If we had four or five Abbott Joseph Lieblings in Iraq and Washington, it might be a different war, one in which those hugely amiable, observant and amusable souls could bring us the news that, yes, war is hell and awful and hideous, but still, it is life carried on under exceptional but not deforming circumstances.
And so in war people continue to behave oddly, but perhaps a little more so, while correspondents are hired to notice that and report it as kindly as possible in the assurance that one day soon boredom will return, and with boredom or stillness who knows if there may not be the chance again to relish a good bottle of Petrus without listening for the sounds of gunfire or spite?
Instead, there’s something about this war, and the wounds it exposes in ourselves, that takes away a wise man’s faith in boredom, amusement and fine wine. And so to read A.J. Liebling now is an unbearable pleasure–not just to see what a resourceful, compassionate and entertaining man he was in the worst of his times–but to realize that our Reds’ modern fierceness, their absurd trust in our own power (and the Blues’ desperate loathing of it) leaves so little room for his quiet, patient good humor. Liebling delivered dispatches not just as a job, nor even because he needed to keep writing to avert the monstrous depression he felt lurking, but because describing human vagary in times of appalling melodrama and steady damage was to keep faith with the necessity of his war (the Second World War). And that is the difference: Nowadays our wars are so far from necessary that their cruelty and caprice still the urge to speak.
For instance, in March 1942 Liebling finds himself as the lone passenger on a Norwegian tanker, convoying back to the United States with water ballast, so that it can return to Europe sleek and slow with oil. It is an uneventful crossing, in which Liebling’s unquenchable fondness for the Norwegians clashes with their lugubrious lack of words, baseball stories and piquant rations. We do not need to know the gourmet in Liebling. It is enough to hear him list the servings of milk soup and other shipboard schemes to evade starvation. But somehow, in some dank recess of storage or suspended nature, there are eggs:
The ship had not taken stores for more than three months now, and the eggs caused a daily argument between the steward and me. For several mornings he had served them hard-boiled, a sign he had no real confidence in them. [This is crucial, for in Liebling’s eyes confidence–in being wrong as much as being right–determines most human action.] Each morning I would open my first egg and say, “Darlig,” which is Norwegian for “Bad.”
The steward would protest, “Naj, naj.”
“But this one has green spots inside the shell,” I would say.
“Ex like dot sometimes,” he would maintain.
The captain always ate his eggs without any remark; his silence accused me of finicking. At last, one morning towards the end of the voyage, he opened an egg and looked at the steward. “Darlig,” he said. The steward looked embarrassed. Then the captain ate the egg; a bad hard-boiled egg is probably as nourishing as a good one.
Next morning the steward brought me an amorphous yellow mass on a plate. It tasted mostly of sugar, but he offered me a jug of maple- and cane-sugar syrup to pour on it. I took a spoonful, fancying it some Norse confection, and said, “Not bad. What do you call it?” The steward said, “I call it ummelet. Same ex.”
If you are still upright and silent, then Liebling may not be for you. But you may be on your way to preferment in the new Administration of George W. Bush. If, however, you are remotely tickled by the tableau of Liebling–a small, earnest, rotund man, more a bishop’s prelate than a sailor–having traded in his preoccupation with prose for the urge to sample every item on every menu, confined on a rusty ship working its way at a speed measured in single-digit knots across the uncertain Atlantic, enduring Norwegian English, fishy concoctions and rotten ex with a straight face–then Just Enough Liebling is the book for you and anyone else you may know on the downward slopes of a life sentence. For as Liebling knew all too well, life is an ummelet that requires the fracture of some eggs–if you can find a sufficiently robust instrument to crack them on.
In his warm introduction to Just Enough Liebling, David Remnick describes an experience from his own youth. He was in Paris, at Shakespeare & Company, when a friend found a volume of Liebling in the Used section and handed it to him. Remnick began to read there in the shop and finished the book that same night–it was The Sweet Science, for Liebling the tender, clumsy and noble typist loved the brutality of fighters and the wild airs of the riff-raff who surrounded them. Remnick had never read Liebling before, and I daresay hardly lets a month go by now without dipping into him for consolation. I am bound to admit that before this assignment (and I am older than Liebling was when he died), I honored the name without knowing the books. In a few weeks I have been turned into a connoisseur, tracking down odd titles, marveling at the industry of a man who surely reckoned to give his best or longest hours to the pleasure of the table (and who was also married three times), and who can hardly write a sentence without making you smile.
But then, halfway through the next paragraph, you may find yourself bursting out with laughter, as the joke sinks in–for the joke lies so often in the noble way splendid prose and wry stoicism have drawn a brief veil over all the ordinary forms of hell. It is a sprightliness in the face of everyday horror that held Mark Twain together, and I doubt it will seem funny to everyone. I’m not at all sure a Donald Rumsfeld would find himself in tears several sentences after first reading “Not bad. What do you call it?” A Rumsfeld has other things to cry over, after all, and the faint yet sturdy ingenuity of so much looking on the bright side is not quite what Rummy gives medals for.
Still, you have to wonder how any sane person–even in Paris, with modest English–would let a copy of any Liebling book get away and end up in the Used section. Unless he was in extreme need of some funds with a saving breakfast in the offing.
Or not. Again, it is the marvel in Liebling’s touch that no Norwegian could be offended by his treatment of that dry nation and its drier phlegm, just as no one of any other tongue could resist the hilarity of the deadly end-game that the Norwegian captain keeps for any attempts at small talk, that civilized gesture Liebling practiced just because he and the captain of the tanker took every meal together and because Liebling believed in talk with food, just as bees are meant to attend new blossom.
Once, in an effort to make talk, I asked him, “How would you say, ‘Please pass me the butter, Mr Petersen,’ in Norwegian?’ He said, “We don’t use ‘please’ or ‘mister.’ It sounds too polite. And you never have to say ‘pass me’ something in a Norwegian house, because the people force food on you, so if you said ‘pass’ they would think they forgot something and their feelings would be hurt. The word for butter is smor.”
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.
Liebling could handle a real issue when it came along–read him on Louisiana’s Earl Long or “Mollie,” the G.I. whose nickname came from Molotov because of his radical opinions. Still, time and again, I think, Liebling is most himself as the man of education and natural understanding who keeps a very friendly regard for doubt, forgetting and never quite knowing what has happened or what you think. Yes, it can sound like fuddle, muddle or having had two glasses too many of the Petrus. But it is Liebling’s essential stalwart nature to defend doubt and indecision, and to know that as much as a set, approved attitude may be called for, experience wasn’t really like that. Consider this, from his own foreword to Mollie:
Collectively, the wars were the central theme of my life from October 1939, until the end of 1944, and I sometimes feel a deplorable nostalgia for them–as my friend the Count Rzewski once said about something else: “So disgusting, so deplorable, so human.” The times were full of certainties: we could be certain we were right–and we were–and that certainty made us certain that anything we did was right, too. I have seldom been sure I was right since. It had attractive uncertainties, too: you never had to think about the future, because you didn’t know if you would have one. Yet the risk was so disseminated over time that you seldom felt that this was the moment when the future might end.
I know that it is socially acceptable to write about war as an unmitigated horror, but subjectively at least, it was not true, and you can feel its pull on men’s memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war.
And when it came to boxing, Liebling rather preferred the blur of impression that remained from a fight to any strict point-counting system. “Part of the pleasure of going to a fight,” he wrote,
is reading the newspapers the next morning to see what the sportswriters think happened. This pleasure is prolonged, in the case of a big bout, by the fight films. You can go to them to see what did happen. What you eventually think you remember about the fight will be an amalgam of what you thought you saw there, what you read in the papers you saw and what you saw in the films.
That existential surrender is prelude to a magnificent account of Sugar Ray Robinson’s return bout at the Polo Grounds on September 12, 1951. Earlier that year, in London, in the course of a rather flamboyant tour of Europe (I believe I recall a pink convertible), Robinson had lost the world middleweight title to Randy Turpin (from Leamington in the Midlands). That was the first great fight this correspondent ever heard on the radio and I am weeping now as I recall the ecstasy in the commentator’s voice as, after fifteen rounds, a London points decision went to Turpin. Two months later, in New York, Robinson was all business as he regained the world title. Here is Liebling torn between the evidence of his own eyes and the new truth called movie:
The films are especially insidious. During the last twenty seconds or so of the fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Randy Turpin, for example, it seemed to me from where I sat, in the lower stand at the Polo Grounds, that Robinson hit the failing Turpin with every blow he threw–a succession of smashing hits such as I had never before seen a fighter take without going down. The films show that Robinson missed quite a few of them, and that Turpin, although not able to hit back, was putting up some defensive action until the last second–swaying low, with his gloves shielding his sad face, gray-white in the films. It was the face of a schoolboy who has long trained himself not to cry under punishment and who has had endless chances to practice, like an inmate at Dotheboys Hall.
It is there, in that aside, that Liebling becomes immortal, in the dead-on factual detail (the sad look that never left Turpin’s face, not even in the short time he held the title) and the larger vision of the necessary courage in the unlucky and melancholy of this world.
The sadness comes through, despite Liebling’s determination to make his prose like champagne. He had his problems, even if readers felt that he and The New Yorker were a match made in heaven. I can imagine that the ladies adored Liebling and sometimes came close to unsettling his dedication to the deadline. Look at that face: Hasn’t it known temptation? But his marriages were defeats, more or less. Number one, Ann McGinn, turned out to be schizophrenic, inclined to disappear for days at a time and the forlorn subject of many medical bills. Number two, Lucille Spectorsky, was a spendthrift and simply not able to get the jokes or the timing in Liebling’s own Sugar Joe delivery. Still, he was resourceful. When the divorce to end that marriage obliged Liebling to endure a brief residence in cuisine-deprived Reno, Nevada, he heard of the vexed state of the Paiute Indians at nearby Pyramid Lake, went up to visit them and delivered the reports that now make up A Reporter at Large: Dateline–Pyramid Lake, Nevada. To see the ingenuity with which Liebling observes that bleak landscape and its bleaker human history is to know that he, or someone like him, might still bring freshness and humor to Iraq.
Marriage number three, to the writer Jean Stafford, herself a battered relic of earlier battles (she had been married to Robert Lowell and horribly injured in a car crash that occurred with him at the wheel), was happy but curtailed. For Liebling was so overweight the dire word “obese” came into use. He had gout and pneumonia, and this was long before Lipitor. In addition, he had regular bills, tax notices and the same old nagging of deadlines even as spirit and inspiration trailed away.
In a just America, Liebling’s fat face would be on a stamp, and there would be movies extolling his life and his hours into the night typing up those delicate, poker-faced, but comic accounts of having been there, or thereabouts, or near enough to guess what kind of a piece might be written. Just Enough Liebling is a witty but provocative title–count on it, you are going to want much more.