The Kingdom and the Tower

observatory billkeller2h The Kingdom and the TowerWhen Arthur Gelb joined The New York Times as a copyboy in 1944, the uniformed elevator men wore white gloves, the desk editors donned green eye shades, and reporters making phone calls from the third-floor newsroom had to be connected by one of the dozen female operators seated at the 11th-floor switchboard (perhaps the most vibrant center of gossip in all of New York); and up on the 14th floor, adjoining the publisher’s office, was a private apartment visited on occasion by the publisher’s mistress—and there was also nearby a bedroom for the publisher’s valet, a gentleman of high moral character and undaunted discretion.

The Times’ citadel of communication, whose neo-Gothic finials, scallops and fleurs-de-lis at 229 West 43rd Street were in accord with young Arthur Gelb’s vision of himself as an aspiring vassal in the House of Ochs, is now operational within The Times’ recently occupied skyscraper on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets, thus terminating Mr. Gelb’s ties to where he had invested 63 years of his working life and left him at his current age of 83 as the most enduring employee in the history of the paper.

Having risen from copyboy to reporter in 1947, and from metro editor in 1967 to managing editor (1986-1990), and thereafter a fixture in the corporate hierarchy overseeing the paper’s scholarship programs and other forms of munificence, Mr. Gelb now continues his relationship with The Times as a consultant and, for whatever it is worth in an age when the journalism he knew and practiced may be on the cutting edge of oblivion, he exists as the institution’s éminence grise and one of its ceremonial hosts for such events as last Thursday evening’s farewell party to the chateau of the Good Gray Lady on West 43rd Street.

Hundreds of the paper’s employees and their guests were invited to dance in the aisles and drink beer in the vacated third-floor area where Mr. Gelb had once overseen the metro staff and where his present-day successor, Joe Sexton, a physically fit and bespectacled man of 47 who had a salt-and-pepper goatee and was wearing a light blue cotton shirt darkened with his perspiration, danced with such tireless vigor around the room that he got the attention of someone with a digital camera and, promptly, his picture was available around the globe via Gawker along with a written account of the event:

“It was like Dorkfest 2007. The newsroom, filled with empty desks which were lousy with dustballs, contained about a hundred pizzas, 500 bottles of beer, and hundreds of journalists, editors and photogs sweating it out to the sounds …. It was so crowded that it was nearly impossible to make the rounds, so some hopped up on the desks and filing cabinets and shimmied to the beat.

“But the best was Joe Sexton, Metro Editor, who is always a relaxed, jovial presence in the newsroom, always encouraging social outings, and he’s a huge hip-hop fan, so nobody could hold a candle to his moves. He was on that dance floor for at least a couple of hours, drenched in sweat.”

Watching from the sidelines, with his facial expression suggesting benign noninvolvement, was Mr. Gelb in a suit and tie chatting with some of the Times veterans, myself included, with whom he had dined an hour earlier at Sardi’s on West 44th Street, next to the rear entrance of the Times Building. At the dinner, Mr. Gelb had begun by expressing condolences over the deaths of such Timesmen as David Halberstam, R.W. Apple Jr., Sammy Solovitz (a pint-sized lifetime copyboy) and Abe Rosenthal, who had preceded Mr. Gelb as the metro editor and whose leadership in the newsroom was often defined by the staff as a reign of terror.

Bernard Weinraub remembered being in the men’s room one day when Abe Rosenthal walked in and asked, “Hey, Bernie, you think I’m losing weight?”

Mr. Weinraub regarded him momentarily, then replied, “No, Abe, I don’t think you are.”

“You son of a bitch!” Abe shouted, abruptly leaving the room.

The stunned young Bernard Weinraub soon hurried over to where Mr. Gelb was sitting and, after relating the incident, asked, “Arthur, is this the end of my career?”

“I’m not sure,” responded Mr. Gelb.