The Million-Dollar Enigma

 

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Ann Goldstein, now head of the copy-editing department at the magazine, worked closely with Burke for years, but admits she didn’t get to know her all that well.

“Lu was very particular, and in her last years at the magazine she mainly edited fiction,” says Goldstein. “In the beginning, of course, she edited everything, as we all did. But she was one of the senior members on the staff when I arrived and she preferred fiction and poetry.”

“Lu was the consummate professional, and she edited or did everything with her whole being,” says Norris, who now has custody of Burke’s comma shaker. “She felt that if we were going to run newsbreaks [brief filler items featuring errors and bad writing culled from newspapers around the country] and make fun of mistakes found in other publications, we better not make any ourselves. She could be so mean about pointing out mistakes made by others because she never made them herself.”
 

Being a crank at The New Yorker in those early days, when the office was on West 43rd Street across from the Algonquin Hotel, was par for the course.

“This was the William Shawn [the legendary editor who ruled the roost from 1952 to 1987] era and it was pretty much a nuthouse here,” says Canby. “There were many eccentric and difficult people who had offices scattered among the corridors of the old building, cartoonists and writers who still maintained offices. It was the sort of environment where Lu fit in.”

“She was a bully—a brilliant bully, but a bully,” says Charles McGrath, former fiction editor at The New Yorker and now an editor and writer at The New York Times. McGrath recalls that Burke was such a force to be reckoned with that she crossed swords with Eleanor Gould, the epochal grammarian who, unlike Lu, is mentioned in all the memoirs about The New Yorker.

“Gould was a great editor, but great in her own way,” says McGrath. “She could be tone- deaf and edited everything the same way, as if from a mathematical formula, making no allowances for writers’ individual styles. Real style, in fact, bugged her, and she often went crazy over someone like John McPhee.”

According to Daniel Menaker, an editor and writer at The New Yorker for 26 years and now editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group, “The height of  ‘Gouldism’ was the time when someone left off a second comma at the end of someone’s name that contained a ‘Jr.’ She circled the space where the comma should have been and wrote a note in the magin, ‘Have we lost our minds?’ Lu was a moderating force for this, but Eleanor was more famous for a reason.”

By the time McGrath arrived at the magazine in the early 1970s, there had been a figurative revolt against Gould’s one-size-fits-all approach. Those doing the revolting looked to Burke as an anti-Eleanor Gould, as the editor who was more sensitive and, despite her irascibility, more flexible with language.

“Lu had the office right next to Eleanor and they had different philosophies, to say the least,” says Norris, laughing. “Eleanor would have edited Proust the same way she did ‘Talk of the Town.’ She had a way of making you feel very small if you asked a question, but Lu preferred that you ask ignorant questions rather than stay ignorant.”

The upshot of this friction between editors was that Burke agreed to stop editing nonfiction pieces and turn to fiction and poetry.

“This was a fine arrangement for William Shawn, who was terrified of Lu, because she was just as impatient and bossy with him as with anyone else at the magazine,” says McGrath. “He was perfectly happy to have the editing turf divided up this way.”

In the end, McGrath believes, everybody benefited from the new arrangement.

“Everyone came to respect what Lu Burke did,” says McGrath, who insists that even the production staff was terrified of Burke, calling her “Sarge” behind her back. “Her fussy insistence on good writing was important, if not essential, to The New Yorker. She had a genuine sensitivity to the individual styles of writers. She was very well-read and she really rolled up her sleeves.”

McGrath recalls a particularly long story by John Updike that had a huge cast of characters. While editing the story, Lu created a genealogy chart with all the characters listed and found some inconsistencies the author had missed.  

“Updike was incredibly grateful to her for this,” says McGrath. “Lu knew the real thing from gilded crap. Because of her, and the rest of the editorial system at the magazine, we could take something mediocre and give it the veneer of something much better. Lu’s legend has been eclipsed by Eleanor Gould but in her way, Lu was just as important a figure to the magazine’s reputation. She just did not want the attention.”

“When I started on the copy desk in 1983, I was terrified of Lu and wanted so badly to please her,” recalls Norris. “Once she came in to compliment me on the way I had handled the commas in a story by Edna O’Brien. O’Brien, she said, had an idiosyncratic way with punctuation, which I had noticed, and after reading the piece she had thought, ‘I bet this was copyedited by Mary Norris.’ I knew I had made it after that.”

Menaker had a similar trial by fire. His mother, Mary Grace, was a legendary editor at Fortune, but he made a less than auspicious debut on the copy desk.

The Million-Dollar Enigma

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