- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

Gardner Botsford was an editor at The New Yorker for 37 years and as such he played a role in the formation of a great deal of excellent writing. Indeed this is something of an understatement when you consider that certainly his first quarter-century at the magazine coincided with some of its very best years. Each week there was an astonishing plethora: of insightful political writing, witty reviews, breathtaking short stories, and spot-on cultural criticism, sometimes housed in lengthy profiles but just as likely to be found in the penetrating paragraphs of the Talk of the Town section.
As soon as you begin "A Life of Privilege, Mostly," you are aware that Mr. Botsford is that rare editor who can work as well with the raw material produced by his own pen as he can with other writers'. Clearly a master of the tactical organization of a story, he begins this memoir unconventionally and uncommonly effectively by introducing himself not at the beginning but at a pivotal point in his life: his induction at age 25 in 1942 into the United States Army.
Mr. Botsford is such a good writer that he makes the reader actually feel the bewilderment, astonishment, and helplessness that he experienced 60 years ago. His you-are-there approach soon has you with him in Basic Training, being evaluated by the Army (haphazardly and terrifyingly, he finds himself in the infantry), parting from his devastated pregnant wife, and all too soon actually invading the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He will subsequently be wounded by a shell fragment, the experience vividly described. But even more compelling is his account of what it was like for a soldier on D-Day:
"[E]motions were certainly churning on every ship, but they churned silently. Nobody talked much. Even though huddled together and cramped, one felt very private … .The thuds we had heard were coming from the guns of battleships arrayed in a line behind us. They were throwing shells as big as freight cars over our heads… . Every time a gun was fired, our little ship would jump in the water from the concussion, and we could hear the shell go hissing and warbling through the air above us on its way to France… . We were slowly continuing our move toward shore when a dud shell hit us amidships, right over my head… .It was a dud, but it scared me half to death. (A live shell would have completed the job.) It gave me my first gut awareness that there actually were people out there who wanted to kill me. Up to now, the day had been pure spectacle; now it was all too personal… . . However, there was too much going on for imagination to take over and panic to set in."
Mr. Botsford soon sees plenty of action on the actual invasion beach and during months of fighting before he ends the war in a defeated Germany.
There have been many fine memoirs of World War II, but sadly the generation who fought it is dying out, so there may not be too many more. Mr. Botsford has waited six decades before writing his contribution to the genre but it has been worth the wait, for his is a notable addition to the literature of that great war of liberation.
Having reeled in his reader with his wartime experiences, Mr. Botsford proceeds to romp through a moneyed childhood in a vanished world of servants and seasonal migrations. His portrait of his mother, Ruth Gardner, a thrice-married denizen of high society and siren to such figures as Alexander Woollcott and George Abbott, is affectionate but leaves little doubt that she was indeed a femme fatale. He describes her three very different husbands and her family who "owned" the town of Quincy, Illinois, headquarters of The Gardner Governor Company, manufacturer of a device to control steam engines invented by his great grandfather Robert Gardner in 1859.
"[A]nd soon a Gardner governor was de rigueur on steam engines all over the world," writes the ironic but proud descendant. In turn his prep school (Hotchkiss) and college (Yale) days are lightly but pithily evoked.
The last section of "A Life of Privilege, Mostly" deals with the author's years at The New Yorker, where he had worked briefly before the war and where he settled upon his return to civilian life, remaining there until he retired in 1982. In recent years there has been a flurry of accounts of life in the hothouse New Yorker atmosphere and Mr. Botsford is of course uniquely placed to put in a rather more than usually valuable two cents' worth.
He has done so here with admirable brevity and on the whole benevolence and good humor. Like many of those who worked with the late William Shawn, editor from 1950 to 1987, Mr. Botsford is genuinely bemused by the enigmatic figure of whom he also seems genuinely fond. (The same cannot be said for his take on Mr. Shawn's sidekick, Lillian Ross.)
He is, I think, a little unfair to Mr. Shawn in portraying him as profoundly paranoid on the subject of Mr. Botsford's relationship to his half-brother, New Yorker publisher Peter Fleischmann. It may indeed be true, as Mr. Botsford avers, that the two siblings never discussed New Yorker business with one another, but an aging and insecure Mr. Shawn may surely be forgiven for concluding that the connection between them gave Mr. Botsford a position that was indeed special and uniquely unassailable.
There are memorable and affectionate portraits of such New Yorker icons as Janet Flanner, Mollie Panter-Downes, and especially the ever-charming but maddening and self-destructive Maeve Brennan. Although Mr. Botsford's recollections are generally convincing and his tone authoritative, on at least one occasion his excellent memory lets him down. He could not, as he recollects, have been hustled out of bed by his mother at five o'clock in the morning of Dec. 11, 1936 to hear King Edward VIII announce his abdication. The broadcast in fact took place at night in England and consequently was heard live in New York City in the late afternoon of the same day.
But this is a tiny lapse in a thoroughly enjoyable and valuable book. Gardner Botsford succeeds in engaging the reader in two distinct senses of the term. He engages us in his life and has revealed himself to be a delightfully engaging person.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.


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