In spite of its title -- and, one must add, the author's echt-WASP name -- Gardner Botsford's A Life of Privilege, Mostly (St. Martin's, $24.95) is much more than a civilized spin around the old Manhattan block. It's true that Botsford came of age in the rarefied society of Gotham between the wars; it's also true that the home life of his early childhood, as he puts it, "might have been shaped into a plausible comedy of manners." His mother was a charismatic woman-about-town who "had a magnetic field that picked up men . . . as though they were iron filings." Botsford was indeed upon his second stepfather by the time he enlisted in the World War II infantry.
His Army experiences proved to be by far the most decisive chapter of his life -- so much so that they, rather than his childhood, form the first part of this dry-witted, closely observed memoir. In relating his years in the European theater, Botsford wisely sets aside the widespread image -- then and now -- of the conflict as "a B-movie morality play, where the forces of light would overcome the forces of darkness by force of spirituality alone." Instead, as he notes, his tour of duty -- distinguished by an effective gunpoint interrogation of a Nazi-sympathizing French spy who disclosed the location of a key Nazi command center -- was marked by "the inevitable wearing down of civilized standards by the three abrasives inherent in war: fear, exhaustion and the pervasive brutishness of the world one lived in."
Botsford's postwar career was also filled with incident, but of a decidedly more elevated cast: He returned to the West Side writer's paradise that was Harold Ross's New Yorker, which had briefly hired him twice before his enlistment, and at which he stayed for another 40 years, until the removal of William Shawn from the august weekly's editorship in 1987. Botsford recounts with relish the legendary -- and famously contrasting -- management styles of Ross and Shawn, and details the serene pleasures of editing Paris correspondent Janet Flanner and the perils of modifying the prose of combustible press critic A.J. Liebling. Along the way, he supplies edifying snatches of correspondence with New Yorker writers, such as this impassioned note from the gifted fiction hand Maeve Brennan: The New Yorker's nonfiction writers, Brennan complained, "are all trying to express themselves, and they are envious of 'fiction' writers, because they seem to believe this is what fiction writers do -- show their wonderful minds and their unique unhappinesses and their fascinating adjustments and so on. I have screamed for years that there is no difference -- writing is writing and it is for the reader. For the reader always comes first." It's a judgment that Botsford clearly seconds, and puts to tonic use in his own gracious and lively prose.
-- Chris Lehmann