How’s this for an opener?
“My godfather investigated my father for the FBI and had a scar on the palm of his left hand from a machine-gun bullet shot by Baby Face Nelson. My uncle had ‘Frederick Engels’ for first and middle names. My father went to Mexico and spied on Trotsky for the Communist Party of the United States.”
If you don’t find this introduction to Daniel Menaker’s memoir a spur to keep reading, then the rest of the book holds nothing for you. But those of us possessed of a normal curiosity have by this point already embarked on a wild ride that will provide insider glimpses of the New York publishing world from 1969 onward, with the author serving as one of the scene’s principal participants and sharpest observers.
Menaker first acquaints us with his colorful family and the luminaries who come within its orbit. His mother is an editor at Fortune, where she crosses paths with such talents as John Kenneth Galbraith, Walker Evans and Dwight Macdonald. As a son of ardent leftists, Menaker dutifully attends the fabled Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. He goes on to earn degrees at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins, teach English at two ritzy private schools and take a job as a fact-checker for the New Yorker.
His tenure at the magazine, bumpy at first, lasts for 26 years, during which time he serves at the pleasure (and occasionally the displeasure) of editors William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. His description of the microscopic attention devoted to each article the magazine publishes is enough to make a run-of-the-mill copy editor weep.
Never quite at ease after Brown takes the helm of the New Yorker, Menaker accepts the offer of an editorship at Random House, where one of the first books he publishes is the blockbuster political novel Primary Colors. Later, as editor-in-chief, he offers TV’s Diane Sawyer $5 million to write a book. She declines. And so it goes.
While the glittery gossip is fun to read, the book’s most moving passages deal with the death of Menaker’s beloved older brother and his own struggles with lung cancer. Not easy to pigeonhole, this is an amalgam of autobiography and cultural history at its best.