Eleanor Gould Packard, the grammarian for the New Yorker magazine for 54 years whose search for logic, clarity and correct usage in sentences won her grateful as well as grudging admirers among the staff, has died. She was 87.
She died Sunday. Her family did not give the cause of death.
The first, last and only grammarian at the magazine got her start there in 1945 after sending a letter asking about job openings. In it she pointed out several errors she found in a recent issue.
A response arrived three months later, inviting her to meet William Shawn, who was head of the fact department at the time. She was hired as a copy editor the day of her interview and ever after known as Miss Gould.
Years later as a senior staffer, Gould read every nonfiction article scheduled for publication. She saw the galley proof after the assigning editor, fact checker, copy editor and lawyer went through it. She still found reasons to fill the margins with questions and comments. Her version was known as the “Gould proof.”
“I do grammar, I go for sensible sentences, I avoid awkwardness, avoid ambiguity, try to make a thing hang together,” Gould told the Wall Street Journal in 1990. By the end of a typical day, she said, “I have a sore arm like a pitcher.”
“Eleanor Gould’s greatest achievement was to understand and insist on an ideal of clarity in writing,” David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, said Thursday. “If the New Yorker means anything, it is related to clarity in prose. Miss Gould had as much to do with that as anyone at the magazine.”
Most of her queries to writers revealed a courteous stickler. “This clear? (not to me)” was one of her typical lines. “How so?” was another.
But some things were not up for discussion. “NOT grammar,” she wrote beside some sentences. “Have we completely lost our mind?” she once queried when a paragraph wasn’t logical by her standards.
At times her pencil marks went from light and feathery to darker and heavy. Changing “like” to “as” in a writer’s copy had that effect on her handwriting. That was only one of her pet peeves. “Indirection” was another. She noted it in the margin when a writer tried to slip new information into a narrative as if the reader already knew it.
“The important thing is to love having things right, from the proper use of commas to the search for perfect clarity,” she said in a 1999 interview with the Key Reporter magazine, published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Gould was a member of the society starting in her junior year in college.
Among her friends on the magazine staff was essayist E.B. White, who consulted her when he updated the writers’ handbook “The Elements of Style,” originally written by William Strunk Jr. White thanked Gould by name in the second edition of the book.
She worked with Ved Mehta on his autobiographic essays about India and on more than 20 of his books. He dedicated “A Ved Mehta Reader” (1998) to her.
During her early years at the magazine, Gould reviewed fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction. That changed after about 10 years.
“When it came to fiction, her logical niceness seemed obstructive more than helpful,” John Updike, a contributor to the magazine, said of her in a 1990 interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Nonfiction was a better fit with Gould’s talents. “Eleanor Gould examined every sentence at the molecular level,” Hendrick Hertzberg, a senior editor at the New Yorker, said Thursday. “What the reader got out of it was a frictionless flow of the prose.”
Born in Newark, N.Y., near Rochester, Gould attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she graduated summa cum laude. She moved to New York City after college and worked for several smaller publications before she went to the New Yorker.
Her first year at the magazine she met Frederick Packard, who was head of the checking department. They married in 1946 and had one child, Susan. Packard died in 1974. Gould is survived by her daughter and two grandsons.
In 1990, Gould woke up one morning and discovered that she was completely deaf. Doctors were not able to find the exact cause. From then on, writers and editors communicated with her by typing their part of the conversation into a computer. She answered in a voice that was higher than normal, but clear.
Gould rarely took a day off, although she did take a vacation to Antarctica with her daughter while in her late 70s. She retired in 1999 after suffering a stroke.
Her plan was to retire in 2000 so that she could add her years together with her husband’s at the magazine and claim that the couple had worked at the New Yorker for a century.
As it turned out, it was 99 years.