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Humor Came Her


In his introduction to Love Trouble, Frazier confesses he had "underestimated or avoided thinking about the force of anger in her writing." Of course, many funny people are angry. But when Geng's anger flared up in her life, rather than in her art, she wasn't able to manage it with the same creative brio. At some point or another, Geng cut off communication with almost every friend she ever had. Some she never spoke to again.

Geng and Garrison Keillor had a falling-out over the contents of a humor anthology they were jointly editing. She and Donald Fagen, the lead singer of Steely Dan, had a parting so bitter she changed the voice on her answering machine just to deceive him. She stopped speaking to Hamilton on two occasions and Frazier on at least three. She also abruptly stopped talking to Frazier's wife -- which the couple unfortunately discovered two hours into a five-hour car ride they all took together. "All of Veronica's relationships were like love," muses Hertzberg. "And love is dangerous. Love involves breaking up."

But ideally, love also involves forgiveness, and Geng almost always got it, as Singer points out, perhaps because she seemed so obviously broken and wounded. "Like many people," says Kincaid, "I think Veronica was afraid of close feelings. It was why we all loved her so much, in a way. You didn't just run up to her and hug her. But you wanted to."

There's something else too. Novelist Cathleen Schine calls Geng "a kind of sensibility" -- a lovely description. "And no matter what she was interested in," she explains, "Veronica opened that thing up in a way that you'd never expect."

You can hear Geng's friends straining and groaning underneath it now, this burden of trying to convey all the rampaging complexities of a mind and personality so unusual. "She was like a prototype for a civilized person," says Schjeldahl, "that never went into production."

When Tina Brown first roared in from Vanity Fair, Geng, ironically, was quick to defend her from the slings and arrows of outraged staff members. "She thought we were all being sexist," says Frazier.

Brown did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. But Hertzberg, whom Brown hired as executive editor, did. "Their relationship was very intense and difficult," he recalls. "Somebody once burst in on them in Tina's office and found them both in tears."

Under Shawn and Gottlieb, Geng came and went as her rhythms dictated, writing some, editing some, getting paid by the piece and by the day. But when Brown arrived, Geng started staying late in the office to whittle stories into shape and soon demanded the title and salary of a full-time editor. "But Tina's view was that Veronica was too high-maintenance and flighty," says Hertzberg. "She didn't want to hand-hold editors. That was for writers." Instead, Brown offered Geng more part-time editing work and a raise in her per diem rate.

Either it wasn't enough, or Geng took it as a signal to leave. Whatever her motives, she issued an ultimatum on Christmas Eve of 1992: If The New Yorker didn't offer her a full-time editing position, that was it.

And so: That was it.

Two weeks later, Geng stopped going to work and told everyone that Brown had fired her. Brown told everyone Geng had quit. Either way, Geng felt fired -- and double-crossed by those who stayed on. She stopped speaking to the writers. The editors. Their spouses. Sometimes people who just liked the magazine or defended it. "I guess she expected people to rally around her," says Blount. "She felt they underreacted, basically."

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