The Million-Dollar Enigma
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“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.”