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Benevolent Dreamer

Ben Yagoda on St. Clair McKelway, who wrote with lucidity about his own mental illness.
January 1, 2007

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:

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.

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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.

Like most members of the New Yorker staff, McKelway joined the armed services during World War II. He landed a plum position as an Air Force information officer in the South Pacific and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, working under General Curtis LeMay. There, his peculiar mental illness possibly first surfaced and certainly first became an obstruction in his life. Shawn described it well in his New Yorker obituary of McKelway:

From time to time, he entered what was technically a manic phase but what he experienced as anything from “feeling good” to boundless euphoria. When he was in such a phase, small writing projects were pyramided into gigantic projects. His thoughts, and his telephone calls, would fly from his office on West Forty-Third Street to the White House, from there to other world capitals, and from there to outer space; then, after a while, he would subside and, again intact in his office, sit back and enjoy an interval of quiet, lucid composition. In retrospect, he looked upon these episodes as adventures, and was able to describe them with humor and detail.

McKelway eventually described in print nearly everything about his malady except the precise diagnosis; a perusal of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders suggests to this layman that it was bipolar disorder combined with mixed non-bizarre delusional disorder and a mild case of dissociative identity disorder.

And so it happened, in any case, that, sitting in his office in Guam, McKelway became convinced that Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Forces, had made tactical mistakes that in effect sabotaged the B-29 bombing program and amounted to high treason. He locked himself in his quonset hut, composed a long and strident radiogram to this effect, and sent it to the Pentagon. The longtime New Yorker contributor and editor Roger Angell, who encountered McKelway during the war, says, “The Pentagon amazingly enough realized what had happened, put a net over him, and put him in Walter Reed Hospital. He worked there for the rest of the war.”

As strange as the episode was, possibly even stranger was the fact that McKelway wrote a long New Yorker piece about it, published in 1958 under the heading, “That Was a Reporter at Wit’s End.” And stranger still was the way he described it with such equanimity and precision. A striking aspect was that, as with some dreams, he half-believed the fantasies and half-realized they were just that. “I got more and more worked up as I wrote,” he recalled in the article, “and toward the end the things I said seemed to me muddleheaded if not hysterical.” A clue to his compartmentalizing ability was the dissociative identity (sometimes called multiple personality) disorder. He once wrote, “I have pretty much come to the conclusion that I have a great many heads. I’ve counted and identified twelve separate and distinct heads, or identities, that I know and possess.” And so if one of the heads was weaving elaborate fantasies, another could keep it under close observation.

McKelway was handsome, well groomed, and charming, which explains why, by the early fifties, he had convinced five women to marry him. And he was bonkers, which explains why all of those marriages ended in divorce. In 1954 (the same year his only child, a son, died in a helicopter crash), he wed the novelist and New Yorker contributor Maeve Brennan; that marriage lasted five years and was his last. Between and sometimes during marriages, McKelway lived in third-tier Manhattan hotels and spent The New Yorker’s money. That was problematic. Since 1939 he had been a New Yorker staff writer, which meant that he was given an office and, instead of a salary, a drawing account, which amounted to advances against future article payments. He was prolific, but he wasn’t that prolific, so he always owed the magazine money. The amounts ranged from $7,138.76 in 1954, to $9,488.03 in 1966, to $5,357.23 in 1975. The exact figures are preserved in depositions given by New Yorker representatives when McKelway’s creditors tried to collect their debts through the magazine. The effort was never successful.

Or how, in the face of these internal and external difficulties, he continued to produce outstanding work. In 1962, he wrote a long article for The New Yorker called “The Edinburgh Caper”; it was published as a book the same year with the subtitle “A One-Man International Plot.” It bears some similarities to the Guam piece, but there, McKelway had a reasonable belief that, in his mind, grew way out of proportion. Here, he takes us step by step through the development of a paranoid delusion. Specifically, while on a trip to Scotland three years earlier, he imagined that he was involved in CIA skulduggery intended to foil a Soviet plot to kidnap Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower. Among other things, he fancied he was being sent messages by means of the letters and numbers on the license plates of passing cars. Even more so than in the Guam article, McKelway’s description of the onset and development of the delusion is compelling because it is so matter of fact. Waking up in his hotel room in Edinburgh, he writes,

a jumble of disturbing thoughts flashed through my head with great rapidity . . . . I thought of the Camerons [a pleasant Scottish couple he had befriended] as being somehow menacing. In short, I hated them. It is only to those we love that we turn at unexpected times the gnarled and ugly face of hatred. And in that realm, suspicion readily moves into the space close to our hearts that we thought could be occupied only by trust. These thoughts of mine, you understand, came into my head with terrific speed and were gone in a few seconds, but in those few seconds, I saw Cameron as a Soviet agent of the highest type, and Mrs. Cameron as a co-agent.

He ends up standing outside the hotel where an American officer is staying and — having gotten it into his head that this is the expected means of communication — singing excerpts from an Ethel Merman song at the top of his lungs. Not surprisingly, he is arrested, and in his jail cell, in addition to continuing with the Merman song, he shouts out “such phrases as ‘Now the Labradors. And now the setters and pointers. And here come the weimaraners.’ These seemed to me to represent the different types of Strategic Air Command bombers that were on their way to the rendezvous over Russia.” He ends up finding and confiding in the officer, but it turns out the colonel has been in touch with Curtis LeMay, knows all about the “ Guam caper,” and receives McKelway’s allegations in good humor. By that time, the writer’s cooler heads are prevailing, and he quickly wraps up loose ends. More than four decades later, “The Edinburg Caper” remains a unique and riveting work of interior journalism: a book resembling what Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might have been had it been written by a lucid Joe Gould.

McKelway had about ten years of lucidity left. He wrote one more New Yorker fact piece (a long profile of the greatest impostor in New York history) and more than a dozen elegiac reminiscences and lightly fictionalized sketches describing his early life in Washington, New York, and Bangkok. They included two short stories, “First Marriage” and “The Fireflies,” that Shawn described as “among the loveliest the magazine ever published.” The manic or delusional episodes became more frequent; according to Roger Angell, “he would go off his medication because he wanted to experience the highs.” But he carried them off with style. The late New Yorker editor Robert Bingham told Calvin Trillin, who joined the staff in the sixties, of being summoned one Sunday to the Plaza Hotel, where McKelway was making a scene. “Mac had taken a cab to the Plaza, in his pajamas,” Trillin says. “When Bob got there, Mac was being obstreperous. The kindest New York cop you’d ever seen was saying, ‘Mr. McKelway, why don’t you sit down? You’ll be more comfortable.’ And Mac said: ‘Don’t try any of your Gestapo tactics on me!’”

At one point, he started scribbling meaningless words and doodles on the eighteenth-floor walls of the New Yorker offices. He even got some cartoonists to contribute. “Soon there was an area about fifty feet across, full of graffiti,” Trillin says. “I walked in one day and the receptionist told me, ‘You may have a problem getting in your office. They’re painting.’ I said, ‘Didn’t they paint six months ago?’ She said, ‘Don’t you understand? They’re getting rid of Mr. McKelway’s wall without hurting his feelings.’”

Such was The New Yorker. After 1969, McKelway never wrote another word for publication. He died in January 1980, at the DeWitt Nursing Home in Manhattan. He was fortunate to be memorialized by Shawn, his colleague for forty-six years, and the finest New Yorker writer never to have a byline in The New Yorker. His unsigned obituary concluded: “McKelway was a born writer and an inspired writer, and he saw the world in his own way and wrote clearly and beautifully about what he saw. He lived his life in a dream, but it was, on the whole, a benevolent dream. We can be grateful that, through his work, he was able to share it with the rest of us.

Ben Yagoda directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware and is the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, which will be published by Broadway Books in February.