Early in the evening of December 8, 1938, a young man named Philip Caruso went outdoors for the first time in two weeks. He had gone to bed with the grippe on Thanksgiving and had stayed there for twelve days before the family doctor told him he could get up and move about the house. He had stayed indoors for two more days, reading magazines and listening to the radio. He lived with his father and mother, five of his seven brothers, and a sister in a one-family house at 1957 Seventy-ninth Street, Brooklyn. He had a fever blister on the right side of his upper lip and he felt shaky from being in bed so long, but he was glad to get out of the house at last. He went straight to the cafeteria on Twentieth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street, where he thought he might find some of his friends — clerks, office boys, and such who lived in the neighborhood. He found three or four of them at the cafeteria, as he had hoped, and sat down with them. He drank some coffee and they talked about the hockey matches then going on at Madison Square Garden. He remembers all this distinctly, for it was while he was sitting there in the cafeteria, talking with his friends, that two police detectives came in and arrested him on a charge of first-degree robbery, accusing him of having taken part in a holdup in July, four months before. He remembers the fever blister particularly; it was a singularly unfortunate blemish as things turned out. Although Caruso was as innocent of this crime as Chief Justice Hughes, he was tried, convicted, and sent to Sing Sing to serve a sentence of from ten to twenty years.
McKelway goes on to recount, with the same terrific precision of diction and fact, the chain of events leading to Caruso’s conviction and, after he had served ten months, to his exoneration and release. He gives us the overworked police detectives, the highly suggestible victim, the not greatly sympathetic or sharp public defender, the self-satisfied judge. Narratives of the wrongly convicted are common today, but not in 1939 — certainly not ones with the dispassionate rigor of this article. Melodrama is not on McKelway’s agenda. He merely wants to show us that, as he writes, the abuse of the judicial system and justice in Caruso’s case “may easily be typical of hundreds of other obscure cases which are tried hurriedly, without publicity.”
McKelway’s most talked-about New Yorker contribution wasn’t an Annals of Crime piece but a six-part 1940 profile of Walter Winchell, who was then at the apex of his career as the country’s most famous and feared gossip columnist. The piece was relatively evenhanded, but McKelway did take it upon himself to fact-check five random Winchell columns. He concluded that of the 131 items in which individuals were named, fifty-four were completely inaccurate, twenty-four were partly inaccurate, and fifty-three were accurate.
McKelway’s immediate success at The New Yorker was in sharp contrast to Liebling, who had come over at about the same time, from the World-Telegram, but hadn’t been able to advance past the position of reporter, which at The New Yorker meant unbylined researcher. In 1936, Liebling embarked on a long profile of the shady African American preacher and empire-builder Father Divine. It was a great subject, but Liebling got so immersed in reporting the article that, as he later said, it threatened to turn into “a million-word book on comparative religion.” At that point, Harold Ross asked McKelway if he would edit it into shape; the piece was published under a double byline and to huge acclaim. Liebling never looked back.
Duly impressed, Ross asked McKelway if he would take the job of The New Yorker’s first managing editor for fact. The writer agreed, on the condition that he would give up the job after three years. He explained (Brendan Gill wrote in Here at The New Yorker) “that he preferred totting up sums not, like most people, in units of two, four, six, eight, and ten but in units of three, six, nine, twelve, and so on.” McKelway made much of those three years, solidifying the magazine’s fact writing and hiring as reporters such future mainstays as John Bainbridge, Philip Hamburger, and Gill himself. He also tapped another young staff reporter to be his assistant. This was William Shawn, who took his place at the end of the three-year term and went on to be the editor in chief of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987.