Obituary: Brendan Gill

Brendan Gill, journalist: born Hartford, Connecticut 4 October 1914; staff writer, New Yorker 1936-97; married 1936 Anne Barnard (two sons, five daughters); died New York 27 December 1997.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Tepper had a stunningly successful career as a songwriter
Arts and Entertainment
Len Blavatnik

Today in the Premier League, Everton face Manchester United, and Arsenal take on Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium. A victory for Jose Mourinho's side, and they could win the Premier League title as soon as Wednesday with a win over Leicester.

Arts and Entertainment
The original field in High Wycombe, which is used as the banner image on a number of websites belonging to local Tory associations
general election
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions