"Why does A. J. Liebling remain a vibrant role model for writers while the superb, prolific St. Clair McKelway has been sorely forgotten?" James Wolcott asked this question in a recent review of the Complete New Yorker on DVD. Anyone who has read a single paragraph of McKelway's work would struggle to provide an answer.
His articles for the New Yorker were defined by their clean language and incomporable wit, by his love of New York's rough edges and his affection for the working man (whether that work was come by honestly or not). Like Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, McKelway combined the unflagging curiosity of a great reporter with the narrative flair of a master storyteller. William Shawn, the magazine's long-time editor, described him as a writer with the "lightest of light touches." His style is so striking, Shawn went on to say, that "it was too odd to be imitated."
The pieces collected here are drawn from two of McKelway's books--True Tales from the Annals of Crime and Rascality (1951) and The Big Little Man from Brooklyn (1969). His subjects are the small players who in their particulars defined life in New York during the 36 years McKelway wrote: the junkmen, boxing cornermen, counterfeiters, con artists, fire marshals, priests, and beat cops and detectives. The "rascals."
An amazing portrait of a long forgotten New York by the reporter who helped establish and utterly defined New Yorker "fact writing," Untitled Collection is long overdue celebration of a truly gifted writer.
A rogue's gallery of shady, quirky, beguiling figures populates this scintillating collection of essays by one of the New Yorker's seldom-sung masters. Writing for the magazine from the 1930s through the 1960s, McKelway specialized in light true crime stories about arsonists, embezzlers, counterfeiters, suspected Communists, and innocent men and the fire investigators, forensic accountants, Secret Service men, clueless FBI agents, and biased cops who pursued them. He's fascinated by procedural, cat-and-mouse games and the sheer artistry of crime for crime's sake; his portrait of serial impostor Stanley Weyman is a gem of motiveless miscreancy, culminating in Weyman's impersonation of the (nonexistent) State Department Naval Liaison Officer in order to introduce one Princess Fatima of Afghanistan to President Harding. In addition to police blotter material, the author pens a cutting profile of the egomaniacal gossip columnist Walter Winchell and recollections of his war-time stint as an air force PR flack (with a rather blithe account of the firebombing of Tokyo). McKelway's deceptively straightforward prose accretes facts, testimony, and court documents into subtle character studies and unobtrusive ruminations on the crooked timber of humanity. His limpid style and wry humor make these pieces as fresh and engaging as the day they appeared.