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; other images are courtesy of The New Yorker.
Q. How does The New Yorker collect the newspaper clippings with the funny typos and malapropisms?
Jon writes: The clippings, which have been appearing in the magazine since its first year of publication, are called newsbreaks. They are submitted to The New Yorker by its readers and also gathered by members of the magazine’s staff. They were originally used to fill up leftover column inches at the end of stories, but quickly became a popular department in their own right. By the early 1930s, readers were sending in as many as a thousand newsbreaks a week; at that time, the magazine also employed staff members whose duties included scanning the daily newspapers for potential breaks.
The writer most closely associated with newsbreaks is E.B. White. Harold Ross gave White a batch of newsbreaks as a test before hiring him, and was pleased enough with the results to make newsbreaks one of White’s first assignments at The New Yorker. (At that time, the newsbreaks department was considered the lowliest position on staff.) White quickly made them his own, generating witty taglines (the tagline was known in-house as the “snapper”) and creating many of the now-familiar headings, such as Neatest Trick of the Week and Constabulary Notes from All Over. In the foreword to Ho Hum: Newsbreaks from “The New Yorker” (1931), White noted, “There is a secret joy in discovering a blunder in the public prints. Almost every person has a little of the proofreader in him.”
White continued working on newsbreaks well into the 1970s, long after he and his wife Katharine had quit New York for Maine. Writing to Ross in 1943, he said, “My breaks are raised right in the home from hardy vigorous stock.”
Since White stopped doing them, newsbreaks have been handled by a number of editors. These days, the magazine receives far fewer clippings than in earlier decades, and no one on staff is now employed to scan newspapers and other publications for potential breaks. Even so, most of the newsbreaks printed in The New Yorker still come from the magazine’s readers.
Q. What did Garrison Keillor write for the magazine?
Erin writes: Garrison Keillor, the popular Prairie Home Companion host who is also a writer and satirist, began writing for The New Yorker in the early 1970s, around the same time he began his radio career in Minnesota. His first piece for the magazine was a short casual (now called Shouts and Murmurs) titled “Local Family Keeps Son Happy,” which ran in the issue of September 19, 1970. It’s a humorous account of a suburban family that hires a prostitute as a live-in companion for their unhappy teenage son. According to Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, when editor Roger Angell first read Keillor’s piece, he walked the corridors of the office, waving the manuscript and shouting, “This is great!”In his twenty-two-year career at The New Yorker, which spanned 1970 to 1992, Keillor contributed a total of one hundred and three pieces. He primarily wrote humor casuals, short stories, and Comments, but he also contributed two features to the magazine: an Onward and Upward with the Arts on the Grand Ole Opry (May 6, 1974) and a Reporter at Large about country musicians and golf (July 30, 1984). It was while researching his piece on the Grand Ole Opry that Keillor conceived the idea of A Prairie Home Companion, which debuted two months after his article appeared in the magazine. The following is an excerpt from that piece:
The Grand Ole Opry is the oldest continuous radio show in America today…. You listen to the Opry and pretty soon you have a place in mind—a stage where Uncle Dave [Macon] sang and told jokes and swung the banjo, where the Great [Roy] Acuff wept and sang “The Great Speckled Bird,” where Hank Williams made his Opry debut with “Lovesick Blues”…and the crowd wouldn’t let him go, where Elvis sang (and Bill Monroe sings) “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” where Cousin Minnie calls out “How-dee! I’m just so proud to be here”…. I watched my first Opry from the Allright Parking lot beside Ryman [Auditorium, in Nashville]…. The music drifted out—high lonesome voices, sweetened with steel guitars, singing about being left behind, walked out on, dropped, shunned, shut out, abandoned, and otherwise mistreated, which a fellow who’s driven eight hundred and sixty-one miles to crouch in a parking lot can really get into.In the introduction to his book We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters (1989), Keillor writes that he first encountered The New Yorker as a teenager in Anoka, Minnesota. “I read Talk as the voice of inexhaustible youth,” he writes, “charged with curiosity and skepticism, dashing around the big city at a slow crawl, and tried to imitate its casual worldly tone, which, for a boy growing up in the potato fields of Brooklyn Park township, was a hard row to hoe, but I tried. The magazine was studded with distinguished men of initials, including E.B., A.J., S.J., E.J., and J.D., so I signed myself G.E. Keillor for a while, hoping lightning would strike.” E.B. White was one of his earliest—and most enduring—influences.
Q. Where is New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross buried?
Jon writes: Harold Ross died on Thursday, December 6, 1951, while undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his lung. The following Monday, more than 1,500 people attended a memorial service for him at the Campbell Funeral Church on Madison Avenue and Eighty-first Street. An account of the service in The New York Times stated, “The body of the 59-year-old editor was cremated and burial was at Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, New York.” Thomas Kunkel notes in Genius in Disguise (1995), however, that in 1956, in accordance with his final wish, Ross’s ashes were scattered over the Rocky Mountains near his birthplace, Aspen, Colorado. As such, there is no gravestone or memorial site to visit. Perhaps the closest is the plaque near the entry to The New Yorker’s old offices at 25 West Forty-third Street where Ross presided for the last sixteen years of his editorship. A portrait of Ross taken by Fabian Bachrach in 1944 still hangs in the editorial department of the magazine’s current offices in Times Square.
Q: What are some of the funniest or most mysterious pseudonyms in the archives of The New Yorker? Did you have to make any educated guesses for The Complete New Yorker’s DVD book?
Erin writes: The New Yorker has a long history of writers using pseudonyms. In the beginning, many of the contributors—who were working for other magazines and newspapers at the time—used pseudonyms to hide the fact that they were writing for a new rival magazine. Other writers used pen names as a device to allow them to write in a different voice. Genêt, a.k.a. Janet Flanner, is probably the magazine’s most famous example of pseudonymous reportage. When Flanner began writing her column, Letter from Paris (or Paris Letter, as it was known then), it was editor-in-chief Harold Ross who decided to dub her the more French-sounding Genêt.
Robert Benchley originated The Wayward Press column with the nom de plume Guy Fawkes, and Dorothy Parker wrote a popular books column in the twenties under the pen name Constant Reader. The fashion writer Lois Long wrote two columns, Our Washington Correspondent and Tables for Two, under the pseudonym Lipstick. Most of the magazine’s sports columnists, from Russell Maloney to David Lardner, also wrote under pseudonyms. The prolific G.F.T. Ryall wrote a horse-racing column, The Race Track, under the pen name Audax Minor, and an automobile column under the name Speed. (And who can forget the engaging Talk of the Town pieces by Maeve Brennan and Rogers E.M. Whitaker, filed under the pseudonyms The Long-Winded Lady and E.M. Frimbo, respectively?)
Several of the magazine’s best-known contributors used pseudonyms for occasional articles and stories rather than for recurring columns. James Thurber wrote multiple pieces in the mid-thirties under the pseudonym Jared Manley; both Wolcott Gibbs and Alexander Woollcott wrote stories under various pen names at one time or another. E.B. White may be the writer with the most plentiful (seventeen) pseudonyms, among them Elmer Hostetter, Baedeker Jones, Squire Cuthbert, and Lee Strout White. My own favorite pseudonym is E. Bagworm Wren, one of White’s various noms de plume. The New Yorker’s frequent use of pseudonyms tapered off in the forties and fifties, and today it’s rare that a writer uses one. (One notable exception is the Cop Diary series written in the late nineties by an undercover N.Y.P.D. officer under the pen name Marcus Laffey.) Fortunately, the magazine’s library contains an archive matching all of the pseudonyms with the writer they belong to, so there was no need for educated guesses when the DVD index for The Complete New Yorker was being created.
Q. When did The New Yorker publish its first cartoon featuring a board of directors?
Jon writes: Though cartoons depicting businessmen and executives (often of the fat-cat variety) have appeared in The New Yorker from its very first issue, it took more than a year for the magazine to print one featuring a board meeting. The first single-panel cartoon of a board meeting was by Carl Rose; it ran in the November 27, 1926, issue. The drawing is of a group of businessmen sitting around a table smoking cigars. The caption reads: “Gentlemen, our firm name of Eitlestein, O’Shaugnessy, Leffingward and Babigirian is too unwieldy. Can anyone suggest a remedy?” “How about shooting Leffingward?” comes the reply. Though the artwork, in heavy charcoal, is clearly from the magazine’s early days, the caption still feels contemporary. It calls to mind a Charles Barsotti cartoon from October 11, 2004, in which an executive says to one of his employees, “I won’t, of course, Hollingsworth, but I could have you killed.”
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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