WHEN she learned that the bank was about to foreclose on her mortgage, Katherina Schnible, a slightly lame 72-year-old, remained in her third floor apartment in a little frame house in Brooklyn, refusing to open the door to anybody but her son. Then came the day when she heard a heavy footfall on the first landing, heard somebody running frantically up the first flight of stairs, heard a man’s voice shouting something. The footsteps came closer and then, right outside her door, the voice yelled “Fire!” Mrs Schnible opened her door and hobbled into the hall. “Hello, Mrs Schnible,” said the man standing there. “Here’s a summons for you.”
The man on the stairs was Harry Grossman, the “champion process-server of all time”, and the story is among countless told to readers of the New Yorker by St. Clair McKelway, a wry observer of the city’s low life, from the 1930s into the 1960s. A reporter of the old school, McKelway was never portentous and rarely judgmental. As Adam Gopnik, a current writer for the New Yorker, shrewdly notes in his introduction to this collection of essays, he was not at all interested in trends; in the idea that more and more people were acting this way. Instead the classic McKelway piece says: “Very, very few people act this way, which is what makes the ones who do so interesting.”
In these essays they include the good as well as the bad. A beat cop interprets the force’s shop talk for McKelway: his shift is a tour, his uniform a bag, his winter overcoat a benny, an influential friend a rabbi and his wife, even to her face, the cook. Firebugs substitute old nags for thoroughbred horses before they set stables alight and then claim for valuable horseflesh from the insurers. A counterfeiter of banknotes cannot spell and renders the first American president as “Wahsington”. Yet for 20 years he gets away with passing off his funny money because he never succumbs to greed. He spends only a few dollars at a time and at different locations.
All these stories are lucid. McKelway was often not. His fondness for booze helped ruin his five marriages and even worried his colleagues on the New Yorker, which is saying something. On joining the magazine, Brendan Gill, a contemporary, noticed that everybody there seemed to be feeling sick. “Later, I learned that many of them were sick with hangovers of varying degrees of acuteness.”
It was McKelway’s good fortune to be tutored by Harold Ross, the editor of the New Yorker from 1925 to 1951. Like so many of his staff, Ross maintained the highest standards of journalism while sinking awesome amounts of liquor. His editing precision was legendary and he was so literal-minded that he even corrected literary quotations. In revising a piece that quoted Tennyson, for instance, he altered “nature red in tooth and claw” to “nature red in claw and tooth”, reasoning that a predator’s claws would be bloodied before its teeth. Ross insisted that “nothing was indescribable”; that the most complex idea or gizmo could be made intelligible.
This exactness of observation and fascination with detail runs through McKelway’s essays. So does an acceptance of human frailty. As a sinner himself, McKelway tolerates, almost celebrates, the sins of others. He can only smile when the wife of an embezzler says: “Well, he’s a very fine man except for that one quirk.”