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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. When did The New Yorker start publishing letters to the editor? Did it publish letters in any form before that?

Erin writes: The Letters to the Editor department has had several incarnations at the magazine. In the twenties and thirties, the magazine published occasional letters to the editor, but no consistent weekly column from readers. These early letters were usually quite brief and appeared under headings like “The Amateur Reporter” or “Our Captious Readers.” Some of them were actually parodies written by New Yorker staffers under pseudonyms; a typical example is this excerpt from a letter, written by “Rye Face,” in the March 13, 1926, issue:
That smart New Yorkers read your confounded paper may be true. But why imply that decent people would become smart if they read it? Dammit, I read it. And I am a bootlegger. And practically all bootleggers and others with a sense of humor read it. Accept my sincerest expressions of disgust. THE NEW YORKER is not smart. Please have the decency to cease from accusing the honest people who support your senseless waggery with their good cash of vices they don’t possess. We may not be perfect but God knows we aren’t smart.
From the forties through the early nineties, letters to the editor would occasionally appear in the back of the magazine, usually identified as Departments of Amplification. Those who wrote letters to the magazine during this period include Eudora Welty, John McNulty, George S. Kaufman, and Thomas Mann. The following is excerpted from a letter written by Eudora Welty and published as a Department of Amplification in the January 1, 1949, issue. Welty is responding to Edmund Wilson’s review of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948):
How well Illinois or South Dakota or Vermont has fared in The New Yorker book-review column lately, I haven’t noticed, but Mississippi was pushed under three times in two weeks…. Such critical irrelevance, favorable or unfavorable, the South has long been used to, but now Mr. Wilson fancies it up and it will resound a bit louder. Mr. Faulkner all the while continues to be capable of passion, of love, of wisdom, perhaps of prophecy, toward his material. Isn’t that enough? Such qualities can identify themselves anywhere in the world and in any century without furnishing an address or references…. Mr. Wilson has to account for the superior work of Mr. Faulkner, of course he has to, and to show why the novelist writes his transcendent descriptions, he offers the explanation that the Southern man-made world is different looking, hence its impact is different, and those adjectives come out. (Different looking—to whom?) Could the simple, though superfluous, explanation not be that the recipient of the impact, Mr. Faulkner, is the different component here, possessing the brain as he does, and that the superiority of the work done lies in that brain?
In October of 1992, with Tina Brown’s first issue, the magazine began occasionally publishing single letters under the heading “Mailbox.” The first stand-alone Letters to the Editor column, titled “In the Mail,” ran in the October 4, 1993, issue. The weekly column was renamed “The Mail” in the January 20, 1997, issue. Today, the magazine receives about one hundred letters to the editor per issue, and every letter is read by someone on the editorial staff. Usually, the letters editor selects three or four for the weekly column. The criteria for choosing a letter vary, but typically the editor is looking for something that furthers or clarifies a point in the piece or is an interesting addendum. Some of the people who have written letters to the magazine in the past fifteen years include Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Colin Powell, Stephen Sondheim, Gore Vidal, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Dick Cavett.

Q. Did The New Yorker always publish a pre-holiday “On and Off the Avenue”?

Jon writes: Each year, for most of its history, The New Yorker has published holiday shopping guides under the “On and Off the Avenue” rubric. Until the early nineties, these gift guides appeared annually over several issues in November and December, broken up into such categories as gifts for children, gifts for the house, holiday food, and wrappings and trimmings. During the Second World War, the magazine ran, earlier in the year, a guide to gifts for men and women in the armed forces. The pre-Christmas gift guides were written by the regular Avenue correspondents: Lois Long, Sheila Hibben, Marion Miller, Barbara Blake, Cecil Webb, and Kennedy Fraser. In the nineteen-eighties, Lynn Yaeger, Cynthia Zarin, Andy Logan, and Mary D. Kierstead contributed. Since the mid-nineties, the column has run occasionally; Patricia Marx has published gift guides the last two Decembers.

The style of these columns has been consistently direct and pragmatic. “Paging Mr. Claus,” a pre-Christmas guide from the December 7, 1929, issue, warns readers, “Please don’t phone us for information, and if it’s peace you want, shop early in the morning.” The column sums up Hammacher Schlemmer like this: “Labor-saving devices a specialty. Innumerable electrical tricks; all kinds of hardware; anything for kitchens.” When it comes to buying beauty products for wives, the column writer suggests, “If you know her preferences, you need read no further.”

The writer of a 1944 column on gifts for servicemen and -women notes: “Women on tropical stations must have cotton lingerie, such as Lord & Taylor slips ($3.95)…. For girls in cold climates, Macy has two-piece pajama suits, knit like balbriggan and cut like ski pants; $3…. Navy nurses, poor things, must wear black cotton or rayon stockings. Saks has them.” The writer goes on to suggest gifts for soldiers in hospitals. “Sleight-of-hand paraphernalia delights both men who are bedridden and those able to get around. You can easily assemble a bag of tricks yourself.” Six months later, Lieutenant Alton Kastner wrote a letter to the magazine from the South Pacific critiquing some of the suggestions: “Fruitcake is ‘surefire,’ you say. One mammoth fruitcake we got was sadly massacred by our industrious little insect friends…. Only ten per cent of the hundreds of fruitcakes arrived in edible condition.”

In later decades, the columns were less list-like and more discursive. Andy Logan’s “Under the Children’s Christmas Tree,” from December 9, 1985, considers the new fad of including documentation such as “birth” certificates with dolls, ascribing the trend to the pervasive influence of Cabbage Patch Kids. Later, commenting on a “Peanuts” anthology, she quotes Umberto Eco, who said of Charlie Brown and friends, “They are the monstrous, infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of the industrial civilization.”

In her recent columns, Patricia Marx has brought back something of the lighter touch of the gift guides’ earliest years. In her 2005 guide to holiday gifts for women, Marx puts forward the following theory:
Everything costs so much these days that everything starts to seem cheap. Speaking as a pretend economist, I must explain that this is because the rate of real inflation cannot keep up with the rate of inflation in one’s head. And so when a person hears of a brownstone going for twelve million, even a person who happens to gulp at the monthly mortgage on her puny one-bedroom, she finds herself thinking, What a bargain! Maybe I should buy that!

Q. Who have all the cartoon editors been over the years? Are they all cartoonists themselves? Is the cartoon editor the same as the cover editor and the art editor?

Erin writes: The New Yorker’s first art editor was Rea Irvin, the illustrator and cartoonist who created Eustace Tilley—the monocled dandy who appears on the magazine’s cover each February—and was the driving force behind the magazine’s graphic identity and early artistic innovations. Irvin, along with a few other staffers, met with editor Harold Ross every Tuesday afternoon, from 1925 to 1951, to peruse the weekly submissions of covers, cartoons, illustrations, and so on. In 1939, James (Jim) Geraghty, a cartoon-gag writer at the magazine, was hired as art editor, and Irvin was from that point on known as the art director. Irvin continued to sit in on art meetings throughout the forties, but he left the magazine after Ross’s death in 1951. From the fifties until his retirement in 1972, Geraghty oversaw all art in The New Yorker and acted as the liaison between the cartoonists and the magazine. Some of the artists he nurtured during that period include Peter De Vries, Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, George Booth, William Steig, Ed Koren, and Charles Barsotti.

In 1972, William Shawn hired the cartoonist Lee Lorenz, who had worked for Geraghty since 1958, as art editor, and Lorenz retained that position until 1993, when he became cartoon editor. During his tenure, which ended with his retirement in 1998, Lorenz cultivated such artists as Jack Ziegler, Roz Chast, Jean-Jacques Sempé, Bruce Eric Kaplan, and Michael Crawford. Bob Mankoff, Lorenz’s successor as cartoon editor, has been a cartoonist at the magazine since 1977. Mankoff also runs The Cartoon Bank, the leading searchable database of cartoon humor on the web. In his nine years as cartoon editor, Mankoff has fostered cartoonists like William Haefeli, Carolita Johnson, Drew Dernavich, Alex Gregory, Matthew Diffee, and David Sipress.

Caroline Mailhot, the current art director, joined the magazine in 1992, and, with the design consultant Wynn Dan, adapted the magazine’s design to incorporate photography and a wider use of illustration. She continues to be responsible for the overall design of the magazine and of each issue. Françoise Mouly assumed responsibility for covers when she was named art editor in 1993. Elisabeth Biondi, the visuals editor, oversees photography, and Christine Curry, the illustration editor, oversees the assignment of illustrations.

Q. Is The New Yorker available on audio?

Jon writes: There are several ways to access content from The New Yorker on audio. A weekly audio edition, with a selection of pieces from the week’s issue of the magazine, is available online from Audible.com. Listeners may buy individual issues or an annual subscription. A typical week’s content might include the Comment, two Talk stories, a Shouts & Murmurs, two feature stories, and a movie review. Audible also offers packages of recordings from The New Yorker Festival.

Under the “Online Only” tab on The New Yorker’s web site, browsers will find a list of recent Q. & A.s with New Yorker writers as well as Audio Slide Shows and the Fiction podcast, a monthly feature in which a current New Yorker fiction writer selects and discusses a story from the magazine’s archive.

Podcasts of The New Yorker’s audio content are also available for free through the Apple iTunes store and other podcast sites (and via RSS readers). In addition to the monthly Fiction podcast mentioned above, the magazine produces two weekly podcasts. The New Yorker Out Loud features the Q. & A.s and other audio content from the web site. The Comment Podcast contains a reading of the week’s commentary column from the magazine (produced by Audible). Readers can also subscribe to these podcasts via The New Yorker’s RSS page.

Associated Services for the Blind produces recordings of articles from newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker. A recent visit to the ASB web site revealed that The New Yorker was among the top ten best-selling items in their Braille and Audio Resource Center. Like Audible, the ASB records selections from the magazine, rather than the contents of an entire issue.

Perhaps best of all, each year you can hear New Yorker writers read their work in person at The New Yorker Festival, whose 2007 program can be found here.

Q. I know that Lois Long created Tables for Two. When was that, and what were some of the restaurants she reviewed? Who started writing it after her, and when did the tradition start of different staffers (or freelance writers) doing weekly reviews?

Erin writes: The magazine’s Tables for Two department was originally called When Nights Are Bold, and it included reviews of nightclubs and speakeasies as well as restaurants. Charles Baskerville wrote the column, under the pseudonym Tophat, until July 18, 1925, when Lois Long took over, writing under the pen name Lipstick. The column was renamed Tables for Two in the September 12, 1925, issue. Long, a former Vanity Fair reporter, brought a lively and effervescent tone to the column, which typically ran to two or three pages. That tone is reflected in this excerpt from a review she wrote about Harlem’s Cotton Club in the May 4, 1929, issue:
Another thing that your most high-hat friends have recently discovered in a body is the Cotton Club in Harlem, which has a perfectly elegant revue that goes on at twelve-thirty and again around two o’clock. I fondly think that this revue…is the reason for their presence there—I cannot believe that most of them realize that they are listening to probably the greatest jazz orchestra of all time, which is Duke Ellington’s—I’ll fight anyone who says different. It is barbaric and rhythmic and brassy as jazz ought to be; it is mellow as music ought to be. There are throbbing moans and wah-wahs and outbreaks on the part of the brasses, and it is all too much for an impressionable girl.
In addition to the Cotton Club, Long reviewed most of the upscale hot spots of the Jazz Age, including the Stork Club, the Four Seasons, Tavern on the Green, the Rainbow Room, and the Algonquin. Her last Tables for Two review ran in the May 28, 1938, issue. After that, the column was written by other New Yorker staffers, including David Lardner and the prolific R. E. M. Whitaker, until February of 1963.

The magazine also published a separate Restaurants column, written by Sheila Hibben and Katherine Blow, which began in 1935. That department reviewed restaurants as varied as Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, “21,” Pete’s Tavern, and the Russian Tea Room. The Restaurants column ran for just seven years, but Tables for Two reemerged, as an occasional department, in the Goings On About Town section, beginning in May of 1995. It expanded to a weekly department, still in GOAT, in the spring of 2000. Today, the column is written by a rotating group of five or six staffers.

Q. What is the origin of the vertical band of solid color that appears on the left side of every cover of The New Yorker?

Jon writes: That vertical band is known as the cover strap. The strap was included in Rea Irvin’s design for the first cover in 1925, and it has appeared on every New Yorker cover since. Usually the strap is rendered as a solid column of color, but over the years a number of artists have used it as a way of ornamenting or enhancing their illustrations. Some notable uses of the strap include the August 6, 1927 cover by Ilonka Karasz depicting a concert at the Central Park bandshell. The strap contains passages from a musical score.

1927_coverstrap.jpg

More recently, for his January 8, 2007 cover “On Thin Ice,” Ivan Brunetti accentuated his drawing of a young girl skating on a shrinking ice floe with smaller visions of global warming in the strap, including a polar bear sipping a drink in front of a fan and an igloo with a melted roof.

brunetti_coverstrap.jpg


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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