William Shawn once called The Talk of the Town the soul of the magazine. The section began in the first issue, in 1925. But it wasn't until a couple of years later, when E. B. White and James Thurber arrived, that the Talk of the Town story became what it is today: a precise piece of journalism that always gets the story and has a little fun along the way.
The Fun of It is the first anthology of Talk pieces that spans the magazine's life. Edited by Lillian Ross, the longtime Talk reporter and New Yorker staff writer, the book brings together pieces by the section's most original writers. Only in a collection of Talk stories will you find E. B. White visiting a potter's field; James Thurber following Gertrude Stein at Brentano's; Geoffrey Hellman with Cole Porter at the Waldorf Towers; A. J. Liebling on a book tour with Albert Camus; Maeve Brennan ventriloquizing the long-winded lady; John Updike navigating the passageways of midtown; Calvin Trillin marching on Washington in 1963; Jacqueline Onassis chatting with Cornell Capa; Ian Frazier at the Monster Truck and Mud Bog Fall Nationals; John McPhee in virgin forest; Mark Singer with sixth-graders adopting Hudson River striped bass; Adam Gopnik in Flatbush visiting the ìgrandest theatre devoted exclusively to the movies; Hendrik Hertzberg pinning down a Sulzberger on how the Times got colorized; George Plimpton on the tennis court with Boris Yeltsin; and Lillian Ross reporting good little stories for more than forty-five years. They and dozens of other Talk contributors provide an entertaining tour of the most famous section of the most famous magazine in the world.
Since its inception, witty journalistic pieces of under 1,000 words ("talk stories," as they are referred to by staff) have appeared in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column. Ross (Here but Not Here), a contributor for 45 years, has collected the best of these essays, spanning the entire 75-year history of the magazine. Until the 1990s, stories were never signed, so it is a pleasant revelation to discover how many of the most engrossing were penned by well-known and respected writers. Under the editorship of Howard Ross, the focus was and is now again on New York City. There is a humorous profile by E.B. White of a scholar at the Brooklyn Public Library who sent noted authors unsolicited critiques of their works (1930). Among other gems are James Thurber's impression of artist Diego Rivera (1931) and author Gertrude Stein (1934) when they were in Manhattan, he to prepare for an exhibit of his work at MoMA and she to autograph books at Brentano's. It wasn't until WWII, when male reporters became scarce, that women, including Andy Logan, were hired for the column. Logan interviewed Tennessee Williams (1945), and Lillian Ross herself spoke with a 25-year-old Norman Mailer (1948). Although there are many enjoyable articles from more recent decades by gifted writers like Susan Orlean, John McPhee and Julian Barnes, it is the earlier selections that appeared under the editorial stewardship of Howard Ross and his successor William Shawn that evoke the deepest nostalgic pleasure.