Humor Came Her

The day after Veronica Geng lost consciousness and collapsed in her tiny apartment on the Upper East Side, Roy Blount Jr. went to visit her in the hospital and found her lying on a gurney in the hallway, doped up and waiting for a CT scan. She brightened when she saw him, waved, and summoned a woozy smile. “I think a blue jay dropped an acorn in my brain,” she said. In fact, the tumor was much larger than an acorn by then. After seeing the results of the scan, Richard Fraser, the neurosurgeon-in-chief at New York Hospital, took Geng aside and explained: She had a grapefruit-size mass on her right temporal lobe. It had all the implacable signs of being malignant. She required immediate surgery, plus a rigorous follow-up program of radiation and chemotherapy, if she could handle it. Geng started to shake. How much pain would she be in? Less than she probably imagined, he told her. Would she lose her hair? Possibly. And was she going to die? Fraser hesitated. His patient was 55 years old, single, and without health insurance since her abrupt departure four years earlier from The New Yorker, where she’d been an influential editor and one of the magazine’s more idiosyncratic writers. And she’d just told him she felt terrified and lonely. So he dodged the question. He told her that all of us die. “I sensed she didn’t want an honest answer,” Fraser explains, a trifle uneasily. “One of the worst things you can do to a patient is remove their hope.” Geng, whose corkscrew imagination and steeply angled worldview sometimes prevented her from seeing situations for what they really were, this time seemed to understand what her doctor was trying to tell her. She responded by doing something none of her friends would ever see her do, not once over the course of a thirteen-month illness: She cried. Geng died on Christmas Eve, 1997, as tough a cancer patient as she was a writer and editor. A onetime boyfriend and longtime confidant, the photographer James Hamilton, organized the memorial at a funeral parlor in Little Italy whose neo-Corleone décor would surely have appealed to Geng’s perverse sense of humor. It was attended mostly by New Yorker people and literary celebrities, including Blount, Calvin Trillin, Jamaica Kincaid, and Philip Roth. No one presided. No one knew whether it was appropriate to speak. Some weren’t even sure whether Geng would have wanted them there.

“After the burial, some of us were exchanging dates when she’d stopped speaking to us,” recalls Kincaid. “It was kind of like a club.” The outspoken novelist also marched up to Mark Singer, one of Geng’s former lovers and still a staff writer at The New Yorker. “I want you to go back to the office,” she commanded, “and tell Tina Brown that she, personally, killed Veronica.”

He didn’t, of course. But Kincaid’s interesting accusation did have a kind of metaphorical potency. Geng began working for The New Yorker in 1976, when the magazine still valiantly published epic monographs about orange crops, and the office still felt like a dysfunctional faculty lounge, with William Shawn as the presiding dean. Writers considered Geng one of the magazine’s most skilled and intuitive fiction editors. Frederick Barthelme, Milan Kundera, William Trevor, Tom Drury, and James McCourt all flourished under her care, and Philip Roth entrusted her with almost everything he wrote, both for The New Yorker and beyond.

But New Yorker readers knew Geng as a writer of arch, onion-layered humor pieces, a genre known internally as “casuals.” Geng’s were anything but. “They felt as if they were created in a laboratory or an institute for advanced studies,” says Kurt Andersen, a current New Yorker writer and former editor-in-chief of Spy (and of this magazine). “They were funny, but they seemed like a mathematical achievement.”

Like George W.S. Trow and Harold Brodkey, Geng was one of the writers Shawn hired during the sixties and seventies whose work was extravagantly intelligent but not always intelligible – “extreme writers,” as his successor, Robert Gottlieb, so aptly called them, who would require time and faith to develop a constituency. Shawn’s confidence in them was tantamount to tenure at a university, allowing, in Geng’s case, a kind of academic jauntiness to bloom during an era when smart-ass humor otherwise prevailed. While National Lampoon was running boisterous essays on the virtues of snorting coke while driving, Geng was doing high-concept pieces about military spending and Chairman Mao. While Spy was snacking on vulgarian overdogs like Donald Trump and Madonna, Geng was holding forth on staphylococcus germs.

“She really embodied this idea of a commitment to a writer,” says Andersen. “And God, what any writer wouldn’t give for that kind of commitment now. I think The New Yorker under Shawn was the last moment when that existed in commercial magazines.”

That commitment, in Geng’s view, disappeared once Tina Brown took over The New Yorker in September 1992. Four months later, Geng was out of a job.

This week, Mariner Books comes out with Love Trouble, a compilation of Geng’s collected and uncollected work, parts of which will be read aloud by her friends – including Kincaid, Blount, Ian Frazier, and Fran Lebowitz – on Thursday, May 13, at Rizzoli on West Broadway. The book reflects a wide range of Geng’s interests and preoccupations: William Faulkner. Billy Wilder. The Mets. The mob. The Pentagon. But it also conceals as much as it reveals. Geng preferred other people’s voices to her own and crawled into them with merciless precision, exploiting their styles for the tipsiest conceits: She used the voice of a rock critic to review tapes from the Nixon White House (“indictably undanceable”) and the voice of a wine critic to review explosives (“boasting complex overtones of potassium nitrate”). She reimagined the NBC sitcom James at 16 as a series about Henry James as an angst-ridden teenager. In perhaps her most famous essay, “Love Trouble Is My Business,” she crammed the words “Mr. Reagan” and “read Proust” into every single sentence.

“She was the conceptual opposite of a stand-up comic,” says Marilyn Suzanne Miller, a pioneer writer for Saturday Night Live. “She was a lie-down comic. You had to lie down to read her stuff, because it wasn’t short and it wasn’t to the point. That was its beauty.” And its burden: Geng can be so obscure it sometimes feels as if she’s writing not for the reader’s amusement but for her own. “Lots of times, what she writes is like a dog whistle,” says Blount. “I can’t quite hear it. I’m not that good a dog.”

At the funeral, Blount read aloud from “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn,” a Mark Twain story that Geng loved. It’s about a blue jay that keeps dropping acorns through a knothole in the roof of an abandoned home – dropping them, dropping them, not realizing the space below is too cavernous to be fathomed or filled.

At parties, Veronica Geng was the one leaning against the wall, tantalizingly dragging on a cigarette. She kept her friendships discrete, discussed her private life only obliquely, and preferred listening to talking. “I never knew anyone who could be silent in that way,” says Frazier, who joined The New Yorker two years before Geng and quit two years after she left. “This stupid thing you just said would be sitting on a dais right in front of you.”

Geng was born in Atlanta in 1941, the daughter of a career Army officer in the quartermaster corps. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia and survived Catholic school by standing on chairs and entertaining her classmates with impressions of the nuns. Her father moved the family to Germany when she was a teenager, providing his daughter with enough fodder for a lifetime’s worth of nutty asides. (Frazier’s favorite: “Wiesbaden? Oh, we used to play them in basketball.”) Geng moved back to attend the University of Pennsylvania, then headed to New York to be a writer.

These details are just about all anyone knows about Geng’s family or early life. She almost never mentioned her mother, who died of breast cancer when Geng was a young woman, and she mentioned her father only occasionally, though enough to convey what a bullying and narrowly rational creature she considered him. She froze out her brother several years before she died. He was HIV-positive, having problems with substance abuse, and drifting in and out of trouble. His whereabouts today are unknown.

Singer thinks Geng’s childhood is almost beside the point – or at any rate a less interesting perspective from which to approach her than others – and proposes an alternative. “People were very forgiving of Veronica,” he notes. “You should figure out why.”

Geng had one of the most hypnotic personalities in literary New York. To men, she was like catnip: smoky voice, an even smokier erotic imagination, great gams. “She was one of the most feminine women I ever met,” says Singer. “In her posture, her figure, her walk …” Her walk? “She walked the way a really swishy guy walked,” he explains. “It looked good on her.”

Seduction thrilled her. There were actors, rock stars, writers, even a professional baseball player. She categorically rejected the notion of promiscuity and said she had no patience for sexual jealousy. During the seventies, while dating writer Hendrik Hertzberg, she fired off a letter to his on-again-off-again girlfriend Karen Durbin, proposing that they write a book about two women on opposite points of a love triangle. “It had a certain wacky charm,” confesses Durbin, who later became editor of The Village Voice. “But it sounded to me like hell on earth. And besides,” she adds, “it wasn’t a triangle. Rick was running wild back then – you’d be better off imagining an octagon.”

During the seventies, Geng also slept with one of the prime-cut hunks of Hollywood – a hunk with very powerful libel lawyers – unleashing such an inquisitive outpouring from her friends that she had to make a rule. “We could ask only two questions about it,” says Miller. “It was the green-stamps version.”

But Geng was also a woman’s woman – someone who burrowed into her work, kept secrets, shopped with glee, cooked with flair, and tenderly looked after her friends’ kids. And as sociable as she was, she sought out and lived an independent literary existence, taking pleasure in her solitude in an almost sensual way. Most of her adult life was spent in the same one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment on East 64th Street, and it was marked by only one long-term relationship – with Hamilton, during the mid-eighties. “She was one of the first women I’d ever heard say that she didn’t want to get married,” says Ruth Adams Bronz, who knew Geng for 34 years. “I think she liked being a mistress.”

It was a courageous decision to live this way, if in fact it was a decision at all. As Frazier points out, Geng wouldn’t have written what and how she did if she had been a wife and mother of three. “It’s like wondering who Nureyev would have been,” he says, “if he’d been out mowing the lawn every Sunday.”

All of us are defined by our passions. Geng was defined by hers more than most. “When she was interested in something,” says Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, “she made you feel as if she’d discovered it. She convinced me she’d discovered baseball.”

Geng also discovered George Balanchine and Frank Ku-umba Lacy. And salsa music and the Atlantic Theater Company. If Geng liked a book, she was evangelical about it. If The New Yorker failed to publish people Geng believed in, she gave the fiction editor hell.

But Geng also wrote brutal rejection letters, periodically accused her charges (Philip Roth included) of being asleep while writing, and once casually dismissed one of Frazier’s pieces in a five-word sentence: “I never read Bible parodies.” Editors would sooner have had an organ removed than quarrel with her about her manuscripts, and she could be a tyrant even in casual conversation. “Once she cut me dead so conspicuously I couldn’t believe it,” says Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s longtime movie critic. “We were friends the day before. It was out of the blue. It was … personal.”

And that’s just it: For Geng, almost everything was. Her controlled and porcelain exterior belied an overdelicate person, someone who often and easily felt wronged. “Taste and morality were sort of one thing to her,” muses Janet Coleman, the host of “Catradio Café” on WBAI. “What was aesthetically unpleasant was morally repugnant.”

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.”

She never spoke to Hertzberg again. And she didn’t speak to most of the others until she was diagnosed with cancer nearly four years later.

Late in the summer of 1996, Hamilton detected a subtle shift in Geng’s behavior. She no longer listened in conversation but talked right over him; soon, she was complaining about crippling headaches. That November, while making a pot of tea, she had the overpowering seizure that would first land her in the hospital.

Since her departure from The New Yorker, Geng had been living on income from freelance assignments and her father’s estate. Health insurance, however, was an extravagance Geng believed she didn’t need. After she was diagnosed with cancer, her friends had to rally, both emotionally and financially, and many of them did. Philip Roth drummed up more than $20,000. Bronz took Geng into her Berkshires home and cared for her from December right through July.

Geng wasn’t an easy patient. Cancer was robbing her of the thing she valued most: her independence. When one medication caused painful hives, she hid them under long sleeves. When Bronz suggested hiring a nurse for her, Geng snapped that she didn’t need one.

“She was in denial,” says Bronz. “And yet she managed to be quite gallant. She was totally determined to be herself.” But Geng continued to deteriorate, and so did her relationship with her caregiver. She became vague, irritable, and monstrously paranoid. In mid-July, she packed up her belongings, called Hamilton, and took off in the dead of night.

When Geng got back to New York, a devoted trio of male friends cared for her most. Roth gave her his writer’s studio to live in on the Upper West Side. Hamilton came by every day, and Blount nearly as often. Mimi Kramer, the former New Yorker theater critic, was a regular visitor, too, and found her one of the two gentle, good-humored nurses who would be with Geng around the clock. Until then, Geng had been going through them like popcorn. “A lot of her help went, uh, screaming into the night,” remembers Hamilton. Why? Blount explains. “She thought some of the people we hired were really bad conversationalists – and said really dumb, clichéd things.”

In September 1997, Geng was admitted back into the hospital to remove a second tumor. She continued to act unpitifully, though she was in pain, busying herself with supermarket tabloids and (more urgently) cigarettes. “My most extraordinary memory of Veronica,” says Miller, “was her, half paralyzed, on the steps of Sloan-Kettering, lying on a gurney as if it were a beach chair, smoking with whichever hand worked.” She also remembers Philip Roth sitting at the edge of Geng’s bed, gingerly trying to feed her.

Geng’s condition never improved. Hamilton moved her into the Helmsley Medical Tower, where for several weeks she slipped in and out of consciousness before disappearing into a coma. Friends came by to hold her, to read to her, and to talk to her, even though she could only respond with a faint smile or a tight squeeze of the hand.

There was a great Geng moment at Greenwood Cemetery. Guards detained mourners for about twenty minutes at the gate because of some misunderstanding involving a credit card. Hamilton had to stand outside and negotiate while the others sat in their hired Town Cars. Roth amused his compatriots by scanning headstones for Jewish names.

It was a damp, shivery December day, and the graveside service was as strained and improvisational as the service back at the Little Italy funeral home. A fact checker from The New Yorker recited a prayer in Hebrew, even though Geng was Catholic; Kincaid read something aloud, though she now can’t remember what it was. When it was all over, people threw flowers into the grave.

Then everyone just stood around, whispering, crying, wondering what should happen next. Roth, with his instinct for solemn and imperfect endings, was the one who finally provided the cue. He simply turned on his heel and walked away.

Humor Came Her