Life Sentence: The New Yorker

Mary Norris has worked at The New Yorker since 1978. The Between You & Me author shares memories of her editing life at the magazine.

One evening, a young Mary Norris was mugged. She was on her way home from 25 West Forty-third Street, New York City. It’s a grey building with brown window trimmings, drab except for delicate molding around its main doors and further up the façade. It was the home of The New Yorker for more than 50 years. Norris had worked her way up from the archives and into a copy-editing position at the famous magazine. That evening, when the stranger grabbed her bag in the stairwell, Norris screamed. The thief socked her in the eye. After a day off work, Norris returned to the copy desk, shiner and stitches hidden behind dark glasses. William Shawn, the magazine’s editor-in-chief – he began his tenure in 1952 and would remain in the post until 1987 – heard what had happened, and came to see how she was. “Oh, well, that’s not so bad,” said Shawn, after coaxing Norris to remove her sunglasses. Decades later, Mary Norris still recalls this visit with fondness. “It was very sweet,” she says. David Remnick, current editor-in-chief, read Norris’s memoir and popular grammar guide, Between You & Me, before it was released. Like Shawn, he sought out Norris and told her “You are a funny lady!” She was quite pleased with that. These incidents with editors-in-chief (Norris has worked under four over the course of her career) are little signs of the familial spirit within The New Yorker’s editorial team. “Actually, that’s a quality of the people around here who stay here (at The New Yorker),” says Norris. “They care about the work and the magazine, but also about each other.” Norris has been working for The New Yorker since 1978, and 37 years have done little to dampen the love and gratitude she feels for the magazine. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Norris now identifies herself as a New Yorker. She recalls the moment she truly became one with the city: “When I was watching a baseball game, and the New York Yankees were playing, and I rooted for them spontaneously.” Norris’s 37-year tenure (which continues; she’s certainly not giving up her day job) is on par with the incredible longevity of careers at the magazine. The New Yorker’s founder, Harold Ross, worked until his sudden death in 1951; his successor, the aforementioned William Shawn, accumulated a total 53 years on the editorial staff and left at the age of 80. Throughout Between You & Me, Norris refers to two colleagues in particular—Lu Burke and Eleanor Gould. Gould worked at The New Yorker for 54 years. Burke served for 32 before retiring in 1990; she died a decade later. Belonging is a quiet theme throughout Norris’s book, as she riffs on our insecurities with language, and her insecurities at work. There’s a quiet, good-natured thrum of fear (trying not to be thought of as an over-correcting fool, or an under-correcting incompetent) that glues Norris to her desk and to her beloved pencils. This discussion of belonging – and a sense of perspective within a giant media chain – is timely. For all its prestige and independence, The New Yorker was purchased by Advance Publications/Condé Nast in 1985; late last year, The New Yorker began the move from its Times Square home and into the New World Trade Centre with the rest of Condé Nast’s publishing portfolio. Suddenly, the wheel, in which Norris is a cog, begins to look very small. Last week, Condé Nast began to implement cuts across its titles. GQ lost or “re-appropriated” senior staff –managing editor, business manager, senior digital editor among others – and Glamour is reportedly the next title on the chopping block. For Norris, this could mean anything. As it is, she sits in her windowless office in the building that stands proud, an icon of American resilience, next to Ground Zero. “In a way it’s been the physical move – changing the offices of the magazine – that has been more upsetting than the changing of the editors,” says Norris, “because that’s when it becomes transparent where you fall, where you stand, as far as the editorial staff goes – you know, which office you get, where you are in line, how close you are or how far you are to the editor’s office, and whether or not you have a window – all of these things tell you your position on the ladder or totem pole or whatever, and while your position has not in fact changed, it’s just become blindingly clear to you.” But even though Norris is a laughingly jealous of her colleagues in cubicles (while they may have less office space, at least they have windows) the sense of community remains unchanged. “The wonderful thing was that they were all so happy for me, and that they were all took great pride in knowing that our work was going to be the basis of this book; that what we did was important.” In the years leading up to the publication of Between You & Me, Norris has achieved a new feeling for the mysterious passion that guides many of the famous writers she edits. “I’ve not quit my day job,” she says. “I work for an editor who has had bestsellers, who has won Pulitzer Prizes I think, and he still works. He works hard every day. And someone like Malcolm Gladwell, who has had such success, keeps working. And it just impresses me. “I think if my book would turn into a million-seller and I made all kind of money, I believe I would drop it. I believe I would give notice!” She laughs, a great roar of HA HA HAs, and then seriously: “But they do keep working, and it’s more than money – it’s for some reason beyond money that they keep writing – and I think I understand that better now.” Adelaide Writers’ Week presents Mary Norris in conversation at Elder Hall on Monday, November 30. For tickets and further information, visit Between You & Me (Text Publishing)

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