Obituary: Brendan Gill
Tuesday 03 February 1998
Brendan Gill was associated with the New Yorker virtually from its inception.
Born and raised in comfortable circumstances to Irish-Catholic parents in Connecticut, Gill attended Yale University, where he first displayed the traits of a truly social animal, immune to the ethnic prejudice that lingered. He was so popular, in fact, that he was "tapped" for Skull and Bones, the grandest of Yale's "Secret Societies" - which are hush-hush undergraduate versions of the grander clubs on St James's. Leaving university, Gill began contributing short stories to the fledgling New Yorker and soon, at the ripe age of 22, became a staff writer, a position he held for over 61 years.
Now in many ways indistinguishable from its commercial competitors, the New Yorker was once home for America's finest writing talents. The writers involved were maverick and highly individual; there was little commonality of character between, say, E.B. White, James Thurber, and Dorothy Parker. Yet the diversity of the magazine's contents - "Talk of the Town" reports, extraordinarily long profiles, short stories, arts reviews, poetry, even racing and golf reports - none the less projected a unified impression of urbanity, wit, and grace, magnified by its origination in what was then America's hub of cosmopolitan values, New York.
Gill's early efforts for the magazine were short stories, but he rapidly found his true metier as a non-fiction writer, contributing profiles, book reviews, and countless "Talk of the Town" pieces - the latter, in a pre-byline era, inevitably anonymous. He particularly excelled as a rewrite man, and gave a consistency in tone to the "Talk" pieces which greatly contributed to the magazine's editorial voice.
His interests were predominantly social and architectural (and often a productive blend of both) and were both firmly rooted in the city of New York. A fierce defender of Gotham's heritage, he took a high-profile part in defending its landmarks, and most memorably helped Jacqueline Onassis lead a successful fight to preserve Grand Central Station.
Of Gill's several biographies, perhaps the best is Many Masks (1987), his life of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he established a close friendship, despite the manifest contrast between the awkward midwestern visionary and the suave Easterner author. His more social side is seen in Tallulah (1972), his biography of Tallulah Bankhead, which, like its subject, is slight but entertaining, and in Cole (1971), the life of the musical composer Cole Porter, whose vitality was perfectly matched by the compulsive conviviality of his chronicler. A life of Charles Lindbergh, Lindbergh Alone (1977), is duller, but proved a best-seller.
Of Gill's 15 books, few remain in print, and unsurprisingly it is Here at the New Yorker (1975) for which he will be best remembered - as well as for the length of his association with the magazine, since, uniquely, he worked under all four of its editors. Gill's history of the magazine was enormously successful and remains a marvellous read, full of anecdote and often brilliant pen portraits of the many artists and writers (some flaky, some not; all talented) who graced 25 West 43rd Street.
The book was not without its detractors, however, who found in Gill's bouncy account a smug self-satisfaction that grated and struck them as undeserved. Some of his views of New Yorker colleagues seemed patronising, and inappropriately so. Lamenting John O'Hara's social insecurity (apparently exacerbated by his fellow Catholic's manifest social success), Gill seems unable to recognise O'Hara's considerable gifts as a novelist, perhaps out of his own well-suppressed jealousy. More damaging was his treatment of the New Yorker's founder Harold Ross:
Ross was an aggressively ignorant man, with a head full of odd scraps of information and misinformation and with little experience of the arduous discipline of taking thought . . . He was rumoured to have read only one book all the way through - a stout volume on sociology by Herbert Spencer. The truth was that he had read other books, but not many.
This completely ignores the fact that only Ross's perseverance and eye for talent established the magazine as a cultural nonpareil. As Ross's biographer Thomas Kunkel makes clear in Genius in Disguise (1995), few members of the magazine's staff were fooled by Ross's playing the fool - except, ostensibly, Brendan Gill.
But it is hard to take lasting offence at a man always ready to mock his own mild self- conceit as well as make fun of others: "Even when I am caught out and made a fool of," he once confessed, "I manage to twist this circumstance about until it becomes a proof of how exceptional I am."
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