have been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world, including George Bernard Shaw, reporter Joseph Mitchell wrote in 1938, "and I have long since lost my 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." Such is the life of a journalist. The consummate listener, a gentleman reporter whose Joycean stories about the everyday people of New York are tinged with melancholy, Joseph Mitchell went to work for The New Yorker in 1938. A notoriously slow and meticulous craftsman, he wrote with lapidary skill. A collection of his New Yorker pieces, Up in the Old Hotel, was a 1992 bestseller, but when Mitchell died four years later, he left precious little work.
Now, for the first time in more than 60 years, readers can treat themselves to the reportage of Mitchell's pre-New Yorker days with the newly reissued My Ears Are Bent, a collection of his contributions to The Herald Tribune and The World Telegram, originally published in 1938. The new, expanded edition includes articles and feature stories unavailable since they first appeared in the papers during the 1930s. Mixing with lushes and chorus girls, pickpockets and speakeasy proprietors, the latter of which proved invaluable to the reporter ("the saloonkeeper is apt to know the address or hangout of any citizen dopey enough or unlucky enough to be of interest to a great metropolitan newspaper," he writes), Mitchell, on his beat, visited establishments like the Broken Leg and Busted Bar ∧ Grill, where he observed and interviewed the regulars. The stories that resulted are miniature noirs peopled with characters who crack wise, journalistic pieces, replete with smoke and shadows and snappy badinage, that show the city at its seediest.
Along with looks at society's less savory members, the new edition includes talks with Jimmy Durante, jazz giant Gene Krupa and George M. Cohan blasts from the past that give the book a time-capsule appeal. Indeed, a sort of na•vete pervades the pieces overall. Some of the strippers and fan dancers featured in a chapter called "Cheese-cake" seem to have an air of wide-eyed innocence, as Mitchell himself does in their presence: "It was the first time a woman I had been sent to interview ever came into the room naked . . .," he writes. "She didn't even have any shoes on." In "The Marijuana Smokers" a classic snapshot of a more innocent America, a country befuddled by the new drug Mitchell dodges bullets and crashes a Harlem rent party. Such cultural curiosities are, of course, no longer news, but they were big scoops when Mitchell snooped them out. He writes with economy in these classy, clear-eyed accounts of a time when society was a bit more civilized. No words are wasted here, and his descriptive prose is often as pure and precise and image-oriented as the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Above all, perhaps, what Mitchell's writing reveals is the way the world in general and New York in particular have changed. Reading My Ears Are Bent, one can't help but contrast the present with the past. The collection reflects a younger era, an age when the world had more mystery in it. They don't write 'em like this anymore.