The New York Times Book Review Caper


Famous Broadway columnist Mr. D. Runyon Smythe tells of the time he moved beyond his showbiz column and tried his hand at book reviewing—to his great regret!

So the year 1962 rolls around and I am fed up with the sort of horseradish that is now being presented in Broadway shows. Neil Simon is just getting started with his cascade of onstage sitcoms, but already I smell the rot in Shubert Alley.

You have straight plays like “Take Her—She’s Mine,” by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, two inveterate scribblers of bad movies. You probably cannot even name any of their scripts, but I assure you such things are in the books, and they are stinkers indeed. Such people ought to be banned for life from Broadway.

The only positive point about this piece of malarkey is a fetching young ingenue named Elizabeth Ashley, who in future days undoubtedly goes the sad way of other ingenues and starlets and debutantes. Although it also has Art Carney, who carries the ball.

Through the grapevine I learn that people do not read my “Lullaby of Broadway” column much anymore. They syndicate me in only 7 papers, including the Yonkers Herald-American, which doesn’t really count. So I decide to take a crack at the book-review game.

My good friend Alston Parker Ellis is the editor of the Herald-Tribune Book Review, which is the premier book rag in New York. Alston sets me up with a desk, and a phone, and a couple of drinks sessions with John Hay Whitney, who holds the purse-strings.  Before long I am whacking out three or four book reviews per week, on such grand titles as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, Franny and Zooey, Ship of Fools, and Seven Days in May.

Alston informs me that I am very good at this craft, for I can fill up a 600-word column without saying anything actionable. I merely leave a pleasant fragrance behind. When publishers want to quote me in blurbs and ads, they pull something like,

There are a lot of pages in this book, even more than in By Love Possessed.
— D. Runyon Smythe, NY Herald-Tribune.

Because of this, almost every single one of the books I review receives an option for a Hollywood movie. So I am really cooking.

But now the Herald-Tribune Book Review falls upon some lean years, and it appears this pre-eminent publishing-rag-of-record must be cut back to free up budget for a new Sunday supplement called New York magazine.

This supplement publishes exciting, scurrilous articles by young turks such as Tom Wolfe and Gail Sheehy, however it does not add to the Herald-Tribune bottom-line, for the big old advertisers who support the Trib in its salad days are now going out of business. The retailers we all grow up on—Best & Co., DePinna, Peck & Peck, Rogers Peet—one by one they disappear, and so do their display ads in the front section of the New York Herald-Tribune.

As we like to say at Mindy’s restaurant, I see the handwriting on the wall.  Fortunately I never give up my famous “Lullaby of Broadway” column for the syndicate, so there will always be at least a little something in the kitty. Nevertheless I am now regarded a book-review guy, so I go crosstown to the lowlifes at the New York Times.

At the New York Times Book Review, I work for the editor Chuckles McGrath, who assigns me the “New and Noteworthy” column. Every day a hundred horrible books land on my desk, or rather to the side of my desk, as I have barely the room on my desk-blotter to swing a very small kitten. At random I pick out five or six of these doorstops. Then I pay very close attention to the dust-jacket blurbs and press release, and write witty summaries of what I think the book must be about.

One day a stocky, expensively-upholstered little Japanese girl comes down from Yale—for Yale is now coed, it being the 1970s—and tells me Chuckles McGrath has given her leave to start a column of her own, using the extra books I don’t have time to read. This is about a thousand books a week. So I let young Miss Michiko Kakutani (for such is her name) cart off my extras in a wheelbarrow.

Miss Kakutani finds gold amongst the dross, as they say. Overnight she discovers Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis, all of whom would lie in my review pile forever if their fate hangs on D. Runyon Smythe.