October 26, 2021

In About Town, his lively 2000 history of the New Yorker, Ben Yagoda corrals a number of criticisms levelled at the magazine during the Forties. The New York Post slammed its “thin, snobbish, skilfully written sketches about people without passion or money troubles”. The critic John W. Aldridge accused it of fearing “all emotion that cannot be expressed in the whisper of a nuance”. The Partisan Review charged that the New Yorker “makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking”.

Today, these darts could easily be thrown at Wes Anderson, whose new anthology film, The French Dispatch, revolves around a New Yorker-style magazine published by the French bureau of a wealthy Kansas newspaper between 1925 (also the New Yorker’s birth date) and 1975. Framed as articles in the magazine’s final issue, the stories draw on characters and episodes from the New Yorker’s history, many of which are named in the credits. Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac covers “hobos, pimps and junkies” much like the legendary reporter Joseph Mitchell, while Jeffrey Wright’s melancholy, hilarious food writer Roebuck Wright is James Baldwin with a dollop of AJ Liebling.

The ecstatic testimonials quoted by Yagoda could also apply to Anderson. One staff writer calls his first contract “my pass to an enchanted kingdom”. The narrator of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying says: “It was not that I merely read the New Yorker, I lived it in a private way. I had created for myself a New Yorker world.”

Anderson’s ability to create his own enchanted, self-contained world is well-established. Twenty-five years after he debuted with Bottle Rocket, film-goers know what they make of him and he has no apparent interest in changing their minds. It’s not true that he never changes. The Fantastic Mr Fox was a triumphant venture into stop-motion animation, while The Grand Budapest Hotel deepened his obsession with fastidious eccentrics who create beautiful sanctuaries from the ugliness of the world by pitting one of them, Ralph Fiennes’s Monsieur Gustave, against the extreme ugliness of totalitarianism. His appetite for new storytelling techniques is underrated, as are his emotional rug-pulls, which are all the more effective because his characters are so reluctant to broadcast their feelings.

Still, he does what he does. Critics have exhausted the metaphors of snowglobes and dollhouses to describe his meticulously curated out-of-time worlds. Arguments about style versus substance (as if they were two distinct qualities in cinema) are old and tired. Fans know how his characters will talk, dress and move. There is even an art book called Accidentally Wes Anderson, featuring travel photographs that conform to the director’s love of symmetry and colour. Anderson effectively operates on a subscription model rather than hustling for passing trade.

The only surprising thing about The French Dispatch is that it took him so long. A New Yorker reader since his teens, he owns a collection of bound volumes going back to the Forties; the magazine’s sensibility is as foundational to Anderson as grindhouse movies are to Quentin Tarantino. The Royal Tenenbaums in particular is infatuated with the aesthetic of the mid-century Upper West Side intelligentsia, striking a tone somewhere between a New Yorker cartoon and the short stories that J.D. Salinger published in the magazine.

But what exactly is that sensibility? It’s not the confident diversity of David Remnick’s 21st-century New Yorker, where ageless cartoons featuring wry exchanges in offices and desert islands can decorate longform explorations of hip hop and Instagram while the website does roaring traffic. No, Anderson’s New Yorker is the one that has inspired films, plays and dozens of histories and memoirs: the mythologised golden age of editors Harold Ross (1925-51) and William Shawn (1952-87). Its hallmarks were urbane sophistication, dry wit, scrupulous attention to detail, and a certain squeamishness about abstract ideas, sexuality and intense emotion. (A sign in the office of the French Dispatch reads: “No Crying.”) All of this gave it immense cultural cachet. In the post-war years, it was reluctantly acknowledged that many subscribers were using the magazine for the purposes of home decoration rather than reading material.

Closing in on its centenary, the New Yorker is by some distance the most celebrated and fetishised magazine in the world, and with good reason. Between 1962 and 1965 alone, it spawned Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Its pages have given us Salinger’s Glass family, James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, John Cheever’s The Swimmer, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and The Addams Family.

Like Monsieur Gustave, Steve Zissou or Mr Fox, French Dispatch editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) is a version of Anderson the director, but in New Yorker terms he is three parts Ross to one part Shawn: two very different men united by their heart-and-soul devotion to the magazine. Ross, a journalist and war veteran of enormous energy and charisma, co-founded the New Yorker with his wife Jane Grant, funded by his wealthy poker buddy Raoul Fleischmann. A member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table, he made the magazine a vehicle for the qualities in journalism that he admired (wit, clarity, accuracy, charm) and a rebuke to those that he loathed (sentimentality, pretension, “bunk”). “We don’t cover the news; we parallel the news,” he explained.

Ross hired women reluctantly and black people not at all, but he cherished those he did employ. “Don’t fuck the contributors,” he would tell new editors, using a word he would never tolerate in print. “Moreover, we don’t hire the people you do fuck.”

Crammed into ramshackle offices on West 45th Street, cantankerous, hard-drinking talents such as James Thurber, EB White and Wolcott Gibbs produced a magazine that was as pristine as its creation was chaotic. By its 25th birthday, however, the operation was so professional that fiction editor Gus Lobrano said with some regret that the party at the Ritz-Carlton “seems generally to be regarded as a success, despite the fact that nobody got insulted, nobody fell down stairs, and there were no fist fights”.

The war had forced gravitas upon the New Yorker, a development epitomised by the decision to give over an entire issue in 1946 to John Hersey’s 31,000-word report from Hiroshima, and which left its founder ambivalent. “I started to get out a light magazine that wouldn’t concern itself with the weighty problems of the universe, and now look at me,” he told a friend shortly before his death during lung surgery in 1951.

The veteran staffer who persuaded Ross to run Hiroshima was more attuned to the post-war mood. William Shawn was a shy, self-effacing man who nonetheless amassed imperial control over the magazine’s output. He was a brilliant talent-spotter and an endlessly curious and patient listener who made his writers feel not just appreciated but profoundly understood. This could make him indulgent to a fault. Joseph Mitchell took five years to deliver his classic 1964 profile Joe Gould’s Secret, then never published another word in the magazine, despite continuing to come into the office to write (and draw his $20,000 salary) for the remaining 32 years of his life. One minor French Dispatch character represents the chronically unproductive older writers who used to joke about which of them would die most in debt to the New Yorker.

Both Ross and Shawn combined a relaxed approach to commissioning (it was considered ungentlemanly to specify deadlines or fees) with a maddeningly rigorous, comma-crazed editing process. EB White joked that the magazine’s style guide was longer than Gone with the Wind, and Thurber complained that Ross’s zero tolerance for ambiguity meant that he seemed to be editing for the benefit of “a little boy or an old lady whose faculties were dimming”. Shawn was no less exacting. Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan compared the arrival of marked-up proofs to an “artillery bombardment” while the fabled film critic Pauline Kael grumbled that she “spent more time and effort restoring what I’d written than writing it”.

However annoying this may have been for writers, New Yorker readers could feel confident that every sentence had been considered and every fact verified. To this day, you may not feel like reading 10,000 words on the controversy tearing apart America’s oldest heron sanctuary but you know that they’re the best damn 10,000 words on the controversy tearing apart America’s oldest heron sanctuary that you could ever hope to read.

What fascinates me about the New Yorker is its remarkable consistency of taste and purpose. Of its five editors to date, only Robert Gottlieb (fired after five years) and Tina Brown (quit after six) have stayed for less than two decades. Some contributors have had even longer tenures: Mollie Panter-Downes wrote ‘Letter from London’ from 1939 to 1984. While most magazines are susceptible to desperate personnel changes and flailing redesigns when the circulation dips, the New Yorker disdains sudden moves. Shawn didn’t even accede to publishing a table of contents until 1969. When Brown introduced photography, subheads and proper bylines in 1992, some traditionalists reacted as if she had added Page Three girls, but she still didn’t dare meddle with the illustrated covers or the headline typeface designed by Rea Irvin in 1925.

When Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications, bought the magazine in 1985, Shawn wrote an open letter to readers, reassuring them that its values would not change: “At an age when television screens are too often bright with nothing, we value substance. Amid chaos of images, we value coherence. We believe in the printed word. And we believe in clarity. And we believe in immaculate syntax. And we believe in the beauty of the English language… And if any single principle transcends all the others and informs all the others, it is to try and tell the truth.”

The New Yorker’s purism and gentility under Ross and Shawn closed it off from some thrilling developments in American prose. Shawn despised the flash and swing of New Journalism (“a debased form of journalism and a mistake”) and sent rejection letters to spiky young fiction writers as important as Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and Kurt Vonnegut. Snooty and short-sighted? Probably, but such omissions are the price of taste: every aesthetic needs boundaries.

Which brings me back to Wes Anderson and the pleasure of seeing a director doing exactly, and exclusively, what he wants. When talented young directors routinely go straight from indie movies to the inevitable compromises of the franchise machine, Anderson’s complete lack of interest in mainstream audiences feels like a rare privilege indeed. You can love or hate his artistic choices but even in his weakest films, they are always deliberate. As Howitzer tells his writers: “Just try to sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” And Anderson’s long relationships with key collaborators, from Owen Wilson to composer Alexandre Desplat, echo Shawn’s passionate loyalty to his writers. His movies about families and quasi-families have nurtured one in real life.

The French Dispatch opens and closes with a dual obituary for both editor and magazine. This elegiac tone is typical of Anderson (whose films are usually about the end of something) and of writing about the New Yorker. The final words of Yagoda’s book are “rapidly receding past”, while the title of Renata Adler’s elegantly brutal 1999 memoir is Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker.

Anderson also shares with Ross and Shawn a mission to bring together diverse talents to create something beautiful, and an incorruptible integrity that is uncommon because it is hard to maintain. He is so entirely himself that his films have the same proud energy as the standard reply that one of Ross’s more hardline staffers would send to complaining readers: “If you don’t like us, read something else.”