My first day commuting to The New Yorker in midtown, I caught the wrong subway and ended up in Queens. When I asked directions from a passerby, he snarled, “What do I look like, a travel agent?” Then he actually thrust me aside with his briefcase as if I were a bag lady.
Perhaps I did look a little disheveled as I dove in late to the editorial office’s “Walden’s Pond” named after the formidably competent Mrs. Harriet Walden. Dressed in my best dress slacks and a blue silk blouse, I still looked down-and-out compared to the stylish other staffers.
My first weeks I was assigned to Edith Oliver, the fierce theater critic. Small, quick-witted, and gnarled, Miss Oliver was an aristocratic crone out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. Certainly, she seemed to hold the key to every kingdom. With one review, she could shut down a Broadway show. What could she do to a lowly editorial assistant?
Miss Oliver often snapped her fingers in my face as if I were not already riveted by her every command. She doubled as book review editor, and her office was a garret with wall-high shelves of books longing for a New Yorker nod. As I dutifully logged in the candidates, I barely spoke a word, except, “Yes, ma’am,” from my polite Southern upbringing.
“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, child,” Miss Oliver snapped. “I’m not Methuselah.”
Once a senile writer meandered down the hall and tried to enter a door in the Books Department that had not been used for a decade; it was blocked by a huge bookcase. When at first the door didn’t budge, the old man used his cane like a crowbar to wedge it open. “Move aside!” he bellowed in his theatrical baritone. “I have a timely news peg!”
One more urgent shove with his cane and the door creaked open at last. Miss Oliver and I watched the slow-motion tumble of hundreds of hardback books. We had to scramble to keep from being bonked or crushed by them.
Frustrated by the fact that he could not clamber over a mountain of books, the gentleman harrumphed back down the hallway, scratching the eczema on his hands and muttering. He seemed completely unaware of the catastrophe he left behind.
One day when Miss Oliver complimented me on my blouse, I remarked proudly that I’d just found it on sale at Lord and Taylor.
Miss Oliver stepped back in dismay; one horrified hand pressed against her chest. “My deah,” she intoned in what I heard as an Edith Wharton voice, “you don’t mean to say that you actually live on your salary?”
It seemed that very few staffers, including the editorial slaves, depended on their New Yorker salaries. Of the handful of young people at the magazine, many had trust funds. One young woman arrived each morning in her father’s chauffeured limousine. Staffers admitted they would have paid the magazine simply to work there. Old money explained both the elegance and eccentricity. There was an editor who never repeated an outfit for three hundred days — in Walden’s Pond we kept count — and another who only wore mohair. She left little woolly puffs everywhere she wafted.
The notable exceptions to this fashion parade down the hallways at 25 West Forty-third Street were the writers and cartoonists. They showed up as if they had just stumbled from bed or a binge. One cartoonist locked his mother in his office with him for a day, and I could hear her shouting as I hurried by with the daily “setup” sheet of what was being put into print that morning. Another writer often appeared in the twentieth-floor editorial offices drunk and dressed in her pajamas. It didn’t seem to affect her incandescent prose. A once-dazzling novelist was now homeless and living in an alcove right off the women’s bathroom. The delicate old lady in poignantly bright makeup perched on her daybed smoking Gauloises and chatting with the mirror. Every now and then she would address one of us tiptoeing past her lair and deliver herself of a delightfully incoherent soliloquy.
I was one of a handful of staff under thirty; the rest were in their fifties through seventies. We cheerfully called ourselves “editorial slaves.” Though the mean streets of Manhattan were pure Lord of the Flies, inside The New Yorker’s run-down hallways we employees were expected to abide by a Victorian etiquette not unlike that of the British period drama Upstairs, Downstairs. We literary servants knew secrets. It was a futile power.
“I count on my girls for their discretion,” Mrs. Walden often schooled me, blowing a swirl of Dorals Ultra-Lite smoke into my face. Her glass-enclosed office was like a lab for animals being tested for secondhand smoke inhalation. The fact that two of the six of us in her Pond were young men hadn’t seemed to register yet with her.
In Walden’s Pond, we labored under intense editorial deadlines; in diligent pairs we proofread each page out loud, even though there was an army of proofreaders just down the hall. We youngsters rotated through every editorial office from Talk of the Town to Fiction — even to stints in reclusive Mr. William Shawn’s office. That was a dangerous assignment because the editor-in-chief was guarded by a southern gorgon who was as devoted to Shawn’s soft-spoken and benevolent tyranny as she was difficult to fathom. Her Deep South accent was easy for me after my recent stint in Georgia.
I sometimes got the short end of the straw for that assignment. We initiates were never allowed, however, in Fact Checking — a bastion of supernatural intellects who would have won vast fortunes on Jeopardy. With red pencils they pounced upon what Mrs. Walden described in disgust as “Errors in Fact.” Many days at the magazine were so busy that it seemed like one blink before quitting time. But the gift of our erratic workload was that when we had no manuscripts, we were encouraged to work on whatever projects we liked, including our works-in-progress. Many in Walden’s Pond would go on to become well-known journalists and authors.
“Everyone here is writing the Great American Novel, my dear,” Mrs. Walden said, flipping her ashes perilously close to my elbow. She waved me back to my desk. “Feel free to try it yourself.”
Mrs. Walden always carried her own ashtray as she chugged down the hallways at top speed, manuscripts in hand, smoke billowing behind her.
One of the first things I did in Walden’s Pond was pin up photos of red mud, cows, cornfields, and the mysterious Yellow River to remind myself of the humid hell I’d left behind in Georgia. While my summers in the Deep South had been unbearable, misery was good material for any novelist. When I gathered the courage to submit my work to a sub-sub fiction editor, he advised me, “The magazine would never publish Faulkner if he were writing today. Why don’t you go to some cocktail parties and write about real life?”
Cocktails might have come in handy, but with my ancestral six generations of tea-totallers and my embarrassing habit of swooning over a sip of wine, I resigned myself to continuing my own fictional opus—a parallel world of Deep South characters speaking like this: “Rainin’ outside like a cow pissin’ on flat rock . . . rainin’ like a Devil whopping his wife. She’s a-cryin’ up a storm!”
It was how my grandparents talked, a kind of Olde English that swirled through my head even in Manhattan. Needless to say, rejection slips were the result of my few submissions to the Fiction Department, whose star writer, Anne Beattie, was making a minimalist molehill out of any mountain.
“Still plunking away, are we?” one of the other staffers in Walden’s Pond would ask me almost daily. After becoming an elder editor’s protégé, he had taken to wearing a paisley ascot and prancing about.
It was hopeless, but I’d determined that this was just my apprenticeship; I would give myself ten years to get published. I plunked away on my office IBM Selectric in the hope that one day my strange world would find a champion.
Down the hall from Walden’s Pond was an editorial luminary, Miss Rachel MacKenzie, who edited Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Hersey, and Anne Tyler. Miss MacKenzie was the kindest person I met at the magazine. She had a silver coif swept back into a bun, startlingly dark eyebrows, oversize black glasses, and a refined smile that made my speaking to her impossible. I had a frequent fantasy that if I found myself fatally ill, I would ask her to read my manuscript. Otherwise, I would simply pass her in the hallway or deliver proofs to her and stand silently in her vast office. I knew she had a delicate heart and was susceptible to noise. Her New Yorker piece and book on open-heart surgery, Risk, had just been published to much acclaim. Its last line echoed through my head, like longing: Dear God, the miracle.
After over five years at the magazine, haplessly typing away on never-ending piles of edited manuscripts, I at last recognized that I had to leave. I was still unpublished after almost six years into my self-declared apprentifeship, still receiving polite rejections notes that I could have written myself since I typed them up for other hopeful authors every day. One day, my mother rang me up at work in the Books Department to announce that she had inherited from her eccentric aunt a run-down farm and five acres in a rural area between Boulder and Denver, Colorado.
I remembered Aunt Mable and Uncle Harry well from our cross-country visits. They were odd but fascinating relatives who ran a refuge for abandoned animals.
“Someone in the family has to go live on the farm or we’ll lose it,” my mother pleaded. “The inheritance taxes are terrible. Would you go, honey? Would you take care of the animals — now that their people are gone?”
“I’m there!” I promised.
When I gave notice, Mrs. Walden attempted to commiserate with me. “I know you think of yourself as a failure,” she said.
But I was obviously elated as I sat inside her smoke-filled cubbyhole and tried not to breathe too deeply. “No . . . I really don’t think . . . ”
“Time will tell, that’s what I always say to my girls with their big dreams.” She waved her cigarette vaguely toward her Pond, which was now evenly divided between young men and women.
“A farm, you say?” Mrs. Walden queried as if I had told her I was going to be abducted by aliens. “Well, keep in touch,” she said, “if you can.” Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” with its city writ huge and only a few notable territories outside Manhattan, came to mind.
My last memory of Mrs. Walden is from my going-away party, a rushed affair of bagels and takeout coffee, between manuscripts. We had a big deadline that day, and I would be working late. In the middle of a Walden’s Pond toast to send me off to be “downwardly mobile” and “go back to nature,” as my coworkers teased, the office phone rang. It was for me. The phone was rarely for me, since Mrs. Walden discouraged personal calls.
It was the revered fiction editor, Miss Rachel MacKenzie, calling from the hospital where she was again battling congestive heart failure. When I had given two weeks’ notice at the magazine, I had bravely sent the first chapter of my novel to Miss MacKenzie to read, before she’d gone to the hospital. I had never expected anything but another rejection.
Miss MacKenzie’s voice was almost eclipsed by static. “I would like to read and edit your novel.” Miss MacKenzie paused to take a breath that must have cost her some effort. “When you are finished.”
“But I’m leaving the magazine.” I almost wailed at the irony, the injustice, my remarkably bad timing. It was like winning the literary lottery but not allowed to collect my fortune.
There was quiet, during which I actually heard Miss MacKenzie smile to herself. It was an expression I had studied when I passed her unawares in the hallways. She often walked with manuscript in hand, reading as she navigated the hallways and nodding over some author’s brilliance. Or sometimes she scowled, shaking her head and jotting something in red pencil. “Lovely to meet you in the margin,” she would write in her precise but tiny handwriting on a New Yorker fiction manuscript. How I had longed hopelessly all these years to meet Miss MacKenzie in margins of my own.
“Can you still be reached by U.S. mail wherever it is you are going?” she asked.
“Oh, of course, of course,” I stammered. “I will write you.”
I wanted to shout out, I will write for you! But I had enough decorum to thank her and say a proper good-bye. Then I exploded in a little jig that made Mrs. Walden raise an eyebrow and ask, as if she didn’t already know very well, who had placed that call.
I embraced Mrs. Walden so impulsively that she dropped her cigarette. I could not tell her that I was so happy to be leaving her heaven — bound only for an afterlife with other animals.
“Will you do . . . well, whatever it is they do on farms?” Mrs. Walden demanded. She was so bewildered by my career choice that she didn’t bother to search for her burning cigarette somewhere on the manuscript-strewn floor. One of the young men nonchalantly stamped it out.
“Yes, it runs in the family.”
“Well, E. B. White has a farm.” Mrs. Walden was still the great writer’s personal secretary even though he was rarely in the city. “It hasn’t ruined him — yet.”~
This story is adapted from the memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth published by Merloyd Lawrence/Hachette Books with permission from the author.
Bio: Brenda Peterson is a novelist and nature writer, author of over 20 books, including the New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” novel, Duck and Cover, just out in audiobook. Her memoir I Want to Be Left Behind was selected as a “Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year” by The Christian Science Monitor and chosen by independent booksellers as a “Great Read” and “Indie Next.” Her recent books include Wolf Nation, Wild Orca ,Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir; and the new picture book with artist, Ed Young, Catastrophe by the Sea set on the Salish Sea. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com