By Graydon Carter
When you first approach New York City by car from the north, the signs directing you to the actual island of Manhattan are small and easy to miss. I was 29 and driving down from Ottawa, and I did almost exactly what Sherman McCoy did. I took a wrong turn and wound up in the Bronx. I stopped at a McDonald’s and got directions and somehow managed to get safely into the city.
I had seen an ad in the New York Times for the Prince George Hotel on 28th Street. It was slightly raffish—I mean, there were police in the lobby most nights—but you could see the place once had great bones. My room had a bed, a dresser, and an old television set with rabbit ears. And no phone. It had a student rate of $22 a night. The trouble was, I couldn’t go to work in a suit and tie and still get the student rate, so I had to dress like a student in the morning, go downstairs to settle the bill for the previous night in cash, and take my suit with me to work.
I had landed a job as a writer in the business section at Time magazine, which in those days was considered one of the plum places in journalism. On my first day, I got in Monday morning at 8 a.m. sharp. Unfortunately, nobody told me that the writers and editors, having put in late hours on Thursday and Friday, didn’t show up Mondays until noon. So I had about four hours to cool my heels. I bought some papers and went down to the wonderful old coffee shop in the bowels of the Time-Life Building, which had a long, snakey counter and waitresses with those little Dutch hats and white aprons. I hit it off with one of the luncheonette waitresses, who was older, and clearly took pity on me, and always tried to get me a stool in her working area.
When I returned, I was taken around the writers’ offices and was introduced to, among others, Walter Isaacson and Jim Kelly. Libby Waite, who was the secretary for assistant managing editor Ed Jamieson, thought Jim, who had started a week earlier, and I should get to know each other. And so the next week we went off to the East River Savings Bank in Rockefeller Center, where we opened bank accounts, and then across the street to have lunch at Charley O’s. Libby had a good eye. Jim and I have been friends since and were best men at each other’s wedding.
Writers in those days typed on huge Underwood upright typewriters with five sheets of carbon paper separating the canary-yellow copy paper. When stories were done, we separated each of the copies and sent them by pneumatic tube to the editors who needed to see them. The work was put into the system, and in a few hours, a formal manuscript came back with the disheartening stamp “writer’s version.”
As writers, we were encouraged not to do any actual reporting—that was done by correspondents. While they were out in all corners of the globe reporting and filing early in the week, we slipped off for lunches at Chez Napoléon or Tout Va Bien, two gloriously quaint French restaurants in the West Fifties that are still in business. It would be the rare lunch when two of us wouldn’t polish off at least a bottle of wine. Everybody smoked: in offices, in hallways, in elevators. Everywhere.
In the evening, when I was waiting for my story to come back from the editor or fact-checking, I’d use the long-distance phone line to call home, then go down to the morgue and sift through the files. Time maintained clipping files on everything and everybody. Presidents and ex-presidents got their own individual rooms. Every newspaper or magazine story had been carefully cut out, stamped, and clipped together. I remember finding the business card for Fred Waldo Demara Jr., “the Great Impostor,” in his file. And I came across a 1935 letter Condé Nast had written to Henry Luce informing him that he was folding Vanity Fair into Vogue.
Talent was thick on the ground at Time in those days, and I never felt very confident. I wasn’t particularly good or useful, and I was terrified of losing my job, because if I got canned, I’d lose my work visa and I’d have to leave the country. I didn’t want to crawl back to Canada in defeat. I tried very hard to blend in—with mixed results. One day I was wearing a blazer with a crest from my parents’ yacht club that had a little letter C on it. Somebody in a meeting asked if I worked at the Copa at night. I went home and took a razor blade and sliced the crest off.
I didn’t have a ton of friends, so on weekends I got the AIA Guide to Architecture and would just walk the streets to see what the city looked like up close. I discovered that it’s not this huge mass of stone and commerce you imagine from afar; it’s an exquisite mosaic of neighborhoods and people and families and schools. Because it was the area north of the Prince George, I had, and still have, a great appreciation for Murray Hill. I think it’s the most unchanged part of New York. It’s never really been discovered in the Dumbo or Williamsburg sense, but it has never been forgotten either. And in those days it was filled with stewardesses.