If You Must Spy, Do It Silkily, and Other News


On the Shelf

Emily Hahn.


  • Rarely does a piece of writing combine my two all-time favorite interests: midcentury cryptography and secret silk squares. Today there’s such a piece. It’s about Emily Hahn, who was once, as Taras Grescoe writes, “one of America’s most widely read, and notorious, literary adventurers.” Hahn had an affair with a Chinese aristocrat; she picked up an opium habit, because why not; she held role-playing parties in her apartment and could often be found puffing cigars. And, as Grescoe reveals, the U.S. government once suspected she was a spy: “In a file in Hahn’s papers at the Lilly Library, in Bloomington, Indiana, I’d found a square of white silk, covered from edge to edge with typewritten names, cryptic messages, and several lines of Japanese poetry. The file also contained letters, on F.B.I. stationery, indicating that customs agents had discovered the silk square sewn into a sleeve of her daughter’s dress. Hahn, suspected of spying for the Japanese, was detained and interrogated for several hours. The silk cloth was sent to Washington to be examined for coded messages. In the files, I found a letter from the Treasury Department, sent four months later, acknowledging its return. But I couldn’t be certain what, if anything, the cryptographers had discovered. I was hoping [Hahn’s daughter Carola] Vecchio could explain at least some of the messages to me.”
  • Our editor, Lorin Stein, interviews Richard Price about the role Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn played in his genesis as a writer. Price first read the novel when he was seventeen, on an interminable bus ride to Ithaca: “I’ve always been attracted to what I guess would be loosely called social realism. Sort of urban oriented, cement and working-class and squalling babies … I always found it a little grim. It felt not so much like a novel to take you away but a novel to convince you of a certain point of view about social justice. And I always found that a little leaden. But I liked the subjects. And when I had read Last Exit to Brooklyn as a kid, and specifically the first chapter, ‘Another Day Another Dollar,’ it was like he found a way to write about the same things but in almost incantatory bebop way. He was part of that scene in the late fifties, early sixties where jazz influenced a lot of writers. He had a lyricism to the work … I just felt like, If I’m gonna write about this, if this is the subject that draws me, I wanna have rhythm. I wanna have a little Selby bebop in the way I write.”

  • David Cole has the story of Gavin Grimm, a fifteen-year-old whose fight for transgender rights was recently thwarted in the courts, where, at least, there was poetry involved: “Poetry and judicial opinions do not often mix. Judging is ordinarily a prosaic task: weighing arguments, applying tests of legal doctrine, finding facts, stating conclusions, declaring winners and losers, announcing law. This is not the stuff of poetry. But every once in a while, poetry is called for. It can capture what reasoned judgment cannot. On Friday, April 7, Judge Andre Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit resorted to a poem by the Palestinian-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye, in an extraordinary opinion praising a young man who fought for his rights—and lost … Borrowing from Nye’s poem, ‘Famous,’ [Davis] explained that Gavin is ‘famous,’ not in the Hollywood sense of celebrity, but in Nye’s sense, because ‘[he] never forgot what [he] could do’ … ‘The river is famous to the fish. / The loud voice is famous to silence, / which knew it would inherit the earth / before anybody said so.
  • Want to read James Baldwin’s letters? So do I! But we can’t. Jennifer Schuessler reports on the latest efforts of the Baldwin estate to retain the author’s posthumous privacy: “The Baldwin estate has held tight to hundreds in its possession, letting only a few scholars see them. It has almost never allowed any of Baldwin’s correspondence to be published, or given biographers permission to quote a single word. Now, Baldwin’s papers have landed in one of the nation’s leading archival institutions, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library, in Harlem. But, in a striking twist, many of his personal letters will remain off limits for another generation—a byproduct of complicated negotiations between the library and the estate, and a reminder that family members are not always comfortable with the spotlight’s falling on a loved one, even decades after death.”
  • Lucas Adams knows a lot about Spam, especially Spam during wartime. He drew a comic about it, and these are some of the words in that comic: “It was not just a tool for human consumption. It became a tool of the GI, and took on many forms: octopus bait, candles, skin-conditioner substitute, boot waterproofer, romantic gift (Spam was sold as an aphrodisiac at restaurants in Allied-occupied Naples). And no part of Spam was wasted: leftover cans were crafted into pots and pans, used to plug holes in airplane wings. Channel Island refugees even made soup from leftover Spam juice … What made Spam capable of traveling thousands of miles, through scorching summers, frigid winters, and to the various fronts of the war? Science, of course.”