11/12/79), a tick-tack-toe-playing chicken in Chinatown ("The Chicken Vanishes," 2/8/99), and the death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq ("Lost Son," 3/14/05). The first lengthy food piece he wrote for the magazine was a U.S. Journal article, "Eating Crawfish" (5/20/72), about the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. He has contributed a total of forty-four food pieces to the magazine. Many of these pieces ran as U.S. Journals and focused on regional American cuisines, such as New England clambakes (1978), Little Italy's San Gennaro festival (1981), catfish eating in Florida (1982), and barbecue contests in Memphis (1985). Trillin published twenty-one of these food-centered U.S. Journals from 1972 to 1982.
Beginning in 1982, Trillin also published seven pieces on foreign cuisines, including those from Hong Kong, Ecuador, and France. From the 1980s to the present, many of his food pieces have run under the department headings of Our Far-Flung Correspondents, American Chronicles, and Annals of Gastronomy. Other culinary topics he has covered include pizza baron Larry (Fats) Goldberg (1971 and 1987), oyster eating in Delaware (1980), Arthur Bryant's restaurant in Kansas City (1983), Haagen-Dazs's and Ben & Jerry's ice cream (1985), Chinatown restaurants (1986), Manhattan bagels (2000), Cajun boudin sausage (2002), Shopsin's café in Greenwich Village (2002), and San Francisco takeout (2003).
Q. What's the first movie The New Yorker ever reviewed? How many movie critics have there been at the magazine, and who are they?
Jon writes: The first movie reviewed by The New Yorker was F.W. Murnau's silent The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann), starring Emil Jannings. The review, by Will Hays, Jr., appeared in the first issue of the magazine--February 21, 1925--in a column of criticism and celebrity gossip called "Moving Pictures." Hays deemed the movie "a superb adventure into new phases of film direction...a splendid production."
Hays wrote only three more movie columns for the magazine. Over the next few years, the column was written by Theodore Shane (signed T.S.) and Oliver Claxton (O.C.). It also sometimes ran unsigned. The first long-term reviewer, John C. Mosher, took over in 1928 and held the post until 1942. Thereafter, the magazine's movie critics were: David Lardner (1942-44), John McCarten (1945-1960), Brendan Gill (1960-68), Roger Angell (1960-61 and 1979-80), Penelope Gilliatt (1967-1979), Pauline Kael (1967-1991), Terrence Rafferty (1988-1997), Anthony Lane (1993-present), Daphne Merkin (1997-1998) and David Denby (1998-present).
When the regulars were away, or when the magazine was between longer-tenured reviewers, a great variety of writers filled in. The list includes E.B. White, Wolcott Gibbs, John Lardner, Philip Hamburger, Edith Oliver, Whitney Balliett, Susan Lardner, Renata Adler, Veronica Geng, and Michael Sragow.
Q. Are cartoons fact-checked? What's the sort of thing that checkers ask to be changed in a drawing or caption?
Erin writes: Every cartoon is fact-checked for accuracy and also checked against the library's archive to make sure that a similar cartoon has not run previously in the magazine. The New Yorker fact-checking department verifies both visual and text accuracy of a particular cartoon: If a drawing of the White House has the wrong number of columns on it or if a man's coat is buttoned on the wrong side, then the fact-checking department informs the cartoon department of the discrepancy. The cartoon department will then either make the change or not depending on whether the discrepancy is intentional or not. In addition, if a cartoon caption gets a proper name wrong or, say, locates the Nôtre Dame in Bangkok, the fact-checking department will point out these inaccuracies. The cartoonists have learned that even a detail as small as the number on a taxicab will be checked to make sure it does not represent an actual cab number.
Addressed elsewhere in Ask the Librarians: VII: Who were the fiction editors?, Shouts & Murmurs history, Sloan Wilson, international beats; VI: Letters to the editor, On and Off the Avenue, is the cartoon editor the same as the cover editor and the art editor?, audio versions of the magazine, Lois Long and Tables for Two, the cover strap; V: E. B. White's newsbreaks, Garrison Keillor and the Grand Ole Opry, Harold Ross remembrances, whimsical pseudonyms, the classic boardroom cartoon; IV: Terrence Malick, Pierre Le-Tan, TV criticism, the magazine's indexes, tiny drawings, Fantasticks follies; III: Early editors, short-story rankings, Audax Minor, Talk's political stance; II: Robert Day cartoons, where New Yorker readers are, obscure departments, The Complete New Yorker, the birth of the TOC, the Second World War "pony edition"; I: A. J. Liebling, Spots, office typewriters, Trillin on food, the magazine's first movie review, cartoon fact checking.
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