What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paper Rooms: The Art of Interior Description in "New Yorker" Profiles

Fairfield Porter, Interior with a Dress Pattern (1969)
Alec Wilkinson, in his recent “Jazz Hands” (The New Yorker, March 11, 2013), a profile of the jazz pianist Jason Moran, misses a glorious opportunity to describe Moran’s Harlem apartment. He says that the living room has “a view of the Hudson River” and that it contains an “upright piano from his parents’ house.” But with regard to how the room is furnished and decorated, he doesn’t say. Wilkinson would no doubt scoff at my hunger for such details. “Jazz Hands” is, after all, a piece about jazz, not interior decoration. Nevertheless, descriptions of the rooms in which people live help illumine their character.

John Updike, in his absorbing essay “Fictional Houses” (Odd Jobs, 1991), refers to “the cozy quality of the brick rows of Pennsylvania small towns” and “the many subtle styles, much patched and revised, of wooden farmhouses” in New England, and says, “To describe these houses is halfway to describe the life lived in them.” In my opinion, the same can be said about the rooms, apartments, lofts, offices, and other places that the subjects of New Yorker profiles live, work, and hang out in: to describe these places is “halfway to describe the life lived in them.”

Whitney Balliett, in his great jazz profiles, often depicted the rooms his subjects lived and performed in. For example, in his “The Human Sound” (The New Yorker, December 26, 1970; included in Balliett’s 1979 collection American Singers), a profile of Bobby Short, he describes Short’s Carnegie Hall apartment as follows:

The small foyer on the first floor contained a desk, a big Queen Anne armchair, a bicycle, and a staircase. A turn-around kitchen opened off it. The living room, at the top of the stairs, was two stories high, with a vaulted ceiling and a row of high windows facing north. At one end were a small bar, a bathroom, and a second set of stairs. The stairs led to a spacious balcony, which served as Short’s bedroom. A bedroom window faced a small roof, where his cats, Rufus and Miss Brown, were aired. The furnishings were high-class Camp. A heavy glass-topped coffee table rested on a zebra-skin rug, and on the rug, beneath the table, were two metal lizards—one gilt, one brass. A pair of big daybeds, which were covered with bright African-looking material and leopard-skin pillows, flanked the table. Near the foyer stairs were a huge wooden lion, a stolid eighteenth-century Italian refectory table, and one of those roofed-in wicker wing chairs that still haunt old summer cottages on Naushon Island. An antler chandelier hung in the living room, and it was echoed by a Teddy Roosevelt leather chair with tusks as arms. Pictures of every description jammed the walls, and the window side of the room was lined with books and bric-a-brac.

Balliett’s room descriptions are so lovingly detailed, I want to enter them, sit in that Teddy Roosevelt chair with the tusk arms, and soak up the atmosphere. Here’s another Balliett apartment description – this from his great Jim Hall profile, “The Answer Is Yes” (The New Yorker, March 31, 1975; included in his 1977 collection Improvising):

When the Halls were married, he moved into her apartment, on West Twelfth Street. It faces south and is at eye level with chimney pots and the tops of ailanthus trees. Sunlight fills the living room all day. The off-white walls are hung with a lively assortment of lithographs, oils, and drawings. A tall cabinet, which contains hundreds of L.P.s, is flanked by full bookshelves. A sofa, a hassock, a fat floor pillow, a couple of canvas Japanese chairs, and a coffee table ring the window end of the room. An upright piano sits by the front door, and Hall’s electric guitar rests on a stand by the kitchen door.

The above-quoted passages are typical Balliett apartment descriptions. They’re almost “description for description’s sake, akin to 17th century Dutch still life – “devised as a feast for the attentive eye” (Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, 1983).

It seems to me that New Yorker descriptions of physical interiors divide into at least three categories:

1. Description done purely for the pleasure of describing interesting, beautiful things;

2. Description that illumines the subject’s character;

3. Description that furthers narrative.

The first two types are closely linked. For instance, Balliett descriptions are both “feasts for the attentive eye” and illustrations of the occupants’ lifestyle. A classic example of the third category is found in Janet Malcolm’s Ingrid Sischy profile, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (The New Yorker, October 20 & 27, 1986; included in Malcolm’s 1992 collection The Purloined Clinic). Malcolm begins her brilliant piece with a description of Rosalind Krauss’s loft:

Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room – a long, mildly begloomed rectangle with tall windows at either end, a sachlich white kitchen area in the center, a study, and a sleeping balcony. An arrangement of geometric dark-blue armchairs around a coffee table forms the loft’s sitting room, also furnished with, among other rarities, an antique armchair on splayed, carved feet and upholstered in a dark William Morris fabric; an assertive all-black Minimalist shaped-felt piece; a strange black-and-white photograph of ocean water; and a gold owl-shaped Art Deco table clock. But perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss – which are most of the things in the world, the things of “good taste” and fashion and consumerism, the things we see in stores and in one another’s houses. No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal.

Malcolm’s piece is structured around apartments, lofts, and studios. It uses them not just as organizing principles, but as a means of analyzing their occupants’ various notions of style.

An example of a room description that falls in all three of the above categories is Mark Singer’s memorable depiction of Goodman Ace’s living room (“Goody,” The New Yorker, April 4, 1977; re-titled “Words Fool Me,” and included in Singer’s wonderful 1988 collection Mr. Personality):

These days, the cottage of Ace’s own cottage industry is his apartment in the Ritz Tower – four spacious rooms of white walls and black-and-white tiles. The living room leads to a terrace that offers a view of Park Avenue below and Central Park to the northwest. Ace often used to sit on the terrace and read and work – a habit he sustained until a few years ago, when flocks of pigeons began to roost there. “Shoo, pigeons!” didn’t get rid of the birds, nor did the pigeon repellants, plastic windmills, or signs that said “No Pigeons Allowed,” so he finally gave up and retreated indoors. The apartment contains the same furniture that it has had for twenty years – off-white leather upholstery, a vague flavor of Art-Deco-in-decline, the aura of a stage setting. On one of the armchairs, there is a green cushion with white lettering  that says, “LAUGHTER IS THE MUSIC OF THE HEART.” A white grand piano stands in one corner of the room, and atop the piano are a ceramic vase filled with artificial roses, a thirty-year-old photograph of Jane Ace, an unframed photograph of Groucho inscribed “Dear Goody, Here Is Me. Groucho,” and an ineluctably stubborn pile of unanswered mail.

That “ineluctably stubborn pile of unanswered mail” functions as a segue to a discussion of Ace’s letter writing, particularly his Groucho Marx correspondence.

Interior description in today’s New Yorker profiles isn’t as detailed as it once was. The mention of one or two telling particulars appears to be preferred to extensive notation of a room’s contents. For example, here is the extent of David Remnick’s description of Israeli spymaster Meir Dagan’s Tel Aviv apartment: “The apartment is decorated with his canvases. They are naïve, sentimental, Orientalist—desert landscapes, a Bedouin, an old man in the Iranian town of Tabriz” (“The Vegetarian,” The New Yorker, September 3, 2012). In two quick, vivid strokes, Lauren Collins sketches the Paris office of Gerard Depaerdieu’s lawyer, Hervé Temime: “Temime, who represented Roman Polanski, sat at a desk, in front of spectacular windows framed by bright-yellow velour curtains. His printer was filled with bright-yellow paper” (“L’Étranger,” The New Yorker, February 25, 2013). Elizabeth Kolbert vivifies a room in Oostvaardersplassen’s administrative offices when she writes, “Vera picked me up one day at my hotel in Lelystad, and we drove over to the reserve’s administrative offices, where we had a cup of coffee in a room decorated with the mounted head of a very large black Heck bull” (“Recall of the Wild” (The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012).

There are exceptions to the minimalist approach. Jeffrey Toobin, in his “Madoff’s Curveball” (The New Yorker, May 30, 2011) neatly conveys the look of Fred Wilpon’s office as follows:

The headquarters of the Wilpon empire resembles an English manor house transplanted to a high floor in Rockefeller Center. Wood panelling, thick carpets, and pastoral landscapes in heavy frames offer a serene contrast to the hubbub below. Soft drinks are decanted into crystal glasses. (No Coke; Pepsi is a Mets sponsor.) True, the muted television in the reception area is set to SNY—the Wilpons’ successful cable sports channel—and there is the obligatory LeRoy Neiman painting. But the Neiman shows the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, rather than his customary jock kitsch, and the over-all feel of the offices is boardroom, not locker room.

Judith Thurman, in her “Ask Betty” (The New Yorker, November 12, 2012), unreels an admirable Balliettian run of interior detailing when she describes Betty Halbreich’s Park Avenue apartment:

You could not describe Halbreich’s décor as soberly tailored. The den is paneled in knotty cypress (“big in the fifties”), with pink chintz upholstery (“It used to be tartan”). The master bedroom has gingham walls and needlepoint rugs. There is a laundry suite, and a walk-in closet dedicated to Christmas decorations. In the formal dining room (Wedgwood-blue walls, opaline-glass chandelier, antique breakfront groaning with heirloom china), Halbreich’s banquet table was set for two.

But these depictions pale in comparison with my all-time favorite New Yorker interior description – John McPhee’s masterful evocation of the room in Otto’s farmhouse restaurant “where the customers sit and have their aperitifs while they wait for a message from the kitchen that it is time to go to table for dinner” (“Brigade de Cuisine,” The New Yorker, February 19, 1979; included in McPhee’s classic 1979 collection Giving Good Weight):

I remember from the first moment I walked into it the compact and offhand rural European character and feeling of that room. With its nonchalant miscellany of detail, it was beyond the margins of formal design, but it was too pleasurable merely to have been flung together and too thematic not to imply a tale. There were a pair of bullfighter prints – one called “La Lidia” and the other a depiction of a desencajonamiento – and protruding sharp-horned from the wall between these pictures was the head of a fighting bull. The animal had been raised on the dehesa of Pepe Alvarez and killed in the ring with a sword. Crossed Spanish swords had been hung above the fire. All around the room were wrought-iron Spanish sconces with small amber bulbs. There was a three-hundred-year-old map of the Danube, a two-hundred-year-old map of “Magna Britannia.” There were hand-carved cabinets. There were tall wicker chairs, Queen Anne chairs, and Spanish brass-studded leather chairs in groups on a red tile floor. I eventually learned that many of these things had come down through the chef’s family – to America from England via Spain. There were heavy red curtains on brass rods. The ceiling slanted upward in the mansard manner, with boards of tongue and groove. The silent paddle fan hung down between exposed checked beams. Staring back at the bull were the small glass eyes of a taxidermal fox – just its head and neck, on a plaque – and near it were photographs made in Alaska of dog foxes and vixens. A poster in one corner said “Extinct is forever” and presented line drawings of vanishing and vanished creatures – Cape lion (1860), quagga (1883), Labrador duck (1875), solenodon, snow leopard, northern kit fox.

Lofts, apartments, offices, farmhouses, rooms, having been willfully acquired, furnished, and decorated tell us much about their occupants, and their description is a major resource of the art of the profile.

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