(Malcolm’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 9/24.)
Once a week in the spring of 1994 I would bicycle over to a brownstone on West 16th Street to see a man named Sam Chwat in his ground-floor office. He called himself a speech coach, and a large part of his business was to train actors who had been cast as Prospero, say, or Creon, so that they did not sound as if they came from the Bronx or Akron, Ohio. But I was not an actor seeking help with a role. I was seeing Sam for something else, something a bit apart from the other speech-related services he offered. A friend who had sought him out for help with public speaking had recommended him to a lawyer who was representing me in a lawsuit. Ten years earlier I had published a two-part article in The New Yorker about a disturbance in an obscure corner of the psychoanalytic world whose chief subject, a man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, hadn’t liked his portrayal and claimed that I had libeled him by inventing the quotations on which it was largely based. So he sued me and the magazine and the Knopf publishing company, which had brought out the article as a book called In the Freud Archives.
In an afterword to a subsequent book, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), I wrote about the lawsuit, taking a very high tone. I put myself above the fray; I looked at things from a glacial distance. My aim wasn’t to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show off what a good writer I was. Reading the piece now, I am full of admiration for its irony and detachment—and appalled by the stupidity of the approach. Of course I should have tried to prove my innocence. But I was part of the culture of The New Yorker of the old days—the days of William Shawn’s editorship—when the world outside the wonderful academy we happy few inhabited existed only for us to delight and instruct, never to stoop to persuade or influence in our favor. As the Masson case wound its way through the courts—dismissed at first, then reinstated, and eventually brought to trial—the press-watching public became increasingly pleased by the spectacle of the arrogant magazine brought low by the behavior of one of its staff writers. While Masson gave over two hundred accusatory interviews, I—in dogged accord with the magazine’s stance of unrelenting hauteur—said nothing in my defense. Nothing at all. Nothing of course produces nothing, except further confirmation of guilt.
But it was at trial that the influence of The New Yorker proved to be most dire. There was a style of self-presentation cultivated at the magazine that most if not all staff writers had adopted and found congenial. The idea was to be reticent, self-deprecating, and, maybe, here and there, funny, but to always keep a low profile, in contrast to the rather high one of the persona in which we wrote. I remember my shock at meeting A.J. Liebling for the first time. I had been reading him for years and imagined him as the suave, handsome, brilliantly articulate man of the world that the “I” of the pieces portrayed. The short, fat, boorishly silent man I met was his opposite. I came to know Liebling and to love him. But it took a while to penetrate the disguise of innate and magazine-induced unpretentiousness in which he made his way through the world as he wrote his wonderful pieces narrated by an impossibly cool narrator.
When I took the stand at the trial in San Francisco in 1993 I could not have done worse than to present myself in the accustomed New Yorker manner. Reticence, self-deprecation, and wit are the last things a jury wants to see in a witness. Charles Morgan, Masson’s clever and experienced lawyer, could hardly believe his good fortune. He made mincemeat of me. I fell into every one of his traps. I came across as arrogant, truculent, and incompetent. I was at once above it all and utterly crushed by it. My lawyer, Gary Bostwick, succeeded in inflicting some damage on Masson—he portrayed him as boastful and sex-crazed—but it was not enough to offset the damage I had helped Morgan inflict on me. The jury agreed with the plaintiff’s accusation that five quotations in my article were false and libelous. A jubilant Masson had only to wait for the jury’s final determination of how many millions of dollars in damages he would collect from me.* (The New Yorker itself was cleared of the charge of “reckless disregard” required for a finding of libel; Knopf had extricated itself from the case years earlier.)
Then the gods played one of their little reversal-of-fortune pranks. The jurors came back from their deliberations with the news that they were deadlocked. They could not agree on the amount of damages. Some thought Masson should be awarded millions of dollars. Others thought he should collect nothing. One juror thought he should collect one dollar. The judge could not move them and was obliged to declare a mistrial and to schedule a new trial. I had suffered an ignominious defeat, but I had been given a second chance to prove my innocence. Whew!
Not many of us get second chances. When we blow it, our fantasies of how we could have done it right remain fantasies. But the fantasy had become a reality for me, and I was determined not to waste the incredible good fortune that had come my way. My visits to Sam Chwat were part of the half-year of preparation for the second trial, almost like a military campaign, to which Bostwick and I devoted ourselves. Sam was the Professor Higgins who would transform me from the defensive loser I had been in the first trial to the serene winner I would be (and was!) in the second one.