Last summer James Wolcott reviewed The Complete New Yorker on DVD for The New Criterion. He concluded with a list of “future topics for inquiry.” Number one with a bullet point was this: “Why does A.J. Liebling remain a vibrant role model for writers while the superb, prolific St. Clair McKelway has been sorely forgotten?” Liebling’s continued popularity is not my subject here, though I will direct your attention to his description of a New York City boxing cornerman’s “satellite, a man who went by the name of Mr. Emmet. Mr. Emmet, a Bostonian, is so called because, as he explains, ‘I always hanged in Emmet Street.’ He has forgotten his former name, which was polysyllabic.” In my opinion, the creator of that last sentence deserves to be a role model for writers as long as there are writers.
To the McKelway part of the question, I say: Why indeed?
McKelway was a North Carolinian with journalism in his bloodlines: his great uncle, whose name he shared, had been editor of the Brooklyn Eagle; the family moved to Washington, D.C., and his brother Ben was to become editor of The Washington Star. Starting out as an office boy on the Washington Times-Herald, McKelway went on to the New York World, the New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, and the Bangkok Daily Mail — relocating to Siam for four years being a characteristically unpredictable McKelway move. He came to The New Yorker in 1933, at the age of twenty-eight, just as the magazine was becoming a magnet for the best urban journalists from all the New York dailies. In a span of just a few years, the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, recruited at least one reporter who continues to be a vibrant role model — Joseph Mitchell — and quite a few more who have been sorely forgotten, including Alva Johnston, Joel Sayre, and John McNulty.
McKelway’s first New Yorker piece was a profile of a New York City policeman, and he speedily established a niche writing about cops and various kinds of crooks under the magazine’s rubric “Annals of Crime.” He continued in this vein for thirty-six years, eventually collecting his pieces in two books, True Tales from the Annals of Crime and Rascality (1951) and Big Little Man from Brooklyn (1969), both unjustly out of print. McKelway was drawn not to gangsters, murderers, or thugs but to those he called “rascals” — the embezzler, the counterfeiter of one-dollar bills (this piece was eventually adapted into the 1950 film Mister 880), the second-story man, the impostor. Unlike most crime writers of that (and this) day, he didn’t judge or — what is harder to avoid — condescend to his subjects. Instead, he presented the facts, with tacit and sometimes explicit sympathy. More generally, McKelway helped cement what became the cornerstone of New Yorker fact writing (that was the preferred term, “journalism” sounding a mite pretentious): an understated, elegant, and witty stylistic stance, buttressed and to some degree created, by massive reporting.
His 1939 Annals of Crime piece “The Innocent Man at Sing Sing,” deserves to be included in any anthology of crime reporting, or maybe any anthology of reporting. It starts out this way: