My Love Affair With The New York Observer

03-06-06 BURKE

1987-1989

The Observer is born. I was still in college. In the summer I interned at CV (Career Vision) magazine, which was started by my then-stepfather, Shelby Bryan, and Marian Salzman, the editor in chief. I fact-checked and interviewed Frank Zappa and Mary Stuart Masterson. Also did some caddying and drinking. No interaction with The New York Observer.

1990

I first heard about The New York Observer. “It’s really good, everyone’s reading it,” my mother said. I picked up a copy, saw the photo on the cover (a snow-covered tree by the Central Park bandshell?) and thought, “Nah, not for me,” not realizing that inside were great columns by the likes of Michael Thomas, Sidney Zion, Robin Pogrebin, Joe Conason, Terry Golway, Charles Bagli and Richard Brookhiser.

1991

While thumbing through a New York magazine in a doctor’s office, I stumbled upon an article about The Observer’s owner, Arthur Carter, who had just hired a new editor, Graydon Carter. “Hmmm,” I thought, “interesting.”

1992

It was February, and I was an assistant editor at Avenue, a society magazine. After being put on probation for insubordination and leaving $400,000 worth of goodies unattended in the hallway, I started filling in for the receptionist during her lunch breaks. That’s when I started reading The New York Observer. The paper looked different. Better. One day I was utterly engrossed in a profile of Charlie Rose by Elissa Schappell when Avenue’s managing editor walked by and said, “Good paper!” He fired me four months later.

1993

Still unemployed. In March, Joanne Corson, a good friend from Kansas University who was working in production at The Observer, told managing editor Lauren Ramsby that she knew a guy who loved the paper. Editor in chief Susan Morrison interviewed me. I said I’d seen her on Charlie Rose, loved Spy magazine and fact-checking. I showed her my Q&As with William Burroughs and Tom Wolfe. Ms. Morrison has said she doesn’t remember hiring me. But she did.

I barely said a word the first three weeks. Hid behind my glasses. Was nervous, terrified at being around so many brainiacs, all Harvard grads crammed in a tight space on the fourth floor of a townhouse. I just knew they were going to out me as a creepy weirdo,
in over his head, not Observer material, and then show me the door. They kept looking at me like, “Who is this guy? What’s he doing here? Who hired him?”

On a Tuesday afternoon, media columnist Jim Windolf was on a tight deadline and taking a quick cig break on the roof. “Oh hey, George,” he said, then returned to whatever he was reading. It was the first time anyone there had said my name.

I discovered a way to be useful and ingratiate myself: fetch coffee at Bodum and milkshakes at Viand on Madison Avenue. I’d go around the office and take as many as 15 very specific orders and often foot the bill. Then sit alone on the staircase and eat a cheeseburger.

A month into the internship, I got a juicy tip from my then-stepfather, and Peter Stevenson wrote it up in the Transom column. Suddenly I was legit-ish and maybe worth the $50 a week after all.

I covered community board meetings all over the city. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern was a quote machine. “We should not be overwhelmed with this utopian, bucolic fantasy that the East River is the Mississippi, with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer rafting by,” he told me at Board 8’s May 19 meeting.

54 east 64th street

The Observer’s former home at 54 East 64th Street.

At another in Washington Heights, I took notes as Board 12 chair Maria Luna, ignoring protests, told a tragic Fourth of July story about a neighborhood cat that was placed in a mailbox with various explosives. At yet another, I asked an old man to step outside and fight me. Don’t recall why. Do recall telling a fellow intern about it (Warren St. John? Tom Hudson? Rob Speyer? Dan Cogan?), and the legend spread.

But it worked to my advantage, because everyone realized there was a nut on the premises who could provide some laughs.

John Homans was my first editor. Once he and some other higher-ups were going out, and he told me to “hold the fort.” That felt really good. I was part of the team. Mr. Homans saw some potential in me. He was impressed by my prediction that Beavis and Butt-head would be a huge phenomenon. “But what are you going to DO, George?” he kept saying, meaning with my life. He was trying to light a fire under my ass.

I took the work seriously, did some beyond-the-call-of-duty research for staff writers like Rich Cohen and Mark Lasswell, who had me make calls for his editorial blasting Rollerbladers in Central Park (“sorry, ‘inline skaters,’” he wrote).

Mostly I fact-checked. Candace Bushnell’s first article in The Observer? I checked that. I used to call Taki on his yacht or in Gstaad. “Come over for a drink sometime,” he said. (Years later, he admired my fiancée at Swifty’s.) I learned from the great Terry Golway what “Foggy Bottom” meant. I was there when Frank DiGiacomo showed up on his first day on the job after being hired away from Page Six. His Rolodex was the size of a gun safe, and when he wasn’t there, it was always locked. Moira Hodgson’s restaurant reviews, Andrew Sarris, Hilton Kramer, Robin Pobregin, Tony Hendra, Anne Roiphe, Ralph Gardner’s Crime Blotter.

When one regular contributor was suspected of taking some liberties with a quote, Mr. Homans ordered me to give him a hard time. “Look, I believe you, but just play me the tape,” I told the young reporter.

“I swear, it got busted—I mean I taped over it!”

I invented a dance that would make my co-workers laugh, and was thrilled to be christened “Clownboy”—a nickname meant acceptance—and rewarded for my buffoonery: “Hey Clownboy! Do the clown dance!”

And I would. Why? Because I was in love with The Observer. I’d found my Cheers, and I never wanted to leave. I looked with pride at The Observer’s phone booth ads around Manhattan. A few were framed up on the wall of the spiral staircase: “Murders, fires, corruption, power, sex …” one began. “And that’s just the wine column.” And: “You could survive without reading our paper. You could also survive in Ohio.”

I remember riding up on the elevator with Charlie Bagli and making the case that The Observer was the only paper you really needed. Screw all the others. Mr. Bagli informed me that The New York Times was also a “must-read.”

Not everyone at The Observer was a Clownboy fan. Maybe one-third of the editorial staff. But by my sixth month, I felt indispensable, and made it clear that if I didn’t get a raise, I would walk. I walked.

Then I was evicted from my sublet for leaving the water running in the tub and destroying the bathroom. I was broke. My parents said, “No more handouts, no more free lunch.” They suggested I become a paralegal.