CITY ROOM by Arthur Gelb


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A loving, extremely guarded memoir of the author’s 45 years with the New York Times, from durance vile to managing editor.

A son of the Bronx, Gelb appeared in the Times’ “raffish, freewheeling” city room in 1944 at the age of 20, a copy boy in a world of paste pots and scissors, bookies and cigars, Morse code and cable, a rough trade with its own caste system and clashing personalities. The best reporters, like Meyer Berger, awed him with their crisp curiosity, their obsession to probe, logically interpret and explain the facts, and their desire to imbue newspaper writing with style. The Times aimed to get the record straight and without prejudice; it was not a crusading paper, but a centrist one. But as Gelb took on the editor's mantle, first at the cultural desk and then as deputy metropolitan editor, reporters began to take a feistier approach: Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, were among those who shook the system until creative restlessness drove them from day-to-day journalism. Though hardly pugnacious, Gelb did help bring an “up-front, spontaneous style” to the paper, lest we forget the Pentagon papers or the Weekend section. The only slightly dirty laundry he washes is his prickly relationship with James Reston and a major put-down (recounted here with relish) inflicted on R.W. Apple by Homer Bigart. Gelb’s critiques of news and managerial misjudgments are bland to the point of why-bother: Of the paper's insensitivity to gays he writes, “I believe that on this issue, of such poignancy to so many, the paper did tarry for too long.” Still, under Gelb as managing editor, the Times entered the 20th century, kicking and screaming, with more black and female reporters and better coverage of African-Americans and women, even as hard news made room for soft features.

The company line from a protective organization man: readers will learn little more than they would by reviewing the microfiche.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 2003
ISBN: 0-399-15075-7
Page count: 672pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2003