Botsford, Gardner 1917-
BOTSFORD, Gardner 1917-
PERSONAL: Born 1917; married Katharine Chittenden (divorced); married Janet Malcolm (a writer). Education: Yale University, graduated 1939.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
A Life of Privilege, Mostly (memoir), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Gardner Botsford wrote his memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly after retiring from a long career with the New Yorker. It is a look at his life during that period, as well as his service during World War II.
As the title reflects, Botsford's life was privileged. He was raised in a New York brownstone where the servants outnumbered the family members. His heiress mother married twice more: to Raoul Fleischmann, scion of the Fleischmann yeast family and founding publisher of the New Yorker, and to Peter Vischer, who Botsford refers to as a pro-Nazi sympathizer. In recalling his childhood, Botsford writes of Prohibition, noting that while the newspapers were running pictures of agents destroying bottles of liquor and pouring beer into the gutters, cases were delivered to his own family's home. The family regularly packed up for holidays in the country and Europe, and on one occasion, ten-year-old Botsford and his two younger siblings traveled to Paris unchaperoned when their mother missed the boarding.
After graduating from Yale, Botsford joined the staff of the New Yorker as a junior writer. In 1942, he was married and his wife was expecting a child when he was drafted to serve in World War II. He writes that he was inducted in the men's room of the Grand Central Palace "to the music of flushing urinals." He shipped out to London during the Blitz and took part in the landing at Normandy on D-Day, one of the scenes of the war that he emotionally describes in his book. He writes of his fear during the action and of an incident in which he was faced point-blank, with the gun barrel of a tank. He did not realize the tank was American until the turret opened and a soldier rushed to him; it was Nelson Works, who had sat behind Botsford in Sociology 102 during their sophomore year at Yale. Botsford includes postcards from the front lines, including one in which General Patton is described as looking "like an overstuffed owl seeking out mice." Library Journal's Pam Kingsbury wrote that Botsford's war writing "is skilled, understated, and heartfelt."
Upon returning to the New Yorker after the war, Botsford found that the atmosphere had turned more serious. He was made an editor by William Shawn, managing editor under Harold Ross. James Wolcott wrote in a Wall Street Journal review that over the next four decades, Botsford "soothes porcupine egos, watches marriages and psyches alcoholically dissolve, and contends with Shawn, journalism's Jewish Zen master of passive resistance…. Botsford has no thunderbolt revelations to hurl about Ross and Shawn, two of the greatest tunnel-visioned geniuses and obsessive nitpickers of twentieth-century journalism … but he replenishes their reputations with anecdotes and perceptions that bring them brimming into close-up."
Included in Botsford's memoir are humorous letters from Maeve Brennan, the New Yorker's "Long-winded Lady." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "beyond Botsford's precisely drawn, touching closeups of such authors as Maeve Brennan and A. J. Liebling, he makes readers understand an editor's life and responsibilities." The book contains a list of ten tips on editing by Wolcott Gibbs. Calling A Life of Privilege, Mostly "a fine, old-fashioned memoir and a robust addition to the burgeoning shelf of New Yorker histories," a Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that, "blessed with a good story and unique characters, Botsford depicts a wonderful ephemeral parade that passed us by not so long ago."
Jeremy Treglown, who reviewed the memoir in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that "Botsford's simple diagnosis of what went wrong with the New Yorker is essentially that everyone got too old: Shawn, Shawn's contributors, and Shawn's staff, including Botsford himself. Most of [the magazine's staff" … had joined in their twenties and thirties, and their readers aged with them." Treglown noted the changes that have occurred at the magazine and said that "a crucial part of how it has benefited from, as well as survived, its sometimes turbulent alterations, of course, has been that plenty has been left intact. Botsford gives a pleasantly gossipy picture both of its traditionalism and of its occasional shifts of style and policy." Treglown concluded by saying that Botsford "makes no claim for his own role in helping to keep the best of the New Yorker as it always was, but it's obvious that he had one."
In A Life of Privilege, Mostly Botsford writes of Shawn's firing by Si Newhouse and replacement by Robert Gottlieb. He recalls, in particular, that Gottlieb mocked Shawn in the presence of both Shawn and Botsford, prompting Botsford's anger that Gottlieb would do this to the man whose job he was taking. Wolcott commented that it is Botsford's "tough gallantry" that makes this book unique among other tellalls by staffers who knew Ross and Shawn, many of whom have equated the end of the magazine as they knew it with the end of their own illusions. Wolcott commented that veteran Botsford left his illusions on the battlefield; the critic added that "the humor, sympathy, and sadness of this memoir, which come together most affectingly in its roll call of those dead by drink or suicide … bear the personal stamp of a man in full." Gilbert Taylor wrote in a Booklist review that Botsford's memoir "will tap the perennial interest in the magazine's history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Botsford, Gardner, A Life of Privilege, Mostly (memoir), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Booklist, December 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 709.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 1666.
Library Journal, January, 2003, Pam Kingsbury, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 110.
New York Times Book Review, January 19, 2003, Jeremy Treglown, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 8.
New York Times Review of Books, March 13, 2003, Larry McMurtry, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, December 2, 2002, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. 44.
Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2003, James Wolcott, review of A Life of Privilege, Mostly, p. D10.*