cover image McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

Joseph Mitchell. Pantheon Books, $26.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42102-0

""I don't think anything could be as much fun as to get a good hold on a pompous person and shake him or her until you can hear the false teeth rattling,"" says New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno to journalist Mitchell in a World-Telegram profile from the 1930s, but the sentiment could be applied to Mitchell himself. With the ability to turn bluntness to beauty, sarcasm to sincerity and plain speech to poetry, Mitchell who worked at the World-Telegram from 1930 to 1938 and spent the rest of his career at the New Yorker was a reporter and literary artist par excellence, interested in nearly everyone and everything. His profile of a stripper who begins naked and puts on her clothes is as fascinating as his sketch of George Bernard Shaw. Similarly, he is as empathetic toward Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan (the speakeasy queen usually called ""Texas"") as he is to the plight of Anne Morrow Lindbergh testifying at the kidnapping trial of her infant son. These 37 pieces and profiles most from the 1938 edition of this book, but with some new material added are breathtaking in their simplicity and honesty. Written at a time when newspapers tried to be as sensational as possible without appearing vulgar ""belly"" would be changed to ""tummy"" and ""raped"" became ""criminally attacked"" Mitchell made New York City shockingly vibrant and colorful without cheapening his subjects. He also evinced an empathy for African-Americans that's startling for the period (and the genre). In all, his liberating and refreshing honesty makes these pieces as vivacious, original and important as they were 65 years ago. (June) Forecast: The Stanley Tucci movie Joe Gould's Secret (1999), based on Mitchell's New Yorker piece and book by that title, has helped revive Mitchell's reputation and may be a useful hand-selling tool for this collection, which should sell in respectable numbers in the northeast and in literary outposts. Also in June, Pantheon will bring out the Mitchell collection McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, with a foreword by Calvin Trillin. ($25 384p ISBN 0-375-42102-5.)