Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

In 1980, Renata Adler published a devastating 10,000-word essay in the New York Review of Books savaging the work of her New Yorker staff colleague, movie reviewer Pauline Kael. Kael had built her reputation by writing lively, iconoclastic pieces for small journals. Hired by the New Yorker in 1968, she swiftly established herself as the nation’s most influential film critic. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, she grew less interested in analyzing movies than in wielding power, using her prestigious platform instead to build and destroy the reputations of the people who made them. She courted the companionship of the filmmakers she admired (Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma), then “punished” them when they failed to live up to her expectations. She surrounded herself with a court of young would-be Kaels and used her influence to place them on publications across the country. After a decade at the New Yorker, she had become so famously feared that nobody seemed to notice or care that the quality of her writing had deteriorated.

Nobody, that is, except Adler, whose dissection of Kael’s collected columns, “When the Lights Go Down,” concluded that her work was “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” To prove her case, Adler, who had served 14 months as movie reviewer at the New York Times and had recently graduated from Yale Law School, drew up a meticulously annotated brief outlining what she found objectionable about Kael’s reviews: ad hominem attacks; the obsessive use of metaphors involving sexuality, sadism, and bodily excretions; the manipulation of rhetorical questions and the pronouns “we” and “you” to bully readers into submission. Although her minions rose to her defense, Kael remained above the fray. But the devastating deconstruction of Kael’s writing deflated her reputation and, to many readers, made her New Yorker columns read like self-parodies until her retirement in 1991.

One of time’s cruelest jests is its tendency to transform us into what we once despised. Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, Adler’s first book after a 13-year silence, turns out to be as hollow, in both substance and style, as Kael’s latter-day reviews.

Gone’s jacket sets off troubling alarms. Beneath a 1979 Richard Avedon portrait of the author, now in her early 60s, a grandiose blurb informs us that she “has had an unrivaled career as a reporter, novelist, and short story writer; intellectual gadfly; and New Yorker staffer.” A list of prestigious educational credentials follows (Bryn Mawr, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Yale), along with a trio of fellowships (Guggenheim, Fulbright, Wilson) and acknowledgement of her authorship of “prize-winning stories, a prize-winning novel (Speedboat), a number of other highly praised books and countless admired and controversial articles.” The ploy of mating a time-erasing photograph with an inflated litany of accomplishments (is her career truly “unrivaled”? are those “admired” articles really uncountable?) should warn readers that they’re about to confront a writer whose vanity marches in lockstep with her insecurity.

Gone’s ostensible aim is to chronicle the Lear-like twilight of William Shawn’s 36-year editorship of the New Yorker, which ended in 1987 when S.I. Newhouse, who had purchased the publication, replaced him with Robert Gottlieb. (Gottlieb, in turn, was canned in 1992 and succeeded by the self-promoting Tina Brown, who ill-advisedly departed in 1998 to found her own magazine, the disastrous Talk.) In the final years of the Shawn regime, Adler asserts, without feeling the need to provide much proof, that the New Yorker, long celebrated for its cartoons, reportage and fiction, as well as its patrician tone and scrupulous accuracy, was crumbling from within. “What had been a place of originality and integrity,” she laments, “began to publish, and defend, instances of false reporting and plagiarism. What had been a place of civility, tact, understatement, became a place of vulgarity, meanness, invasions of privacy.” After Shawn’s departure, she argues, the magazine lost its institutional identity and began to pander to, rather than create and lead, its readership.

An equally strong case can be made that the opposite is true, that the post-1987 New Yorker has been livelier and more interesting than it was in the second half of Shawn’s stewardship. One could begin by contrasting a representative Shawn issue from the mid-’60s, featuring an interminable Ved Mehta navel-gazing autobiographical rumination and pedestrian movie and theater reviews by, respectively, Brendan Gill and Edith Oliver, with a Tina Brown issue containing a smart, elegantly written Michael Chabon story and intelligent film (Anthony Lane) and theater (John Lahr) criticism. True, with Brown, one was also force-fed sensationalistic O.J. and Monica pieces and sycophantic celebrity profiles. But this crassness was no harder to take, and usually more amusing, than the bloodless, bluestocking fiction and the dry-as-dust whimsical pieces that typified Shawn’s era.

One would assume that the admired, controversial, prize-winning Adler, who arrived at the New Yorker in 1963 and remained affiliated with the publication for nearly three decades, would offer more illuminating behind-the-scenes glimpses of the magazine than others have provided. She reinforces this expectation early on by duplicitously announcing, “I had hoped to finish this book without addressing either Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker or Lillian Ross’s Here But Not Here. I don’t intend to discuss them at much length.” Whereupon she devotes 16 pages—15 percent of her book—to trashing the memoirs of two of Shawn’s closest professional and personal associates. We’re told that Mehta’s portrait of Shawn reveals “something self-serving and unpleasant” about its author and that Ross, Shawn’s longtime mistress, fabricates events, depicts her lover as “this self-centered, trite, and buffoonish lout,” and cruelly victimizes Shawn’s wife and children by profiting from a relationship that should have remained private. “In neither book,” Adler charges, “…does Mr. Shawn say anything of even the slightest depth, wit, or interest—on any subject”; and she indulges in some unlicensed psychoanalysis by suggesting that Ross “not only misunderstood Mr. Shawn. She, again apparently unconsciously, disliked and even despised him.”

But Adler’s presentation of Shawn differs little from previous portraits—he’s modest, intellectually curious, shy, enigmatic—and he says nothing of depth, wit, or interest in her book either. The insider stuff about fellow staffers boils down to lauding the handful she admires (Edmund Wilson, Harold Rosenberg, Janet Malcolm) and settling scores with the many she dislikes, a hit list headed by Ross and current staff writer Adam Gopnick, whom she repeatedly vilifies for naked opportunism—at several points depicting him as a bowing, scraping, hand-rubbing Uriah Heep—as well as dishonesty and vacuousness. Ultimately, Gone scarcely has more to say about the magazine’s last days than what’s contained in its closing lines: “A beloved, complicated institution was, I think, for many reasons, lost. It is quite gone. Perhaps, in a few years, there will be another. The odds that there will be are not great, but we cannot really know.”

Surely it doesn’t require 252 pages to deliver this precious truism (“It is quite gone,” indeed!) but that doesn’t appear to be Adler’s primary purpose. What she’s really up to is resurrecting her flagging social and literary reputations. After the 1986 publication of her book Reckless Disregard, Adler faded from the public’s radar screen. Since then, a new generation of readers has reached maturity unaware of her existence. Gone’s barely hidden agenda is to correct that oversight.

Adler needs to inform us that, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, she has known and, for the last four decades, been embraced by nearly everyone of consequence. The name-dropping begins with the opening paragraph of Chapter 1: “I first came to The New Yorker in the fall of 1963, when I was still a graduate student. I had been recommended by the playwright S. N. Behrman.” How did the celebrated wit come to know this grad student, and why did he champion her? It never seems to occur to Adler that a reader might be curious about the basis of this connection. Or perhaps she is aware that an explanation is warranted but haughtily refuses to supply it, implying that associating with famous, gifted people is her birthright, her destiny.

Like the tiny circus car that discharges a crowd of clowns, Adler’s little book is bursting with a who’s-who of illustrious chums. “Now, it happens that I knew Hannah Arendt’s and Heinrich Blucher’s apartment very well. For years, I spent, among other occasions, nearly every New Year’s Eve there”; “The art critic Harold Rosenberg was not just a friend but one of the men I most admired in the world”; “Over the years, Donald Barthelme and I were friends”; “After the christening of Lillian [Ross]’s son Erik, [J.D.] Salinger had invited me for a short visit to his house in the country”; “I would like to do a reporting piece, then, about Henry Kissinger—although there might be a problem, in that he had become a friend”; “A few days later, Brooke Hayward called. Ms. Hayward, her husband, Peter Duchin, and I had once organized a Bible study group. We were close friends”; “[Brendan Gill] eventually arranged friendships between me and Joseph Mitchell, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Muriel Spark, Shirley Hazzard, Howard Moss”; “I took Vernon Jordan to lunch.” One is left wondering how Adler managed to maintain this menagerie of high-profile friendships and have time to scribble even a Post-it.

Gone overflows with bloopers, contradictions, and overstatements. Adler praises the New Yorker’s scrupulous fact-checking department, indicating that the appearance of errors toward the end of the Shawn era was a harbinger of the magazine’s decline. Then she tells us that the New York Review assigned her Kael’s book “one day in 1981″—but her review, in fact, appeared in August 1980, a detail she could presumably have confirmed by walking to her bookcase. She charges that, after Shawn’s departure, “There began to be coarse and prurient pieces and photographs of all kinds.” If Adler were truly offended by coarseness, she would have spared us the locker-room anecdote in which filmmaker George Roy Hill writes a letter to Kael beginning “You cunt.” It’s unseemly to find a writer who condemned Kael’s use of invective recounting a meeting to stop Shawn’s ouster and characterizing her colleagues’ efforts as “preposterous,” “folly,” “moronic,” “idiotic,” and “madness.” And are readers really supposed to believe Adler’s reaction to hearing herself derisively discussed while standing outside Ross’ office door? “It was the only time in my life I have overheard something that I was apparently not meant to hear.” The fact that Adler was nearly 50 when this event transpired casts doubt on the veracity of everything else she writes.

The zenith of Gone’s po-faced disingenuousness occurs in Adler’s comments about Edmund Wilson:

It was my good fortune to have known Edmund Wilson before I came to The New Yorker. I had taken courses with him in graduate school at Harvard, and visited him in Wellfleet and Talcottville. Because the world is in some ways so small and life is so complicated, I even had the wedding ring (inscribed MM EW) with which he married Mary McCarthy and which Mary McCarthy gave to Bowden Broadwater when they married. Mr. Broadwater, long afterwards, gave it to me.

Leaving aside the hubris of taking courses “with” Wilson instead of “from” him, Adler could have made the world larger and her life less complicated by revealing a detail she fails to mention: that she was once engaged to Wilson’s and McCarthy’s son, Reuel.

Two decades ago, Adler characterized Kael’s writing as “the somewhat violent spectacle of a minor celebrity in frenzy.” The same phrase applies to her own arrogant, embarrassing, reputation-destroying memoir. CP