An Appetite for Liebling
Liebling was born in 1904, the child of Austria and San Francisco: His father had been a furrier in that far country; his mother was from a Jewish family at the Golden Gate. But he was born on Manhattan's Upper East Side and was forever attached to New York. After being expelled from Dartmouth, he attended the Columbia School of Journalism, but he thrived largely on newspapers, with the wit to realize that this appetite swallows the incorrect along with the correct. Still, he knew that newspapers had made him: "Homicide, adultery, no-hit pitching, and Balkanism were concepts that, left to my own devices, I would have encountered much later in life." I like to think of Liebling as the blithe slave of deadlines all his life, forever writing against the clock, briefly fulfilled to have today's paper in his hand, yet all too aware that by the evening it would be employed in wrapping up the trash.
For the next ten years or so, Liebling was a journalistic freelancer. He came and went at the New York Times because he tended to be a little whimsical with the facts. And then he had a year in Paris, a year that shaped his life, his philosophy and the roundness of his body. Remnick rightly treasures the moment at which Liebling found a proper balance for literature and dining (his abiding passions). He was remarking on how remorselessly Marcel Proust had exploited a mere madeleine:
In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.
That menu is sturdily American, though in practice Liebling preferred French cuisine. But the gentle teasing of the Proustian set does not really mask or let Liebling forget the fact that he had tried to write masterpieces of fiction himself, and failed. His happy appearance--there was something of Pickwick in him, and a good deal of the great character actor John McGiver, but the attempt to smother a wink or a smile with an earnest frown was all his own--did not conceal this sad destiny: Liebling was a wistful willow wrapping himself up in meal after meal. And dead at 59, probably with cholesterol numbers to rival Ted Williams's average.
By 1935 Liebling came to rest, or nest, at The New Yorker. About a year later he secured his reputation there with a three-part profile of Father Divine--Liebling was always in his element with, and most considerate of, that breed of American who chooses fraud as his path to glory. Remnick appreciates the way Liebling (and his pal Joseph Mitchell) were rather less journalists, avid on the track of facts, than wordsmiths who took to the streets and the bars simply in order that something like event or experience might overtake them. Remnick does not go so far as to consider how likely it is that such hirings would happen at The New Yorker today. The magazine is more fond of celebrity and leanness (Tina-ness?), and Liebling might not fare so well in an age that takes facts or fact-checking so seriously. Still, Ken Auletta obviously believes in dinner.