By Gay Talese
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on June 26, 2007.]
When 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’séminence 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.
Another reporter told a bathroom story regarding Michiko Kakutani, who, shortly after being hired as a cultural reporter, collapsed in tears and refused to leave the ladies’ room for a half hour after being told that Rosenthal was critical of the clichés he found in her writing.
For no particular reason, certainly none having to do with Rosenthal, Joseph Lelyveld (former reporter and executive editor) made reference to the suicidal death of a venerable and zealously reliable staff member named Russell Porter, who one day left the Times Building and jumped out of his apartment window.
Many other recollections of shared experiences good and bad were exchanged by Mr. Gelb’s 20 guests, and the digressions might have continued at length had he not interrupted everyone by saying: “C’mon, it’s getting late—let’s go to the party.”
After leading the way out of Sardi’s, he paused on the sidewalk to remove from his pocket a key that he said held special meaning. “This key was given to me many years ago by [then publisher] Punch Sulzberger and it provides a shortcut from Sardi’s into The Times, meaning you don’t have to walk all the way around the block to get in. Oh, I’ve used this key thousands of times, and now, on this night, I’ll be using it for the last time.”
He then inserted the key into the lock of a metal door that was a few steps above what had once been a loading dock for Times delivery trucks, and soon we were following Mr. Gelb through the mail room which was directly over where the huge printing presses used to function until this operation was transferred in 1997 to plants out of town. Still, as we passed one row of tanks, there was evidence of ink oozing out.
Following our ride on one of the back elevators up to the third floor, we immediately heard the loud music blaring from two self-powered Mackie speakers affixed to 10-foot-high tripods that overlooked the metro desk, and the L.P. records spinning around on two turntables sequentially introduced us to the voices of James Brown (“Sex Machine”), Aretha Franklin (“Respect”), Michael Jackson (“Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”), Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), Justin Timberlake (“SexyBack”) and the Temptations (“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”). In rhythm with all of this music was the redoubtable Joe Sexton, and within the crowds of other dancers and onlookers—it was not easy to distinguish between them—were such newsroom notables as the executive editor, Bill Keller; a managing editor, John Geddes; and an assistant managing editor, William E. Schmidt.
It had been Mr. Schmidt’s secretary, along with Mr. Sexton, who had arranged for the services of the disk jockey known professionally as “D.J. Herbert Holler”—but as “Kenny” to his friends—and who rents himself out (along with his hundreds of vinyl records and his two-channel Rane mixer) for $1,000 an hour. While he refused to reveal his rate of pay from The Times, he did say that Mr. Keller did not want him to leave at their prearranged 10 p.m. exit.
“Can we get you to spin another hour?” Mr. Keller asked, but Kenny said, “I can’t,” explaining that he had another private party to go to downtown in the meatpacking district. “But,” he added, “I’ll put on one more long dance.” He selected “Love Thang” by First Choice.
The evening was very successful, in the opinion of Charles Kaiser, a writer who had worked as a metro reporter for The Times until 1980, having first gained Mr. Gelb’s attention in the early 1970’s when Mr. Kaiser was a Columbia student serving as a stringer. “What we saw in this place tonight was what you’d never have seen when I started as a reporter here in 1974,” he said, adding, “You saw all these young people of color, and people of all kinds dancing with one another—men dancing with men, men dancing with women, women dancing with women—and it really reflects the fundamental change in The Times since Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. became the publisher [in 1992]. When he started out here in the early 1980’s as an assistant metro editor, he figured out who all the gay reporters were, and then he took each of them to lunch, and one by one he said: ‘I know you’re gay—don’t worry about it. When Abe Rosenthal leaves I’ll make sure that the fact that you’re gay will make no difference in your career.’”
After the music stopped, most people left the building; but others were free to roam around, and even wander up to the executive suite on the 14th floor, as I did, to get a final look at the exalted domestic quarters occupied many years ago by the publisher, the publisher’s mistress and the publisher’s valet. Although the beds are gone, I assumed that what I saw was pretty much as things looked a half-century ago, notwithstanding the fact that there are draperies sprawled along the floor, and the ornate chandeliers were dislodged from the ceiling, and a few plush chairs, tables and other furniture were scattered here and there and sometimes turned upside down. One object that remains in place, however, is an elegantly carved oak-wood grandfather’s clock that stands about 10 feet high and displays a medallion that marks it as a gift to Adolph S. Ochs from the citizens of Chattanooga, dated Dec. 8, 1892. This was when Ochs was publisher of the Chattanooga Times, and the clock was presented to him four years before he left the South to take over the failing New York Times, whose founding editor, Henry J. Raymond, had introduced The Times in 1851 with offices downtown at 113 Nassau Street. The clock is still ticking perfectly. It will not be available to the auctioneers, having been claimed by Ochs’ 55-year-old great-grandson and present publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.
While the interior of this building at 229 West 43rd Street that the staff first inhabited in 1913 will soon be gutted by its new owner—an Israeli diamond billionaire named Lev Leviev who paid $525 million for the property, and might well convert the interior to profitable usage beyond anything imagined by the heirs of Ochs—the façade of the building will remain as it now is in accord with the building’s landmark status.
The Times’ new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue, a 52-story “shimmering tower of transparent glass” (words by Paul Goldberger), has already received much welcoming attention from architectural critics and has elicited few negative comments from members of the staff, even though the top editors were more prestigiously endowed when they were at 229 West 43rd—which is to say that in the old place anyone holding the rank of managing editor or above (be it Mr. Gelb, Rosenthal or Mr. Sulzberger) had offices with private bathrooms. But not in the new place. Not even Mr. Sulzberger will have one, as he apparently wishes to convey his egalitarian sensibilities, whether they truly exist within him or not, and at the same time he emphasizes his paper’s devotion to transparency by making it virtually impossible for any reporter or editor in this glass-walled emporium to enjoy a single moment of privacy—be it a furtive gesture of flirtatiousness expressed across the aisle toward a co-worker, or an upraised index finger in the face of an irascible colleague. But it behooves me not to enlarge upon my meanderings, for I have only briefly visited the new premises, having done so during the past weekend while accompanied by Mr. Gelb and two amiable Times escorts who deal harmoniously with Mr. Sulzberger.
Among the things that Mr. Gelb and I learned during our visit are the following:
• Of the building’s 52 floors, only the lower 20 are being used by the newspaper, the rest being rentals.
• While there were less than 40 conference rooms in the old building, there are 113 conference rooms in this new one, giving me the impression that Mr. Sulzberger is inclined toward a talkier Times management.
• In the old building, especially when Mr. Gelb and I were employed there together during the 1960’s, we routinely mingled and associated with multitudes of fellow employees who were members of the working class: We sat among ink-stained printers in the cafeteria, and we knew the first names of many of The Times’ elevator men, the carpenters, the electricians, floor sweepers and so on—nearly all of whom, I believe, took satisfaction in being affiliated with The Times, and in their neighborhoods this affiliation no doubt bestowed upon them a prideful identity. But now in the 21st-century Times, the employment is largely monocultural, and while blue-collar workers abound on the premises they lack the old-time sense of kinship because they are sent in by outside contractors.
In the lobby of the new building, as Mr. Gelb and I headed home and thanked our escorts for showing us around, I noticed a bronze statue of Adolph S. Ochs that had held the pre-eminent position in the lobby of 43rd Street, but now in the new building it was positioned at an oblique angle behind the reception desk, with the statue’s foundation wrapped in packing cloth, and the imperial gaze seemingly adrift.
“Where’s that going to go?” I asked one of the escorts.
“We don’t know yet,” he replied.