On the crime beat with St. Clair McKelway
The New Yorker, as J.D. Salinger’s recent death served to remind us, has been a crucial outlet for writers for more than 80 years. A.J. Liebling, Lillian Ross, Joseph Mitchell, Calvin Trillin -- these are just a few of the voices the magazine has nourished and encouraged, been defined by and, in turn, helped to define.
Still, for every such contributor, there are numerous New Yorker writers whose legacies have drifted away over the decades like so much dust. St. Clair McKelway is one of these. For 37 years, McKelway was one of the New Yorker’s most prolific and inventive nonfiction writers. In his time, he was regarded as a master of the long-form profile, a superior chronicler of rapscallions and low-rent hustlers. Indeed, when he was on his game, McKelway might have been the best nonfiction writer the magazine had -- this at a time when Liebling, Mitchell and E.J. Kahn Jr. were also producing signature work.
But if McKelway remains perhaps the greatest magazine writer that no one knows about, the publication of a new collection, “Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales From the New Yorker” (Bloomsbury: 620 pp., $18 paper), brings with it the hope that his long-forgotten byline might be brought back to light.
McKelway regarded journalism as his birthright. His great uncle was an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle, and his brother Ben worked at the Washington Star. In 1935, after stints at the Washington Times-Herald, the New York World and the New York Herald Tribune, he came to the New Yorker at the behest of editor Harold Ross, who was looking to infuse the magazine with a jolt of gritty reportage.
For a man with an almost embarrassingly patrician name (he was of Scottish descent), McKelway found his métier in the tenement backrooms and police stations of the city. He produced long profiles of the cunning crooks he lovingly called “rascals” as well as of the men who worked hard to bring them to justice. At a time when the New Yorker’s fiction writers were producing quaint doily-and-tea-cozy sketches of domestic life, McKelway delved into the marrow of the lower class. His dispatches read like character-driven short stories from the underworld.
All of this makes reading “Reporting at Wit’s End” a startling experience: It’s as if McKelway had anticipated the subject matter and approach of columnists such as Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko 20 years before either one of them ever sat down to write. His pieces are long and immersive, the accretion of countless small facts artfully conjoined to create vivid, gently sardonic portraits of scoundrels hard at work.
One story, “Firebug-Catcher,” introduces us to Thomas Brophy, New York’s chief fire marshal during the 1930s, a man who learned to catch arsonists by treating “the largest metropolis in the world as if it were a village,” carrying “in his mind a picture of the whole city as graphic and full of details as the picture most New Yorkers have of the block they live in.” Then there’s small-time embezzler Ralph Wilby, who, as McKelway writes in “The Wily Wilby,” “had hidden his defalcations so adroitly and with such originality that it had been a real pleasure to uncover them.”
“The thing I like best about McKelway’s work is that it’s never meant to be trendy,” says New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, who wrote the introduction to “Reporting at Wit’s End.” “It never says, for example, there’s a new vogue for small-time counterfeiters. The premise is that these are singularities in the world. These subjects are not like any other people out there.”
McKelway possessed an almost forensic mania for detail, and he described exactly how his characters operated. “That kind of wonderfully elaborate process description is one of the things he gave to the tradition of the New Yorker,” says Gopnik.
Like Breslin, McKelway worked the dark end of the street. “Place and Leave With” revels in the cunning of a process-server named Harry Grossman, who once swam across a body of water to a private beach in East Quogue, where he served papers on a recalcitrant female target. “ ‘This is an outrage,’ she said when he laid the damp paper in her lap. ‘An outrage is it?’ he shouted back irately. ‘Suppose I get cramps? Suppose I get drowned? Would that be an outrage or wouldn’t it?’ He swam back across the inlet, full of righteous indignation.”
At the New Yorker, McKelway was a radical; no one had written about crime at the magazine with such empathy and nuance before. In 1936, Ross gave McKelway his own section called “Annals of Crime.” He then made the writer a managing editor with the brief to find more McKelway-esque journalism. During his three-year tenure, McKelway brought in Mitchell and Kahn as well as Brendan Gill, Philip Hamburger and Margaret Case Harriman -- the core of much of the New Yorker’s superlative nonfiction and reporting for the next 30 years.
In June 1936, McKelway was handed a manuscript by Liebling, who would later become the magazine’s great war correspondent and one of its most skillful profile writers. It was a great mass of text about an African American preacher and con man in Baltimore named Father Divine. McKelway gave the amorphous piece a strong structure and rewrote many hazy passages and flimsy transitions. The finished effort, “Who Is This King of Glory?,” ran as a Liebling-McKelway collaboration and remains a classic New Yorker profile. (It appears in “Reporting at Wit’s End.”)
“McKelway saved Liebling’s career,” says Gopnik. “Liebling was seen as a failure because he had this wise-guy newspaper tone, and McKelway showed him how to turn his intelligence toward a more ironic, wry, New Yorker type of tone.”
McKelway’s output was enormous and consistently compelling -- a remarkable feat, given his mental instability. He drank heavily (a proclivity exacerbated no doubt by his soused marriage to New Yorker contributor Maeve Brennan) and suffered from manic-depressive disorder, which precipitated bouts of disturbing behavior. In “About Town,” his history of the New Yorker, Ben Yagoda recounts one such period, during which McKelway went up to the 18th floor of the magazine’s offices and scribbled random words on the walls every day.
Yet it is perhaps out of this mania that McKelway produced one of his most surprising pieces, “The Edinburgh Caper,” originally published in 1961. Ostensibly the story of an interrogation in which certain shadowy intelligence agents buttonhole McKelway during a European trip to gather information about a plot to murder prominent public figures, it’s really a sprawling and brilliant internal monologue that unspools in a wild shaggy dog story as improbable as it is gripping. The result is a strange hybrid of fact and imagination, and certainly an odd piece to find in the New Yorker at that -- or any -- time. “It has a slightly disquieting effect,” Gopnik says. “I was bewildered by it when I first read it. It has an element of alcoholic hysteria buried in it but with great high sprits, as well.”
That calibration of darkness and light is what makes McKelway such a master and “Reporting at Wit’s End” so pleasurable.
Weingarten is the author of “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution.”