Commentary: Some like it crackling
Some people have such a radical vitality, such an electric consciousness, such a lifelong love affair with the world that when they stop breathing, it’s like a wind dying, like the waning and disappearing of a light.
And the world feels duller and dumber and more lackluster without them.
Arthur Gelb, the New York Times editor known as “The Arthurian Legend,” had that constant, overflowing, generous engagement. The world was always putting its hooks in him, and he was always putting his hooks in the world.
Immersed in an “All About Eve” milieu of theater and criticism animated by schadenfreude, Arthur didn’t have any. During my job interview, he told me that he enjoyed being an editor because as a reporter he could think of 17 stories but work on only one at a time, while as an editor he could assign all 17 at once.
He was 17 stories all by himself, the most cultivated ink-stained wretch ever.
Arthur was 90 when he died last Tuesday, and he had written a zesty reminiscence, “City Room,” about the raffish “Front Page” era in journalism. Yet there was nothing fusty about him.
Even in the exuberant age of Abe and Arthur, the tall, kinetic member of the team had a Twitter metabolism and Big Data appetite.
I always associated him with “V” words — Vesuvian, voracious, voltaic. In his imagination, almost any random remark you dropped could be spun into a potential story, causing his eyes to flash and arms to flap.
Once when he invited some reporters to dinner at Sardi’s he spied Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish at a nearby table. “Go interview them!” he whispered to Michi Kakutani, even though there was no news peg and it would run only in the second edition.
While she was gone, he had her untouched dinner put in a doggie bag.
The third Eugene O’Neill biography that he wrote with his wife, Barbara, will be published next year. It focuses on the three wives who influenced the playwright and is titled “By Women Possessed.”
That could also work as the title of an Arthur bio. “I like women,” he would say with a shrug.
He especially liked talented, neurotic, operatic women — funny, since his son Peter grew up to be the visionary head of the Met.
Arthur loved getting to the heart of women’s hearts. Once, dining with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, he asked Farrow how on earth she could be attracted to both Woody and Frank Sinatra.
And there was the time he sent the Times music critic Harold Schonberg over to ask the irascible Wanda Horowitz what it was like to have two demanding musical geniuses in her life — her father, Arturo Toscanini, and her husband, Vladimir Horowitz.
“They ruined my life and they should roast in hell!” she shrieked.
Arthur never tired of telling how he discovered Barbra Streisand in the Village and fell in love with 19-year-old Barbara Stone the day the comely redhead started working with him on the Times copy desk.
As a young theater reporter, he was always getting bewitched by beautiful actresses.
One morning in 1951, he went to a small midtown hotel to interview “a new personality” handpicked by Colette to star in “Gigi” on Broadway.
“She opened the door and she was in her bathrobe,” he told me, “and she looked a little disheveled, and that was very exciting, and I found my heart pounding a little bit because she was so pretty close up. And she was so intelligent and she had humor and a kind of come-hither way when she talked to a man.”
He peppered her with so many questions, she told him they should finish up over dinner at the Plaza.
When he called Barbara to tell her he had to work late interviewing Audrey Hepburn, his irritated bride replied, “You call that work?”
My favorite story, which I made Arthur retell on a BBC radio show a couple years ago, was his “drunken prank” on Marilyn Monroe.
One night in the early 1950s when he was about 30 and was working on night rewrite, he and his fellow rewrite guys took their 10 o’clock dinner break at Sardi’s. Monroe came in with a group and was seated at the next table.
Her dress had a low-cut back, and Arthur said he and his pals were “mesmerized by her back” and her “absolutely flawless skin, very white, very pure.”
“One of us said, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to just touch that back?’ And before we knew it, we were talking about who would have the guts, the nerve, the bravery to touch her. We all put up a couple of dollars and said the first person who leans over and touches her will collect the money. And I, with bravado — I was kind of a wise-guy young man — leaned over quickly and just touched her with my forefinger.
“I thought I’d touch her and maybe she wouldn’t even feel the touch. But she swung around and said in the loudest voice imaginable: ‘Who did that?’ And we just went into our clothes to hide. It was just the most horrible moment you could possibly imagine. And her friends said, ‘Come on, Marilyn,’ and they calmed her down and turned her around. I collected the 10 bucks and we got out of there.”
Some like it hot. Arthur liked it crackling.