Joseph Mitchell is one of the great literary mysteries of the 20th century. In the 1920s and '30s he was an awesome feature writer for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York World-Telegram before becoming a staff writer at the New Yorker. And although he went to his New Yorker offices every day until his death in 1996, he never published a word after 1965. Yet today, in a new century, his New York of the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression and World War II is catching everyone's attention with the June republication of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and My Ears Are Bent in Pantheon hardcovers. Mitchell arrived in New York City from his native North Carolina on October 25, 1929—the day after the stock market crashed—and his writing contains much of the world-weariness that New Yorkers felt during the Depression. In My Ears Are Bent (his newspaper pieces, first published in book form in 1938) and McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (New Yorker essays, originally published in 1943) there are glimpses of a New York that strangely parallels the New York of today: blunt pictures of the homeless during the Depression and how they survived on the mean streets; portraits of troubled souls in search of either love or the stiff drink that stubbornly eludes them; and media hucksters—not much different from the spinmeisters of 2001—who shamelessly showcased and exploited their own trial of the century, the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping case.
Mitchell's renaissance began in 1992 with the publication of Up in the Old Hotel. This volume, now available in trade paperback from Vintage, contains McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and the first 33 pages from Joe Gould's Secret, among other works. Joe Gould's Secret, the biography of a legendary Greenwich Village bohemian eccentric, was the first to find its ways into an independent edition. "In all Random House contracts," said Dan Frank, editorial director of Pantheon, "there is a clause allowing for the possibility of a Modern Library edition. And when Susan Di Sesa, who was the publicity director at Pantheon at the time of the publication of Up in the Old Hotel became a marketing director at Modern Library, she jumped at the chance to put Joe Gould's Secret into the series in 1996. The Vintage paperback of Joe Gould's Secret was published in anticipation of Stanley Tucci's film, and then jacketed as a movie tie-in edition." When Frank was reminded that both McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and the abridged Joe Gould's Secret can be found in Up in the Old Hotel, he admitted to Pantheon and Vintage's little secret but added: "Yes, the individual titles are included in Up in the Old Hotel, but we are convinced that as readers discover Mitchell's work, they will be eager to have hardcover editions of his work in their library—and the hardcover of Up in the Old Hotel is no longer available.
"I always wanted the chance to bring back My Ears Are Bent," Frank continued, "which has not been available for over half a century. McSorley's was originally published during war time, so the quality of the book, the quality of the paper, was second rate. As this has been described by many as one of the best books written about New York City, I thought it appropriate that there finally be a stand-alone hardcover edition. In addition, I thought, by reissuing these two particular works of Mitchell's, one could see the remarkable transformation/progression that occurs with his writing between the 1938 and 1943—all of sudden one of New York City's great reporters of the 1930s reveals himself to be a writer of the first rank."
The material in My Ears Are Bent is very Runyonesque in content, perhaps because it is by a street reporter whose occupational diseases include, according to Mitchell, "indigestion, alcoholism, cynicism." It is filled with every kind of eccentric, from nudists and politicians to George Bernard Shaw. And he pulls no punches, describing former President Herbert Hoover as having "the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains," and nailing an effervescent stripper thus: "Except for her G-string, a pair of blue shoes, the rouge on her lovely cheeks and the fillings in her teeth, she was naked as the day she was born."
McSorley's Wonderful Saloon is more philosophical in tone than the rather cynical My Ears Are Bent, as it looks at a city and its inhabitants on the brink of World War II. Although it sounds as though the whole volume is dedicated to McSorley's Old Ale House on East 7th Street in New York City—famous for banning women until 1971—there is only one chapter on the esteemed establishment. It is obvious that Mitchell had a place in his heart for rogues and oddballs, for there are profiles on such varying events of everyday life as black preachers, the Mohawk Indians of Brooklyn, the Ku Klux Klan and gypsies, along with the sad deaths of saloons. There is also plenty written on one of Mitchell's favorite subjects—the pleasures of food, be it meat, fish or fowl. Everywhere in Mitchell's prose there is the cadence of the city, and this mad, staccato rhythm comes from the voice of the people. "The best talk is artless," Mitchell says in My Ears Are Bent, "the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels."
Pantheon celebrated the publication of the two books with a party at McSorley's Old Ale House, where Calvin Trillin, who wrote the new foreword to McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, and actor Eli Wallach read the chapter that lionizes McSorley's in the volume, "The Old House at Home." "It was wall-to-wall Joe Mitchell fans and it was great," said Sophie Cottrell, director of publicity for Pantheon. "The back room was so packed, you could not move. The crowd was spilling out into the main part of the bar and it was a really nice evening."
One of great mysteries about Joe Mitchell is why he never published anything in his last three decades. "I can't seem to get anything finished anymore," Mitchell told Newsweek in 1992. "The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do." PW asked those in the know about Mitchell's lack of productivity, but there was a strange quiet about the whole scenario, as if a family secret was being violated. Joe Gould had his secret; apparently Joe Mitchell had his, too.