Which might suggest the dictionary-reader would be a rococo prose stylist, a twentieth-century Sir Thomas Browne, and that would be mistaken. John McNulty’s style was at once plain and conversational, evolved from his work as a reporter and rewrite man for newspapers. His ear for American speech was flawless. If he reminds the reader of another writer it might be Damon Runyon or William Saroyan, though he’s less sentimental and flashy. Their turf overlapped. Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, called it “lowlife.”
There’s little drama in McNulty’s sketches for the magazine, and no politics. They are the opposite of “high concept.” McNulty (1895-1956) never condescends to the people he writes about, in part because he is one of them. He was a drinking man who played the horses, and doesn’t go slumming. He writes about bartenders, taxi drivers, fellow horse players and other habitués of Manhattan’s Third Avenue because that’s where he found a home. Many of his stories – rooted in real life but, I suspect, lightly fictionalized – are set in Costello’s, a bar patronized by New Yorker writers. It started as a speakeasy in 1929 before moving to the northeast corner of 44th Street and Third Avenue. It closed in 1973.
McNulty dates from the time when The New Yorker was still readable. His contemporaries at the magazine were A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. He is a lesser writer than either but his work recalls the old-fashioned journalism virtue he shared with them: an abiding interest in people as individuals, not types or spokesmen for demographic data sets. You can find his work in The World of John McNulty (Dolphin Books, 1961), with an introduction by his friend James Thurber (author of the passage quoted at the top), and This Place on Third Avenue (Counterpoint, 2001), with a memoir by his widow, Faith McNulty, who was also a New Yorker writer. One small example of how McNulty could take a flyweight premise and, through close listening and a refusal to get pretentious, turn it into a charming feuilleton-like essay, is “It’s a Morning City, Too.” It was published in The New Yorker on Jan. 24, 1953. You’ll find it in the first volume just mentioned. McNulty tells us it’s his habit to get up early and take a walk:
“[T]he doormen along the street say hello or good morning, as a rule, and are inclined to stop a minute and talk, the newsstand man in our neighborhood, on the East Side, around the Seventies, he is Maxie, who weighs a hundred and fourteen pounds and can work twenty hours at a stretch without blinking an eye, has time too say hello or tell a gag or two, fellows fixing the fruit and vegetables out on in front of the stores on Second Avenue have time to say hello, the policeman is apt to nod some kind of good morning, and there’s a feeling all around in the air as if the whole town, beginning with our neighborhood, was saying, ‘Let’s go, boys, a new day is starting in this town, let’s go.’ It is fine to see anything big getting started, and here, every morning, when a man is walking around, is the biggest city in the world getting started.”
Not your customary understanding of New York City. You sense how important friendliness and collegiality were to McNulty, whether on the street or in a saloon. He talks to everyone, beginning with the elevator operator in his building and continuing with Maxie and “a great big friendly Slovak man” named Dayler. He writes:
“It is always a marvel to me how all these thousands of little, two-by-four stores get by. . . . All these small stores look courageous starting each day, and they must make a buck here, a buck there, and keep going one way or another.”
Nothing human is alien to McNulty. He likes people without making a philosophy out of it. McNulty stops for a cup of coffee at Stevie’s, a bar and restaurant owned by a Slovak family. The son, Jerry, who is studying at NYU to become a doctor is behind the bar:
“So this morning, the way nobody can explain, the subject of the human liver came up, somebody mentioned it in front of the bar, and Jerry, very quietly and earnestly, gave a little talk on what he learned so far, in pre-med-school. About the human kidney. Interesting and informative. Everybody listened.”
Another excellent story, longer than most and based on the heart attack McNulty suffered in 1949 and his subsequent hospitalization, is “Bellevue Days.” Even there he makes friends with fellow patients and the nurses. Like a good reporter, he’s always looking at the world, not gazing inward. Thurber, who knew McNulty from the 1920s when they worked for rival newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, writes of his friend:
“A few years before he died he gave me his precious copy of Mencken’s The American Language, saying, ‘This is the book I love the most.’ Mencken once spoke to me, in the Algonquin lobby, in praise of McNulty and his handling of the people and the parlance of Third Avenue, and I remember how McNulty’s face lighted up when I told him about it.”
McNulty died on this date, July 29, in 1956, six months to the day after Mencken.