When critic and journalist Abbott Joseph Liebling died in 1963, a colleague at the New Yorker surveyed the heap of books and papers piled on and around Liebling’s desk and concluded that they perfectly represented his eclectic interests in both life and writing.
There was the Annual Report of the New-York Historical Society, the American Racing Manual, the collected works of Albert Camus, a guide to making beer, a travelogue on Tunisia, three volumes on boxing, and a month’s issues of the Las Vegas Sun. Indeed, Liebling’s interests and his writing ranged widely in a 28-year career at the New Yorker which established his reputation as a gifted and unique writer and reporter. His essays are regarded as a model for the wave of so-called New Journalists who came after him.
Liebling’s quirky writing interests reflected a quirky personality and a varied career in journalism. Son of a New York furrier, he was raised on the Upper West Side and attended Dartmouth College, where he was expelled for skipping chapel. After finishing Columbia University’s journalism program, he hired a bearded Norwegian to picket the New York World with a sign that read, “Hire Joe Liebling.” (The World didn’t.) His brief stint at the New York Times ended when the sports editor fired him for repeatedly listing
“Ignoto,” Italian for unknown, as referee in New York-area basketball games. He briefly studied ancient history at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he developed a love for the city, a ripe appetite, and a taste for haute cuisine.
Back in the United States, Liebling found work first at the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin. “I oozed prose over every aspect of Rhode Island life,” he recalled.
Later, in four years at the New York World-Telegram in the early 1930s, he honed his skills at writing feature articles, penning more than a thousand. In 1935 he began work at the New Yorker as one of the stable of editor Harold Ross’ young writers. At the magazine, his home for the rest of his life, he considered himself and colleagues such as Alva Johnston, Meyer Berger, and Joseph Mitchell part of the New Yorker’s second generation of stylists.
Liebling’s irreverent writing and thorough reporting, especially his gift for capturing New York’s life in prose, quickly impressed Ross. Liebling loved the city and spent hours wandering its streets. He was fascinated with slang, what he called the “side-street New York language” of the city’s backstreets, and he had a talent for re-creating it. In scores of colorful essays, he chronicled the rich and varied New York scene: Izzy Yereshevsky’s Cigar Store, the opening of a new nightclub by Hymie the Tumbler, overly superstitious Italians, and down-and-out prizefighters. His New York stories were collected in Back Where I Came From (1938), The Telephone Booth Indian (1942), and The Honest Rainmaker: The Life and Times of Colonel John R.Stingo (1953).
His slangy, often funny first-person essays were noted for their exaggerated metaphors and unlikely allusions, which sometimes taxed a reader’s knowledge of ancient history, one of Liebling’s favorite subjects. A Liebling account of a Sugar Ray Robinson fight might include, as the New York Times once noted, “a delicate embroidery on a theme suggested by a medieval Arabian historian to whom he was partial.” Tom Wolfe once described Liebling as a writer’s writer with a following that was almost cultish.
Liebling wrote hundreds of articles for the New Yorker. “As time went on, he wrote with greater and greater elegance, and the journalism he was ostensibly doing somehow turned into the kind of writing that endures,” wrote a New Yorker correspondent in an unsigned obituary (11 January 1964). His friend St. Clair McKelway said Liebling’s writing—opinionated and stylish yet based on solid reporting—was part of “a new art form in American journalism” pioneered at the magazine (New York Herald Tribune, 2,9 December 1963). Liebling wrote and rewrote his pieces to perfection, and his confidence in his writing was legendary. He was said to present his finished work to the New Yorker’s editors with all the natural selfassurance of a child presenting crayon drawings to adoring parents. “Damn it,” a competitor once said, “if I had just one per cent of Joe’s self-confidence I’d have written ‘War and Peace’ by this time.”
Liebling’s New Yorker work included a stint as war correspondent. His trip home on a Norwegian tanker was chronicled in “Westbound Tanker,” one of his best-known wartime pieces. He also covered the London Blitz for the New Yorker and followed the First Infantry Division in its invasions of North Africa and northern France. He was present at the liberation of Paris, the only city that rivaled New York in his affections.
France valued his war reporting and in 1952 awarded him the cross of the Legion of Honor.
After the war, Liebling took over the New Yorker’s “Wayward Press” column, a forum for newspaper criticism that had been started by Robert Benchley in 1927 and published sporadically afterward. Liebling delighted in assailing reporters and newspapers for their foibles, reserving his harshest words for publishers. “As an observer from outside, I take a grave vie\v of the plight of the press,” Liebling wrote. “It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” Liebling’s press criticism, widely read and often quoted in trade journals of American newspapers, made him the best-known press critic of his generation. His press columns were collected in The Wayward Pressman (1947), Mink and Red Herring (1949), and The Press (1961).
DAVID R. DAVIES
Abbott Joseph Liebling. Born 18 October 1904 in New York. Studied at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1920–23; Columbia University School for Journalism, New York, B.Litt., 1925; medieval studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1926–27.
Sports writer, New York Times, 1925–26; staff writer, Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin, 1926–30, New York World, 1930–31, and the New York World-Telegram, 1931–35. Married Anne Beatrice McGinn, 1934 (divorced, 1949). Staff writer, 1935–63, war correspondent in France, England, and North Africa, 1939–44, and columnist of “Wayward Press,” 1946–63, the New Yorker. Married Lucille Hill Spectorsky, 1949 (divorced, 1959). Chevalier, Legion of Honor (France), 1952. Married the writer Jean Stafford, 1959. Died (of complications from viral pneumonia) in New York, 28 December 1963.
Essays and Related Prose
Back Where I Came From, 1938
The Telephone Booth Indian, 1942
The Road Back to Paris, 1944
The Wayward Pressman, 1947
Mink and Red Herring: The Wayward Pressman’s Casebook, 1949
Chicago: The Second City, 1950
The Honest Rainmaker: The Life and Times of Colonel John R. Stingo, 1953
The Sweet Science: A Ringside View of Boxing, 1956
Normandy Revisited, 1958
The Earl of Louisiana, 1961
The Press, 1961; revised edition, 1964
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, 1962
The Jollity Building, 1962
The Most of A.J.Liebling, edited by William Cole, 1963; as The Best of A.J.Liebling, 1965
Molly, and Other War Pieces, 1964
A Neutral Corner: Boxing Essays, edited by Fred Warner and James Barbour, 1990
Liebling at the New Yorker: Uncollected Essays, edited by James Barbour and Fred Warner, 1994
Core, George, “Stretching the Limits of the Essay,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J.Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989:207–20
Midura, Edmund M., A.J.Liebling: The Wayward Pressman as Critic, Lexington, Kentucky: Association for Education in Journalism, 1974
Sokolov, Raymond, The Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, New York: Harper and Row, 1980
Toll, Seymour, “Liebling in Paris,” Sewanee Review 93, no. 4 (Fall 1985):554–73
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