Gardner Botsford: ‘A life of privilege – mostly’
July 12, 2005
This will eventually be about a bicycle trip but, before I get there, there will be a long detour. I think you will come to understand why.In the fall of 1960, I wrote an account of teaching in a physics summer school on the island of Corsica and of a young woman I met there called Annie. I had never written anything but physics papers for publication apart from writing a column about celebrities, which I called “Seeing Stars,” for my high-school newspaper. At the time I wrote about Annie I was employed full time at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on eastern Long Island and had returned from France for a few months before going back there to do more physics. I showed my article to a few people at the laboratory and they suggested that I send it to The New Yorker. I will not try to describe here what I learned later about the labyrinthine procedure by which my article worked its way up from a first reader to the editor. Many months were involved, and my case would come to be cited to demonstrate how everything sent to the magazine was actually read. In any event, just before I returned to Europe, I got a phone call from William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, of whom I had never heard. He had two points to make. In the first place he said “We liked your article.Would you mind if we published it?” This is what he actually said. I told him that I would not mind. Then he said that he would like to see me. That was fine with me, too, and not long after, we spent a half-hour or so together in his office, after which he suggested that I try to write for the magazine, which I did for the next 35 years. When I returned from Europe several months later, I still had heard nothing about the actual publication of my Corsican article. But sometime thereafter, a proof was sent to the laboratory along with a note signed by a Gardner Botsford, who said that he had edited the piece and was responsible for the proof and would be happy to discuss it with me. I was surprised that someone besides Shawn had edited what I wrote. I naively assumed that, since Shawn was the editor of the magazine, that meant he edited everything. There was no list of editors on the magazine’s masthead. I made a date with Botsford to come to the magazine. When I did, he turned out to be an athletic-looking, baldish fellow in his early 40s. One thing I noticed in his office was a bookcase containing titles like, “Beginning Polo,” “The Best of Stanley G.Weinbaum” and “Successful Fund Raising Sermons,” among many others of the same genre. Botsford’s was the first New Yorker proof I had ever seen, so I was not prepared either for the exceedingly detailed queries, or for the bizarre sentences which had been inserted here and there. I can no longer remember exactly what they were, but in a piece on Corsica one might suddenly come across a sentence like “A stitch in time makes Jack a dull boy.” This was a device that Botsford used to get the attention of the writer and to indicate that a new sentence was needed. Botsford had transformed my promising but somewhat amateurish piece of writing into polished prose. Despite everything, we missed a reflexive pronoun when the article was published in the Nov. 11, 1961 issue. We had “tu va casser la figure” having dropped the te in front of casser. I got a phone call from Botsford in which he said, “I am sorry about your te.”
Over the next decade or so Botsford edited a number of my articles – especially the long ones. He was noted for his ability to take what eventually would be a book and to cut it down so that it became a viable article for the magazine. In those days, articles could be published in several parts running many thousands of words, but there were limits. For example, he took Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” and removed a good deal of its mystic overtones, preserving the underlying adventure. He took what I wrote on Nepal and compressed it into a two-part article. When I presented him with a copy of my book, “The Wildest Dreams of Kew” – in which I had to some extent re-inflated the article – I can still hear a certain tone of distaste as he contemplated the restored parts. He edited my profile of Stanley Kubrick. We went to the first press showing of “2001” – which was somewhat longer than the version that Kubrick finally released for theaters. When we came out, Botsford commented, “Whatever it was, it was a big one.”During those years I came to know Botsford and his family – his wife, “Tass,” and his two daughters, Susan and Margot. Botsford appeared, at least by my standards, to be rather well-to-do. He lived in a townhouse on east 49th Street and came to work on his bicycle. He once told me that he had had an encounter with a taxi driver who made the mistake of honking at Botsford to speed up. Botsford said that he got off his bicycle and walked back and forth with it in front of the cab until the driver got the idea. That is not something I would try. As I recall, the Botsford townhouse was next to that of Katherine Hepburn, and she may even have come to some of the parties the Botsfords gave, which were always lively affairs filled with New Yorker people. They also had a country house in Quogue, on eastern Long Island, not far from the laboratory where I worked. From time to time, I drove over to see them and to play tennis on their court. It was tennis that led to a discovery about Botsford which, in turn, leads to my bicycle trip.I had come across the name of a tennis club – the Montego Bay Racquet Club – in Jamaica. I spent a couple of weeks there and told Botsford about it. It turned out that he knew it well. His mother had had a house built near Montego Bay which she called “datura” – named after the large plant with its characteristic white flowers. He said that he and his family often went there for Christmas and suggested that I call him the next time I was there during that time. I did, and spent a few evenings with the Botsfords. In the back of the house there had been constructed a little spot where you could sit outside and drink your rum drink. It was called the “moon watching place.”On Dec. 28, 1963, we were sitting there when Botsford was called to the phone. It was Shawn from New York, announcing that A.J. Liebling had just died. “What a waste,” Botsford commented. Liebling was not quite 60 and had eaten and drunk himself to death. The New Yorker never had a better writer.One afternoon we were on the beach, Botsford and I and his two daughters. Close by were some Germans talking a bit too loudly. Botsford made some remark that probably they could hear and then he walked away. It was so unlike him that I asked the daughters why. They told me that during the war their father had been wounded by the Germans and was lucky to have gotten out alive. He had never said anything about this to me, and never did say anything about it. Indeed, I would not have known anything more about it if, in 2003, the year before his death on Sept. 30, 2004, at the age of 87, he had not published a wonderful biographical memoir that he called, “A Life of Privilege, Mostly.”Botsford’s memoir is divided into three parts, which he calls, respectively, “Mostly,” “Privilege” and “The Priest King of Nemi.” I will deal with these in reverse order. It will be “Mostly” that will lead me to my bicycle trip.
James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” opens with the vision of the King of the Wood, sword in hand, pacing around a sacred oak in a sacred grove on the shore of Lake Nemi – a volcanic crater near Rome. The king guarding the oak seems possessed. The “king” in this section of Botsford’s book is William Shawn and it is typical of Botsford’s wonderful skill as a writer that he would think of this image as describing Shawn’s last years at The New Yorker. Actually I had seen this part of the book many years earlier. I was writing a long essay-book review on all of this, and had frequently spoken with Botsford. One day he gave me a manuscript to read with this title. He said he had been taking notes on what he saw happening and this was the result. He never told me that he was writing a book.Shawn – né Chon – was born in Chicago in 1907. This meant that by the late 1970s he was getting into his seventies. Clearly the future of The New Yorker depended on having a well-defined succession procedure. To this end, various experiments were tried. Periodically Shawn would call me and tell me that, henceforth, I was to report to one editor, or another, only to learn shortly thereafter that whatever that experiment had been about, it had been abandoned. Once when I was discussing this with Botsford he commented that the succession would only be decided at Frank Campbell’s – a reference to a fashionable Manhattan funeral parlor. This prediction turned out to have been wrong, but none of us foresaw what actually happened.When I joined the staff of the magazine, it was for all intents and purposes a privately held company. On one occasion I was allowed to buy 25 shares after being interviewed by a gentleman who was in a position to sell me the shares. He wanted to see if I was the right sort. The family of Raoul Fleischmann,the yeast magnate whose money had financed the magazine in the first place, owned something like 30 percent of the stock, and a good part of the rest was in the hands of people close to the magazine. Botsford, who, as it happened, was Fleischmann’s stepson, owned several thousand. From conversations I had with officers of the company in the 1970s and early 1980s, I was sure that no one from the outside could buy enough shares to take over the magazine. I was wrong about that too.In the spring of 1985, S.I. Newhouse’s Advance Publications accumulated the necessary shares to take control of the magazine. I won’t try here to explain the Byzantine methods that were used, which have been the subject of various books and articles. Newhouse assured the staff that continuity was the order of the day and that Shawn could stay as editor for as long as he wanted. This did not last long and, after several other changes, Shawn was fired on Jan. 17,1987. By this time Botsford, who had had more than enough of the succession antics that had been going on at the magazine, had been retired for five years. Therefore he did not attend the very bizarre meeting of everyone on the staff that afternoon. The question was what could, or should, we do. We ended up by writing a letter to the newly appointed editor Robert Gottlieb urging him not to take the job. Gottlieb once told me that for much of his life he had wanted to be the editor of The New Yorker and that this letter, while painful, was not going to deter him. Another suggestion that was made that afternoon, was that we go out on strike. I recall that Shawn seemed to approve of this idea, which was not adopted. When I reported all of this to Botsford he said that going out on strike was the stupidest thing he had ever heard of. What it would accomplish, he said, would be to incite Newhouse to bring in Tina Brown as editor and to get all of us fired. In the end, it took a couple of years to bring Tina Brown in and then only some of us got fired.
The second part of Botsford’s memoir is, as I have said, entitled “Privilege.” You may have gathered from what I have written so far, that much of Botsford’s upbringing was surrounded by great wealth. Botsford’s mother, Ruth Gardner – he was named for his great-grandfather Robert Gardner but never used the Robert – was a beauty whom he describes as an international heartbreaker. She was also an heiress to a large Midwestern fortune. In 1914, she married Alfred Miller Botsford, who had been a struggling actor but had become a newspaperman and later worked in the film industry. One of his best friends was Raoul Fleischmann, but this did not stop Fleischmann from going off with his wife in 1920. That marriage lasted until 1938, when she married one Peter Vischer, who turned out, as Botsford discovered, to have had all the makings of a Nazi.Botsford’s description of the Fleischmann years is unapologetically luxurious … country houses, private schools, debutante parties and speak-easies. When I first moved to New York in the early 1960s I lived next to a restaurant on the East Side called Tony’s. Botsford told me that this had been a speak-easy during prohibition. One evening when I went there for dinner, John Huston was there with a party that looked like they were left over from that era. In the fall of 1935, Botsford entered Yale and spent his summers doing things like taking bike trips in Europe. When the war broke out in 1939, Botsford was traveling in the Far East. He spent 34 days sailing from Sydney to Los Angeles on a passenger/freighter. That year he joined The New Yorker as a reporter and was fired not too long thereafter. I once asked Botsford how that had happened. He replied that it was simply because he was incompetent. He could not find another newspaper job in New York, but went to work for the Jacksonville Journal in Florida and got an education as to how to do reporting. In 1940, he married Tass and then moved back to New York and was re-hired by The New Yorker in January 1942. That too was short-lived, since in September 1942 he was drafted into the army. This brings me to the first part of Botsford’s book – “Mostly” – and then to my bicycle trip.
When Botsford reported to the induction center he assumed that with his university background and his knowledge of French he would receive some cushy assignment in intelligence and have a safe, comfortable war. Almost casually he was assigned to the infantry as a private. After several months of rather unpleasant basic training, Botsford put in for officer school, eventually going to Camp Ritchie in Maryland, which specialized in training intelligence officers. Here, his French was essential. He learned, from people who had actually been in occupied France, how to get information from civilians should he eventually land there. This, ironically, as I will explain, probably saved his life later. Life was quite pleasant in Maryland – Tass and his oldest daughter were able to join him – until he was transferred to England, where he reported to the celebrated First Infantry Division in Dorset. This was in October of 1943. Life was once again, at least at the beginning, rather pleasant with a number of English diversions. But, by April 1944, the whole tenor of the operation changed. There were now rigorous training exercises in which the division practiced landing on beaches with bluffs. By May he was informed that, on June 5, the division was going to land on a beach near Bayeux that had been code-named Omaha. Botsford writes that he realized that for some weeks he was in possession of one of the greatest secrets of the war and wished that he weren’t.On the afternoon of June 4, he started out for France in an LCI – Landing Craft Infantry – which held some 200 men. Because of the weather they had to turn around and recommence the next day. By the morning of June 6 the LCI was in sight of the beach when it was hit by a shell. It turned out to be a dud, but Botsford realized vividly that there were people on shore whose objective was to kill him. The LCI was making for a portion of the beach that had been coded Easy Red. There were bodies in the water and a neighboring LCI took a direct hit, throwing its soldiers into the water. The commander of his LCI turned around and headed back out to sea. The men were then crammed into a smaller vessel known as an LCVP – Landing Craft, Vehicle/Personnel. Among them was a Signal Corps photographer named Herman Wall. He took the picture which is at the head of this article. The tall officer in front on the right is one Ellsworth Clark, and just to his left is Botsford. The picture gives no sense of the inferno the craft was heading into. The beach looks rather tranquil. There is another thing about the picture that struck me. There are no Afro-Americans. This is not an accident. This was still a segregated army and no Afro-American was allowed to land on D-Day. They came ashore later. The Second World War was the last war America fought in which a picture like this would have been possible. The first order of business was to get off the beach, behind which were bluffs occupied by Germans firing machine guns and cannons. Upon leaving the beach, Botsford took shelter in an embankment with another soldier, only to discover that he was dead. The main immediate danger was from a sniper who had to be located. There was a nearby stone farmhouse and Botsford engaged in a conversation with its owner, who invited him in. It was a gracious conversation in which the farmer said how glad he was to see the Americans. This satisfied Botsford, who moved on. A week later he passed the same farmhouse, only to find that it had been destroyed. On inquiring what had happened, he was informed that a soldier had been sent to investigate since the sniper still had not been located. He had no French so could not indulge in a beguiling conversation with the occupant. He decided to search the place, including the attic. When he opened the attic door, he came upon the sniper who proceeded to shoot him dead. The collaborator farmer’s house, and everyone in it, was then destroyed.Botsford had a specific assignment. It was to hook up with the head of the Resistance in the Bayeux area – a man named Robert Mercadés. Because of the general chaos they did not find each other for several days, after which Botsford helped slip him and his men through American lines so they could search out German targets. Botsford heard of a downed RAF pilot and was walking across a field in search of him when a shell exploded nearby, sending shrapnel though his rear end and cutting a ligament. He could no longer move. He was evacuated first to a battalion hospital and then to England, where he remained in the hospital for a month. When the month was over he was shipped to Melun to join his unit, which would be heading for the front. But in the meantime, Paris was about to fall. Melun was only 20 miles away so, defying orders, Botsford decided that this would be too good to miss. Botsford always loved parties. He was said to have been a terrific dancer in his youth. This promised to be, and was, the mother of all parties.Then he was off to the German-Belgian border, where the army was stalled. The fighting then moved into Germany, where it was especially bloody. Botsford nearly got killed by a tank that he thought might be German. When it stopped, its officer got out after telling Botsford to keep his hands raised. The officer turned out to be one Nelson Works, who had sat behind Botsford at Yale in Sociology 102 and was decidedly not a German. There were more encounters with Germans, and others, before the war ended, and Botsford could sail for the United States in October 1945. He had been promoted to captain. He came out of the war, and back to The New Yorker, with a Bronze Star, a Croix de Guerre, and the two pieces of shrapnel that had been removed from his bottom.Now to the bicycle trip.
I have spent a great deal of time in France – years if you add everything up – but I never had any desire to visit the D-Day beaches of Normandy. I was somewhat too young to have fought in the Second World War, and no one I knew, or thought I knew, had landed on D-Day. Moreover, there has been a spate of recent books and movies about D-Day and its aftermath. Very little footage in these films was actually shot in Normandy. Ireland was often used. This has made D-Day “fashionable,” which was another reason why I had no interest in visiting the beaches. Moreover, I was pretty sure, sight unseen, that these beaches in the 60 years since D-Day would have returned to what they were – beaches – but with a few historic monuments grafted onto them. But reading Botsford’s book made me curious. I wondered if there was some way I could see the beaches without becoming part of a bus tour or something like that.I was flipping through a catalog from Vermont Bicycle Tours, or VBT, for spring trips, when I came across a nine-day bicycle trip to Normandy that included guided visits to the beaches. I had done tours with VBT before and found that there was good news and bad news. The good news is that the hotels, bicycles and tour leaders are excellent. The bad news is that VBT will not, for philosophical reasons that make absolutely no sense to me, put down, as some other biking tour companies do, chalk arrows on the street that guide you. Instead, VBT hands you hopelessly complex multipage instructions which you put in a cellophane pouch on your handlebars. Everyone I have ridden with on these trips, including me, has gotten lost at some point, often at the end of a day when you are dead-tired. I weighed the inevitability of this against the fact that we would be spending two nights in the Grand Hotel in Cabourg. If you are a Proustian you will know in “Remembrance of Things Past,” Cabourg has become Balbec and that Proust spent many summers in the Grand Hotel. This tipped the scale, so off to Normandy I went.After a warm-up day, the first invasion beach we visited was Utah Beach. This was the westernmost of the D-Day beaches. The landing craft were taken off course by the currents and landed some 2,000 meters away from their intended target. General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son, who was the ranking officer, said to his men, “We’ll start the war here.” He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Normandy. Because of the mistake in the landing point the casualties were relatively small in the landing. To get to Utah we had to bike though the Norman countryside. An obvious feature are the hedgerows. They grow much higher than a person and, when the troops got off the beach, there was a deadly game of hide and seek that cost many lives. At the beach itself there are monuments, although basically it has reverted, as I expected, to a beach.There is a memorial museum there. If the shade of Botsford will forgive me, I found this museum somewhat absurd. Perhaps Botsford would have, too. Along the walls in glass cases are life-size mannequins immaculately dressed in the uniforms of the time. They look as if they belong in the window of a fashionable 5th Avenue clothing store. There is, of course, not an Afro-American among them.
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It was a relief to leave the place and get on to the next stop, Point du Hoc, which was the site of one of the lesser known, but most extraordinary episodes of D-Day. It is also the only D-Day site that has not been altered except for a few things like the monument. The original barbed wire installed by the Germans is still there. The striking feature of Point du Hoc are the cliffs that plunge into the water. It would be hard enough to scale them under any circumstances, but under machine-gun fire it would seem impossible. Nonetheless, a company of Rangers did it with very heavy losses. It was a very heroic feat in a day of heroic feats. Here one got a real sense of place. After a night’s sleep, our next stop was Omaha beach.The photograph of the metal sculpture, a memorial, is the way Omaha beach looks now. But the beach is clearly just that. The waterfront is dotted with what look to be very expensive homes. I arrived at lunchtime and chose to eat in a restaurant that is just off the beach, L’Omaha.It was a very cheerful place with good food. What astounded me was that I was surrounded by German tourists. Why had they come to the scene of the beginning of the end of Germany in the Second World War? One man sitting at the next table struck me especially. He was a large man with white hair. I could not guess his age. He was drinking what passed for a stein of beer and speaking loudly. Could he have been on the beach that day, on the other side, or was it his father or someone else in the family? I did not ask. After lunch we went to visit the American cemetery. This is a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring place with its thousands of graves in perfect geometric order. General Roosevelt is buried there with two other Medal of Honor soldiers. Their tombstones are engraved in gold.
In 1974, Tass died. I heard that she was sick and in the hospital. I said to Botsford, when I went to see him in the office, that I hoped she would soon get better. He replied simply that she wouldn’t. Botsford later married The New Yorker writer, Janet Malcolm. Even after he had retired from The New Yorker he continued to edit her pieces. In the last few years of his life Botsford suffered from macular degeneration. His vision was very bad. How he managed to write his book I cannot imagine. Nonetheless, when I met him, and asked how he was, he replied the same way he had always whenever I, or anyone else asked: “Never better.”Jeremy Bernstein’s forthcoming book, “Secrets of the Old One – Einstein 1905,” will be published in the fall.