Nabokov Gets Me Hired
By David R. Slavitt
I was a 23-year-old kid who’d never had a job before, one of those arrogant Yalies whom Back-of-the Book Editor Gordon Manning couldn’t have liked much—he was an old fashioned Hildy Johnson kind of Chicago newsman. Other than having published some poetry, I had nothing to recommend me except a note from Mac Muir (publisher Malcolm Muir’s son) suggesting that Manning give me a try.
There were three steps to it. The first was the almost off-hand question Manning put to me about who was Major Deegan and why there was an expressway named after him. He wanted to see if I could find my way out of a paper bag. Back then, before Google and Ask, one had to look up stuff, and this information wasn’t in any of the conventional places. As the afternoon hours passed, I felt both annoyed at the ridiculousness of the inquiry, but also angry at myself. I picked up the phone and called the Department of Highways in the Bronx. The man there laughed but told me what I needed to know.*
Gut Check: Gordon’s next test for me was to see if I had any guts. He sent me out onto one of those barges from which fireworks are set off on the Fourth of July out in the bay near Coney
Island. When the fireworks guys set off a hundred thousand dollars worth of explosives and the barge caught fire (as it always does), it was like being in combat. I’m not a coward, but I’m not John Wayne either. I was sure I was going to die, either burned to death or drowned. I didn’t die. They put out the fire. The next day Gordon asked me how it had been. “Just fine,” I told him.
But I still dream sometimes of those fireworks.
The third test was the easiest one. Whether I could write and sound like Newsweek. Lolita had just been published and Gordon thought it would be a good idea if I went up to Ithaca and talked to people there, in the town and on the Cornell Campus, to see if “people thought Vladimir Nabokov was a dirty old man who played with himself in the shower.”
Great Kick: Off I went and I talked to a number of people, none of whom seemed at all upset about the notorious book. That seemed pretty thin, so I found Nabokov’s house, knocked at his door, and was lucky enough to find him home and even to be invited in for tea. A great hour! An amazing man. And all I had to do was remember what he said during the conversation and write it down. He even gave me the “kicker,” remarking that “on Halloween, when the children come around to beg or candy, we opened the door to find a young girl in a tennis dress and a sign around her neck that said ‘Lolita.’ I was
shocked.” All I had to do was type that out. Gordon was pleased.
I spent seven years at Newsweek and they were my only connection with the real world. After that, I lit out in 1965 to try to make it as an independent writer and, with great luck, I did. But what I learned in my stint at the magazine was incalculable. It was enough, at any rate, for me to look back at my first couple of months and understand what Gordon Manning had been doing.
David R. Slavitt, poet, novelist, and translator of Ovid, Petrarch, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, wrote for Newsweek from 1958 to 1965.
*For those who are curious, Deegan was basically a nobody for whom, when he died, the American Legion wanted some memorial. They got a sign at the Bronx entrance to the Triboro Bridge--a Major Deegan Expressway that was maybe 400 feet long. That would have been that, except the New York State Thruway, the Dewey Thruway, was later built, connecting to the Triboro. The Bronx Democrats didn’t want anything with Dewey’s name on it, and they extended the Major Deegan label all the way northwards to the Bronx/Westchester line.