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Still News: A.J. Liebling

Friday, July 24, 2009

A.J. Liebling. The Sweet Science and Other Writings. Pete Hamill, editor. The Library of America. 1057 pages. $40.00.

On the day the veteran journalist A.J. Liebling died, one could find in his New Yorker office — according to that magazine, “unsorted, unfiled, within reach, scattered and heaped on his desk, tables, chairs, shelves, and air-conditioner, and, in some cases, hanging at odd angles on his walls” — the varied interests of his life.

There were prints of jockeys and sketches of boxers, a biography of Boss Tweed, a book about brewing beer, the Histoire de la Libération de la France, an edition of the Miami Labor Tribune, Pierce Egan’s Boxiana, a Christmas card from the First Infantry Division, the collected works of Albert Camus, and other such odds and ends. An appropriate sample, this office assortment, for Liebling’s interests had always been far-reaching, his mentality forever insatiably curious.

The New Yorker said in its obituary that Liebling “wrote about only what he cared about deeply; there was no searching for material, no writing for writing’s sake.” And he cared about many things. As Charles McGrath of the New York Times observed decades later, Liebling, in contravention of the cliché, “spread himself thick.”

He was born in 1904 in New York City. His father was an Austrian Jew who arrived in America in the 1880s as a penniless 7-year-old and in subsequent years grew wealthy as the owner of a wholesale fur business; his mother was a Jewish woman from San Francisco who Liebling biographer Raymond Sokolov described as “a pretty, pleasant soul.” Their family took frequent trips to Europe and during the shipborne return from one such, Liebling, age six, procured a copy of the Evening Mail and read a story about the boxers Carl Morris and Jack Johnson — it was the first thing that he, as an adult, could remember reading as a child. Once back in New York, he devoured newspapers: “Their smell and texture had the same immediacy for me as the taste of the cookies I ate while reading them,” he wrote in his 1947 book, The Wayward Pressman. “It is impossible for me to estimate how many of my early impressions of the world, correct and opposite, came to me through newspapers.”

Liebling went to Dartmouth, from which he was expelled for skipping chapel. Later, he attended Columbia’s journalism school and was unimpressed. The chapter of The Wayward Pressman describing his stint there is entitled “How to Learn Nothing.” His first job after graduation was as a copyreader for the New York Times, a paper that he found “colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless.” In short order, he was fired. Liebling described why:

One night some boy with pimples in his voice called up from Brooklyn to tell the Times about a particularly unfascinating contest between two Catholic-school fives. I took the call and noted down all the drear details until I got to who was the referee. “Who was he?” I asked. “I don’t know,” the kid said, “and anyway I ain’t got anymore nickels.” So he hung up. We couldn’t use a basketball score in the Times without the name of the referee. So I wrote in “Ignoto,” which means “unknown” in Italian. Nobody caught on, and after a while I had Ignoto refereeing a lot of basketball games all around town. Then I began bragging about it.

Fun, but is it true? According to Sokolov, Liebling wasn’t fired for the Ignoto fib, actually. He was fired for deliberately changing the listing of a pompous reporter’s middle name, which Liebling thought it affected to include in the byline in the first place, from Patrick to Parnell. The Ignoto stuff makes for a better story, of course, and Liebling was never one to let the facts sully a good tale.

Which is not to say that he lied. But he did follow the journalistic conventions of his day, and to some degree that meant that exaggeration or diminution, fantastical inclusions or convenient elisions, were all at least tacitly acceptable. Reporters of Liebling’s time did not remove themselves from their copy. Rather, they inserted themselves into it because they wanted the reader to understand that the pieces shouldn’t be accepted as objective; that they, the reporters, were biased individuals and couldn’t be trusted to give wholly accurate information. By making themselves known, their presence conspicuous, these journalists allowed the reader to decide where and how they might be tweaking the details. As the Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker wrote, “Liebling almost always made his presence felt, conceding that he was capable of error, sometimes winking to let the reader know he might be improving the story with a little original invention, provided the story was anything but serious.”

Perhaps a bit of this original invention permeated Liebling’s account in The Wayward Pressman of how, mere months after losing his job at the Times and starting another at the Providence Journal, he ended up in Paris. His father one day told him, spontaneously, that he really should find time to study in Europe: “If you don’t go now, you never will. You’ll get a good job and then you won’t want to give it up, or you will get mixed up with a girl.” Liebling, kindling this unexpected spark, responded, “As a matter of fact, I was thinking of asking a woman to marry me. She’s fifteen years older than I am, and she isn’t Jewish, and she hasn’t any money, and she has been divorced four times and she has a child by each of the four husbands, but I am sure Mother and you will like her.” In another retelling, Liebling said he also mentioned offhandedly that his supposed paramour was “being kept by a cotton broker from Memphis, Tennessee.”

In any event, through one tale or another, Liebling came to be in possession of a letter of credit from his father for $2000 and a seat aboard a ship sailing to Europe in late summer (he spent almost half of the money before the Caronia even left port and had to ask for more). Thus began A.J. Liebling’s sojourn in Paris, a year that would influence him and his writing profoundly. And from his recollections of that heady time germinated his most joyful book, and his last, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.

Between Meals is one of five books included in the Library of America’s new compendium of Liebling’s best stateside writing.1 It was published just a year before his death and largely derived from the four-part article “Memoirs of a Feeder in France,” which ran in the New Yorker in 1959, and which Liebling had originally called “Recollections of a Gourmet in France.” But his editor changed the headline. Liebling, he argued, was no “gourmet.” Liebling was a feeder.

By the late 1950s, the feeder’s gluttonous appetite for food and drink had become legendary and, sadly, would shortly prove deadly. Liebling had always been a rotund figure, but at the end he was suffering from serious heart and kidney ailments, his body was disfigured by gout, and he could barely walk. In Between Meals, however, his excesses are not yet burdened by such afflictions. One of the many Parisian lunches he described lovingly and memorably consisted of:

raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne.

This particular feast’s dispatcher was the screenwriter and actor Yves Mirande, “one of the last of the great around-the-clock gastronomes of France.” Liebling met the middle-aged Mirande in 1926 in the restaurant Mirande had opened for Mme. G, one of his “protégées,” who was also his junior by some 40 years. Mme. G was a first-rate cook and she maintained her patron en pleine forme, in Liebling’s estimation, by feeding him daily lunches of the cornucopian sort.

Mirande became Liebling’s gustatory mentor. It was he who showed the American what it meant to have a truly great appetite for French cooking. When Liebling returned to Paris in the 1950s, he renewed his friendship with Mirande and found the then-octogenarian to be as well-maintained and hungry as ever. The two eaters reunited over a feast that began with a truite au bleu, paired with a Lacrimae Sanctae Odiliae from Alsace, followed by daube provençal and pintadous, young roasted guinea hens, and asparagus. A Pétrus accompanied the daube, a Cheval Blanc the guineas.

But the good times did not last. First Mme. G fell ill and closed her restaurant. Then, during a subsequent lunch date, Mirande, after finishing his first course, escargots en pots de chambre, suddenly felt sick and had to have Liebling take him home.

The old man died shortly thereafter. His decline had at first given Liebling pause — “If eating was beginning to affect Mirande at eighty, I thought, I had better begin taking in sail” — but after Mirande’s death, Liebling fastened on a new theory. His friend had expired not because of decades of gulping guinea hens and slurping champagne but because of the few, brief years at the end when he wasn’t doing just that. Mme. G’s bountiful cooking sustained Mirande into old age; his insides “received each day the amount of pleasure to which they were accustomed, and never marked the passage of time . . . When Mme. G, good soul, retired, moderation began its fatal inroads on his existence.” By the time of the ill-fated lunch when escargots sent Mirande fleeing from the table, “the damage was done, but it could so easily have been averted had he been warned against the fatal trap of abstinence.”

When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best, Liebling instructed in Between Meals, to inhabit a precise financial spot — one should have money, but not enough of it to be blithe about how much he spends on dinner. This is so because modest deprivation leads to experimentation. A rich man never has to choose between an inexpensive main course (braised beef heart, in Liebling’s example) paired with a good bottle of wine and a pricier main course with a rather middling bottle; he will simply order the best of everything and in so doing will never know whether he likes beef heart or not. Thus, in the sport of gastronomical and oenological education, journalists, freelance writers, and students — of which Liebling was one, at least nominally, at the start of his own apprenticeship — are particularly well positioned.

But Liebling deviated from his own dictates. It could be quite enjoyable, he knew, to dine with some real money. Of financial necessity he kept to the places that his Guide du Gourmand à Paris listed as “reasonable” or “simple,” but he read and dreamed about those hung on higher rungs. And so, when his family came to visit in the spring of 1927, Liebling was sure of where to take them: to Maillabuau’s — Guide classification: “of great luxury.” Upon their arrival, Liebling told the proprietor, “I have brought my family here because I have been informed it is the most illustrious house of Paris.” He continued (speaking in French, of course): “Monsieur my father is the richest man in Baltimore.” Upon hearing that lie, Maillabuau nodded, shuffled back to his kitchen, and prepared for the Americans a simple meal of vegetable soup, trout grenobloise, and poulet Henri IV — all spectacular. The bill was staggering, but Liebling’s father paid it “with gratitude,” vowing “to take at least one meal a day at chez Maillabuau during the rest of his stay.” His son was in heaven.

In 1935, after having returned to the states and flitted for several years among newspaper jobs, Liebling joined the New Yorker, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best, Liebling instructed, to inhabit a precise financial spot. One should have money, but not enough of it to be blithe about how much he spends on dinner. Modest deprivation leads to experimentation.

Things didn’t go well initially; Liebling’s pieces weren’t making it into the magazine. The difficulty, he later explained, was that he was writing with “a successful newspaper short-feature method” that didn’t work in the New Yorker’s longer articles. “It would have been like running a mile in a series of hundred-yard dashes,” he wrote.  William Shawn, the editor who handled Liebling’s copy and who would eventually become editor in chief, thought Liebling’s initial problems were less with length and more with style. Either way, the work eventually got better. “Liebling,” Shawn   told Sokolov, “more than almost any writer I’ve known here at the magazine, improved his writing . . . I don’t know how. He absorbed something — he wasn’t taught.”

After overcoming his opening-day jitters, Liebling just couldn’t write enough. His first New Yorker pieces covered the seedier sides of his city — the conmen, “heels,” “gozzlers,” and “Telephone Booth Indians” who plied their trades along the Great White Way. The Jollity Building, the third book in the Library of America volume, collects his reporting on this usually-down but never-out crowd, to whose members Liebling was inveterately attracted. One member in good (bad?) standing was Hymie Katz, who, among other odd jobs, ran nightclubs, and who took a certain pride in bouncing his unreasonable guests “in a nice way.” About the common practice of plopping Mickey Finns into the drinks of cantankerous customers, he told Liebling, “Any fool can go into a drugstore for a dollar and buy a box of Mickeys. But even with Mickeys, there is an art in the way to serve them.”

Another of Liebling’s favorite subjects was boxing. In 2002, Sports Illustrated named The Sweet Science, an agglomeration of Liebling’s ringside coverage, the best American sports book of all time. The distinction is not unjustified; cigar smoke and sweaty, leathery smells seep from The Sweet Science’s pages. What’s more, Liebling’s approach to the subject is uncommon — or perhaps just uncommonly good. He doesn’t merely report the bouts but tells stories about them. He investigates what all lies behind the punches. Boxing, after all, is largely a series of stories underlying a series of punches. As Liebling wrote:

It is through Jack O’Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadel-
phiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. . . . Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.

Liebling was drawn to the characters who surrounded the pugilists just as he was drawn to those who worked in clubs and all-night smoke shops. Jack Kearns, a onetime prizefighter, saloon keeper, and manufacturer of fire extinguishers, was, in 1952, managing Joey Maxim, the light heavyweight champion. “Most managers,” Liebling wrote, “say ‘we’ will lick So-and-So when they mean their man will try to, but Kearns does not allow his fighter even a share of the pronoun. He is a manager of the old school.” Another manager, Al Weill, “is one of the most realistic fellows in a milieu where illusions are few.” Liebling pays him a visit:

On the morning of my call, I found Weill looking out the window and smoking a cigar while waiting for, he at once informed me, telephone calls from Pittsburgh, Providence, Honolulu, and Salt Lake City. A prizefight manager will never admit he is waiting for a telephone call that costs less than a dollar.

It is often remarked that Liebling hasn’t aged particularly well, and it’s true in a sense. His writing has been in and out of print, and his name is not widely known. Such is a common affliction of journalists, the pertinence of whose work is usually fleeting. Like many reporters, Liebling longed to produce something more lasting — he started several novels, in fact, one of which was about a female boxer named Eula who tries to drown herself in an aquarium and falls in love with an ichthyologist — but nothing really stuck. And so his books are compilations of his reporting, of fights and restaurants and politicians and eccentrics long gone.

Still and all, Liebling stands apart from the journalistic ranks. He was abnormally productive, habitually turning out thousands of words in a day (often chuckling as he set them down) without breaking a sweat. His work is also wide-ranging; there seemed no limit to the subjects about which he could or would write. And most importantly, much of his writing is not day- or even decade-dependent, because Liebling didn’t just cover the “drear details” but discovered, recorded, and interpreted the essential background and thus produced pieces that are, to borrow from Ezra Pound, “news that stays news.” His great work of political journalism, The Earl of Louisiana, about eccentric Bayou State Governor Earl Long, is not only first-rate reporting but genuine and singular American and Louisiana history — coverage of people, places, and events, flecked with Liebling’s own welcome and apposite interjections: “Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.”

What else makes Liebling special? Plainly put, reading his stuff is not only edifying but just a lot of fun. The narrator, the roving reporter, is mischievous and curious and excited by the material he’s covering, and so are we.

In 2004 Terry Teachout asked, “Is it too much to hope that the Library of America might be persuaded to give us a Liebling volume? Outside of Mencken himself, I can’t think of another American journalist more deserving of such deluxe treatment — or one whose posthumous reputation would profit more from getting it.” The wish has been granted, and here’s hoping that this new Liebling collection reaches those readers who have yet to make its author’s acquaintance.

1 His fine war correspondence, written while “embedded” with troops in Europe and Africa during World War II, is collected in another Library of America volume.