Honor Him Now

  • by Seymour Toll
  • January 28, 2014

A.J. Liebling deserves to be celebrated. Here's why...

Some anniversaries deserve to be honored on more than a single day a year. One of them is the fiftieth anniversary of A.J. Liebling’s death. He died on 28 December 1963, but very much alive are the creations of his remarkable skill as a journalist-author with offbeat interests and the endless joy in having been an American in 1920’s Paris. His writing is so brilliantly original that any day would be a fine one to raise a glass in his honor.

In twentieth century American journalism, Liebling stands alone for the sustained excellence and diversity of his writing throughout his 1935-1963 tenure on the staff of The New Yorker. He described himself as a “chronic, incurable, recidivist reporter.” His columns of uniquely perceptive critique of American journalism are collected in The Press. In prose bright with his gift for blending low class pleasure with high class learning, his New Yorker articles on boxing are in The Sweet Science which memorializes his love of the combat sport. Liebling at Home includes five of his books on domestic subjects ranging from Chicago: Second City to The Jollity Building which reports his insatiable appetite for midtown Manhattan low life such as conniving spivs.

Liebling Abroad is a collection of four books. Mollie & Other War Pieces and The Road Back to Paris are remarkably realistic World War II reporting from North African and Normandy battlefields. Normandy Revisited is his middle-aged reminiscence about the invasion of France and flight back to his beloved Paris.If he had written nothing else, his final work—Between Meals— realized an author’s dream of writing  that outlives its author. It is Liebling’s delightfully irreverent account of 1926-1927, “that soft Paris year,” when his student enrollment in the Sorbonne was actually “one long cut” of all but the first two weeks of classes.

Abbott Joseph Liebling was born on 18 October 1904 into a financially comfortable Manhattan Jewish family. Although the fashionable Upper East Side was his neighborhood, he soon developed the street smarts of a kid raised in vulgar New York. He was Joe to his friends and later A.J. to his readers. A New Yorker to the marrow, he was a bright, plump, pigeon-toed boy who became a bright, paunchy, clumsy adult. Early on, he developed a distaste for his parents’ solid middle-class lifestyle except he loved going to Paris with them. He had his first visit at the age of three, and it became a lifelong passion. “If I had compared my life to a cake, the sojourns in Paris would have represented the chocolate filling. The intervening layers were plain sponge.”

He entered Dartmouth College in 1920, was expelled in 1923 for sleeping instead of attending compulsory chapel, then took courses at Columbia’s School of Journalism. For him, Columbia had “all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A & P.” He read sports copy for the New York Times and reported that “Ignoto” (Italian for unknown) was a basketball referee. In 1925, he was a cub reporter on the Providence Evening Bulletin and Journal. The following year his father decided that Joe needed European education, and so he paid for what he thought would be his son’s year at the Sorbonne.

During that soft Paris year Liebling’s voyages of discovery began in student restaurants. Writing with singular understanding of French cuisine, he likened that culinary education to psychoanalysis: its value depended upon an appreciation of its cost. Women were his other major revelation. Rather than limiting his study to female undergraduates, he learned most about them on and around the Latin Quarter’s Boulevard Saint Michel. The “country artisans took money for their services, but only when they felt like working.” Liebling’s most instructive tutor was Angéle, a jolly, blue-eyed Belgian with bobbed black hair, a snub nose and ready smile. Her judgment of Liebling sustained him through his Paris year and far beyond: “Tu n’es pas beau, mais tu es passable,” (“You’re not handsome, but you’re passable.”) For him she was passable plus.

In addition to raising and lowering flatware and wine glasses, his exercise in Paris included walking and boxing at the American Baptist Center where “[t]he weekly shower amortized your dues….” When alone in cafés he studied young women, wine and read books. He enjoyed attending boxing arenas, popular theater and recalled that “The French circus burst on my vision as freshly as on that of Toulouse-Lautrec twenty-five years earlier.”

Using the ephemeral materials of an extracurricular life, Liebling beautifully caught the spirit of 1920’s Paris. Although there is a vast “Lost Generation” literature on expatriate Americans in Paris such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there’s even Woody Allen’s 2011 comic fantasy film “Midnight In Paris”—Liebling is a stranger to it all. Unlike exemplary American artist types of the 1920’s, he had neither identity nor purpose. “I didn’t know what I was.” And unlike their typical flight from a prevailing American culture that was supposedly smothering their creativity, he simply went to Paris to feel good. Paris invited him to enjoy life, and he accepted. Although equipped with nothing but aimlessness and a wish to sow wild oats, in losing himself to Paris he was preserving a cherished traditional American experience. With delightful originality, Between Meals uniquely strengthens that covenant we’ve had with Paris since 1776, when our own Benjamin Franklin was the commissioner for the United States in France. Not incidentally, he also had a great time.

Seymour I. “Spence” Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author. His books are Zoned American and A Judge Uncommon: A Life of John Biggs, Jr. He has a decades-long interest in Americans in Paris of the 1920s, and his essays have been published in The Sewanee Review and his op-eds in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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