How The New Yorker Made Muriel Spark’s Reputation

When I went into my Muriel Spark phase a few months back, I soon learned that she had had a relationship with The New Yorker. But none of the books that promote the New Yorker mythology even mentions her. You will read all about Mr. Shawn and Capote and Updike and Thurber and many lesser talents. Nothing about Spark. Which is odd because the magazine established her international reputation.

Much of what follows below comes from looking around in the (fascinating) New Yorker Archive at the New York Public Library. I’d planned to blog it soon enough; Dame Muriel’s death Friday makes me hustle this into code.

In 1957, when Spark was 39 and unknown, someone at the English publisher Hamish Hamilton sent along to a friend at The New Yorker a startling story that had lately been published (in a magazine called Botteghe Oscure) by an unknown called Muriel Spark. “The Portobello Road” is a ghost story told rather matter of factly by a dead woman, who late in the piece describes her death with a thunderclap line: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did, he stuffed hay into my mouth until it could hold no more, kneeling on my body to keep it still, holding both my wrists tight in his huge left hand.”

(FWIW: Alice Sebold, whose novel The Lovely Bones is narrated posthumously by a murdered woman, too, told me via email that she had never read The Portobello Road).

The story excited The New Yorker’s fiction department, and an assistant editor named Rachel MacKenzie wrote to Spark and asked to see more. Spark regarded the magazine as the best magazine in the world, and she began to submit. Over the next year and a half, the New Yorker rejected many pieces of work, including several of Spark’s better stories (The Go-Away Bird; The Black Madonna; Bang-bang You’re Dead; Come Along, Marjorie; and The Curtain Blown by the Breeze) and a chunk of the novel Memento Mori. Spark seems to have been too dark for the magazine. It was thrown by the shocking way she shifted moods, from comic to straight to sinister. Though even as he turned her down, editor William Shawn said, “I think this woman writes marvelously” and cited the fine turns she made from one sentence to another.

And MacKenzie (who was also nursing prospect Philip Roth) developed a keen feeling for Spark. She told Spark of her strong hope that she would become a regular contributor. She got Spark’s first four novels as they came out in rapid succession, passed them around the office, and gushed over them to Spark.

In 1959 the New Yorker finally accepted a story, a fairly straight (for Spark) Austrian travel grotesque called The Ormolu Clock, and took a year to run the piece, even as it continued to reject others. At new year’s 1961, MacKenzie expressed the fervent hope to Spark that she wouldn’t give up on the magazine.

Then everything changed. In August Spark sent MacKenzie her sixth novel, and MacKenzie promptly telegrammed her, “I love this book.” Shawn also did backflips, deciding to devote an entire issue of the magazine to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, treatment I believe it had reserved till then to Hiroshima. It paid Spark $6000 (!) and made only minor changes. Dickering ensued over the sequence of publication of the book in England and the U.S. (The Scottish National Library displays the magazine’s cover, and maintains, dubiously, that publication in England actually beat The New Yorker—but who cares.)

The magazine came out in October 1961 and the effect was, as Spark wrote to MacKenzie, “miraculous.” The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful book, humorous and accessible and featuring an appealing main character, and Muriel Spark was suddenly an international star. The novel became a play and a movie (remember the Rod McKuen title song? I don’t, but it was part of the film’s success).

Spark soon had a $750-a-year first-refusal deal with the magazine that allowed her to quit reviewing books, and when she came to New York in January 1962, the editors put her up at the Algonquin and got her the hardest-to-get tickets on Broadway: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Later that year, too, Spark moved to New York and got an office at the magazine. This went badly. Within a couple of weeks, Spark curtly shifted camp to the Beaux Arts hotel, from which she wrote to MacKenzie and Shawn that someone else could be using the office “more regularly than I would be doing…” This was a piece of polite hypocrisy: there had been a break. My sense is that the relationship with MacKenzie was much too emotional for cool Muriel. For instance, when she heard of Spark’s father’s death, MacKenzie telegrammed her, “MURIEL DARLING….”

Spark soon had a new editor, Robert Henderson, with whom she had a much more formal relationship. He pronounced himself “a little baffled as well as fascinated” by the wartime story The House of the Famous Poet, but he had the wisdom to help get it into the magazine. It’s simply astonishing. Read it.

Not that things went so well. Spark didn’t care much for informal America. Over the next year or two she seems to have come and gone at The New Yorker without being too impressed by the Park Avenue piano parties and Algonquin food fights that have made myths of lesser writers’ lives. Before long she had moved on to Italy.

The magazine influenced her. Shawn evidently pushed her to do international fiction, and in 1965 she undertook The Mandelbaum Gate, a would-be thriller about a Catholic convert’s dangerous pilgrimage to Jordan during the time of the Eichmann trial. Several parts of it were published in the New Yorker, but they have a panoramic longwinded tone that didn’t become the mercurial Spark. Later it again published an entire novel, The Driver’s Seat (1970), and again this was made into a film (starring Elizabeth Taylor). If I say so myself, that book is awful.

The lessons. The New Yorker did great things for Spark though it also required of her an apprenticeship she didn’t really need, and then when it had created her reputation, published mostly minor work. During that apprenticeship (and a little after), it overlooked her most interesting work: The Comforters, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Go-Away Bird, The Girls of Slender Means. As for the flaming out of the MacKenzie-Spark relationship, that too is something oft repeated in the annals of editing. Though it has a good zing to it. (Both women, now dead, were the source of lesbian rumors). Did the New Yorker hurt Spark? You can’t blame that on the magazine, she seems to have gone downhill on her own.

I wrote to Spark last month requesting an interview about this, and though Dame Muriel answered some questions flatly, via her agent, she declined to say any more about MacKenzie than the fact that she had been her editor at the New Yorker when she first contributed. “She later changed to another editor.”

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