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Manhattan: School for Scriveners

Posted By Julia Braun Kessler On July 8, 2009 @ 11:19 am In Non-Fiction Reviews | 6 Comments

New York City skyline, 1950s

Kids’ stuff, perhaps, but Robert Louis Stevenson’s bit about the world being full of a number of things and how we could all be as happy as kings leaps to mind. Those lines had resonance for me! Just out of Columbia as the 1950’s commenced, and equipped with a Master’s Degree, how could I doubt the poet? I read, read, read in preparation for my calling, a pursuit I imagined as my route to happiness. So I charged into post-war New York City’s publishing industry, the hub of its world.

I pictured it waiting, that one position for me alone — someone whose eyes had been fixed upon a life at its center. And I dreamed of the marvels I could introduce: Who else could turn up the best young talent, spot the emerging thinkers and hear the poets of our generation — those aspiring Joyces, and young Dylan Thomases? I’d pick up Europeans not yet translated into English along the way. It was my special version of a missionary vocation. Only I wouldn’t depend on charity — I‘d have to earn my keep.

Perfecting these skills, I’d seek inspiration to become more discerning while learning spectacular things every day of the week. I saw it as the high road to the romance of literature. A profession to command a panorama of all times and places!

I got busy, scouring Manhattan. Month after month, I chased about, answering newspaper ads, writing letters to editors to tout my abilities and traipsing into the offices of publishing houses. Finally, under the supervision of those few “elite” agencies that offered such job listings, I went to interviews to find that crack in the wall, the ideal match for me, a perfect publisher to show my stuff off to.

I exhausted every institution in the business, slogging my way back and forth along those streets in the 40’s through 60’s, on Fifth, Madison or Park, until I knew every crevice of the pavement, every lunch joint in the vicinity. I worked my way through skyscraper buildings, posh lobbies and doormen, from one company to the next.

What fantasy my notions proved! When I did manage to get a proper interview and attended those who had sought my help, it was only to be disillusioned. Demands were enough to dismay any novice: “Can you type?” “Can you take shorthand?” were regularly shot at me. What followed was the news that pay would be scant. So many beginners, they casually tossed out, sought such posts, they could find eager workers merely for the love of it. These spots, they referred to as their “internships,” an innovation for graduates of Vassar, Smith or Radcliffe, and other colleges for children of the rich.

Such starter positions had been smartly designated by employment agencies as “Assistant to Editor,” though their hunt was actually for a “Secretary,” in a practice providing these straitened publishing houses help cheaply. Elaborate promises accompanied their offers: for exposure to educated company and an intellectual atmosphere, new and ingenious ways of thinking. Even in distant recollection, I can hardly bear to contemplate the disenchantment all this brought me. Abject naiveté, as it manifests itself in youthful inexperience, has long since perished from my memory.

I came to see no “breaking into” that business along that route. At least, not for the impatient, impoverished like of me. I was no Vassar Girl, newly-arrived in the metropolis for the purpose of imbibing “culture” or “ city polish” before marrying. Nor was I “apprentice” material, I was in too much of a hurry. Moreover, I’d been taught by my struggling immigrant folk, that an honest day’s work came rewarded, if modestly at first. All that education, as my Dad sneered, didn’t come free! Nor should efforts that resulted from it.

What became plain as I struggled through those Manhattan offices was that at best, one could go on for years performing menial chores, typing letters and fetching coffee, yet hardly experiencing the pleasure of uncovering young talent. An overworked superior might deign to delegate a manuscript for reading over a weekend, only to find out what “the kid thought,” and whether it might be dumped outright or required her own time.

However, such assignments came straight from the “slush pile” publishers stocked by the cartload. These were still the times before literary agents had conquered total control of the business. There was also the off chance that office politics could allow some lucky new world change, a promotion of a superior, elevating her assistant to greater prestige in the company, yet the change would not alter those daunting routines before her daily.

The realization left me not only jobless but despondent too. At least, until I came upon a different course, an occupation that could pay its way while still engaging the head. The idea arrived one day, in the form of a fortunate recollection from my undergraduate days at the University of Chicago. There, any number of graduate student friends, themselves desperate for employment, had found their own solutions. Smack on Chicago’s campus was the American seat of the vastly successful Encyclopedia Britannica, to which they could offer their research skills. Why not, thought I, seek an equivalent here in New York City? There must clearly be such.

I remembered too that as a child my own mother had, one morning years before, answered our doorbell to find standing in the hallway an upstanding fellow, well-dressed, young and selling some product. During those difficult economic times, it was not uncommon. Had she herself not succumbed to such a purchase when that salesman explained to her that he represented the BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE? A work, he had claimed, whose aim was “to transport her children to a new world.”

Elegant talk, and such a convincing spiel, he managed to clinch the deal. In that Depression era, books of any kind were hardly a priority item, and my Mom was a tough customer. Still, these books appealed, seemed special enough to her to lead us on a path to discovery, to new thoughts, another way of life. And, she chirped, “how deluxe” the edition would look in her living room!

So it wasn’t long after that we kids discovered a series of huge volumes, some twenty of them, delivered in box after box. Each of them leather-bound, printed on fine vellum paper. Indeed, they were to become the road to another kingdom. Just to read tales of past glories right under our own roof was inspiration.

Why not, raced my thoughts in my job-hunting frenzy, seek out that company? The same which had sold us? Could there be any doubt that they thrived, or that they were here in central Manhattan? So I turned my attention in a new direction, to market what I termed “my research skills,” a dubious notion, since graduate school work for a Master of Arts degree taught little enough about how to find information, or categorize it.

The curious fact was that once I’d found this path, I had rid myself of the curse haunting me. Those wretched demands for secretarial skills which had soured every potential now went unmentioned. The Grolier Society, parent company for The Book of Knowledge as well as the Encyclopedia Americana, was to prove a venerable institution still intact and situated comfortably in an old emporium just off Fifth Avenue on 45th Street, a street I had slogged across often enough during that long hot job-hunting summer. And after a mere explorative phone call, I was directed to come in “to visit.”

It was already into late August by then, and oddly enough that worked in my favor. I had discovered when ringing the company’s line that the hiring staff was off on its yearly holiday, and that none were available for weeks to come. Yet, the gentleman who had picked up did not interrupt me as I made my little pitch and even seemed interested (or perhaps, it was merely his own boredom with the quiet currently in his office). He then agreed to meet and interview me for that first appointment. I soon learned that he was none other than the Editor-in-Chief of their Research Department.

If a touch abstracted and casual, he proved charming. A scholarly fellow, dressed in proper summer linen and Ivy League necktie, which seemed appropriate to his upper-class Boston speech. His chat was worlds apart from the newspaper ad and agency world I’d been trekking through in these last months. The moment was such as one seldom encountered in the course of job hunting.

I spent almost a full hour with the cordial gentleman, who appeared happy for company on such a dull summer day. We conversed rather than interviewed, about literature generally, and later on he discoursed about the true nature of research. His casual, “Indeed, we are always seeking to find those educated broadly in the humanities for our staff,” heartened me. Yet nothing of any specific need was so much as touched upon.

So did he proceed, explaining that as publishers of the BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE and the ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA, they employed the finest scholars of our own nation and England’s as well. And, that there still were other responsibilities which his own department must carry. With the purchase of each set, readers were presented with a series of coupons. These, he continued, could assure buyers that if solid material within Grolier encyclopedia were not easily available — about historic or contemporary figures — or any other subjects, such answers would be forthcoming. They could submit one of these coupons with the demand that The Grolier Society staff promptly research a thorough report in answer to such missing links. These materials were guaranteed delivery to subscribers within a short period, 10 days or less, via the US Post Office.

He concluded, “This is what we here at the Research Division occupy ourselves with. Our need therefore, for informed, and organized young scholars remains constant.”

Encouraged, I was enabled to mention my own exposure during my years at the University of Chicago to some of the best minds in the Academy. I spoke of those professors whose very aim was to organize young minds with emphasis upon tying together human achievement in all of history for future example.

And, if this gentleman ended our fine hour on an uncertain note regarding an immediate opening, I left him that day satisfied that he could turn everything in my favor there. For once, I had made an impression.

But what I learned too was something more. It made me see the futility in my earlier hunt, that the book publishing industry was not the way. For one so impatient to do her own thinking, it could lead only to frustration. Research, on the other hand, demanded ingenuity, provided a chance to hone my thoughts, work at my own writing skills to make them serve the needs of readers.

I persisted in a few half-hearted investigations of publishing houses after that momentous interview, and kept up with the employment agencies, but to no avail. And, not a month went by before I was indeed called upon by a member of the abstract gentleman’s staff to return to the Grolier office, where I managed to snag a job. My first position, exaltedly titled, Research Editor. And the salary, though still low for that period, was a couple of dollars above any I’d yet been offered at a publishing house.

Even my Dad had little complaint. His silence was tolerance at least. It made living at home possible, which in those days was something of a requirement for those unmarried. In sum, he muttered out to my Mom a meager compliment, “At least she can pay her subway fare and lunches now.”

Yet I saw it as liberation, a different standing, one that counted. When I told of it, it smacked of someone on her way. Not perhaps to my parents, but to more knowledgeable friends. And I launched into my new assignment with energy and excitement. An eagerness evident to a staff at my new office who themselves had already settled into their routines and grown blasé.

Oddly, learning from these office mates turned out an education in itself, arriving in novel form. For me, it was the people themselves, their intellectual inclinations, their sophisticated speech, their crisp wit in delivery which touched every aspect of my days and later still, my evenings as well. They themselves attracted, fascinated even more than the daily grind of the research. I had hardly met an assembly of such varied sorts in my Bronx world before. Among them were not just New Yorkers but some who’d come from other sections of our vast country. Several already lived Bohemian lives in trendy Greenwich Village. They knew a city that I had had no real hint of, had not yet encountered.

First of the group to claim such attention was my immediate superior, the editor assigned to oversee my research. He was a tall blonde young man, about twenty-five or six, handsome, soft-spoken, his native tones from some upstate New York “hick” town, and one which he wryly explained was a place, “I could not escape from fast enough!” I was instantly awed by his sophisticated manner. Nor was I alone in such admiration, apparently. Just about every young female in that office was mooning over his dreamy blue eyes, and thought themselves more than a bit in love with him.

Such was his casual flirtatiousness, it proved tough enough to resist. Naturally there was that inevitable studio apartment right “down on 10th Street” to which he was soon to offer invitations of various sorts, among them “to listen to his classical music on his collection of “long-playing” records, then much coveted and only just coming in. It was he, in fact, who first introduced me to such works as Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and to the still little-known Mahler wonders. He could even discourse seductively upon the latest classical performers emerging during that period, the like of Glenn Gould or Vladimir Horowitz, for instance. How might anyone not fall for such a marvel?

There was, among that group as well, our Mid-Western contingent, young women whose own knowledge of the City I had grown up in staggered me. They knew secreted lairs everywhere: those special libraries and archives, haunts for scholars of each period and variety. This surprised me. You could hardly anticipate such expertise coming from attractive young girls, who were least of all inclined to interest themselves in these remote matters. During their off moments, and often enough, they stood together in the office clacking about their hair-styles or make-up, gossiping about their boyfriends.

There was one lovely sophisticate in that office from the distant West Coast. She had taken to New York City as thoroughly as any native. She knew her way about alright! Such a savoir faire in that olive-skinned face, those black-eyes, so smooth she could stare you down with a mere glance. About her was an oddly watchful, even suspicious manner. In every conversation or event, she seemed to to glance over her shoulder, listening for a whisper behind her back. Yet, what puzzled most was how she combined such ill-ease with worldliness. At least, until I learned of her circumstances.

This occurred one evening at an unexpected meeting in The Museum of Natural History, where we had met by chance. She escorted a child, a black boy of ten, newly-come from Los Angeles for a visit, and whom she presented as her visiting nephew. I was stunned to learn then of her true origins. She came of a Black family in Los Angeles; yet having removed herself from home,, she’d crossed the country to begin again in New York as she offhandedly boasted, to “pass for white.”

Since we were safely distant from our office environment, had met entirely by accident, she made that introduction casually enough, if in a somewhat subdued manner. With no one else in sight, she laughingly confessed to what had now become evident. Moreover, within minutes she managed to communicate that she planned to keep it that way. The circumstance was not to be mentioned in office circles! Nor did I, ever.

Those days were full of dramatic disclosures. They varied, but each had its poignance, tales of life’s vicissitudes, all revelations for a shielded Bronx girl just now moving toward independence. Indeed, I came to comprehend Hamlet’s cautionary remark to Horatio that there are more things in “heaven and earth” than I’d ever dreamt in my philosophy! Those disclosures were nothing like the childish or adolescent discoveries I’d once made.

And in the course of my years at Grolier, I saw much, much more of the world, distressing to me from time to time. There were diverse, alternate and even deviate relationships possible. They were all around us, the sexual ones, for example, of the very sort that had always remained unmentionable among my parents and relatives. They poured out before me to make evident my own well-protected middle-class Bronx childhood.

Still other discoveries came at me fast in learning how to do the job. To seek, to find, to see, in short, to acquire successful ways to dig for information. To learn, and learn quickly was the aim. While I trained at the Grolier’s Research Section, they undertook to initiate these skills. What with the plethora of special libraries buried in the City’s bowels, one could manage to unearth obscure materials, from ancient or medieval history, from histories of art, or pursue exacting theories of the sciences and engineering. Uniquely, one studied the means to do so with efficiency and speed. That was the greater challenge at Grolier.

My very first assignment chosen for such training is memorable. A subscriber had complained to the Encyclopedia staff that though he had scoured their volumes, he’d not found his key question answered. He submitted his “coupon” to demand his need be answered. His request read: “HOW CAN I MOVE MY HOUSE FROM ONE LOCATION TO ANOTHER PLACE ACROSS THE CITY?” Moreover, he made himself quite plain: he required specifics, not just the sort of thing he had already found in the book: “get a truck and loader,” etc. He planned to execute the entire process by his own labor, with the assistance of his son; hence his need for “specifics.”

My chore was clear. I must find instructions, procedures, a blueprint for this layman, that he might accomplish his momentous task without mishap. Awesome! And the most terrifying part for me was the deadline to manage such a complete operational plan inside a week.

Those first moments of despair finally passed. I was dispatched to the section of Grolier Society’s own extensive library and advised on where to look. When that research was completed with the discovery of several books on planning for the execution of a house move, I was next advised to locate and call upon some construction engineers for further instruction, and, finally to telephone our own City consultants to hear further particulars about local law for house moving, those safety regulations governing such movement through New York City streets. I was able, astonishingly, to present for my senior editor some semblance of a workable program.

There were scores of such “off the wall” assignments. Indeed, they came at a pace. Take the one that read, “What is Natural Childbirth? Why should I consider it?” That had me scouring the 42nd Street Public Library, whizzing through volume after volume and on to Grantly Dick-Read, the then most recent researcher on this subject, and, in the end, learning far more than I’d ever dreamed about giving birth to a child! And, following right along, came scores of assignments which demanded particulars about career possibilities. Endless requests for summaries of “Architecture as a Career,” or “Foreign Trade as a Career,” and any number of variations on that theme.

Yet all this was mere prep. I was quickly allowed to move away from such miscellany, to get on to my supposed area of specialization, queries pertaining to the arts. I can recall as well, the earliest of these to come my way. Someone, way out in mid-America, had recently heard of musicians and singers termed “troubadours.” She’d learned from her high school teacher that back in the Middle Ages fine ladies had been regaled by them with song. The idea so enticed her, she must find out more. Could her coupon claim a thorough investigation of such remote musical practices in those early centuries?

The young lady yearned to know its sounds of both voices and instruments, to discover in what circumstances songs might have been heard, and by whom? What were the instruments, she wondered, with which this music was played? Her inquiry concluded with a sweet lament about how few might have enjoyed such privileges, while she, at 15 years of age could listen to her “long-playing magic every single day of the week.”

Dispatched to The Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan, I was soon to investigate her theme in all its variety as it passed through the centuries in which such practices prospered (12th to 14th), all the while delighting in the study of intricacies in courtship, chivalry and courtly love. Such, indeed, were the pleasures of this, my first job in the real world! Of course, I’d visited at The Cloisters before, wandering the City in my adolescent days. But when, I appeared now as a representative of the staff of the Encylopedia Americana, I merited special attention. Cloister librarians were attentive, happy to help. Their satisfaction came in being able to produce the proper works for my rapid research. Then too, there came a bonus: they offered techniques new to me for handling precious books, the aged editions held in their Medieval collection. Their strictures regarding the need for delicacy in examining these ancient tomes has ruled me in libraries ever since.

I rushed as well to the Music Library, then still at 58th Street (and not yet re-designated The Performing Arts Library, to be centered at the later-built Lincoln Center), another venerable institution in the City, there to seek more particulars about unique musical instruments of the period. The miracle was that I managed against the odds to write up a cogent treatise for our eager young subscriber by the week’s end.

There were countless demands by coupon senders for strictly historical pieces. These were frowned upon by our dedicated staff editors. We all were aware that such information was amply provided within our volumes, whether they be within the juvenile encyclopedia or those for adults. Had such readers consulted them, they would easily have found particulars. Yet, our orders were not to question, but simply to get on with assignments promptly, accomplishing this by seeking out new sources for the purpose.

I can recall the sudden expert on Constantine the Great I became during those heady days. I lectured anyone who would listen to those historical facts I myself had only just acquired. His eager approach to a new religion of the time, his conversion to Christianity so emphasized in school history was in hardly ardor on his part. His urge might be accounted for by a politically-motivated need to save his decaying realm far more than by a ‘divine inspiration’. Then too, along came his subsequent ascendance to undisputed mastery of the West — in Europe and Africa — together with his reform of the army. Above all, his accomplishments by the time his rule ended allowed for his overseeing the growth of a Constantinople that was to rival the former splendor of Rome, giving that city not merely world power but a lavish magnificence of its own.

So it went with every endeavor, until I had been finally elevated to tackling the most complex artistic assignments at Grolier. One, I recollect having undertaken when a coupon bearer posed the philosophical question: “What is the true nature of a painting?” The inquirer followed with, “And what constitutes such a creation? What kind of materials does one employ in these works? Just how do I distinguish a competent piece from a masterpiece?”

To recollect it even now strikes me as rather daunting. Suddenly, I found myself contemplating the essence of art itself, and in a hurry yet! Yet such were our preoccupations in that Grolier office. Exalted thought, awesome learning, and a pay check on Friday too!

Curiously withal, what came as most welcome in the working situation was our freedom of movement. When you consider that was my earliest experience with a daily job, little question I’d landed in a dream world. What with seeking out libraries, consulting experts of various sort on many subjects, the gathering of remote sources, we scarcely spent time at our desks but for those hours when completing a project. We would return to a typewriter just to produce and send off our stuff to a waiting subscriber.

I’ve often wondered whether that initiation to the world of work spoiled me for office employment? Perhaps. But considering the learning I acquired during that time, the incredible rate at which it was imparted, not to speak of the solid introduction it provided for producing serious knowledge on demand, I can only doubt that. From that Grolier experience, I found skills to meet deadlines, and discovered how to manage my time in any future research.

So it was that I came to understand disciplined methods by which to structure whatever material into cogent ideas to satisfy an audience. It opened doors, paved a way to a continuing career, not in research itself, but in magazine and newspaper journalism. And later still, it worked wonders for me in the writing my books. Who would fault such a lucky start?


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