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Woodworking column: Talk of the Town: 93 years of the New Yorker

Magazines come and go as tastes and demographics change. My great-grandmother subscribed to Scribner's, a muckraking magazine from the bad old days, her son Jim took Scientific American, which bore no resemblance to today's ultra-scientific version. When I was a kid, our family read Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, Life and Look. None of those exist. When I grew up I was enamored of Esquire magazine.

Recently I re-subscribed and found out the once top drawer example of journalism had descended to its early roots as a fashion magazine. Time magazine still exists, but it's a very thin shadow of its former influential punch and ridiculous editorial stance. It's competitor, Newsweek, folded years ago.

Sure, some oldtimers are still around, exist by dint of tradition and stubbornness. We still subscribe to Atlantic Monthly, which has been around for at least one and a half centuries. Harper's still tries hard with a pared down staff because the MacArthur Foundation bought

it from my old employer, the Minneapolis Tribune for—one dollar. Same goes for The

Nation, thanks to a generous bequest from the late Paul Newman.

And then there's The New Yorker. I just read that on this day, Feb. 21, 1925, Harold Ross published the first number of his new magazine, which he promised would not be read by old ladies from Dubuque, Iowa.

I'm certain Ross was wrong about the old ladies from Dubuque because the New Yorker for all its promised sophistication has survived wars, depressions, riotings, ecological disasters, editorial changes to be read by a huge readership, as the aforementioned journals have bit the dust.

I read my first New Yorker in the library at UW-Eau Claire when I was a callow freshman. Someone told me it was really cool. It was cool, alright, and I guess I've remained callow despite its influence. I loved it from the start, especially the cartoons. ("The New Yorker, isn't what it used to be," said a friend, "but its cartoons are still great.")

That they are. I've been hooked on Charles Addams from the first, when I perused a sketch of an elegant Manhattan matron ascending the steps of midtown artificial insemination clinic, only to catch sight of a dishevelled tramp coming out its door, counting a wad of money.

Then at Christmas, I remember another cartoon. A manger backshot of Joseph and Mary receiving gifts from three kings of the Orient. Joseph leans toward Mary and whispers a question: "What in Hell is Myrhh?"

When grouchy old Harold Ross began his magazine, he gathered around him a bevy of talented writers like Dorothy Parker "Candy is Dandy, but Liquor is Quicker," Robert Benchley ("What? You're an Admiral, not a bellhop? Then hail me a battleship!"), Alexander Woolcott, (Edna! What gives with the skirt? It makes you look almost like a woman!" to which Wisconsin's own Edna Ferber responded, "And you, Alex, look almost like a man." As well as other members of the fabled "Algonquin Circle," so named because every noon they took lunch at Algonquin Hotel located a block from their office.

When their stars faded, subsequent editors like William Shawn found new writers who attracted a discriminating readership, writers like Joseph Mitchell, St. Clair McKelway, John Cheever, John Hersey, John Updike, Lillian Hellman, Eudora Welty, E.B. White and his stepson Roger Angell, Calvin Trillin, critics like Pauline Kael and today's Anthony Lane.

Another attraction is the New Yorker's covers, masterpieces in their own right, beginning with urbane sophisticate Eustace Tilley in his top hat, announcing the first day of Spring ever since that first spring back in 1925.

So now, on the magazine's 93rd birthday, I bid Eustace Tilley and the New Yorker gang, past and present happy birthday and many happy returns.

When Harold Ross said he wasn't designing the New Yorker to be read by little old ladies in Dubuque, he didn't count on it being read by a not so little old man in River Falls. That would be me. I never miss it, including "Talk of the Town," the newsy opening to each issue, in which reporters interview rock stars, rock collectors and even one of my former students.

A few years back I opened my new copy to "Talk of the Town," and spotted a familiar name, David Raether, who attended Augsburg College back in the 1970s. Why was Dave, a kid from Robbinsdale, which is sort of Minnesota's version of Dubuque, on these hallowed pages? It was an entire story devoted to Dave, a philosophy major, who was at the time supervising the joke room of the Roseanne Barr TV sitcom. And he was using the Socratic method he learned at Augsburg to improve the Roseanne scripts before they were filmed.

Dubuque, indeed.

Dave Wood would like to hear from you; phone him at 715-426-9554.