CURIOUS WORLD A New Yorker Abroad<i> by Philip Hamburger (North Point Press: $10.95) </i> : MR. PERSONALITY Profiles & Talk Pieces From the New Yorker<i> by Mark Singer (Collier: $9.95)</i>
These two collections of articles confirm The New Yorker’s reputation as the most literate magazine in America: No other publication features such consistently polished writing.
“Curious World” is the more entertaining anthology, probably because Philip Hamburger seems to like the people he writes about. He fondly recounts his conversations with Oscar Hammerstein II in 1951, when “South Pacific” and “The King and I” were playing across the street from each other on Broadway, and offers a slyly affectionate portrait of Harry Truman signing hundreds of copies of his memoirs in Missouri. (“I’ve had a lot of practice signing my name,” the former President explains.)
But the most striking piece in the collection is an account of a trip to the Pampas to investigate rumors of Hitler living there in exile. Hamburger found no evidence to substantiate these rumors, but his chilling description of Argentina under Peron casts the harsh light of reality onto the shrilly artificial glamour of “Evita.”
Mark Singer writes about the off-beat characters who cause people to shake their heads and mutter, “Only in New York . . . " He interviews musicians who serenade captive audiences of subway riders, listens to the grievances of five brothers who maintain some of the poshest buildings in Manhattan and chronicles the sometimes questionable activities of a rapacious dealer in rare prints.
Singer tries to preserve a bemused detachment, but he recognizes that many people would regard his subjects--especially the amateur clarinet player who styles himself “Mr. Personality"--as pests. It’s more fun to encounter these characters in Singer’s prose than on the sidewalks of Manhattan.