April 19, 2011

How Hendrik Hertzberg came to the New Yorker


Jimmy Carter and Hendrik Hertzberg

A profile of Hendrik Hertzberg in Current Biography tells the tale of how the famed essayist came to the New Yorker. Like many New Yorker stories, the tale begins at the Harvard Crimson, where Hertzberg was managing editor. He …

…  got a phone call from a man who identified himself as William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker. “Yes,” Hertzberg replied before hanging up, thinking that his friends were playing a prank on him, “and this is Marie of Romania.” Then the phone rang again, and the caller insisted, “No, this really is William Shawn.”

Shawn had learned about Hertzberg from Lillian Ross, who had seen Hertzberg interviewed during a television documentary. Hertzberg turned the job down, instead moving to California to work for Newsweek, where “he covered Ronald Reagan‘s campaign for governor, the beginnings of hippie culture, and figures in the San Francisco music scene.”

It took until 1969, after a stint in the Navy, for Hertzberg to take up Shawn’s offer; he “wrote mostly about rock concerts and various odd characters and curious goings-on around town, such as the recent arrival of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had moved to New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.” He left to write political speeches, for Jimmy Carter among others, and also served as editor of The New Republic before returning to the New Yorker in 1992, under Tina Brown.

About his political writing at the magazine, Herzberg says he has no particular method, “Other than to suffer for a few days and worry that I’ll never be able to do this and will have to commit suicide or move out of the country.”

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.