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Tag: Joseph Mitchell

New York Minute

Joseph Mitchell in Lower Manhattan, near the old Fulton Fish Market; photograph by his wife, Therese Mitchell

Head on over to The New York Review of Books and dig Janet Malcolm on the new Joseph Mitchell biography by Thomas Kunkel:

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram. In 1933 St. Clair McKelway, the managing editor of the eight-year-old New Yorker, noticed Mitchell’s newspaper work and invited him to write for the magazine; in 1938 the editor, Harold Ross, hired him. In 1931 Mitchell married a lovely woman of Scandinavian background named Therese Jacobson, a fellow reporter, who left journalism to become a fine though largely unknown portrait and street photographer. She and Mitchell lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and raised two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Kunkel’s biography is sympathetic and admiring and discreet. If any of the erotic secrets that frequently turn up in the nets of biographers turned up in Kunkel’s, he does not reveal them. He has other fish to gut.

From reporting notes, journals, and correspondence, and from three interviews Mitchell gave late in life to a professor of journalism named Norman Sims, Kunkel extracts a picture of Mitchell’s journalistic practice that he doesn’t know quite what to do with. On the one hand, he doesn’t regard it as a pretty picture; he uses terms like “license,” “latitude,” “dubious technique,” “tactics,” and “bent journalistic rules” to describe it. On the other, he reveres Mitchell’s writing, and doesn’t want to say anything critical of it even while he is saying it. So a kind of weird embarrassed atmosphere hangs over the passages in which Kunkel reveals Mitchell’s radical departures from factuality.

It is already known that the central character of the book Old Mr. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old man named Hugh G. Flood, who intended to live to the age of 115 by eating only fish and shellfish, did not exist, but was a “composite,” i.e., an invention. Mitchell was forced to characterize him as such after readers of the New Yorker pieces from which the book was derived tried to find the man. “Mr. Flood is not one man,” Mitchell wrote in an author’s note to the book, and went on, “Combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” In the Up in the Old Hotel collection he simply reclassified the work as fiction.

[Photo Credit: Therese Mitchell/Estate of Joseph Mitchell]

Beat Street

Here’s David Coggins’ interview with Michael Hainey over at A Continuous Lean:

DC: Did you see the Joseph Mitchell piece last week in the New Yorker?

MH: The lost story—yes.

DC: Last week they had a panel with David Remnick talking to Ian Frazier and Mark Singer and Mitchell’s biographer, who’s quite interesting. And they talked about Mitchell as a writer who’s on the street, who’s connected to the city, who understands the details of the people who live in the city. He would go to the Fulton Fish Market and walk up to the Bronx. The idea of a reporter was about going into the world and observing. It feels like such a different generation. There are a lot of those qualities in your book.

MH: Yes, it’s about reporting. I say this to the young generation at GQ. I learned this from one of my mentors, an editor in Chicago, and he said you’re never going to be a writer if you can’t be a reporter. I worked at this small magazine in Chicago right after college. It had a staff of four. I did everything: I answered phones, I fact-checked, I wrote captions. One day I was sitting there and he walked in and said, “What are you doing here? For the next four weeks I want you out there. I don’t care if you go to the zoo or ride a bus or sit in a diner but I want you to come back at 3 o’clock and I want you to write 800 words about what you did that day. What you saw.” I had from three to four to write it. We were still writing on typewriters and he would edit it for me. It was fantastic training.

It’s so true what you say about Mitchell, you have young people at the office. I ask them about a detail and they “Well, I Googled it.” And I say “Did you at least call and ask David Coggins if it has two G’s?” I think my book is vibrant in many places because I went out and reported it. I went to McCook, Nebraska and went to a small town in Kentucky to meet Natty Bumppo.

Hainey’s new book, After Visiting Friends looks like a good one.

Here’s another interview with Hainey over at GQ.

MSNBC has an excerpt from the book; Vanity Fair has another.

That’ll Be the Day

Dig this New Yorker “Talk of the Town” item (May 1, 1943) by Joseph Mitchell.

It’s a perfect miniature of his work–a poem, really–his book of revelations:

An air-raid warden we know, a young woman who holds down the desk in her sector headquarters in Greenwich Village twice a week from nine to midnight, is occasionally visited by the policeman on the beat. This policeman, who is elderly and talkative, dropped in the other night, sat down, grunted, placed his cap and nightstick on the desk, and said, “I’m a man that believes in looking ahead, and I been walking around tonight thinking over the biggest police problem this great city will ever have; namely, the day the war ends. I got it all figured out. I know exactly what’ll happen. Half an hour after the news gets out there won’t be a thing left in the saloons but the bare walls. Then the people will tear down the doors on the liquor stores and take what they want, a bottle of this, a bottle of that. Then they’ll go to work on the breweries; they’ll be swimming in the vats. Old ladies will be howling drunk that day. Preachers won’t even bother to drink in secret; they’ll be climbing lampposts and quoting the Bible on the way up. And some young fellow will trot up to the Central Park Zoo and break the locks. The elephants will be marching down Fifth Avenue, and the lions and the tigers, two by two; we’ll be six weeks getting the monkeys out of the trees. And they’ll ring all the church bells until they crack; they’ll jerk the bells right out of the steeples. And you know that big sireen in Rockefeller Center; somebody will get hold of that, and he won’t be torn loose until they shoot him loose. And they’ll unscrew the hydrants all over town; the water will be knee-deep. And people will be running around with their shoes off, wading in the water and singing songs. I can see the whole scene. And the ferryboat captains will give one toot on their whistles and run the ferryboats right up on dry land, and the bus drivers will run the buses right into the water. And the passengers will take charge of the subway trains, and they’ll run them right up into the open air. You’ll hear a racket and a roar, and you’ll look around, and here’ll come a subway train shooting right through the pavement. And husbands will be so happy they’ll beat their wives, and wives will beat their husbands, and the tellers in banks will gang up and beat the bank presidents, and and the ordinary citizens will tear down big buildings just so they’ll have some bricks to throw.” The policeman laughed and slapped his knee. “What a day of rejoicing!” he said. “What a police problem! I hope to God I live to see it!”

My Ears Are Bent

Here is a column that our friend John Schulian wrote about Joseph Mitchell for MSNBC back in 2001. Enjoy.

By John Schulian

Not a holiday season arrives that I don’t think of a gray, clammy day long ago on Baltimore’s waterfront and a lost soul who told me about the woman who had given him his only gift in years: a Christmas card. It was just the sort of story I was looking for when I was making my bones as a newspaper reporter, and now that I have a better understanding of the forces that drove me, I imagine it was a story that Joseph Mitchell would have gravitated to himself. If you don’t know who Mitchell is, or even if you do, the following is my gift to you.

In a perfect world, of course, I’d put fancy paper, ribbon and a bow on “My Ears Are Bent,” a collection of his newspaper features from the 1930s that came back into print this year after a criminally long time as a used-book store treasure. Devotees spent years searching for it in the past because, frankly, Mitchell was worth the trouble -– one of the 20th Century’s most remarkable journalists without being a scandal-breaking Washington muckraker or a dashing, trench-coated foreign correspondent. His specialty was chronicling New York’s human exotica: pickpockets and wrestling impresarios, tinhorn evangelists and burlesque queens, counterfeit royalty and watermen who bragged of sitting down with a friend to eat a barrel of oysters on the half-shell after dinner. And hold the sauce.

Every once in a while, Mitchell would slip and interview a celebrity–the lusty Jimmy Durante, for example, or the memorably rude George Bernard Shaw. But he seems to have always atoned by finding a character like the hooker who explained her calling thus: “I just wanted to be accommodating.”

Mitchell’s greatest affection may have been reserved for saloonkeepers and their well-oiled customers, which leads me to believe he would have liked the characters I chanced upon shortly before Christmas 1973. I never learned the most important one’s name; to me, he was simply The Flier because he claimed to have flown jet fighters in the Korean War. If The Flier had anything resembling a benefactor, it was Uncle Pete Drymala, who ran a bar called Pete’s Hotel. And then there was the girl who had given The Flier his Christmas card the year before. He had to pull the card out of his pocket so he could tell me her name. Francesca–that was it.

The Flier, Uncle Pete and Francesca dwelled by the docks in an area called Fells Point, which had been spared from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and from being plowed under when I-95 was built. Its reward for surviving, if a reward is what it is, now includes gentrified rowhouses and dives turned into bistros where, according to one review, the cell-phone generation can enjoy “honey-colored beer, steamed shrimp and sushi.” But all that has come to pass since The Flier wandered its cobblestone streets.

Back then, Fells Point was blissfully down at the heels, crawling with merchant seamen who figured no night was complete unless they got drunk, got in a fight, and got lucky with a local sweetheart. The Flier fit in perfectly, drinking white port wine that he bought for $1.25 a fifth, tax included, and pausing only to sleep in boarded-up buildings or to warm himself by the radiator in Pete’s Hotel. He drank at Pete’s, too, and when he got out of hand, Uncle Pete would 86 him, even at Christmastime.

There was an Edward Hopper quality about The Flier’s existence, and I see the same thing when I read Joseph Mitchell. The bleak, the stark and the unforgiving become somehow beautiful because they are in the right hands.

Story after story in “My Ears Are Bent” vibrates with Mitchell’s sense of wonder, for he was a young man out of North Carolina when he wrote them for two New York dailies, the Herald Tribune and the World Telegram. Soon after his anthology was originally published in 1938, he hired on at The New Yorker, where he remained until he died 58 years later, by then a seminal figure in literary journalism. The mature Mitchell’s grandest achievements can be found in a collection called “Up in the Old Hotel,” but as artful and profound as those pieces are, they can’t match the urgency and delight of his newspaper reportage.

At the dawn of his career, I imagine he felt the same way I did when I was breaking in at the Baltimore Evening Sun. My reporter’s notebook was a ticket to the kind of adventures most people with college degrees don’t have. I got tear-gassed by state troopers breaking up an anti-war protest. I heard a mother’s anguished cries after a shantytown fire at five in the morning. I latched onto pool hustlers who spun yarns about fleecing bus drivers and tobacco farmers. And I went looking for Francesca after The Flier showed me that Christmas card.

My search led me to Pete’s Hotel, and to Uncle Pete, who cashed the meager check the government sent The Flier every month, then watched out the front window as the inevitable happened. Sometimes The Flier drank up his money, other times his fellow stew bums stole it. Uncle Pete told him not to put all the money in the same pocket, but The Flier never listened.

It was hardly a scenario to generate Christmas spirit. Uncle Pete, however, wasn’t opposed to proving one of Mitchell’s pet theories: “…the saloonkeeper is apt to know the address or hangout of any citizen dopey enough or unlucky enough to be of interest to a great metropolitan newspaper.” He pointed at a woman sitting at the bar with three beer glasses in front of her, one full, one half-empty, one dead. It was Francesca.

She had made 30 the hard way, living on unemployment when she wasn’t stripping, but there was still a soft spot in her heart, and it was The Flier who found it. “I get mad at him when he sits out there and drinks all that lousy wine,” she told me. “But that don’t keep him from being a good person. He’s always been a good person, and he don’t bother nobody. That’s why I gave him the card. I gave it to him out of my heart.”

The sentiment was perfect for the season, and there was no diminishing it even when Francesca killed her second beer with a deep swallow and a belch. My head spun with the possibility of reuniting her with The Flier. The idea was so melodramatic it would have sent Mitchell running, but I clung to it until I realized The Flier had wandered off to a place that defied finding. It was just as well. He and Francesca had connected long before I stumbled into their lives, and the memory would get them both through another Christmas.

You can buy “My Ears are Bent” here. And here is an excerpt. Finally, here’s a review of “Up at the Old Hotel” by Schulian for the L.A. Times.

[Illustration by Nick Sung]

Nothing Ornate, Always the Right Word

A friend sent this over. From a 1996 Charlie Rose Show featuring Roger Angell and David Remnick talking about the great Joe Mitchell.

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