With his phenomenal ear and rococo prose—not to mention the sort of wit that can still leave a reader helpless with laughter and delight—A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) captivated an entire generation of readers. His mandarin style was more or less impossible to imitate. But he offered a good many subliminal lessons to the aspiring journalist, as Pete Hamill recounts in the following conversation with CJR’s James Marcus. Hamill, who has always shared Liebling’s fascination with the underbelly of urban life, is the author of numerous books and several million words of journalism. He edited The Sweet Science and Other Writings, a Liebling compendium just published by the Library of America, as well as an earlier volume, World War II Writings.
Let’s start with your own experience of Liebling. You met him just once, I believe.
That’s right. It was at the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago in 1962, where the scene was a lot more fun than the fight, which was over in less than one round. There was every conceivable character there—James Baldwin, Mailer, and all the boxing guys. And there was Liebling. Harold Conrad, an old Brooklyn Eagle guy from the Forties, was in charge of the press, and he brought me over. Beforehand he said, “Don’t shake his hand, he’s got gout.” So I gripped his forearm—I looked like a guy who was afraid of a pickpocket. He winced slightly, and said a few nice things about some stuff I had written for the Post.
Did you talk for long?
It was a very brief thing. He was not a big talker. Like most great reporters, he was a listener.
Was it a thrill for you?
Oh, I was delighted. I had never gone to journalism school. Like all would-be writers, I was an autodidact of the first order. And Liebling’s press pieces were a kind of education in the business. They weren’t simply a political take on one thing or another—they were about the craft. He pointed out the sort of slovenliness that can creep into journalism.
Did you ever attempt to mimic his style?
No, I wasn’t trying to write like Liebling. Nobody did. He was the master of the baroque. That’s why he has no imitators, not any more than Murray Kempton does.
Questions of style aside, then, what did you take away from him as a young reporter?
His delight in the raffish. My second year at the Post, I pulled the 8:00-to-3:00 shift, covering Broadway. I’d go to Lindy’s, where I would nurse a single cup of coffee because I was broke, and talk to the press agents and the flacks. These were the kind of characters that Liebling would write about. By 1962, of course, they had mostly disappeared. They had gone to Vegas to do legally what was illegal in New York.
So you caught the tail end of that scene.
I did. But it taught me to pay attention. Once I found a house detective at the Hotel Taft named Tiptoe Tannenbaum. If Liebling didn’t invent him, Runyon did.
Yet Liebling didn’t confine himself completely to lowlife characters.
True. He was very good friends with Camus, for example. Liebling had assembled a book of French resistance writing, The Republic of Silence, and when Camus made his first trip to New York, Liebling took him to Sammy’s Bowery Follies. The guy was so happy he wasn’t being dragged to one more academic enclave!
In the preface to “The Jollity Building,” Liebling recounts that famous anecdote about the French-Canadian man with the window in his stomach, which allowed the “prying fellow of a doctor… to study the man’s inner workings.” To an extent, that strikes me as a kind of artistic credo.
Of course. He never looked down his nose at lowlifes. He never made moral judgments on people who were technically breaking the law but not hurting anybody. He always reminded me of George Bernard Shaw’s line, “I’ve had a great education, except for school.” Because he listened, he wanted to know. Who are these people? Why do they talk that way? What is this little fragment of society about? What are its hierarchies?
Was that mostly a matter of temperament?
I think in Liebling’s case it also came from living in another culture (specifically France) and learning another language (specifically French). Learning another language teaches you to be clear in your own. You can’t talk like you’re double-parked! And living in another culture makes you think more about the way things are done in your own. It’s interesting, Liebling was a New Yorker, he had the city in his DNA, yet he was still curious about it.
Although he writes about a wide variety of things in this volume alone—boxing, politics, journalism, food—his voice is remarkably consistent.
Yes. If he were standing in a bar talking to me about this stuff (which is very unlikely), the voice would be the same. Another thing: he never tried to sound like Hemingway, which was very common back then. That was supposed to be the ultimate American style. It was spare, it was tough, it wasn’t Henry James clearing his throat every time he thought of a comma. But I’m sure Liebling got more out of Stendhal than out of Hemingway.
Which piece in this book would you call an especially good encapsulation of Liebling’s methods as a reporter?
Let’s take “The Earl of Louisiana.” Liebling is a New Yorker, he knows the outline of the story from the newspapers. But like any good reporter, he goes down to Louisiana without making his mind up before he leaves. He listens to Earl Long, listens to them all—even the racist types, some of them so absurd you have to laugh out loud—and finds something valuable as a writer. And he comes back with this marvelous thing, which is still lively and true of New Orleans to this day. Liebling went to what was essentially a foreign place—and it turns out not to be, it’s just another parish.
What does Liebling have to say to the current generation of journalists?
I hope the new generation of journalists will see that there’s a way to bring the world to life for the reader. The reporter is going somewhere the reader can’t go, or will never go. The press card is still a passport to worlds that are beyond most people.
And what do you think Liebling would make of beleaguered state of the news industry?
I don’t think he would ever say, gee, I refuse to work for the Huffington Post. I think he would see it the way I do, as something inevitable: the delivery system is changing. Probably he would speak for keeping journalism alive, keeping reporting alive. He would insist on professionalizing the process, and making sure there are editors, and that people get paid a living wage. This is not a hobby.
With any luck, these LOA reissues will bring his work to a new audience.
I hope so. Liebling does have a great lesson to teach: that there’s a way of describing the world we all live in by focusing on the things that are often ignored. And judging from the emails I get from total strangers, the key word is delight. You can learn something and be delighted too.
A final question. How did you get involved in the LOA editions of Liebling’s work?
It was simple: they asked me. And I said, “When do I start?” The war reporting I put together in the first book is also terrific, I should say. Liebling is willing to put in the boring parts, and what happens in the tent the night before the battle is always as interesting as the battle itself.
So you went back through it all.
It was a joy to be paid to reread all this stuff in a sustained way. When you get to my age, (I’m seventy-four), you start to reread all the books you read when you were young. Some of them are embarrassing. But some are better than you remembered, because you had a life in between. Rereading Liebling was a delightful trip.James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.