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The New Yorker's
Literary Lion Cub

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 1998

  Style Showcase

    David Remnick Remnick seeks to marry the trade of journalism and interest in things literary. (Mitsu Yasukawa/The Post)
NEW YORK—Just days after David Remnick took over as editor of the Conde Nast-owned New Yorker magazine, the new Conde Nast skyscraper under construction nearby began falling apart.

High above the police barricades that force a detour from his magazine's normal building entrance, the 39-year-old foreign-correspondent-turned-magazine-Wunderkind points toward the crumbling scaffolding just down 43rd Street and stage whispers: "METAPHOR ALERT!!" as if the ghost of James Thurber might be sketching a cartoon of a similarly crumbling Eustace Tilley somewhere behind the walls.

Remnick is camped out in his new editorial perch, which comes complete with its own document shredder, refrigerator and executive washroom. Boxes of books abound, but the white walls are virtually naked. ("David is famously minimalist in decor," says a college girlfriend. "He never puts anything on his walls. All his ornaments are in his head.") The only sign of former tenant Tina Brown is some leftover makeup on a shelf near the john.

Her lanky successor is stalking his empire with a certain nervous intensity, rather like Bill Bradley in his old Knicks days before a key foul shot. His sudden ascension from staff writer to editor has been greeted on and off the New Yorker staff with practically biblical hosannas, which makes Remnick even more nervous ("I haven't done anything yet!" he moans). Having failed to plead himself off the front page of the Style section, where he used to work, he's ruefully submitting to an interview knowing there'll be a story on him either way.

"I hate being on the other side of the notebook," he whines in mock pathos. "I'm a very private person and you're here for all the damning personal details."

Of course, he's right. His New Yorker colleagues may have greeted his promotion with a five-minute ovation. Others may mention his three books; the Pulitzer Prize for "Lenin's Tomb," his chronicle of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the journalistic range that lets him write with humor and insight about everything from NBA basketball to pop music to the economics of Uzbekistan. But we're here to tell you that Remnick is not perfect.

His inaugural appearance in the New Yorker, for example, was not the reflective piece on Boris Yeltsin that appeared in 1993. It was a 1981 citation, one of those Gotcha! press fillers, citing him by name for his malappropriate use of the non-term "legs akimbo" in a Washington Post Style article on the Miss America contest.

The New Yorker headline, he remembers, said something like "Blockez Cette Metaphor."

"Five people tore that out and sent it to me," he says, miserably. "I was teaching in Japan at the time and all five letters arrived the same day like a blizzard of horror. I thought 'I've finally made the New Yorker and now I can die in shame.' "

And there's more.

At Princeton he played guitar in a rock band – Derek and the Dialectics – so bad it performed only twice. In addition, according to at least one Princeton roommate, while he wrote an A+ thesis on Walt Whitman and was consumed with the poetry of Dante, he was also given to blitzing friends' rooms with shampoo and zoning out after midnight on "Mary Tyler Moore" reruns.

"I don't remember that," says Remnick guardedly. "But it may be true."

Is this really the sort of person we want at the helm of the nation's most revered weekly magazine?

Absence of Malice
What distinguishes Remnick as much as his speed through the journalistic ranks is the apparent absence of enemies made along the way. At the New Yorker, as at The Washington Post, it is rarely hard to find people scornful of a young man in a hurry, or hesitant to offer a snide comment behind the shield of anonymity. But for Remnick there is rarely anything but praise.

"It's one of the dirty little secrets of journalism that reporters these days, particularly of David's and my generation, really don't read very much," says Michael Kelly, a former Remnick colleague at the New Yorker and now editor of National Journal. "They may skim the latest hot political book or memoir, but they often have little or no foundation in anything outside their immediate era. David, on the other hand, is kind of a throwback to the time when reporters all read Hemingway. He's read deeply not only in the literature, history, economics and political science of his own time, but in that of the past as well. And it shows in everything he writes, whether it's about Joseph Brodsky or Muhammad Ali. He's got an enormous frame of reference."

Remnick himself pooh-poohs any notion of unusual erudition, but acknowledges escaping into books almost from as early as he can remember. Growing up as a dentist's son in Hillsdale, N.J. ("the last 'Leave It to Beaver' town," according to another Hillsdale son, Bill Maher of TV's "Politically Incorrect"), he had parents who "had a lot of books around and there was this notion of aspiration. And the aspiration wasn't just to make money or live in a big house, but that there was a big world out there and so much of it was in books. Park Avenue wasn't available to me in Hillsdale. Broadway shows weren't available to me. But books were."

Much of it, he insists, was "pretentious and juvenile. . . . You hear Bob Dylan making mumblings about this guy Baudelaire and you buy a book of Baudelaire for a dime at a church rummage sale and you're proud to have it on your shelf. And one day you may actually bring it down and read it and you discover that the whole world is in these books. And it only costs a dime! . . .

"As a way of romanticizing myself I could say I was terribly unpopular and all I did was read. But that's not true. I had probably more friends as a kid than I do now. . . . I loved basketball and I thought Muhammad Ali was the coolest thing on the planet. But it never occurred to me that you couldn't like both Walt Whitman and the New York Knicks. That kind of false dichotomy has always seemed ridiculous to me. I didn't understand it then and I don't understand it now."

Yet growing up in Hillsdale with his books left Remnick looking wistfully toward New York like a child at a bakery window. His grandmother lived in lower Manhattan and took him on excursions to museums and concerts, infecting him with a dazzling sense of the cultural riches available in the big city.

"I was very jealous of kids from New York," he said. "Friends at Princeton . . . from the Bronx or Brooklyn evoked enormous pangs of jealousy for their sophistication."

What his teachers remember, however, is not Remnick's insecurities but his intellect. Robert Hollander, who infected Remnick with his passion for Dante, recalls being struck by his pupil's enormous intellectual self-confidence. "He wasn't the best-prepared kid in the world when he arrived at Princeton, but he had a real hunger for education and total confidence in his mental abilities. It wasn't considered cool to hang around professors' offices but he was passionate about learning. He would show up and badger me with questions about what Dante meant by this or that. He pushed both me and the poem to the limit."

John McPhee, who accepted about one in five applicants for his writing course, remembers Remnick introducing himself in the Princeton bookstore in January 1981, after McPhee had posted the list of that semester's acceptances. "He said, 'I waited until senior year to take your course,' " McPhee recalls. "And I said, 'How'd you know you wouldn't fail the application?' and he said, 'That never crossed my mind.' He wasn't cocky at all, just confident. And he had a right to be. He wrote very maturely from the start."

Remnick needed McPhee's course. "I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But I also knew I needed to make a living. . . . I had and still have this impossible notion of some marriage of the trade of journalism and interest in things literary."

To Remnick, in the immediate post-Watergate years when he was at Princeton, that meant The Washington Post.

"I had grown up on the New York Times, but The Post then was really hot [expletive]. It was the first newspaper to pick up on the new journalism and had this combination of literary awareness and a legitimately swaggering news awareness. . . . It was thrilling to even imagine working there."

He got there in 1981 as a summer intern, after maneuvering adroitly to become The Post's first stringer on the Princeton campus. He proved a productive and talented writer, but at the end of the summer, instead of offering him a job, "they told me to get lost," Remnick says.

He had taken a year off from Princeton, part of which he spent playing guitar for handouts in the Paris subway. Now he took off for Japan, wangling a job teaching English at Sophia University in Tokyo ("a Jew in a Jesuit university teaching Shintoists and Buddhists") and traveling on "maybe $2 a day" through India, Russia, Thailand and Nepal.

A second Post internship in 1982 ended again with no job, and, Remnick remembers, "I desperately needed one. I was deeply in debt and getting deeper. . . . It was not as if I was some prep school rich kid who could just go off and write his first novel. So I had the temerity to ask [the late Post managing editor] Howard Simons if I could meet with him for five minutes. And he suggested we go to lunch at this Chinese restaurant where he spent about an hour and a half telling me all his troubles. . . . When we finally get back to the office he says, 'Did you want to talk to me about something?' I said I'd really like to get a job. And he started talking about this paper the Post owned in Everett, Washington. My eyes widened and my stomach dropped about a foot and I said, 'There are no Jews there.' And Howard Simons stopped laughing about 15 minutes later and put me on the night police beat. That's how I started at The Post. It was my first and last benefit of the Jewish media conspiracy."

Wide World of Sports
About six months later one Post staffer remembers overhearing a late-night Remnick phone call in the newsroom. He was explaining his unusual decision to move from the Metro staff to Sports – a decision the skeptic on the line clearly thought spelled the trivial end of a promising journalistic career.

"In sports I'll get a chance to travel and exercise my writing muscle," Remnick said. "It's not a permanent move, it's just a better launching pad."

He was right. For 18 months he crisscrossed the country, first covering the ill-fated U.S. Football League, then the NBA. By July 1984, when he might have been writing zoning stories for Metro, he was overseas covering Wimbledon and the British Open. And he was simultaneously turning out book reviews, analytical pieces for Outlook, and arts features for Style.

He joined the Style staff formally in August 1984, where his first piece was a graceful and deeply knowledgeable appreciation of writer Truman Capote. It was filled with apt but not showy references to literary figures like Balzac, Edmund Wilson, Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams and recalled Capote's statement that he "might as well have been a deaf mute" growing up in a small town whose population was "unprovided with any semblance of a cultural attitude."

"Capote found his refuge in literature," Remnick wrote, "in the crafting of sentences that gleam like the blues and golds in paintings by Vermeer."

If it sounded to some like he was writing about David Remnick growing up in Hillsdale, Remnick was too busy to debate the point.

But though he wrote nearly 150 major stories on everything from Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky to the Indianapolis 500, Remnick says his two-year stint in Style was not his best.

"I think I became a little too adept at substituting the glib phrase for the telling fact," he says. "I did too many of those under-reported hotel room interviews that ultimately tell you almost nothing. I thought I was pretty slick and perhaps 'slick' was the word for it."

The truth is, he says, that "I loved The Post but I never figured out Washington. My big-city dreams had been about New York. When I moved to Washington I moved into the most New York-like neighborhood – Adams-Morgan. I never bought a car. I never got to know the Washington area like I should have. When people would ask me to dinner at 42nd and Nebraska it was like going to Tucson. All I ever did in Washington was work, see a few friends and leave."

He reached some sort of low point in July 1985 with a cleverly crafted essay on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – a bridge he had never even bothered to cross. By 1987 he had moved to the Post magazine, where, remembers his onetime Style editor Henry Allen, "he was writing something like four stories a year while freelancing five others on the side to Esquire, GQ and Vanity Fair. And it was starting to be noticed in the building. People thought he was coasting. When I heard a place was opening in the Moscow bureau I told him, 'You have to apply for this.' But he didn't want to go."

Remnick had always had an interest in Russia, where both his grandfathers were born. "But it was the books, not the politics," he says now. "Chekhov to me was like a God." Washington attorney Eric Lewis remembers his friend's concern that "a lot of the news in Moscow dealt with politics and economics which were obviously not David's strongest suits. He considered himself basically a feature writer and The Post had never sent a 'soft news' reporter to Moscow before."

"Plus," remembers Allen, "he was worried about his parents, who hadn't been well, and about money problems he thought he could address better over here. I told him not to be an idiot, that he could make far more money overseas."

"I think I really got to go because none of the grown-ups wanted to," Remnick told a television interviewer when his Russian tour was over. "Moscow is not the most pleasant place to live."

From the moment he landed there in 1988, however, it may have been the most newsworthy. While nobody realized the Evil Empire was truly expiring, change was coming almost too fast to be chronicled.

"David really hit the ground running," remembers Gary Lee, The Post's Moscow bureau chief at the time. "While many of us in the press corps were still covering Russia in the traditional way, as a closed society glimpsed through diplomatic sources, David set out to get the human story and his speed and energy just blew me away.

"His Russian wasn't that great in the beginning, but he improved it very, very fast, and he was absolutely tireless, traveling all over the country, knocking on people's doors late at night to talk to them."

Remnick remembers only that "I reached Moscow and my whole life changed. I had gotten married two months before" – to New York Times reporter Esther Fein – "and we put ourselves in the center of this incredible drama. And you get lucky like that if you're very, very fortunate. Maybe I did well, but you just had to stand on your front porch . . . with a bucket and bring the bucket in after 10 minutes and you had enough for three stories. You just couldn't help yourself. Things were happening within two blocks of our apartment that would bring tears to your eyes . . .

"What journalism did was send me out into the world to write. And I was desperate for that. . . . But if you can't report and report deeply, you're writing on very thin ice. And I never learned to report really deeply until I left and went to Moscow."

High Hopes
Remnick's deep and humanistic reporting not only chronicled the dissolution of the Soviet Union day by day for The Post, but also produced his first book, "Lenin's Tomb," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1994. And that led to his recruitment to the New Yorker. There he would not only write but function as an editorial counselor to Tina Brown, managing in the process what one staffer describes as "an amazingly skillful political high-wire act" by producing "top-quality work that won universal respect" while never either disagreeing publicly with Brown – "which would have been his death sentence" – or "being tarred with the brush of her excesses."

Brown's six-year shock-'em and mock-'em tenure at what had long been the nation's most distinguished and erudite magazine prompted howls from many in the literary community appalled at such innovations as punk rock cover portraits and an essay on sexual domination. Despite an aging readership and a declining ad base, events at the magazine still so galvanize the academic establishment that Brown's departure last month prompted two celebratory articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In one of them, Ben Yagoda praised Remnick for showing "a combination of reportorial grit and literary elan" and called him "a throwback to the glorious New Yorker journalist tradition" of A.J. Liebling, McPhee and Joseph Mitchell.

But Remnick says he doesn't "want any compliments at the expense of Tina Brown. Tina brought me here and unleashed me and a lot of other good people. . . . And in many ways she liberated a magazine that was in many ways in serious trouble."

Those who've been singing "Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead" over Brown's demise are mistaken, he and those who know him say, if they think he intends to shove the New Yorker back in the ivory tower where it was before she arrived.

Nor is he likely to stuff the magazine with foreign policy analysis or wonkish Washington tomes.

The big surprise in store for New Yorker readers, those who know him best say, is the manic and anarchic nature of Remnick's sense of humor. Says Post writer Marc Fisher, who roomed with Remnick at Princeton: "He's the least serious serious person of ideas I've ever known."

Seventeen floors above 43rd Street, Remnick looks out over his new domain, apparently uncowed by what lies before him. It's not true that he's never been an editor before, he says. He was editor-in-chief of the twice-yearly Pascack Valley Smoke Signal in high school and that was preparation enough.

In the June 22 New Yorker, in a paean to the late critic Alfred Kazin, Remnick wrote that the real question for the future is not the need for writers, but for "passionate readers who ignore the phone and the TV for a few hours to engage a book whose 'difficulty' is that it fails to soothe the ego or flatter a limited intelligence; the reader who honestly believes that the best and deepest of what we are is on the shelf, and that to read across the shelf changes the self, changes you."

"That's a pretty good portrait of David himself," says McPhee. "And a pretty good forecast of how he'll run the New Yorker."

"I think I have a pretty good idea of what I can do and what I can't," Remnick says. "This magazine should be filled with delight and pleasure and humor and reference to the real world we live in. . . . The test for me will be not whether a story is about high culture or pop culture or sports or cooking, but about whether it's a really interesting piece of writing. It doesn't occur to me that we can't write beautifully about lots of things."

Those obsessed with rank and titles may see his new position one way, he says. But to him the true measure of being on the New Yorker has been having his work within the same covers as longtime heroes like McPhee, his old Princeton professor and a veteran New Yorker writer.

"And I have to tell you," he says with something very like wonder, "it was a very strange and wonderful feeling last week to call up John and say, 'Well, whaddaya got?' "

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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