The Million-Dollar Enigma
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In that spirit, on May 19 the library will be hosting a Lu Burke Literary Night for its benefactors, area writers and a few invited guests in the first of what Thorson hopes will be many such evenings. On that night, the library’s front counter will be officially rechristened the Lu Burke Circulation Desk and novelist Steven Millhauser, known for his own reclusive tendencies, will read from his work.
Alice Quinn, a former editor at The New Yorker whose father, Ray, is a Pomperaug Woods resident, arranged for the appearance by Millhauser, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler. Quinn had been drawn back into contact with Burke during one of her weekly visits to have dinner with her father. She’d spotted an elderly woman across the room whose face and piercing blue eyes were familiar.
“When we first noticed each other, we sized each other up from afar like a couple of cats—just a glimpse on both sides,” says Quinn. “The second time, we fell into step in a corridor, and she said, ‘I thought I’d seen you here. I’m glad you’ve materialized!’”
Yes, it was true. Here was Lu Burke, who as copy editor extraordinaire had been the scourge of sloppy writing for many years at The New Yorker, Life and Saturday Review. She’d also done a stint at Simon & Schuster, where her bailiwick was mystery novels. As The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Quinn had encountered Burke often from 1987 to 2007.
“I worked with Lu quite a bit, as she was often the copy editor for the poems and also gave me her copyedited proofs on many of the stories I edited,” says Quinn, now executive director of the Poetry Society of America. “I liked Lu. She was brusque and had a gimlet eye, and was very much her own person.”
Most memories of Lu Burke by her former colleagues are work-related. Few of her colleagues interviewed for this story—people with whom she worked closely for years—could recall much about her life outside The New Yorker other than that she lived on Horatio Street in the West Village, loved jazz and classical music, drank martinis and read Anthony Trollope. No one, for example, could recall where she came from originally, though Massachusetts is the consensus guess, or where she went to school; she told one colleague she’d gone to Vassar, but another colleague said, “I am absolutely certain that she didn’t graduate from college and pretty sure she had never gone to college at all.”
One thing was known with as close to certainty as anything: Burke was estranged from her family. As Lindsley Cameron, a friend of Lu’s and a former copy editor at The New Yorker, put it, “Lu was sparing of personal details and my memories of those she did share are often cloudy because when she revealed things, it was usually in a deliberately vague way. She had a brother, or stepbrother, who may have had a couple of daughters, but whether because all her relatives had died or she had cut them off, she considered herself to have no family, and often said so.”
Even her full first name—“Lu” being the shortened, or edited, form she preferred—was a mystery to those who knew her. All in all, Burke was almost as much a mystery during her long and distinguished editing career as she is now to the library patrons of Southbury.
Though for some reason she is not mentioned in any of the myriad memoirs about The New Yorker, from 1958 to 1989 when William Shawn and then Robert Gottlieb were the top editors, Lu Burke was a presence on just about every page of the magazine. A formidable “page OKer” on the magazine’s copy desk—her penciled “OK” on a proof meant that it was good to go—Burke was the catcher in the rye, so to speak, flinging unnecessary commas and run-on sentences (like this one) aside and sprinkling needed commas, periods and quotation marks into their proper places. Statues may not be erected to copy editors, but no good magazine or publishing house could exist without them. Like umpires, good copy editors simply disappear if they’re doing their jobs well.
“Copy editing is an invisible and often thankless job,” says Mary Norris, one of Burke’s closest colleagues on the copy desk and someone who visited her a few times in Southbury after her retirement. “The only time you’re noticed is when you make a mistake.”
Peter Canby met Lu Burke when he started at The New Yorker in the fact-checking department. “Her official title, ‘Page OKer,’ sounds arcane and Dickensian but it’s a very significant role at the magazine,” says Canby, now the head of the fact-checking department. “Page OKers are the ones who make the final sign-offs before a page can be printed. They meet with the fact-checking department in the final days before deadline and go over everything.”
Canby recalls one of Burke’s amusing inventions, dubbed the “comma shaker.”
“She had a pizza-parlor shaker on her desk on which she’d written, ‘COMMAS,’ and she’d pretend to sprinkle the commas onto the pages of copy,” he says. “I liked Lu a great deal. She was the foot-stomping, foul-mouthed sort of person who—I hate to use a cliché but it sticks here—had a heart of gold. She was tempestuous and overopinionated but likable and very dedicated to her job, as people with that temperament often are. She’d come to our office to complain about the world—to her, the world was always a disaster.”