In 1965 Tom Wolfe wrote a career making send-up of the New Yorker and its saintly editor, William Shawn. Among the crimes Wolfe laid at Shawn's feet in the piece was what Mr. Wolfe saw as the lamentable evolution of the magazine's signature style after World War II, when the "nice flat-out" prose style of Lillian Ross became "the model for the New Yorker essay "instead of "those confounded curlicues of the man at the other extreme, Liebling."
Those confounded curlicues are among the best of American prose. A.J. Liebling (1904-63) wrote memorably about anything that interested, offended, or amused him: from Connecticut cockfights to the D-Day landing, from French cuisine to Belmont odds makers, from Times Square gyms to the myths of Henry Luce to the blood sports of Louisiana politics and Nevada Mustang buzzing. And he did it all in a wonderfully digressive voice that no one can copy without making a fool of himself.
Writing about the moment when his old Parisian mentor Yves Mirande, at the end of one of their nights of heroic eating, confessed he was dying, Liebling observed: "It was like the moment when I first saw Joe Louis draped on the ropes. A great pity filled my heart." How many writers could pull off such a comparison - but, then, how many could serve as the New Yorker's Paris correspondent, war reporter, press critic, and boxing writer?
The brilliance of Liebling's writing stemmed from his many appetites - at table, for street life, at ringside. His stories came from layers of seamy and high-falutin learning gained over a lifetime of cheerful gluttony.
His phrases ("Sweet Science," "Second City") still tumble about the cultural landscape. His aphorisms ("Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one") ennoble the cubicles and Web sites of young journalists. Yet his seamless output has been ill-treated by posthumous publishing. A different Liebling is given back to us every few years, none complete.
Born in Manhattan in 1904 to an Austrian immigrant furrier, Abbott Joseph Liebling absorbed enough New York street wisdom to first get kicked out of Dartmouth (allegedly for cutting daily chapel) and then become a smart reporter at newspapers in Providence and ultimately Joseph Pulitzer's New York World - before it was tragically merged, ruining his opinion of newspaper owners. He advanced to the New Yorker in 1935. At his death in 1963, Liebling was known primarily for his "Wayward Press" columns, some 82 of which appeared between the end of the World War II and his death.
Liebling read newspapers as voraciously as he did everything else, but with a harsh but ultimately loving eye, like a man following a disappointing ball team he could never shake. (He observed the slow setting of the original New York Sun in 1950 this way: "The World Telegram bought the Sun and whatever good will came with it, and appeared on January 5 as the New York World Telegram and the Sun. Like the vitamins we are assured are added to bread, the Sun was visible only on the label.")
But while Liebling's reputation is se cure as the last of the roaring guardians of the press - though today's press critics seem to only invoke, like Orwell, when they want to bludgeon each other - his celebrated collection "The Press" was last in print more than 20 years ago. Cold War-era press criticism evidently seems dated in a way that an account from the same vintage of Rocky Marciano transfiguring Joe Walcott's face does not.
Current readers are more likely to discover Liebling through his magnificent old dispatches from ringside (Sports Illustrated recently called "The Sweet Science" the greatest sports book of all time). But even Liebling converts won over by his fight pieces don't necessarily find their way across the bookstore to Liebling's equally passionate discussions of cassoulet and the importance of a good Tavel. Similarly, those who've come to cherish him as a Francophile or war correspondent (a world calamity that, in his wonderful book "The Road Back to Paris," he covered like a kidnapping of a beloved city) may not know him as a collector of racetrack argot and con men.
The New Journalists claimed him as a model for "personal" journalism. They were noting his mastery at exploiting personal detail to establish his likeable authority on any subject. But, unlike the New Journalists, he never made himself the story. He was the bridge that charismatically linked the seemingly incompatible.
Many of the places he took his readers, they never went again. In fact most of his "beats" at the magazine were just writing vehicles for Liebling and disappeared altogether after his death. The "Wayward Press" column died with Liebling in 1963, while Shawn did not allow another boxing feature in the New Yorker until the 1980s.
No swaggering "embed" journalist, Liebling raised self-mockery to high art, especially in his war accounts, in which he's excruciatingly aware of his status as a gouty, portly non-combatant. Entering the fighting in North Africa he reported: "I had an attack of the gout two days before pulling out, and I went limping off to the war instead of coming limping back from it." Even in the thick of the D-Day landings, spotting the town of Port-en-Bessin while aboard a landing craft full of jittery infantry, he suddenly remembered a time there when "I had once eaten a magnificent sole normande, bedewed with shelled mussels, on the terrace of a restaurant looking out on a summer sea."
In the out-of-print masterpiece "Normandy Revisited," the book Liebling's biographer Raymond Sokolov calls "his crowning achievement," Liebling is on a return journey when he stops to have some soup in a seaside English town: "The cold meat was quite good, and only the flavor of the brown soup recalled the war. As I tasted it, a tune came into my head (this association of two sensory memories is, I believe, called synesthesia), but I had to down the spoonful of soup and hum two experimental bars before I could identify the air."
This passage, in which so much happens around a man setting down a soup spoon, recalls his knock at Marcel Proust on the opening page of "Between Meals," where he questions the potency of the memory-producing madeleine that starts "Remembrance of Things Past" - declaring with a "feeder's" pride that, given a bigger appetite, Proust "might have written a masterpiece."
In Liebling's time, the big show was still the novel, and you sense bitterness at the corners of his more elegant descriptions, even at the end of his career. Recalling the ruined seashore cottages of his boyhood summers, he writes in "Normandy Revisited":
There are desolations within New York City, by Jamaica Bay, where trees grow out through the glassless windows of facsimile chateaux, and house fronts gape like crazed Faulknerian ladies from behind hedges of privet grown twenty feet high - desolations that I can remember raucous with silk skirts, white flannel pants, buckskin shoes, straw skimmers, gypsy orchestras, and women in pretty good diamonds, forty years ago ... The pollution of Jamaica Bay and the coming of the automobile did to those shore resorts close to town what Faulkner thinks the Civil War did to Chuggetybuggety County, which would have gone bust in the natural course of events anyway.
Like his shot at Proust, this is the work of a man whose dazzling talent was at war with his great fear of preciousness. He tries, his gift is worthy of the solemn canon, but he just won't kneel. Should Liebling be remembered as a memoirist or journalist's journalist or a kind of high-spirited social chronicler like his great English hero Pierce Egan? His work is literature written on deadline, perched memorably between the novelists writing for posterity and the newspaper boys (from whom he had risen) banging it out for the next edition. It is the central, appealing fraud of Liebling that, although he left newspapering in 1935 to work for the most distinguished literary magazine in America, his writing persona remained that of a man turning out the cleverest lead in the press room. Liebling staked out his own precise place in letters when he boasted, "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." Amen.