Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. Clair McKelway

The recently published "Reporting at Wit's End, Tales from The New Yorker" has been my introduction to St. Clair McKelway, a staff writer at the magazine for three decades from the 1930's to the early 1960's. This compilation of 18 of McKelway's essays, reporting, and personal stories is incredible stuff. It's a combination of stories of New York crime, con-men, eccentrics, and murderers which represents at least half of the tales, and the balance are from McKelway's personal perspective, whether purely personal such as the story of his dropping out of school and running away from home in D.C. to Key West at age 15(he never went back to any school) or historically personal such as that related to his service in World War II.

McKelway was a classic New Yorker writer despite his lack of any formal education. The style is precise and understated, literate, and powerful when the time is right. It is personal at times like a conversation with an old friend or a letter home. More than that McKelway's writing occasionally ventures into the metaphorical and even metaphysical in a way that would be unlikely to make its way into to the space conscious(as in length and thought) New Yorker of today. On top of that there are episodes of startingly honest non-judgmental personal insight that are absorbed fully only after the reading is complete, as perhaps in the unusual puzzle "The Edinburgh Caper".

McKelway is described as being such an accomplished editor(not his job really) that he is credited with saving A.J. Liebling's career, sort like the Yogi to Don in his perfect game. With all of that, he was a man of many minds and moods. In one of his unsettled periods he thought of the possibility of being a preacher like his late father but was uncertain as in his only attempt at public speaking,

"I had keeled over backwards in a dead faint the one time I had tried to, at a small banquet at the Waldorf. I was inclined to stick with journalism. Ross(H.W. Ross, his editor) said I wasn't cut out to be a preacher; he claimed the only trouble with me was that I was under the impression that all money had to be spent before dawn or it would be called in, and that I believed all women had to be courted as a result of pretty much the same fallacious reasoning." (page 273)

This bon vivant of the New York literary scene entered the service in an unusual way. In 1942 he wrote a Talk of the Town piece(always unsigned was the protocol at that time) that criticized the Army Air Force's handling of public relations related to Doolittle's successful first bombing of Tokyo. The head of all public relations for the Army happened to be a devoted New Yorker reader, used his strength to determine the author, and offered McKelvey an immediate commission as a Captain, with apologies that it couldn't yet be Major due to some administrative details. McKelvey felt that it was his duty to accept, went to Brooks Brothers to get his tailored uniform, and headed into the Army Air Force, spending his three years working in India, then China, and finally the Marianas from which the fire bombings of Japanese cities were launched. He reported directly to General LeMay and was a Lieutenant Colonel by then. His military career ended abruptly when he covertly cabled the Pentagon accusing Admiral Nimitz, commander of all Asia, of high treason. This has not been a spoiler, just the template from which several terrific tales are born.

This book is like a box of nice chocolates. Pick and choose, move about the box, go for what you think will be the best ones first and be surprised with what you find later.


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