From The Honest Rainmaker by A.J. Liebling:
The Colonel’s ideal of feminine beauty remains constant.
In this he resembles an old wartime friend of mine named Count Prziswieski, a minor figure in the exiled Polish Government.
“All my life I have been faithful to one woman,” the Count once said to me – “a fragile blonde with a morbid expression.”
He found this woman in every country, and she never aged, although the Count did. The fragile blonde with a morbid expression, wherever she turned up, was in her twenties.
My knowledge of the Count’s predilection saved us both embarrassment one week end when I was away from my London hotel and returned to find he had been a guest there during my absence.
“Do you know the Count Ginwiski?” the night porter, an inquisitive sort, asked me. “Said ‘e knew you. Rum cove.”
“I certainly do know him,” I said. “One of the county families of Poland.”
“And do you know the Countess?” the porter asked artfully.
“Very well,” I answered. “Thin blonde woman, much younger than he is, speaks English perfectly.”
“Good night, sir,” the porter said in a disappointed tone.
That the story is in fact true only makes it — and the writing — even better. Liebling (right) was one of the writers who made The New Yorker truly great and is sadly forgotten today. For me the two best writers of English in the 20th Century were Liebling and Orwell. They were not necessarily the greatest writers of the century but they were master craftsmen. They could do more with the language than anyone else I have read.
There is a moment in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris & London that I find breathtaking. The book is a first-person account of being bitter-end broke in those two cities in the 20s. In the course of a couple of paragraphs he describes an entire night — emotional and physical — in the life of a Parisian bistro. I much prefer Orwell’s non-fiction to his fiction — which I like as well. For me the greatest of his books is Homage to Catalonia — which is about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. It is an honestly biased book. It makes no attempt at reportorial distance. However, he evenhandedly recounts the stupidities and mistakes of both sides. If Franco’s side is depicted as criminally brutal, the Communists are shown as criminally inept.
I have not read all of Orwell, nor have I read all of Liebling — but I have read a lot. I always like to suggest A Neutral Corner to people. (It was also published under the less-than-inspired title The Sweet Science.) But, they will protest, I’m not interested in boxing. Neither am I, I reply artfully. Ostensibly these are all articles about boxing (which he covered for The New Yorker), but really they are explorations people and parts of history cultural history. One of my favorite moments involves an old black trainer who witheringly tells obnoxious whites that unlike them, his people were invited to America.
Liebling’s best work is always about people, people you would meet nowhere else. The Honest Rainmaker is about
the shenanigans of wayward septuagenarian horse-racing journalist James A. Macdonald, aka Col. John R. Stingo. As the two roam Manhattan saloons and seamy neighborhoods in the 1940s, Stingo’s effervescent, overblown, inimitable chatter–liberally laced with “labyrinthian” digressions–affectionately recalls and reinvents (he “never permits facts to interfere with the exercise of his imagination”) a motley crew of swindlers, suckers and crazies.
- The Telephone Booth Indian about various other hucksters and lowlifes in New York in the ’30s.
- Back Where I Come From about growing up in New York City.
- The Earl of Louisiana — the story of Huey Long’s brother, Gov. Earl Long, one of the greatest, most wonderful rascals in the history of US politics.
- His reporting on World War II is superb and only matched by fellow New Yorker writer Janet Flanner. It is available in many different books. I would suggest either the American Library collection, Mollie and Other War Pieces, or The New Yorker Book of War Pieces. The last gets you Flanner as well, so it’s a double treat.
- The Press is a collection of his press criticism. Although the technology has changed it is disheartening to see how timely the issue he writes about still are.
All his work isn’t brilliant. Between Meals, his writings on food, makes me queasy to read. Liebling believed in excess first, last and always when it came to eating. Chicago: The Second City is uncharacteristically mean-spirited and cruel. Normandy Revisited has him retracing the paths he walked during World War II. It is less nostalgic or illuminating and mostly just sad.
Being a good writer is not a requisite for being a good — even great — journalist. The first requirement for that is to get your facts right. What both Orwell and Liebling were able to do is that rarest of things: They turned great reporting into great art.