Photo of a pile of rolled-up old newspapers

By Ben Yagoda

One day in the very late 1960s, my father brought home a copy of Esquire magazine. Out popped a card offering an annual subscription for, I believe, $1.99. He filled it out and mailed it in, and subsequently the magazine, which was just a little past its New Journalism heyday, arrived every month in the mailbox of our home in New Rochelle, New York.

When the year was over, my father decided not to renew. But the magazine kept coming, possibly because its bean-counters judged that keeping the rate base up, even to the point of giving the product away for free, was worth it in terms of advertising revenues. Teenage me read the magazine not word for word, but scattershot: Malcolm Muggeridge on books, Dwight Macdonald on movies, Robert Alan Aurthur’s column “Hanging Out,” Rex Reed’s movie star profiles, occasional voices from the magazine’s past like Helen Lawrenson or George Frazier, and certainly the annual Dubious Achievement Awards and the Gorge Lois covers, including Andy Warhol drowning in a giant can of Campbell’s tomato soup and a smiling William Calley hugging a quartet of cute Vietnamese children.

Nonfiction author and teacher Ben Yagoda

Ben Yagoda

Esquire stopped arriving after two years or three years. But that was long enough for me to absorb its ethos, similar to (though somewhat hipper than) what I was getting from a mix of newspapers and magazines that came into the house and were, without my realizing it, giving me a sense of what it was possible to do on a page. At the top of that list was The New York Times, which arrived every morning and where I would turn first (on his appointed days) to Russell Baker’s column, which offered a take on politics and other matters that was both funny and serious (but never solemn, to use Baker’s classic distinction). I’d read Robert Lipsyte on the sports page, John Leonard on books, Vincent Canby on movies, Craig Claiborne on food, and features by Charlotte Curtis and Judy Klemesrud (loved that byline). Second was The New Yorker, my mother’s Bible, where naturally I started with the cartoons and the newsbreaks like “Constabulary Notes from All Over” but grew to appreciate writers like Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Pauline Kael, John Updike and Whitney Balliett. Then throw in in the New York Post, which my father occasionally brought home and where I read wise-guy “chipmunk” sports writers like Phil Pepe, Maury Allen and Larry Merchant; the even-wiser-guy Village Voice, which I picked up on my own forays into the city; Sports Illustrated and Sport magazines, which I intermittently subscribed to; and, needless to say, Mad magazine.

This is a story I’ve always told myself, that as writer I was formed by osmosis, not especially consciously. But recently, perhaps because I’ve reached the stage of life where taking stock seems called for, I’ve had an inclination to flesh out that story. And, thanks to Google’s hoovering up of most of most of what has ever been published, plus the existence of proprietary archives from Esquire, the Times, the New Yorker and other publications, I’ve been able to add specifics to the narrative: to track down particular articles, passages  or even sentences that had an impact.

Archived treasure

Just the other day, someone mentioned something about Richard Brautigan on Facebook, and I flashed back to a line in a Brautigan parody I had read in The New Yorker at least five decades ago. I had thought it was written by Donald Barthelme, probably because his 1973 spoof of Cosmopolitan ads had made such an impression on me.  But some time with Google and New Yorker digital archives revealed that the piece was by pre-“Prairie Home Companion” Garrison Keillor. It appeared in the issue of March 18, 1972, and here’s how it started:

Screenshot of a passage from an old New Yorker, written by Garrison KeillorThe bit I remembered was, “Some of his stories are no longer than this.” Now, at the time I hadn’t read Brautigan, and I still haven’t. But something about the Keillor line instructed me as to effects it’s possible for a writer to achieve.

A couple of months ago, I saw Calvin Trillin speak on his book tour for “The Lede: Dispatches from a Life in the Press.” I pondered when it was that I became a Trillin fanboy for life, and after rooting around a while found what I think of the Rosetta Stone. It’s the opening of a New Yorker article from July 3, 1971. (Trillin is not only a connoisseur but a perpetrator of great ledes.)

Larry Goldberg, the pizza baron, is slim, but I still think of him as Fats Goldberg. So does he. Although he has ‘been down,’ as he puts it, for twelve years, after twenty-five years of exceptional fatness, he sees himself not as a man who weighs one hundred and sixty pounds but as a man who is constantly in danger of weighing three hundred twenty. “Inside, I’m still a fat man,” he sometimes says. When Fats and I were boys in Kansas City, he was already renowned for his corpulence—though I can’t say I was ever approached about posing for Refugee Relief ads in those days myself. During college, when Fats weighed three hundred pounds and was known to some as Three Cases Goldberg, I occasionally saw him at the University of Missouri, where he was one of a number of storied eaters. According to one tale, when a restaurant near the campus instituted a policy of giving customers all they wanted to eat on Sunday nights for a dollar thirty-five, a fraternity brother of Fats’ called Hog Silverman, who weighed less than two and a half cases, went over one Sunday night and put it out of business.

A little later there’s this quintessentially Trillinesque sentence, about the first time he saw Goldberg after college:

It was a Sunday morning, and I was at Ratner’s, on Second Avenue. I was having eggs scrambled with lox and onions, and I was glancing around constantly, as I tend to do in Ratner’s, to see if some other table was being given a roll basket with more of my favorite kind of onion rolls than our roll basket had.

Given the well-known vicissitudes of memory, it’s not surprising that sometimes I get these passages wrong. I was sure I had read a bit by Dan Jenkins in Sports Illustrated where he was making fun of sports-writing cliches and had a list to the effect of, “Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear; Lee Trevino, the Merry Mex; and Arnold Palmer, comma” — the idea being that Palmer was so mighty, no epithet would suffice. For years I tried to find it with no success. Then I Googled “Jack Nicklaus comma” and was directed to SI of September 13, 1976, where Jenkins had this lede:

Jack Nicklaus, comma. Having a bad year by his own standards, comma. Bored when there isn’t a major championship on the line, comma. Disinterested in money earnings, comma. Well, there’s only one thing wrong with all of that. How do you explain the fact that every time they think up a golf tournament of special significance, Nicklaus goes out and hammers everyone so deeply into the bunkers that they think they must be living in a tent in the Sahara?

And speaking of Sports Illustrated, one of my favorite quotes of all time appeared in the issue of April 21, 1969. Curry Kirkpatrick was profiling a young golfer named Bruce Fleisher and reported his answer when someone asked him why he went to Miami-Dade Junior College: “Because I’m dumb and the weather is hot.” (I actually streamlined that one in my memory as “Because it’s hot and I’m dumb.”)

Revisiting early influences

Sometimes my efforts lead to naught. Probably in the late ‘60s, the New Yorker’s television writer, Michael Arlen, had a set piece about a Saturday afternoon so dreary that the most interesting thing on TV was a professional hockey game. It was probably the starkest evocation of ennui I’ve ever read, but the search capabilities of the magazine’s archives are so quirky that I haven’t been able to find it.

Here are some of the other influential lines, passages, or whole pieces I’ve recently tracked down:

Writing about Count Basie’s minimalistic piano playing in the New Yorker of April 7, 1975, Balliett made an analogy that opened my eyes to a thing that criticism could do:

What Hemingway had done for American prose Basie was doing for American music.

On the other hand, Balliett taught me that I did not want to be haughtily dismissive, the way he was in 1971 when he wrote:

There is no need to worry about (Dave) Brubeck anymore. He is what he is — a jovial amateur pianist who happened along at the right time with the right music and make a million.

It kind of blew my mind that the Voice could print a profile of a typeface, to wit, Helvetica, in 1976. And Molly Haskell, writing about the 1964 Howard Hawks film “Man’s Favorite Sport” in 1971, was my introduction to the auteur theory idea that even in an ostensibly witless Rock Hudson sex farce, there was more going on than met the eye:

Hudson is a virgin, who has written a ‘How to’ book on sex while harboring a deep, fastidious horror of it. His masculinity is a lie.

Meanwhile, costar Paula Prentiss:

…must take the initiative in Hudson’s sexual initiation, for which the fishing exploit is metaphor. Fish are phallic symbols, of course, and there is even a scene in which a loose fish thrashes around inside Hudson’s pants, causing him to jump and jerk uncontrollably.

John McPhee’s two-part article about a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, “Levels of the Game,” appeared in The New Yorker in June 1969. McPhee’s description of Ashe’s backhand showed me something about precision and observation (and provided an aspirational template for my own one-handed backhand, a lifetime work in progress).

Ashe loves the movement of the backhand, because the follow-through does not cramp the arm into the body but does just the opposite-opens both arms wide and high, so that the stroke ends in the stance of the Winged Victory.

Later he quotes Ashe about the stroke:

…you fling your arms away from your body and you wind up in a position that looks as if you’re calling for help, both arms in the air.

And, the kicker (spoiler alert), when Ashe hits a backhand to win the match, is a callback:

When the stroke is finished, he is standing on his toes, his arms flung open, wide, and high.

In August, 1972, right after the Republican National Convention, my favorite columnist, Russell Baker, brilliantly appropriated my favorite novel. What could be better? Here’s how Baker’s Times piece started:

My name’s Huckleberry Dick. You ain’t heard of me less’n you watched a TV show called the Republican National Love-In. That show was made by Mr. Walter Cronkite and Mr. John Chancellor and Mr. Howard Smith and lots of other smart TV people, and mostly they told the truth, ‘cepn for leavin’ out a lot of the more disgustin’ scenes of crowds of love‐crazed Republicans a‐flingin’ themselves on me and a‐lickin’ my hands on account of my havin’ done so much to make the country a fit place to love in again.

In June 1969, Rust Hills published a piece in Esquire that was accurately titled “How to Do Four Dumb Tricks with a Package of Camels” and that started this way:

Another reason for smoking Camels, besides because they satisfy, never change, are available most everywhere, are romantically-dangerously unfiltered, and taste best, is that there are four dumb tricks you can do with the package that amuse children and other simpleminded, amiable people.

So much of that screams David Letterman — the air-quotey phrase “they satisfy,” the idea of doing dumb tricks, even the word “dumb” — that I am convinced he read it in Indiana and it made even more of an impression on him than it did on me.

The funniest and cleverest thing I’ve ever read remains “Albert Brooks’ Famous Schools for Comedians,” published in Esquire in February 1971. It changed my life.

Hearing your own voice

Later in 1971, I showed up in college, with the vague idea I wanted to be a writer. I took a couple of fiction-writing classes and didn’t produce anything very good. I went out for the school newspaper and wrote a few articles, including an interview with Robert Strauss, the head of the Democratic Party, and an account of a speech by the governor of Puerto Rico. I realized that hard news wasn’t for me either.

Then some people started a monthly magazine associated with the newspaper. My roommate was one of the people and one day I tagged along with him to a meeting. I left the meeting having been appointed Road Trips Editor of the magazine. In that role I assigned travel stories and wrote some of my own. The first one appeared on May 1, 1975. I know that because, sure enough, my complete college output is online, including the Robert Strauss interview.

This first Road Trips story was about going to the New York Yankees’ home opener.  I start out writing a bit about my history as a Yankee fan, then talked about arriving at the game:

Our seats today, are, again, in the mezzanine. My father, a champion of the middle way, always brought me to this sheltered cove, and it is like home.

“Sheltered cove” is a bit much. But that line about “champion of the middle way” and etymologically linking it to the mezzanine. Yup, that’s me. I didn’t realize at the time — I didn’t realize much at the time — but all that reading had borne fruit. I had a voice.

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Ben Yagoda is the author or editor of fourteen books, including “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made: and “Gobsmacked! The British Invasion of American English,: which will be published in September 2024. His podcast is “The Lives They’re Living.” 

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