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A witness to journalistic history

City Room; Arthur Gelb; Putnam: 664 pp., $29.95

October 26, 2003|David Shaw | David Shaw, a Los Angeles Times columnist, has written about the media for The Times for 29 years and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991.

Arthur GELB spent almost half a century at the New York Times. He began as a copy boy weeks before the Allies landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of Europe from Adolf Hitler, and he retired as the paper's second-ranking editor months before Operation Desert Shield forces left the United States to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.

In those 46 years -- working in the nation's most fiercely competitive newsroom -- Gelb saw more than his share of internal wars of liberation (and of oppression), and he worked with and for more than his share of tyrants, petty and otherwise. His account of his time at the Times makes engaging and often compelling reading for those curious about the personalities and politics of the country's best and most influential newspaper. Ever the reporter, Gelb provides an insider's insight into many of the epic battles on West 43rd Street: The 1962 New York newspaper strike. The ongoing turf war between the Washington bureau and Times editors in New York. The struggle to create new lifestyle sections (Weekend, Home, Living) that helped rescue a financially troubled paper in the mid- to late 1970s. The paper's confrontations with Mayor John Lindsay; William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker; and various communist witch hunters of the 1950s.

Gelb is a journalist by temperament as well as profession, so he doesn't provide an ontological analysis of the Times' place in the cosmos. But he does treat the reader to an altogether enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at many big stories -- blackouts and blizzards, police corruption and political conventions, papal visits and prison riots, assassinations and atomic bombs, Woodstock and Watergate and a World's Fair. The names that march across the pages of his memoir read like a who's who of the legendary reporters of 20th century America: Homer Bigart. Meyer Berger. Peter Kihss. Scotty Reston. Tom Wicker. David Halberstam. Gay Talese. And because Gelb is a theater lover, the paper's longtime "culture czar," in charge of all cultural coverage -- and the biographer (with his wife, Barbara) of Eugene O'Neill -- there are other Big Names: Samuel Beckett. Tennessee Williams. Elia Kazan. Edward Albee. John Barrymore. Woody Allen. Brooks Atkinson. And, of course, O'Neill.

But the name that figures most prominently in the book is that of A.M. Rosenthal -- Abe Rosenthal -- executive editor of the Times from 1977 to 1986. Rosenthal started at the Times a year before Gelb, and the two developed a strong personal friendship and, ultimately, an even stronger working partnership. Rosenthal -- who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent and a brilliant editor before his ego and his insecurities turned him into a despot -- made Gelb his top deputy and primary confidant in most endeavors. "Often, while working on the Metropolitan Desk, I felt as though Abe and I were two halves of the same person," he writes of the years when Rosenthal was metropolitan editor and Gelb was his deputy. "We made basically all decisions together and knew each other so well that Abe rarely had to speak a complete sentence before I understood exactly what he was saying, and vice versa." They were known in the newsroom as "Abe and Arthur," linked forever, and Gelb grumbles periodically that various other editors -- unable to challenge the all-powerful Rosenthal -- worked hard to derail his own ambitions because they feared the influence of the self-styled dynamic duo.

Gelb expresses disappointment in Rosenthal a few times -- as when Rosenthal becomes managing editor and names another editor, instead of Gelb, as his No. 2 ("I felt betrayed") -- and Gelb is clearly not blind to his friend's shortcomings. "As time went on," he writes late in the book, "Abe became less patient and more irritable in dealing with reporters who he felt were not on his wavelength, believing they were less loyal in their devotion to the paper than he was. It got to the point where he could not abide any criticism of the paper's philosophy and, when he was challenged, his temper flared."

But Gelb likens Rosenthal's outbursts to "the way he'd pound out five exclamation marks on his typewriter at the end of a sentence and then delete them. Often, when he realized he'd overreacted, he'd apologize." Gelb doesn't seem to realize that it's a lot more difficult to erase the pain and embarrassment of being screamed at by the boss than to erase an extra exclamation mark on a piece of paper. Besides, according to Gelb, "if anyone could be justified in his temperamental outbursts, it was Abe, whose journalistic integrity was absolute, and who unquestionably did more than anyone to move the paper ahead even in the most difficult of times. It's true he was something of a monomaniac about The Times. But he was a brilliant monomaniac."

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