FOR THOSE OF US whose lives were changed by The New Yorker, the news of impending remodeling of this handbook, code breaking manual and sacred writ of sophistication is upsetting.
The New Yorker's new president, 36-year-old Steve Florio, is advertising the magazine on television -- "It's a video generation," he says -- soliciting an ad for Jockey shorts and another one with nudes touting perfume, and installing ad-insert cards. He says people tell him The New Yorker is stodgy. Florio is looking for a younger readership.
Well, that was me, back in the 1940s in Valdosta, Ga., trying to grow up to be soignee, suave, AND sophisticated with only "The Red Badge of Courage" and "Beverly of Graustark" as my textbooks.
We were not entirely without sophistication, of course -- the Ladies' Home Journal always provided a startling detail or two in "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The war news and Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day" came via The Atlanta Journal.
Nevertheless, The New Yorker came to the library of the Valdosta high school like a supersonic code from outer space. The ads were as educational as the text. The New Yorker taught us about full-length fur coats (in subtropical Valdosta, squirrel capelets were about as far as anyone went); diamond necklaces (the only diamonds in Valdosta were in engagement rings) and Scotch (all I knew about whiskey was bourbon for my grandmother's fruitcake and her scuppernong wine).
The New Yorker made me want to go to cocktail parties (without being too sure just what a cocktail party was). I longed to ride a carriage in Central Park (our nearest park was the Everglades Swamp). I became a reporter in the hopes of someday writing for The New Yorker. I aspired to be that greatest of all personages, a New Yorker.
The New Yorker brought me glimpses of a world beyond even New York, with reviews of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Noel Coward's "Design for Living." I learned that my own region could be turned to tales by Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. I practiced for some time Capote's languorous couch-borne pose from the dust jacket of his first book, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," but was hooted at by my family.
News of Russell Wright china and Knoll furniture in "On the Avenue" kept me to this day from ever longing for a reproduction anything. Surely The New Yorker was responsible for my lifelong aversion to ruffles. More immediately it was responsible for the black velvet evening dress I made my mother make me for the Moody Air Force Base dances, in the hopes of luring one of the Royal Air Force pilots who'd come over from Britain for training.
The poetry that didn't have to rhyme, the short stories that didn't have happy, or indeed, any endings, James Thurber's lessons that humor could be black -- these were lessons in literature not taught then in English 211. And The New Yorker covers! The Mary Petty girls, the Addams family, the Steinberg dadas, the annual Eustace Tilley cover: 10 years later, when my husband and I were rich enough to afford a subscription, we saved the covers and wallpapered the bathroom with them, as did most of the other would-be sophisticates we knew.
Years later, at various ends of the world where the Foreign Service took my husband and I followed, our picture, no matter how true, of the good life at home was drawn for us by The New Yorker. I remember crying after a hurricane in Belize destroyed most of the city and our boxes of old New Yorkers, carted to and from three continents. To this day, I can't bear to throw an issue away.
Well, I never grew up to live in New York, afford either the fur coat or the diamond necklace or learn to drink Scotch. Over the years, I've sent a story or two to The New Yorker and they've sent it back. But thanks to The New Yorker, I learned to appreciate the world as decidedly askew, but still, with all, an amusing place. And I feel much the same about The New Yorker.
Florio may think that his changes in The New Yorker are small. But they loom large for those of us who are only grateful for the changes The New Yorker made in us.
And I don't think that editor William Shawn would be improved by Jockey shorts.