(Ian Frazier’s article appeared The New Yorker, 2/23.)
During my senior year in college, forty-two years ago, I spent a lot of time reading old issues of The New Yorker. My purpose was to write an English honors thesis about them, if possible. I had no real focus; my brother, who had been sick for a while, died soon after I started. I sat in a remote study carrel in the library’s stacks, next to a narrow, dim window with an interior view, and idled through the brittle pages in bound volumes. In the end, I turned in the thesis (such as it was) too late and graduated in General Studies. The one success I can point to is that I read every issue, more or less cover to cover, from the magazine’s first three years—from February 21, 1925, until sometime in 1928.
Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founding editor, envisioned it as a magazine of sophisticated humor. According to the historic marker on a building where he lived on the West Side, Ross once said, “If you can’t be funny, be interesting.” What I found in the old issues may have been both or neither, but I couldn’t really tell. Humor tends to evaporate with time, and what is interesting in 1925 will probably be less so almost half a century later. The first piece I came across that connected with me—in fact, the only piece I still remember from my reading—appeared in the issue of November 28, 1925. It was called “Why We Go to Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The byline at the end was Ellin Mackay.