Some Formative Moments in the First Decade of the Rail
In the beginning…
I must confess, I don’t remember the exact moment when I named the Brooklyn Rail. It was 1998, and Ted and I were on the L train back to Brooklyn. Marx in our veins, we were no doubt wearing matching Dickies attire—our politics, quite literally, on our sleeves. What I remember is the feeling of motion, of the bright movement of the subway tunneling beneath Manhattan. Lately, there had been talk—a lot of talk, late night in smoky Williamsburg bars, particularly the Brooklyn Ale House (which we would soon re-christen the Rail House)—of starting something. A little publication. To voice our views. Now, somewhere beneath the East River, it came to us: something that people could read in one sitting, on the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
We scrutinized the faces around us—at this point, heavy on Polish commuters, with just a few artists scrambled in—as we tossed names about. The Brooklyn Eagle came up, but though Whitman is long gone, the publication still had wings. Besides, we had our own brand of Brooklyn pride. We were all bright and young, with an appetite for Truth—it was so clear, why couldn’t anyone else see through the bureaucratic, systematic bullshit? “We want to rant,” I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the shadowy faces of our friends on their bar stools, strained to hear them through the racket. “What’s another name for that?” And here, my memory flickers out. Ted says it happened once we’d emerged, at the corner of Lorimer and Metropolitan, crossroads of the then still-gritty old Italian Williamsburg that first lured us here. “The Brooklyn Rail,” I said. “And the early evening sky lit up behind you with your stroke of brilliance,” says he. A name is a mark of intention. A placeholder for the individual who will form within it. Only in looking back over these past twelve years (10 in its current format), and listening to the thousands of voices that have spoken through it, can we see who the Rail really is.
This Side of Paradise
The first issue of the Brooklyn Rail was on the table near the entrance of Ireland House in Greenwich Village in September 2000. It contained two short pieces I wrote about my father, William Cole. There was a stack of them right after you ascended the stairs where on the banisters we had draped my dad’s tie collection for people to take as a keepsake. This was his memorial service. He had died more than a month earlier. Because my dad was a fixture in the literary world there were plenty of writers there—including Stanley Moss, Harvey Schapiro, Kathy Perutz, and Maggie Paley (as well as the photographer Elliot Erwitt)—and we had a poem about my old man from his old friend Seamus Heaney that we photocopied and passed around (and subsequently published in the Rail).
And there it was, this stack of an unknown publication with the dimensions of the New York Review of Books but with “Brooklyn” unmistakably emblazoned across the cover. My old man was born in Staten Island and got out to Manhattan as soon as he could. He subsequently lived through and was part of an undeniable Golden Age of the NYC literary scene, scoring a rent-controlled two bedroom just above Times Square, around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater. There he hosted parties throughout the 50s and 60s where the likes of Baldwin, Ginsburg, Capote, Roth, Styron, Vonnegut, and even R. Crumb passed through. He and George Plimpton interviewed S.J. Perelman for the Paris Review and he had a column for years in the (now-defunct) Saturday Review where he pumped up poets and writers that he cavorted with and respected.
But Brooklyn? When I would tell him that’s where I now resided he would comment from his worn armchair, “Only the dead know Brooklyn!” He was alluding, humorously of course, to a short story by the once popular and now largely forgotten Thomas Wolfe. But the truth is that he didn’t know Brooklyn and, until I started living here in 1996, neither did I. As my dad’s health failed my brother and I increasingly looked after him, and when I would remind him that I lived in Brooklyn he would say, “How odd!”
He never saw the Rail, except maybe in one of the very early photocopied versions. But looking back on this decade and the poets, writers, essayists, critics and reviewers the Rail has published, I know he would be undeniably proud that we helped keep the literary fires burning, even though we are on the other side of the water.
Meetings of the Minds
In the early summer of 2000, when we faced the prospect of launching the print edition of The Brooklyn Rail, for most of us our idea of editorial planning consisted largely of venting decades worth of intellectual frustration, disdain for most other publications since the Partisan Review of the 1950s, and a burning sense that we might be able to fill a gap in the political and cultural life of New York, over countless Coronas and margaritas in the back patio of a Mexican restaurant on Bedford Avenue. And when we did finally have a group meeting in what passed for the dining room of Phong’s studio, it was more like a revival meeting of the lost.
I recently found in my drawer a snapshot of me speaking at a Brooklyn Rail editorial meeting in the fall of 2002: I am standing up, furiously gesticulating, a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. By then things had changed significantly. With two years off issues behind us, some of them admittedly ratty, we had a staff of committed editors spanning local politics, art, theatre, dance, fiction, and much else besides, and a crowd of contributing writers. I remember this meeting in particular because there was a rumor that a young reporter from the New York Times planned on sitting in with the idea of writing a story about the Rail. Setting up early, Phong, Ted and I were naturally concerned about the kind of impression we might make, imagining ourselves portrayed in the morning paper as drunken eccentrics rather than professionals who were the proper heirs of the Partisan Review and perhaps the Village Voice of a generation earlier. Ted made the reasonable suggestion that we wait until after the meeting to get hammered, and perhaps even hide the gallons of wine stocked on the counter for the occasion.
There were twenty people or so at the meeting, and I doubt any of them worked for the New York Times or even the New York Post. Decked out in work pants, a curious vest, and his signature tricolor winter cap, Phong opened the meeting, in traditional editorial board fashion, with a quote from eighteenth century aphorist Georg Lichtenberg, a tribute to Meyer Schapiro’s commitment to living artists, and an aside on Isaah Berlin’s purported sexual awakening with Anna Akhmatova during the purges of the 1930s—all of it braided into a single sentence punctuated by decisive puffs on a cigarette, and we were off. It hardly mattered at that point what we seemed like to people on the outside. The room crackled with energy. Wine bottles were opened. We were talking about things that mattered, and the ten years of the Brooklyn Rail is part of that conversation.
Home on the Range
For five years in the early aughts, I was the art director, designer, and photo editor of the Rail. Once a month, we would get a 64-page tabloid size newspaper to the printers on a production budget of zero, with dial-up Internet service and one Macintosh computer that looked like a toilet seat. The design studio was my living room, and a rotating cast of characters paraded through on closing night for every issue—as if the multicultural version of the Marx brothers were cast as Brooklyn muckrakers.
On closing nights we would alternate infusions of coffee, nicotine, and wine. Phong would pace in the kitchen, make calls, get last minute fact checking done, order take-out, practice shiatsu on my dog, and clean my stove. Around 4 a.m. the final touches would be made.
There were few true debacles, but thinking of them still provides an adrenaline rush. Once, while putting the finishing touches on the paper, a whole pint glass of water was dumped into my laptop. All the changes, from all the section editors, from miniscule to grand, had been made—but were yet not backed up. It took a hair dryer and a whole lot of waiting, but we still got the issue finished (“meeting” our deadline only because of the good graces of the printer).
Towards the end of my stint, I worked around the clock on a particularly arduous close, in order to catch a flight to Chicago and meet my fiancé’s family for the first time. It was 6 a.m., the files were uploaded via our 56k modem, and I was bleary in a taxi when I got a call saying that a feature would have to be changed due to the discovery of an insanely libelous error. There was no escape.
But as far as I know, no one was bloodied or got sued on my watch. And my stove has never been cleaner.
A November in My Soul
It was always rather nerve-wracking waiting for the new issue of the Rail to arrive from the printers. We never knew if there would be some major screw-up that we had missed, or if the print and photo quality would be right. Late one Friday night in early November 2003, an issue arrived like no other. We had been excited knowing that this edition would feature work by Philip Guston on the front cover, and we were pleased to have an ad from Knoedler and Company on the back. When the printers brought it, there was a slight problem: Guston was on the back, and the Knoedler ad was on the front.
Before we could devise a solution, we first had to convince the printers that there was a problem. After all, the ad’s main image and text made it look like it could have been one of our covers; it was only the show and gallery info at the bottom that established that it was indeed an ad. But in our view the Guston image—not to mention the cover text highlighting what would be in the issue—clearly belonged on the front, and to the best of our knowledge we had delivered the files properly. In retrospect, I’m making this sound like a very reasonable discussion. But on that cold November night, the printer and I had a real hot shouting match that nearly ended in blows. Thinking about it today still gets my pressure up. And he and I have never spoken since.
In any case, the fastest “solution” to the problem, the printer said, was that they could bring us new covers the next morning, or else we’d have to wait till the next week for them to do another run. Anxious to get the issue out, Phong and I agreed to this proposal. The problem was that we now had to insert the issues into the new covers. So I spent that Saturday morning with Ben LaRocco and William Powhida putting covers on stack after stack of issues. Let’s just say that, company aside, there are plenty of more enjoyable ways to start your weekend. Stack of flapjacks, anyone?
Seven years later, I’m very happy that the Rail is still rolling—and that Phong, Walter, Rose, and Cy have the production and distribution situation under control. I no longer need to be there when it arrives, which is a good thing. I’m in my mid-40s now, and need to keep an eye on my pressure.
The Brooklyn Century
I first met Hank (Henry Luce III) at a book reception given by his wife, the writer Leila Hartley Luce, for the ninth volume of Ved Mehta’s autobiographical series All For Love at the Luce’s duplex on Sutton Place. It must have been sometime in May of 2002 while Alfred Jensen’s brilliant exhibit at the Dia Art Foundation was still on view. (Jensen was a painter whose work Hank admired; they shared a 23-year friendship until Jensen’s death in 1988, beginning right from Hank’s purchase of “Forsaken” at Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1958.)
Hank was known by many in the publishing world—and beyond—as a formidable publisher, much like his father, Henry R. Luce, the founder of Time and Life magazines. Hank was also known to be blunt and even rude, especially at big social events he was obligated to attend. On that evening, everyone, including those whose faces many of us could easily identify, seemed to be aware of Hank’s temperament: they all socialized in the great living room, and not one of them would enter the dining room where, drinking alone, at the end of an enormous long table, Hank sat.
As at any function with an art collection, I preferred looking at the works to exchanging small talk. I remember vividly how thrilled I was to look at beautiful paintings by Corot, Courbet, Renoir, Balthus, among other modernist masters, and quite a few Joseph Cornell boxes. All of sudden, in the far corner, right above the piano, I noticed a small, un-framed landscape, more than 9 by 12 inches, by Ralph Blakelock. Needless to say, it was an unusual inclusion in such a collection. Between my enthusiasm and several glasses of red wine, which I relished while thinking about Blakelock and his near-contemporary, Albert Pinkham Ryder, I could no longer contain my curiosity. I entered the dining room, and said politely:
“Good evening, Mr. Luce?”
“Yeah.” He responded with a daunting baritone voice clearly wishing to be left undisturbed, at which point I knew I had to quicken my pace to convey why I was there before making a fool of myself.
“I admire your collection of paintings–a very fine 1940 Balthus; one of the best of Courbet’s late landscapes; a somewhat predictable yet landmark Corot, etc. … But that’s a first-rate Blakelock above the piano in the living room.”
“You know Blakelock?” he said as his eyes lit up. His mood now changed, he continued, “I’m so glad you do because I doubt if these people in there,” and he pointed his finger to the living room, “even bother to look at his paintings.” He invited me to sit down. We introduced ourselves and spoke for the remainder of the evening about his relationship with Alfred Jensen. Naturally, I inquired about the absence of Jensen’s paintings in the collection. He told me that because of their monumental size they were kept in his Fisher Island home. Before saying goodbye, I promised Hank that I would send him a copy of the January/February 2002 Rail, which contained Chris Martin’s brilliant review of Al Jensen’s exhibit at Dia.
A week later I received a letter from Hank inviting me to visit his Fisher Island home for the weekend on the pretext of showing me his mural-sized Jensens. Admittedly, I was reluctant to spend a weekend with a person whom I hardly knew, and whose family’s fortune and politics were far removed from mine. (I must say I wasn’t comfortable with the one-sidedness of Life’s coverage of the war in Vietnam—not to mention his father’s invention of the term “The American Century.”) But the chance to see Jensen’s paintings was far too great to pass up. Also, part of me wanted to get to know Hank better since we hit it off so quickly and seemed to have an unusual rapport.
That weekend turned out to be pleasurable. Breakfast was served on a long, grand table in the dining room at 10 a.m. And along with a home menu as elaborate as one in a proper restaurant, each of us were given a pile of newspapers, including the New York Times, New York Post, Daily News, Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, the Voice, and a few other local rags. It took me a good five silent minutes to realize that this was their breakfast ritual: read before talking. After an hour and a half Hank and Leila began to discuss what was in the news. We all seemed to share similar insights about what we had read. I then asked Hank whether he read poetry out loud regularly; I thought that his deep baritone voice would be such a delight to anyone who loves being read to. With some encouragement from Leila, Hank went off to the study, soon returning with the Golden Treasury. He began to read to both of us a few poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Hardy. He seemed to enjoy the chance to read the poems aloud, and I realized it was something that he must not have done often. That reading, in some ways, set up the literary mood for the rest of our day, which entailed our retreat to the large, sunlit living room and into hundreds of current issues of various popular magazines, journals, and all sorts of books, then a quick nap before dinner, interspersed with plenty of red wine and scotch, before, between, and after each meal, with an Armagnac just before bed time.
That was our three-day weekend: a complete immersion in art and literature. For me, it was rare and strange—I am always racked with a Woody Allen-esque anxiety once I am away from New York, as I prefer people and an urban environment to tranquility and trees. Not once did we speak of world politics or of the business of publishing.
After that, Hank and I became friends. I saw him and Leila whenever I could, right up until his death in September 2005. In spite of the immense difference between our politics and worldviews, we were bonded by our mutual love of art and literature. A few weeks after my visit to Fisher Island, he took the 7 train to Vernon/Jackson Boulevard, and walked across the Pulaski Bridge to visit the Rail’s headquarters in Greenpoint; I have always taken that venture as a sign of deep respect. He once said, “Years ago the most famous newspaper in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn Eagle. The rail is also a bird, and so it is fitting that the Eagle’s successor is the Brooklyn Rail. It is a splendid publication that covers the arts, politics, and culture. I heartily recommend it.”
In some ways I always felt that Hank would have enjoyed more the prospect of publishing a small journal like the Rail than a vast corporate enterprise inherited from his father. However, I can say with great certainty, I wouldn’t dream of trading my place with his.
In lieu of an anecdote, I would like to excerpt “Brooklyn: Manhattanite David Coggins Considers the Number One Contender,” from the crisp, chatoyant pages of the fall 2010 edition of Bergdorf Goodman Magazine:
We all know that people live in Brooklyn. They can be seen taking the subway home from work or dutifully riding their bikes Southeastly. But we really know that people live in Brooklyn because they always talk about how great their borough is—like they just had hip replacement surgery and want you to understand the benefits they’re enjoying.
[…several smirking, faux-wide-eyed paragraphs detailing Brooklyn forays…]
You’ll find that parts of Brooklyn are very quiet, like a prairie town right before a tornado strikes. This can be unnerving. Where are all the people, you may ask? Are they practicing prenatal yoga? Are they attending dinner parties with Jonathan Ames? Are they penning small press book reviews for the Brooklyn Rail? We don’t know.
It’s arrived: the recognition for which the staff has striven lo these years!