On the Stem

A.J. Liebling had an eye for the beauty of a con and an ear for the city's idioms

In 1935 he went to work at The New Yorker, where he first made his name with a profile of the Harlem-based deity Father Divine, written in collaboration with St. Clair McKelway. The first things that will strike the reader upon starting The Telephone Booth Indian (written between 1936 and 1939) are his sense of humor, his virtuoso ear, his timing, his sense of style—and his boundless capacity for appreciation. This appreciation was first and foremost linguistic. As his New Yorker colleague Philip Hamburger wrote, "Tinhorn entrepreneurs who called the Club Chez Nous the Club Chestnuts sent him joyously humming, in a state of euphoria, to his typewriter." Liebling as a reporter was among other things an impresario, with a nose for linguistically gifted civilians, such as Morty Ormont, the renting agent of the Jollity Building ("whose expression has been compared, a little unfairly, to that of a dead robin"), whose phrasings and coinages make him in effect a contributor to the piece in which he figures, not simply a subject. Reflecting a modernist sensibility, Liebling the impresario saw art in outcomes rather than intentions; thus he made no special distinction between epigrammatists whose successes resulted from their imperfect command of English idiom (the boys at the I & Y Cigar Store: "Hymie is a man what knows to get a dollar") and those whose effects were calculated (the great boxing cut-man Whitey Bimstein: "I like the country. It's a nice spot").

Liebling also had an eye for the beauty of a con, and if this book has a hero, it is a man who, lying low somewhere, is present only in conversational reference: Maxwell C. Bimberg, a/k/a Count de Pennies (who according to Liebling's biographer, Raymond Sokolov, was actually a promoter named Samuel J. Burger). The telephone booth Indians may be garden-variety schlemiels, the cannon fodder of swindling, but the Count is an artist. And if Broadway is a microcosm of the human condition, then the Jollity Building is a thimble-theater representation of Broadway, an entire world contained in a single, squat, shabby office building, whose tenants all have their eyes on the prize while they are struggling to assemble 25 cents. Most of the subjects of the other pieces can also be termed promoters, including Roy Howard and the Shubert brothers, who are shown as merely more successful representatives of the species—and even they were arguably to be outdone over time by Tim Mara, the teenage bookie who went on to buy the New York football Giants (for $500) and whose family co-owns the team to this day. The book finally has a pleasing fullness, as a delineation of an American economic food chain based entirely on guile and palaver. The steep stratification of this edifice is something that can otherwise be found only in the pages of Balzac.

When The Telephone Booth Indian, Liebling's second book, was published in 1942, its author was in the middle of covering the war, accompanying the Allied Forces from London through North Africa, then from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of Paris. Afterward he became The New Yorker's deadly press critic, and simultaneously established himself as the greatest boxing writer of the century. He eventually published some 15 books—the number is difficult to establish precisely because of overlaps. All of them have gone in and out of print over the years. A.J. Liebling died of multiple causes on December 28, 1963. As his friend Joseph Mitchell noted at the funeral, the secondhand booksellers who were then clustered together in a district on Fourth Avenue held his books in special esteem, because they were in perpetual demand. "Literary critics don't know which books will last," Mitchell quoted a bookseller as saying, "and literary historians don't know. We are the ones who know. We know which books can be read only once, if that, and we know the ones that can be read and reread and reread."

Luc Sante is general editor of the Library of Larceny (Broadway Books) and the author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.

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