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Assorted Hijinks: An Interview with Dick Cavett

November 13, 2014 | by

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Cavett on the cover of Brief Encounters.

Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.

The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.

Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”

In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.

Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.

In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.

I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m  called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.

Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.

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A Necessary Novel

November 12, 2014 | by

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Atticus Lish. Photo: Shelton Walsmith

Our current issue features Atticus Lish’s story “Jimmy,” an excerpt from his new novel, Preparation for the Next Life. The novel is out this week, and we’re elated to report that it’s just received a rave review from Dwight Garner in the New York Times:

This is an intense book with a low, flyspecked center of gravity. It’s about blinkered lives, scummy apartments, dismal food, bad options. At its knotty core, amazingly, is perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade … Atticus Lish has written a necessary novel, one with echoes of early Ken Kesey, of William T. Vollmann’s best writing and of Thom Jones’s pulverizing short stories.

Many congratulations to Atticus on the well-deserved praise. Read a brief excerpt from “Jimmy” here, and pick up a copy of Preparation for the Next Life here.

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The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

September 23, 2014 | by

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More »

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

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Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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Fit to Print

August 14, 2014 | by

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A 1965 ad for Silly Putty, plainly advertising its ability to pick up newsprint.

On Monday, the Times’s David Carr had a gloomy prognosis for the fate of print newspapers. He wrote,

It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.

Carr and many others are alive to the societal, artistic, and human implications of this loss. All this aside, it means lost jobs. You don’t need me to say that, or to belabor the passing of an era. These things are too huge to contemplate.

So you start thinking about the stupid things. The oblong bags newspapers come in. What will people use to clean up after their dogs? Where will they get rubber bands? Will “train-style” folding become a lost art? And what about Silly Putty?

Silly Putty can’t really be called a major casualty in this overhaul, but it is something that will be decisively rendered extinct. It’s a retro toy now—if you can even call something which was so obviously the byproduct of industrial experimentation a “toy”—but with the death of the newspaper, one of its primary functions (if you can call it a function) will be nullified.

Silly Putty should be placed in a time capsule immediately on grounds of sheer weirdness. Try explaining it to an alien: “It’s putty, but it’s … silly. It’s sort of flesh-colored. It has a really distinctive chemical smell. It stretches, and snaps, and turns into a puddle. If you roll it up, it bounces like a ball. Oh, and it picks up newsprint. Then it gets really grubby and you keep it in a plastic egg, forever.” If Silly Putty’s origins are clear enough—it was a World War II–era attempt to address rubber shortages—its ability to transfer newsprint is more mysterious. How did someone figure this out? And how did anyone decide it was a selling point? Read More »

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But There Is a Quiet Car, David

July 21, 2014 | by

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A commuter train in 1974. (Note the absence of consumer electronics.)

There was some trouble in paradise on the Ethan Allen Express. More than a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid. Behind me, a passenger made serial phone calls in a mind-erasing loud voice. “I’m on the train!” he would always begin … We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really. And there is no quiet car.

David Carr, The New York Times, July 21, 2014

If you’re the Times’s senior media reporter, you need to stay connected 24/7, even when you’re on a leisurely train ride up the Hudson Valley.

But if you’re Joe Smartphone, always shouting “I’m on the train!” into your Samsung Galaxy S5, locking gazes with its oracular high-res screen straight from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie, here’s a tip. Power down and join the quiet car of the mind—the one that print didn’t leave behind—with a joint subscription to The Paris Review and The London Review of Books.

The Paris Review brings you the best new fiction, poetry, and interviews; The London Review of Books publishes the best cultural essays and long-form journalism. Now, for a limited time, you can get them both for one low price, anywhere in the world.

Subscribe today.

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