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  • Written by Joseph Mitchell
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  • Written by Joseph Mitchell
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On Sale: November 24, 2010
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-75811-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

As a young newspaper reporter in 1930s New York, Joseph Mitchell interviewed fan dancers, street evangelists, voodoo conjurers, not to mention a lady boxer who also happened to be a countess. Mitchell haunted parts of the city now vanished: the fish market, burlesque houses, tenement neighborhoods, and storefront churches. Whether he wrote about a singing first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers or a nudist who does a reverse striptease, Mitchell brilliantly illuminated the humanity in the oddest New Yorkers.

These pieces, written primarily for The World-Telegram and The Herald Tribune, highlight his abundant gifts of empathy and observation, and give us the full-bodied picture of the famed New Yorker writer Mitchell would become.

Excerpt

CHAPTER I

My Ears Are Bent

Except for a period in 1931 when I got sick of the whole business and went to sea, working on a freighter which carried heavy machinery to Leningrad and brought Soviet pulp logs back, I have been for the last eight years a reporter on newspapers in New York City. In the summer after I left the University of North Carolina in 1929 I had an appendix operation and while getting over it I read James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” a book which made me want to become a political reporter. I came to New York City with that idea in mind. The first story I remember covering was a Jack the Ripper murder in a Brooklyn apartment house; an old woman had been strangled with a silk stocking and cut to death in her bedroom, the walls of which were virtually covered with large, lascivious photographs.

I was a “district man” at night for The Herald Tribune. I sat in an easy chair which had fleas in it in an old tenement across the street from Police Headquarters in Brooklyn hour after hour, waiting for something violent to happen. All the newspapers had offices in the tenement. When something happened the man on the desk at Headquarters would let us know and we would leave our tenement offices and hurry to the scene of the murder, or stick-up, or wreck, or brawl, or fire, or whatever. Then we would telephone the news in to a rewrite man. I covered districts for about four months. I covered Brooklyn, the West Side of Manhattan, and Harlem. I liked Harlem best.

In Harlem the reporters had a shack—the district man calls his office “the shack”—on the ground floor of the Hotel Theresa, the biggest hotel in Harlem, and we used to sit in the doorway in swivel chairs and look out at the people passing to and fro on Seventh Avenue, Harlem’s main street. There were four reporters in Harlem at night, three from the morning papers and one from the City News Association. My colleagues were veterans. The thing they disliked most in a reporter was enthusiasm, and I was always excited. When I got on the telephone to give my office a story—in the booth I used to try to balance the telephone receiver on my left shoulder the way they did, but I never succeeded—they would stand outside and point at their foreheads and make circles in the air, indicating that I did not have any sense. We would take turns making the rounds of the police stations. On the rounds we would sometimes drop into a speakeasy or a night club or a gambling flat and try to pull a story out of it. I got to know a few underworld figures and I used to like to listen to them talk.

One was Gilligan Holton, a Negro who ran a honky-tonk of the “intimate” type—it was in a basement—which he called the Broken Leg and Busted, a saloon name surpassed only by the Heat Wave Bar & Grill, a more recent establishment. When I worked in Harlem many wealthy men and women from downtown got drunk up there every night and Holton had a quantity of information about them, some of which would gag a goat. I remember one well-heeled woman who used to come to his basement place; she was in the habit of having Negro men, mostly tapdancers, examined by a doctor before she had affairs with them. She had a grown daughter. I used to see this old sister and her grown daughter slobbering around the Harlem bars every night. Until I came to New York City I had never lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699, and I was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem. I would go off duty at 3 A.M., and then I would walk around the streets and look, discovering what the depression and the prurience of white men were doing to a people who are “last to be hired; first to be fired.” When I got tired of looking, usually around daybreak, I would get on the subway and go to my $9 a week furnished room in Greenwich Village. When I got out of the subway at Sheridan Square I would get a Herald Tribune to see what the rewrite man had done with the stories I had telephoned in hours earlier. I had a police card in my pocket and I was twenty-one years old and everything was new to me. By the time the Harlem trick was over I was so fascinated by the melodrama of the metropolis at night that I forgot my ambition to become a political reporter.

Harlem was the last district I covered. After that I was brought into the city room and allowed to write my own stories. I worked under Stanley Walker, a slight, calm but unpredictable Texan, who was the most celebrated city editor of the period. I did general assignments, mostly crime. The only kind of crime I liked was gangster funerals and they threw a lot of big ones that year. Crime, especially murder, was difficult to cover on The Herald Tribune because we were under orders to avoid the use of the word “blood” in a story. One of the owners did not like that word. On some stories it was impossible to be sufficiently exquisite. For example, I remember going down to a speakeasy on Elizabeth Street to cover the throat-slitting of a petty gangster. It was one of those speakeasies with artificial grapevines wired to the booths. After his throat had been cut this gangster had crawled out of his booth and stumbled all over the place, losing blood with each stumble. The little establishment looked as if blood had been shot in through a hose. . . .

I got tired of hoofing after dime-a-dozen murders—that year it seemed that all the people in the metropolitan area were trying to murder each other—and one morning I went downtown and got a job as a deck boy on a worn-out Hog Island freighter, the City of Fairbury. We tied up in Leningrad for fourteen days. Two of us met some freckled, brown-eyed girls who worked on the docks—even the winch- drivers were girls—and took them to a Charlie Chaplin movie in a theater on the Prospekt of the Twenty-fifth of October. The girl I was with would give me a nudge in the guts with her elbow and bellow with laughter every time Chaplin fell on his face, and it was one of his roller-skating films. Next day the two girls got us all tickets on the railroad to Detskoie Selo, which used to be the summer residence of the Czar’s family but now is a rest home for workers and their children. It is south of Leningrad and the flat, swampy country reminded me of eastern North Carolina. Somewhere on the tremendous estate the two girls picked some wild strawberries, and that night they made some cakes, a wild Russian strawberry on the top of each cake. We ate them and got sick. I remember how proud they were when they put the cakes on the table, smiling at us, and how ashamed we were, an hour or so later, when we got sick. We figured out it was the change in the water, but we couldn’t explain that to them because we knew no Russian. In Leningrad we swam naked each day in the Neva, under the gentle Russian sun. One afternoon we got together, the seamen from all the American ships in the harbor, and marched with the Russians in a demonstration against imperialist war, an annual event. One night a girl invited me to her house and I had dinner with her family, thick cabbage soup and black bread which smelled of wet grain. After dinner the family sang. The girl knew some English and she asked me to sing an American song. I favored them with the only one I could think of, “Body and Soul,” which was popular in New York City when I left. It seemed to puzzle them.

I left the freighter when it docked in the Port of Albany, New York, to unload its cargo of pulp logs. I took a bus to New York City, and a few weeks later I got a job on The World-Telegram, an afternoon newspaper, where I still work. Most of the time I have been assigned to write feature stories and interviews and in the course of this assignment I have been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world, including George Bernard Shaw and the noted ever-voluble educator Nicholas Murray Butler, and I have long since lost the ability to detect insanity. Sometimes it is necessary for me to go into a psychopathic ward on a story and I never notice the difference. In a newspaper office no day is typical, but I will describe one day no more incoherent than a hundred others. When I came in one morning at 9 I was assigned to find and interview an Italian bricklayer who resembled the Prince of Wales; someone telephoned that he had been offered a job in Hollywood. I tracked him to the cellar of a matzoth bakery on the East Side, where he was repairing an oven. I got into a fight with the man who ran the bakery; he thought I was an inspector from the Health Department. I finally got to the bricklayer and he would not talk much about himself but kept saying, “I’m afraid I get sued.” I went back to my office and wrote that story and then I was assigned to get an interview with a lady boxer who was living at the St. Moritz Hotel. She had all her boxing equipment in her room. The room smelled of sweat and wet leather, reminding me of the locker-room of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien’s gym on a rainy day. She told me she was not only a lady boxer but a Countess as well. Then she put on gloves to show me how she fought and if I had not crawled under the bed she would have knocked my head off. “I’m a ball of fire,” she yelled. I went back to the office and wrote that story and then I was assigned to interview Samuel J. Burger, who had telephoned my office that he was selling racing cockroaches to society people at seventy-five cents a pair. Mr. Burger is the theatrical agent who booked such attractions as the late John Dillinger’s father, a succession of naked dancers, and Mrs. Jack (Legs) Diamond. He once tried to book the entire Hauptmann jury. I found him in a delicatessen on Broadway where he was buying combination ham and cheese sandwiches for a couple of strip-tease women. He pulled out a check made out to him and proved that he had sold and delivered a consignment of cockroaches to a society matron who planned to enliven a party with them, the cute thing. Mr. Burger said he had established a service called Ballyhoo Associates through which he rented animals to people. “I rent a lot of monkeys,” he told me. “People get lonesome and telephone me to send them a monkey to keep them company. After all, a monkey is a mammal, just like us.” I wrote that story and then I went home. Another day another dollar.


From the Hardcover edition.
Joseph Mitchell

About Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell - My Ears Are Bent

Photo © Anne Hall

Joseph Mitchell came to New York City on October 25, 1929 (the day after the stock-market crash), from a small farming town called Fairmont, in the swamp country of southeastern North Carolina. He was twenty-one years old and looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. He eventually managed to find work as an apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World. He was a reporter and feature writer—for The World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram—for eight years, and then went to The New Yorker, where he remained until his death, on May 24, 1996, at the age of eighty-seven.

Aside from writing, Mr. Mitchell’s interests included the waterfront of New York City, commercial fishing, gypsies, Southern agriculture, Irish literature, and the architecture of New York City. He served several terms on the board of directors of the Gypsy Lore Society, an international organization of students of gypsy life and the gypsy language, which was founded in England in 1888. Bajour, a musical comedy based on stories about gypsies by Mitchell, ran for 232 performances on Broadway in 1964-65. He was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum and one of the original members of the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture. For five years he was also one of the Commissioners of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Mr. Mitchell was married to the photographer Therese Mitchell, who died in 1980; they had two daughters, Nora Sanborn and Elizabeth Mitchell.
Praise

Praise

My Ears Are Bent sparkles with laughter and exuberance.”
Los Angeles Times

“This reporter, prose stylist and observer of life remains that vanished world's Scheherezade.”
The Washington Post

“These stories, the tales of the people he has talked to in the course of his wanderings about New York, are done with a sharp eye for the revealing detail, and in a prose that is casual, but tough.”
—Stanley Walker, The Herald Tribune

“Delicacies from the first nine years of Mitchell's career.”
Entertainment Weekly
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Mitchell is the great artist/reporter of our century. . . . A Mitchell sentence is sleek, graceful, and rambunctious. . . . His pieces . . . are layered and deep and full of resonances.”
Vogue

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are meant to enliven your group's discussion of My Ears Are Bent, a classic collection of reporting by an essential American writer, one of the handful who can be said to have breached the divide between journalism and literature.

About the Guide

Joseph Mitchell never stopped seeing himself as a reporter. His writing has the virtues of all great journalism: self-effacement, close observation, a reverence for facts, and a masterful use of detail. Factor in his supple, muscular sentences, as functional in appearance and as unexpected in their changes of direction as boomerangs, and it's clear why Mitchell still commands the reverence of novelists and journalists alike.

In these pieces, most of which originally appeared in the storied journals the New York Herald Tribune and the New York World-Telegram in the 1930s, Mitchell trains his eye on some of the city's most vivid human fauna and tunes his ear to all the registers of their speech: the elegant and the uncouth, the somber and the hilarious, the guileless and the too-smart-for-its-own-good. Mitchell arrived in New York on the day after the 1929 stock market crash that signaled the start of the great Depression. His portraits of the city lack the gauzy, romantic glamour of Fitzgerald's or the heartless, preening glamour of Tom Wolfe's fifty years later. They are rougher grained and more brightly lit. The only time Mitchell seems to have set foot in the Waldorf was to interview a hungover Huey Long. Mostly, he spent time in gin mills (including Gilligan Holton's atmospherically named Broken Leg and Busted Bar & Grill in Harlem), burlesque houses, gospel revival halls, promoters' offices, and homeless shelters. He hung out with narcotics cops and potheads, a salesman of voodoo paraphernalia and maimed veterans of the First World War, with sweltering passengers on the boat to Coney Island and the captain of the night boat to Albany, who waxed indignant about his vessel's reputation as a floating den of liquor and lechery. He watched a comely young woman perform a reverse striptease that she claimed would put the ordinary kind out of business. He watched the State of New York electrocute three men who had murdered a drunk for his insurance money.

Precisely observed, deftly reported, and filled with humor, irony, and compassion, My Ears Are Bent showcases a writer who might justly be called New York's Chekhov.

About the Author

Joseph Mitchell came to New York City in 1929 from a small farming town called Fairmont, in the swamp country of southeastern North Carolina. He was twenty-one years old. He worked as a reporter and feature writer-for The World, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York World-Telegram-for eight years, and then went to The New Yorker, where he worked off and on until his death in 1996.

Discussion Guides

1. Mitchell recalls that in an average workday he might interview an Italian bricklayer who looked like the Prince of Wales, a “lady boxer,” and a theatrical agent with a sideline in racing cockroaches. What does that suggest about newspaper work in the 1930s? About New York during the same time? Does the book's division-into sections headlined “Drunks,” “Cheese-Cake,” “Come to Jesus,” etc.-convey the same freewheeling social fluidity? In which of these different worlds does the author seem most comfortable?

2. How does Mitchell reconcile his taste for “conversation just as it issues forth, relevant obscenity and all [pp. 13-14]?" With the stringent standards of gentility then prevalent in newspapers? What strategies does he use to circumvent those standards? Do Mitchell's subjects sound racier than they really are, or does he manage to make their depravity sound innocent? You may want to look at “The Year of Our Lord 1936, or Hit Me, William,” “Nude, Definitely Nude,” “It is Almost Sacred,” “The Marijuana Smokers,” and “I Know Nothing About It”.

3. Mitchell is not so much a storyteller as a portraitist, which is to say that he seems less interested in narrating action than in revealing character. How does he go about this? Discuss his use of dialogue and detail in the profiles of the saloonkeepers Dick and Gilligan; the exotic dancer Florence (aka 'Tanya') Cubitt, Elder Michaux, Mrs. Anna di Massa Agnese and her American family, George Bernard Shaw, and the suave anarchist Carlo Tresca.

4. Much of Mitchell's writing is comic or contains a comic element. How would you characterize his sense of humor? Does he make fun of his subjects or simply report the things they do and say? And what makes the latter so funny?

5. From time to time a darker note creeps into Mitchell's writing, especially in the section entitled “The Biggest City in the World.” Is this just because of a change in subject matter-say, from strippers and sporting men to the homeless, hospitalized war veterans, and condemned murderers? Or does Mitchell's voice change as well? How does he modulate his style as he takes on different kinds of subject matter? In what ways does his style remain distinct, regardless of what he is writing about?

6. Many of these pieces are concerned with work, whether of the kind done by vice cops, exotic dancers, a manufacturer of ostrich-feather fans, oystermen, gospel preachers, an ASCAP investigator, famous writers and entertainers, and journalists like the author himself. What aspects of work most interest Mitchell? In what way are his strippers like evangelists, his policemen like the criminals they arrest? What lines of work does he appear to hold in high regard? Is news reporting one of them?

7. My Ears Are Bent is divided between portraits of individuals and social panoramas, the latter including such milieus as backstage-at-the-Apollo burlesque theater, the Municipal Lodging House late on a winter night, and the rooftops of the Lower East Side in the middle of a blasting summer. Compare the ways Mitchell approaches these genres. How does he lend life and energy to his individual profiles? How does he give his crowd scenes a feeling of intimacy?

8. In obedience to the code of his profession, Mitchell rarely says what he feels about his subjects. But does this mean he is dispassionate about them? How do you imagine the author feels about Gilligan Holton or Rosita Royce, Peter Arno or George M. Cohan? Which of these characters does he seem to admire? Which does he seem to hold in disdain? Are there any he seems to love?

9. Many of Mitchell's characters are misanthropes and express their misanthropy with considerable pungency. Witness Gilligan Holton's campaign of abuse against two well-heeled customers; Mazie Gordon's wish that one of her drunken beneficiaries “go die” [p. 101], or George Bernard Shaw's cheerful suggestion that since “the world at present is not fit for children to live in,” the small beneficiaries of the Children's Aid Society be given “a gorgeous party and then, when they have eaten and danced themselves to sleep, turn on the gas and let them all wake up in heaven [pp. 289–290]” On the evidence of these pieces, is Mitchell also a misanthrope? If not, why?

In Their Own Words:
Some of Mitchell's subjects holding forth on a variety of topics:

Tanya Cubitt, popularly billed as 'Queen of the Nudists,' on her occupation: “It keeps us out in the open. It doesn't keep us out late at night, and we have a healthy atmosphere to work in. My girl friends think we have orgies and all, but I never had an orgy yet. Sometimes when the sun is hot, nudism is hard work [p. 68].”

Jack Pfefer, wrestling promoter, on his clients: “Oh, hell . . . it is like the circus with elephants that wear shoes and eat off plates. I am so sick of freaks sometimes I have to go to the opera to quit my nerves from jumping [pp. 108–109].”

Gilligan Holton, on the odds in the impending Joe Louis-Max Baer fight: “Yes, sir, unless a tornado strikes, Joe will win. When Mr. Baer stick his head out it's going to be touched. Like a man stick his head into the dumb-waiter and a ice wagon fall on it [p. 128].”

Harry Lewis, incarcerated pickpocket, on the insanity defense: “I would like to have a psychiatrist go over me because I am sure there is something wrong somewhere . . .” I must have a twist in my brain [p. 214].”

George Bernard Shaw, playwright and social thinker, on a proposal to convene a literary congress for the suppression of war: “Why should they suppress war? War is just a method of killing people. There are a great many people who ought to be killed [p. 279].”

Suggested Readings

Roger Angell, Let Me Finish; Anton Chekhov, Collected Stories; Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveler; Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, After Henry; Charles LeDuff, Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts; A. J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris; Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present; Jan Morris, Manhattan '45; Susan Orlean, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup; George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London; Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute; Luc Sante, Low Life; Mark Singer, Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed; Gay Talese, The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters; Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do; James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times; E. B. White, Essays of E. B. White, Here is New York; Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

  • My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell
  • July 08, 2008
  • Social Science - Popular Culture
  • Vintage
  • $14.00
  • 9780375726309

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