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Joseph Mitchell

By Brendan Gill

He was a stocky man with a round head, a bald pate, a big nose, blue eyes, and an old-fashioned courtly presence that betokened his southern background. His father was a wealthy tobacco farmer and dealer in eastern North Carolina, which Joe was later to write about as Black Ankle County and where he kept a farm throughout his lifetime. To my mind, his physical appearance and his accent scarcely altered during the course of the fifty-odd years of our friendship. He had a singular rocking gait, with his shoulders hunched forward in what one might take to be the classic reportorial stance. His voice was at once hesitant and urgent, and sometimes in a bar late at night he would tell hilarious tall tales that went on for minutes at a time and that nobody wished to have shortened by so much as a syllable.

Joe’s closest friend over the years was a “New Yorker” colleague, A. J. Liebling, whose full name was Abbot Joseph Liebling and who was also universally known as Joe. The two rejoiced to eat and drink together, their favorite foods being squid, octopus, and a variety of repellent, hairy crustaceans, washed down with a robust wine. None of the rest of us on the magazine ever doubted that the two Joes were the best of their kind, so we felt no envy of them, only pride in their accomplishments. It was oddly the case with men otherwise so much alike that Joe Liebling was one of the fastest writers in the world—according to office legend, only Rebecca West and Edmund Wilson could rival him in velocity—and Joe Mitchell was one of the slowest. He would labor for months or even years over a piece, and—again according to office legend—when he handed it in, the editors were allowed to go home early, because the piece could be printed exactly as he had written it. To them and to his readers, anything that Mitchell wrote had the air of having sprung by the happiest chance, with no effort, from a playful abundance of talent and energy—not a hidden groan in it anywhere.

Joe Mitchell’s first nook was called “My Ears are Bent,” and it reflected his training as a newspaper man, writing in a traditional vein feature stories about people sadly or humorously out of step with the world. Joe felt increasingly that they were not out of step with him, and in the wondrous work of his middle years he was able to convey the depth of his comradeship with them. His favorite writers were Mark Twain and Joyce; one hears Twain’s voice in him, though rarely Joyce’s. Joe was for decades a devoted member of the Joyce Society and would put in many a long evening abiding some scholar’s high-falutin literary nonsense in order to feel close to Shem the Penman, his lifelong mentor.

Though he was mostly of Scots descent, Joe loved the Irish as a people and he would sit talking by the hour to old tads at McSorley’s Saloon, upon which, by having written about it, he had bestowed an unintended fame. He was a frequenter of the bar that Tim and Joe Costello ran on the corner of Third Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, in the days before the El came down. Costello’s was the hangout of a number of Joe’s “New Yorker” companions, including Thurber, John McNulty, S. J. Perelman, Charles Addams, Ann Honeycutt, St. Clair McKelway, Jean Stafford, and Maeve Brennan. Coming from Ireland ignorant of the American past, Tim Costello was in awe of Joe’s incomparable knowledge of New York City. He had long made a habit of prowling about the old downtown area of docks and warehouses and seedy hotels, and when they were being torn down in the forties and fifties, he would seek out souvenirs amidst the rubble—an ancient whiskey bottle, a broken tile. Tim said of him once, “Joe has been workin’ hard at bein’ an old man since he was in knee pants, and maybe someday he’ll make it. He’s a great one, Joe is, for pawin’ over other people’s fallin’-down properties. If he ever disappears, start lookin’ for him under fifty foot of brick, with a rusty fire-escape on his chest and a smile on his face.”

Joe helped to save much of what we now call the South Street Seaport district and, as a good citizen, consented to serve for several years on the board of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose extended meetings drove him to distraction. He also served as a vestryman at Grace Church. He was immensely proud of his membership in this institution, to which he was elected twenty-six years ago. Here he was among fit companions, peers in talent and reputation. From time to time, he succeeded in smuggling friends like me into these lofty precincts and we tried hard not to prove an embarrassment to him. His view of life was like that of his fellow member of the Academy Mark Twain, dark and comic. He wrote in the introduction to his best-selling collection of pieces, “Up in the Old Hotel,” published in 1992, that in reading over the text he had been delighted to find in it so much of what he called “graveyard humor.” Being of Presbyterian stock, he believed (or claimed to believe) in hell and damnation, and when he was vexed by troubles that he saw as undeserved, he would shake his head and exclaim “Lord a’ mercy” in a voice that was at once doomed and prayerful, with the odds plainly favoring doom.

At the age of eighty-seven, Joe was found to be desperately ill with cancer. His body seemed strong and his spirit valorous, but the struggle to save him was in vain. None of us who loved him thought for a moment that we would ever be having to say goodbye to him so soon.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 1996.

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