A Talk Story

We recently purchased a used copy of the 2001 Modern Library Paperback Edition of “The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town,” edited and with a preface by Lillian Ross, who wrote for The New Yorker for some 70 years. Her “Portrait of Hemingway” appeared in the 13 May 1950 issue, and is still read today as a classic first example of literary journalism.

The earliest “Talk Stories,” in the 1920s, didn’t have bylines (the group of stories were signed “The New Yorkers” at the bottom of the “Notes and Comment” section) and their style was intended to entertain while educating with facts. Harold Ross, the first New Yorker editor, no relation to Lillian, “didn’t like bylines,” she tells us in her editor’s preface to “The Fun of It.”

“He wanted the stories in The Talk of the Town to sound as though they’d been written by a single person, and he wanted that person to have what he called ‘the male point of view.’ ‘We’ was always supposed to be male.” In spite of those constrictions, Lillian Ross went on to write “hundreds of Talk stories,” with “the singular challenge of creating these stories pure fun for all of us who do them.”

Harold Ross himself contributed Talk Stories, also anonymously, so it’s possible he was responsible for the August 12, 1927 Talk piece titled “Fence Buster,” about the new New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig. The piece includes the staples of the Talk Story: “By the late twenties,” Lillian Ross says, “the department usually featured a ‘fact’ piece plus a ‘personality’ piece plus a ‘visit’ piece; the mix became traditional.”

Thus we learn, in about the required length of around 1,000 words, that the young Gehrig’s father was a “janitor and grass-cutter” at Columbia University, and that Lou looked up to Babe Ruth, though unlike the Babe, he did “not drink, smoke, or gamble.” Lou enjoyed fishing for eels, which his mother pickled. And in 1927, at the age of twenty-four, he made “about $10,000 a year.”

$10,000 a year is double what I made in my first teaching job around 50 years later. Of course, I had the summer off, while Lou Gehrig had to work. I suppose we could say now that I taught for the fun of it.