The Million-Dollar Enigma

 

Who was Lu Burke, and why did she leave more than a million dollars to the Southbury Public Library. Her trail leaves far more questions than answers.

When Lu Burke, a resident at Pomperaug Woods retirement community, died at age 90 in October 2010, the event barely registered in Southbury. This was not unusual, of course. As the home to Pomperaug Woods, as well as Heritage Village and The Watermark at East Hill, Southbury counts thousands of older residents among its ranks, including many in their 80s and 90s who came to town late in life. The local obituary pages are crowded with names of men and women whose lives were largely lived elsewhere.

Burke herself moved to Southbury in the late 1990s—first to Heritage Village and then, in 2004, to Pomperaug Woods—after having lived and worked as an editor most of her life in New York City, most notably at The New Yorker. She never married and brought few possessions with her other than a few boxes of old books, which she described to a Pomperaug Woods staff member as “my friends.”

When she got to Southbury, she bought a used 1990 Honda Civic, which she liked to say was “Chianti red,” pronouncing it like Hannibal Lecter, and took it on short jaunts around town. Mostly, however, she lived a quiet, almost hermetic existence in those last years at Pomperaug Woods, where “New England”-style apartments are surrounded by 22 wooded acres. There’s a store, hair salon, art studio, performing arts center, even game rooms on the premises, but Burke seldom availed herself of these amenities. She made few friends or even acquaintances there, and never took her meals in the dining room with other residents, preferring to carry her dinner back to her apartment in a bag.

And there the story would end, in the silence of the surrounding countryside, were it not for something extraordinary that happened in the wake of Lu Burke’s passing.

Though she had no direct next of kin at her death, Burke named a beneficiary in her will. This gesture was entirely in keeping with her love of books but, still, town residents were taken aback by the news that a veritable stranger in their midst had left her entire estate, worth $1,083,669.31, to the Southbury Public Library. It was the largest bequest the library, in all its incarnations over more than a century, had ever received. Adding to the mystery was the distinct possibility that Burke may never even have visited the library. She had no active library card on file and no one on the staff recalls for certain ever seeing her there.  

Head Librarian Shirley Thorson was blindsided, happily, by the news. “We had no inkling whatsoever,” says Thorson. “The probate court in Southbury notified us of a bequest from Lu Burke but no amount was named and we didn’t hear anything else for more than a year. Then in December [2011], right around the holidays, the attorney handling the estate called and told us the amount over the phone. We were overwhelmed.”

After much discussion, many library board meetings and some input from the community, it was decided that the most appropriate way to honor the gift was to name a part of the library after this great and unexpected benefactor.

“She was a private person but was clearly dedicated to words,” says Thorson.

 

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.”

 

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.

 

“I was really in trouble when I first arrived,” says Menaker, “screwing up all over the place, making a lot of mistakes, and I was even told to leave at one point. I was really clinging by my fingernails, and Lu was skeptical of me. She’d say, ‘You don’t want to do this. You want to do other things,’ and I would say, ‘But I want to learn this—you know, because my mother did this and, yes, I know it’s Oedipal but it’s in the blood.”

When he told Burke who his mother was, she was impressed enough to pull back a bit and be less critical of Menaker’s work.

“Four or five years later, after I’d climbed back up the cliff, Lu came into my office and told me, ‘I really respect what you’ve done. You’ve turned it around,’” says Menaker, who’s working on a memoir of his New Yorker days entitled My Mistake, due out next year. “That was something, coming from her.”

According to her colleagues, Burke looked and dressed as distinctively as she acted. “She wore blue jeans, Earth Shoes, long-sleeved jewel-neck pastel sweaters and little stud earrings, and she had those snappy blue eyes,” says Norris. “She walked like a bear and ate in those depressing Greek coffee shops in Chelsea and the Village. She’d made a point of learning the word for ‘peppers’ so that she could tell the waiter to hold the peppers.”
 

Perhaps Burke’s move to Connecticut was inspired by the years she spent at the magazine in an office previously occupied by West Cornwall’s favorite son, James Thurber.

“Lu had her own office on the main editorial floor,” recalls Canby. “Wonderfully, it had once belonged to James Thurber and there were original Thurber drawings on the walls in there. These murals were eventually removed and preserved and are on display in the front of the new offices at Times Square. She was really in the trenches with her work.”

“She loved being in Thurber’s office,” adds Goldstein.

John Bennet, a nonfiction editor at the magazine, has another vivid memory of Burke, a connection to another of the most celebrated writers in American literature.

“She said she once dated J.D. Salinger, in the late ’40s, I believe, when she was at Simon & Schuster,” says Bennet. “They went out a few times. This was before Catcher in the Rye made him famous. She also said that years later, Salinger brought his son, Matthew, to The New Yorker to meet William Shawn. Walking down the hall, he passed Lu’s office, recognized her, and they chatted amiably for a few minutes.”

Even dishier than the Salinger story was the possibility of her romantic involvement with Janet Flanner, the magazine’s venerable Paris correspondent who wrote under the pen name Genêt. It seems Flanner was quite fond of Lu Burke and even bestowed the flirty nickname “Puss” on her. Lindsley Cameron insists that Burke “definitely identified as straight—she told me she had some rather long-term affair with a man who treated her badly. I believe he was married and told her he would leave his wife but never did.”
 

News of Burke’s death quickly made its way back to The New Yorker.

“When we heard about her death, we had a toast in the copy department with the eight people still there who’d worked with Lu,” says Canby. “We remembered her with affection, even knowing that she could be impossible at times.”

Canby did get one story out of his colleague that has stuck with him.

“My grandfather was the editor of the Saturday Review and Lu had worked there for Norman Cousins, who’d taken over for him,” says Canby. “She regaled me with stories about what a pain in the ass Cousins was. She said he asked her one day to go to Tiffany’s and pick out a wedding gift for a family friend, and gave her a blank signed check. She went off to Tiffany’s and picked out a candlestick or something but when she went to pay, the clerk couldn’t believe she had been given a blank signed check. So they called Cousins to verify if it was okay, and he said, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ When this was relayed to Lu, she grabbed the phone out of the clerk’s hand and started shouting, ‘Norman, you stop this right now! This isn’t funny!’ They accepted the check.”

“We’d been a bit surprised when she told us she was going to move up to Southbury,” recalls Canby. “She’d never lived in the country before but she insisted, ‘I’m sick of New York!’”

Norris and Cameron both visited Burke in Southbury, where they often had three-hour lunches at Friendly’s, Burke’s favorite restaurant in town.

“Lu salted herself away a little too early up there in Connecticut,” says Norris. “At first, she made a friend at Heritage Village named Edgar, who did things for her. But like all the folks at the old-folks home, Edgar was old and he popped off on her. I think that embittered her and after that she didn’t bother to make any more friends. She felt everyone was stupid.”

“I’m not surprised Lu didn’t make friends when she retired to Southbury,” says Goldstein. “She was an acerbic, no-nonsense person. She was fond of some of us, as we were of her, but she was certainly not a chit-chatty sort of person.”

Among those who knew her best at Pomperaug were her housekeeper, Beth Lonegan, and a groundskeeper named Robert Cavallaro, who would do odd jobs for her in her apartment.

“She was more friendly with the staff than with her peers,” says Becky Butler, director of social and community relations at Pomperaug Woods. “When I started working here, Lu came in to introduce herself and tell me about all the other residents. She really didn’t like most of them.”

Meanwhile, Shirley Thorson, the Southbury librarian, continues to bask in the warmth of Lu Burke’s unexpected generosity. Occasionally she stops to muse on the mystery of the gift, and the giver.  

“The whole thing is like a short story in The New Yorker, isn’t it?” Thorson says with a laugh. “My staff was talking about Lu Burke the other day, and we all agreed that someone here must have made an impression on her without ever knowing it.”
 

The Million-Dollar Enigma

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