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On the crime beat with St. Clair McKelway

BOOKS AND AUTHORS

For 37 years, the writer worked the underworld beat for the New Yorker. 'Reporting at Wit's End' displays his craft.

February 14, 2010|By Marc Weingarten
  • McKelway was one of the New Yorker's most prolific and inventive nonfiction writers.
McKelway was one of the New Yorker's most prolific and inventive nonfiction… (From Christina Pratt / Bloomsbury )

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.

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