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Philip Hamburger, 89; Wrote for 6 Decades at the New Yorker

Times Staff Writer

What most journalists want when they grow up is a job just like the one Philip Hamburger had more than 60 years.

Hamburger, 89, who died of cardiac arrest Friday in New York City, wrote for the New Yorker under all five of its editors, beginning with the legendary Harold Ross. He wrote pieces that were funny, dry and serious. He wrote long, and (best of all, some critics said) he wrote short. But, most important, he wrote about whatever he wanted to write, and he took, borrowing the words of William Shawn, another celebrated editor of the magazine, “as long as it takes.”

Such editorial freedom resulted in memorable dispatches from across the country and around the world, from a chronicle of dedicated bathers in Hot Springs, Ark., to a tour of Adolf Hitler’s lair in Berchtesgaden, Germany. His last piece, published in December, was a short meditation on Cape Cod in winter.

Hamburger started writing for the New Yorker in 1939 when he was 25. His first piece was a short profile of the founder of the Bettmann Archive for “Talk of the Town,” the section at the front of the magazine that offers readers glimpses into New York City’s odd happenings and characters. Within a few years, Hamburger progressed to a gamut of more ambitious assignments. But he was pithiest in the “Talk” pieces, in which he strove to follow Ross’ dictum of “content laced with humor.”

One of Hamburger’s most memorable long pieces was a 1944 profile of Louis G. Schwartz, a waiter who sold a record-breaking $4 million worth of war bonds to customers who had come to Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue Delicatessen “with nothing more in mind than a plate of chopped chicken liver.” Schwartz sized up his customers as they studied the menu and knew how much he would hit them up for by the time they were ready to order. Hamburger’s exacting portrait included this account of Schwartz’s modus operandi:

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“Several weeks ago a florid gentleman in a double-breasted pin-stripe blue serge beckoned to Louie and asked for an extra portion of butter. Louie, who had started to talk War Bonds to the man, had marked him down a hundred-dollar one, but a certain quality of desperation around the corners of the man’s mouth called for an instant revision. ‘That will cost you exactly three hundred and seventy-five dollars,’ Louie told him, then headed for the kitchen. When he returned with the pat of butter, the man’s check was on the table.”

Hamburger collected many of his pieces in half a dozen books published over the last six decades, including “An American Notebook” (1965), which contained travelogue pieces that ran under the heading “Notes for a Gazetteer,” and “Friends Talking in the Night” (1999).

He never wrote a memoir per se, but offered some personal notes in the books. They revealed that he was born in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1914 and at an early age -- 7 or 8 -- caught a sleeper to New York City with his family. He never left, except for three years during World War II when he worked in Washington for the Office of Facts and Figures, later the Office of War Information.

He had a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University.

Married twice, he is survived by two sons, a stepson and two grandchildren.

A reviewer once described Hamburger as “the quintessential utility player for a magazine with an infinite outfield.” He served a brief stint as the New Yorker’s music critic, even though he admitted that he never studied music and could not read notes. He accepted the assignment on the condition that the magazine buy him a black homburg hat to wear to concerts, so that he could fulfill his duties with a measure of elegance.

One time he enraged Arturo Toscanini with a critical review of pianist Ania Dorfmann, about whom he had written something to the effect that she took a swipe at the piano and the piano “swiped her back.” The great conductor called Ross to demand that Hamburger be fired, but the editor, though quite upset, dismissed the thought. The maligned critic went on, after a year, to TV reviewing, and filled in at times as a film critic.

Hamburger, New Yorker Editor David Remnick observes in the current issue, “was as game in his approach to writing as he was graceful in his prose. When he was asked to pitch in writing film, television and music criticism, he shrugged and did it joyfully. He wrote less from a sense of schooled expertise than from the vantage point of an enthusiast, though he was not always enthusiastic.”

He became a foreign correspondent in 1945 after telling Ross at a dinner party that he wanted to go abroad. Soon he was reporting on Rome after the fall of Mussolini, then slipped into Yugoslavia to describe conditions under the iron grip of Marshal Tito.

A few years later, he was drawn to Argentina by reports that the country was harboring Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi fugitives. He found no Nazis, but he did meet Argentina’s first lady, Eva Peron, at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. He concluded the piece with this chilling description:

“She stood there, a figure in a pageant, as though she had just made her entrance as a young, hard, fanatical queen, poised, supremely confident, all-powerful. She played the role to perfection. She began to shake hands with us, one by one. Her expression never changed. She held out her hand to me, and I took it for an instant. It was stone cold.”

The last line provoked a marathon argument with Shawn, the polite, fastidious arbiter of the magazine’s style. Shawn insisted that “stone cold” required a hyphen. Hamburger refused, maintaining that a hyphen would be “ruinous.” Shawn made him sit outside his office for hours, until well past 2 a.m., in the hope the writer would come to his senses.

He never did.


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