By A.J. Liebling edited and with an introduction by Luc Sante.
Broadway Library of Larceny, 272 pages, $12.
One of history’s meaner tricks is the speed with which it can turn a fiend into a hero. From the romantic veneration of gangsters in Hollywood films to the rehabilitation of the Stalinist poet Pablo Neruda in serious criticism, we have plenty of evidence that any sort of villain can be quickly made respectable by a properly interested and properly disingenuous party.
As historian, editor, and critic, Luc Sante has over the last decade done well for himself in this trade. Beginning with his 1991 book Low Life, a historically dubious but highly entertaining non-fiction account of the snares and hardships of life in Lower Manhattan at the turn of the last century, he has created a body of work in which drug abuse, predatory cons, gambling schemes, crowded tenements, brutal murder, and corrupt politics are all presented as objects of sepia-toned nostalgia.
Sante is a wonderful stylist whose prose matches perfectly in its cadence and flow the long-gone world of old New York; such a good stylist, in fact, that it is hardly noticed that he does not not merely describe, but implicitly glorifies the century-old equivalents of the South Bronx housing project or the Brownsville crackhouse and their attendant pathologies.
This leaves one somewhat unsure of how to appraise his accomplishment. As an editor, Sante has brought some wonderful work to light: the lurid World War I-era crime photos that he rescued from the archives of the NYPD and collected in 1992’s Evidence, for instance, and David Maurer’s 1940 classic The Big Con, an unparalleled examination of con men and their culture, for the 1999 reissue of which he wrote an introduction. On the other hand, Sante has distorted crime literature by placing it in an ill-fitting frame. The new Sante-edited Broadway Library of Larceny, for instance, is, according to the man himself, “intended to restore property crime to its full, glorious stature.” This intention is at some odds with the books themselves, which tend to go heavy on the redemption as well as the sin. It fits nicely, though, with a project of romanticizing the roguish and supposedly charming danger of New York before all the law-and-order forces personified by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani cleaned the place up.
Take a passage from Sante’s introduction to a new reissue of A.J. Liebling’s 1942 classic The Telephone Booth Indian:
“Liebling, along with his colleagues Joseph Mitchell and Meyer Berger… introduced into [their] pages all manner of flotsam and riffraff, which they refused to play for cheap laughs or moral scores, treating them instead with seriousness—not solemnity—and even respect: mitt readers, bearded ladies, street preachers, bail-bondsmen, racetrack psychics, promoters of all sorts.”
This isn’t actually true, and these few lines demonstrate everything that is wrong with Sante’s project of mythologizing an old New York and old journalism. It substitutes rhetoric for a balanced appreciation of the past, subsumes the work of men like Mitchell and Liebling into a sensibility, Sante’s, with which they had little sympathy, and presents the past as a sort of antidote to the present.
If I seem to be reading a bit much into a few lines, consider the way Sante lumps together “mitt readers, bearded ladies, street preachers, bail-bondsmen, racetrack psychics [and] promoters of all sorts.” He is, first, confusing people with what they do for a living—precisely the mistake Mitchell went to enormous exertions to correct in classic essays like “Lady Olga,” which Sante is here referencing when he mentions “bearded ladies.”
Second, he is making no distinction between lawful and unlawful, between respectable preachers and disreputable psychics; they are all riffraff and flotsam. Is this accurate in any sense? Did these writers share this perspective? Was it a common one in their time? No, it even directly contradicts (again) a famous essay to which Sante is referring. “A Spism and a Spasm,” the portrait Mitchell drew of the Reverend James Jefferson Hall, a famed New York street preacher who made his way up and down Broadway, presents him as having been regarded with some esteem by the bar regulars to whom he preached fiery temperance sermons.
Worst of all, though, Sante is reducing these subjects—individuals on whom Mitchell, Berger, Liebling, and their peers lavished careful attention—to the exemplars of a sensibility. He is, in other words, making them merely colorful, precisely the fate from which the writers Sante is celebrating wished to save them! The entire point of Liebling et al’s work is that such people as they wrote about are never merely colorful, that these are human beings as complex as any others. (One might even detect beneath the writers’ hard urbanism a hint of the idea that the “riffraff and flotsam” of New York are as touched with grace as anyone else, an idea Sante does not seem eager to explore.) The corollary to the discovery of the fantastic in the mundane is the appreciation of the mundane in the fantastic, as when the bearded Lady Olga longs for a life spent ironing her husband’s shirts. Sante ignores that, and so misses much of what’s wonderful about the book at hand.
Criticism of Sante should be tempered by gratitude for his putting The Telephone Booth Indian (and, for that matter, the other books in this excellent line) back into print. It is one of the absolute treasures of American journalism. Liebling, a staff writer for the New Yorker from 1935 to 1963, was probably the best sportswriter in American history, and among the best to write about food, the press, and war. (The interested reader may want to look out for copies of The Sweet Science, a collection of Liebling’s boxing essays, and The Road Back to Paris, in which he wrote on World War II.) His eye for the telling gesture and ear for low-life slang, both of which he developed in the gyms of Brooklyn, served him well in depicting the social bottom of the city in its more diversified forms.
For those merely seeking diversion in sensationalism, there is plenty of that, too. Liebling takes in seedy promoters of World Fair exhibits (“They opened with a cast of tribesmen from South State Street, which is in the Chicago Black Belt, but Lew insists that he came to New York to engage them all. “‘Naturally there was no time to go to Africa for performers on such short notice,’ he says.”), boxers, pro wrestlers (“‘An honest man can sell a fake diamond if he says it is a fake diamond, ain’t it?’ he yelled, appealing to me.”), Broadway producers, hat-check entrepreneurs, and vaudevillians, any of whom could easily enough find their parallels in today’s New York, but none of whom could quite be described as flotsam.
Most of what flotsam there is will be found in “The Boy in the Pistachio Shirt,” an excoriating portrait of Scripps-Howards’ Roy Howard, the centerpiece essay from which the book takes its title.
An example of what’s not flotsam, “The Jollitty Building” takes its name from a Broadway address of the sort that doesn’t exist anymore, a rundown office building filled with the lowest end of the entertainment business. These schemers, promoters, and hustlers, under Liebling’s observant eye, reveal themselves as arranged into the neatest possible social classifications, distinguished by subtleties of status that would perplex Henry James, or even a junior-high school student. “Since the heels constitute the lowest category of tenant in the building, no proprietor of a first-class chop-suey joint or roadhouse would call on them for talent,” Liebling wrote, leaving unanswered the question of what the owner of a second-class chop-suey joint would do.
The characters in the Jollitty Building would serve as material for a shelf’s worth of books. We meet petty hustlers waiting for calls all day in the telephone booths in the lobby (the titular Indians) and transients like “Mac the Phony Booster, who sells neckties which he pretends to have stolen but are really shoddy ties he has bought very cheaply.” Drunks are seen at rented cubicles on the middle floors, peddling unwritten plays and stolen big-band arrangements.
Liebling is enthralled with them all. The way he captures their speech and their petty habits is a delight. So much incidental journalism today is written in the style Liebling helped invent, often without its practitioners being fully aware of the fact, that there is a sense of relief in seeing it done properly, in reading a master capture the tones, intonation, and personal histories of strangers while entirely hiding his own hand.
“The chief reason anyone purchases a pawn ticket,” he writes in a typical passage, “is that he holds the common belief that a watch accepted in pawn for ten dollars, for example, must in reality be worth around forty dollars… Hockticket Charlie’s pawnbroker friends, aware of this popular superstition, make out a lot of tickets to fictitious persons. Charlie sells the tickets for a few dollars each to performers.” Here, in a few lines, Liebling suggests the motions of a self-contained ecosystem of sketchiness, the elegance of Charlie’s scheming, and the pathos of the failed entertainers who buy these tickets, which they must know are worthless.
Anyone who detects approval or any hint of seriousness or respect in Liebling’s treatment of the tricksters and confidence men of the Jollitty Building is reading something that isn’t there. Liebling, it is clear, didn’t approve of them any more than he disapproved of them. To say that he approved suggests that he felt a need to prove something about his subjects to the world, that he saw in them a rapidly vanishing time that he wanted to preserve. Such motives are unworthy of so great a journalist and writer. He saw the world as it was, and described it as best he could. To argue for the worthiness of a lowlife, to persuade, explain, and cajole—that, I’m certain he would have thought, is best left to editors and historians with political agendas and sensibilities to impose on the past.