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Remembering George Davis


ISSUE:  Spring 1979

Not the young black novelist, and not several hundred other Americans, living or dead, three or four of whom might have possessed the middle name of Garfield. Was it Garfield? There’s no way to ask; George has been dead for more than 20 years.

George Davis, then associate and fiction editor of Mademoiselle, was the tonic antidote to a Radcliffe degree in the history and literature of the 19th century. George, who had not finished high school, taught the necessity of style to several hundred writers, photographers, artists, editors, and the yearly crop of Mademoiselle’s college guest editors. He dusted the parochialism off brand-new New Yorkers from Roanoke, Chicago, Key West, Texas, Georgia, Minnesota, even Westchester, Roslyn, and Riverdale.

By June 1, 1945, when I and 13 other guest editors arrived for our month at the magazine, George was already somewhat mythological. Unlike those of us who had “taken” it, he spoke beautiful French. Even more exotic, he had once been engaged to Gypsy Rose Lee. George lived in Brooklyn Heights on Middagh Street and in his house lived (or so we heard) Carson McCullers, William Steig, Wilhelm Reich (or Steig in a Reichian orgone box?), Auden—W. H. Auden!—actress Paula Lawrence, everybody. . . .

Before the Mademoiselle years, hard data on George were difficult to come by. A biographical fragment of possible accuracy: the youngest of four sons of a middle-class Canadian-American family, George left Ludington, Michigan, dropping out of high school his sophomore year, and went to live in Paris, France. There he wrote his first, and only, novel at 21, knew Christian Be rard, Jacques Pre vert, Cocteau, tout Paris, and returned a decade later to New York as fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

The first and last thing of George was his voice: soft, malicious, amused, playful, lucid. Its tone insinuated that you had been up to no good. As he spoke, he materialized noiselessly—the Cheshire Cat on rubber soles; departing, his voice lingered, like the famous smile.(Lingers still: never looked to be resurrected as your Most Unforgettable Character, Betsy. . . .)

George at 40 had thickened over the angel youth of his early photographs. He was a short, sloping man with the head of a larger being. Wavy hair, receding, going grey. Amused, curly mouth, a flexible bonne gueule— mug—his word. The high color of the Scots-Irish, the bourbon drinker, the imperiled acrobat swaying above the drop. He adored movie magazines and delighted in “camp,” before the name and vogue for it, the thing so awful it was a wonder—like Hildegarde and Sammy’s Bowery Follies. More exalted tastes leaned towards the French, or elegantly Victorian, but he knew something about everything that went on.

Guest editors were encouraged to call him George, not Mr. Davis. First-naming caused no diminution of his natural authority. He knew how words worked; he knew how a page should look; he brought to a second-rank fashion magazine a sense of fun, a touch of excellence.

After that breathless June (Plath’s Bell Jar gives a more jaundiced view of the guest editorial experience), by some miracle a job as George’s assistant became open. In February, 1946, after graduating from Radcliffe, I joined George’s other young assistant, Lelia Carson, and Margarita G. Smith, who was assistant fiction editor. Fae East, the assistant to the managing editor, made the fourth of us: George’s props, students, and sometime accomplices.

At 21, the dream realized—with the active assistance of my mother—Career Girl in New York. And yet, having created an insatiable appetite for New York from our theatre-going sprees, having encouraged me to try out for the Vogue Prix de Paris and Mademoiselle’s college contest, Mother was, abruptly, appalled. In those days Cambridge, Mass., was far from the Big Apple, and the maternal voice much louder. Before leaving home I was to promise never to be in a closed room with a man alone. I had also to swear not to approach Central Park at night or set one foot in Brooklyn. Some months before a drunk young woman had harrassed a polar bear in the Central Park Zoo. He first took umbrage, then her arm. I forget what was wrong with Brooklyn.

Once settled in New York, I obediently left the Park by sundown, being too overworked ever to be in it. By my oath I also missed George’s memorable parties in the house on Middagh Street. The promise about never being alone with a man was often broken.

At Mademoiselle office doors were meant to be kept open, a rule, like every other, George often broke in order to do his telephoning undisturbed. With the door closed, George’s office seemed even darker. It was Victorian, narrow, and made still narrower by a looming, glassed-in breakfront and a rolled-up rug. It also contained two desks, two chairs, two telephones, a roomy rocker in which George sat to read manuscripts and, at the desk near the door, either Lee or myself. Mornings, George was often missing.”M. Davis n’est pas ici,” I would say, unnecessarily, to French visitors who dropped in, some still in uniform.”Asseyez-vous.” But where? The rocker was waist-high in unread manuscripts, one could scarcely usurp M. Davis’s desk, so the two small French sailors perched along the rug, like seagulls.

George, of course, was still at home—by the fall of 1946 a brownstone on East 86th Street. He would, he said over the telephone, be along directly. That is, as soon as he bathed, shaved, and, penniless, found enough empty bottles the return deposit on which would pay his fare downtown.

Some days in George’s office, in Rita Smith’s office, out in the waiting room, George’s appointments multiplied like planes stacked up over LaGuardia. One day it might be Marguerite Young with yet another installment of Miss MacIntoch, My Darling, a black artist with a new style of calligraphy, Joseph Cornell carrying one of his extraordinary shadowboxes. Canadian novelists, South American journalists, friends from Michigan, and other Mademoiselle editors waited in vain for George to appear.

Lee Carson was Southern and skilled in the arts of evasion. She and George taught me tranquilly to lie.”So sorry, Mr. Davis is at a staff meeting,” to a publisher who demanded a report on the galleys of a novel George had kept for months. “George just stepped out of the office, Mrs. Blackwell.” The editor-in-chief knew very well how George hated mornings and wet weather. To Cyrilly Abels, the managing editor, “He’s almost through editing the young pianists piece.” Actually George was skulking by the back entrance of the Chanin Building waiting for one of us to bring him his pay check. His current protege needed help.(Protege? Come on, Betsy, you can do better than that.)

At first, George’s personal life, like that of some of the magazine’s contributors, was incomprehensible to me. Although my playwright father had spent summers at the MacDowell Colony, I had yet to meet writers, actors, artists, and musicians in their native habitats, let alone separate heterosexual from homosexual or bi. I was not abnormally naive. In 1946, almost any public manifestation of sex, other than one which led immediately to marriage, was either punished or laundered by church, state, society, or the Hayes Office. When I wrote an undergraduate thesis on E. M. Forster, no source then consulted mentioned Forster’s proclivities (as we said in New England). There were “Boston marriages”; there were limp-wristed interior decorators of whom one made fun; there was the Greenwich Village of free love. The rest of it belonged in Proust. By the time I discovered that it didn’t, George’s private life made no intrusion on mine.

George’s emotions, however, had to be lived with. They swung—frequently—between what he called “my paranoia” and those occasions which were “larky.” To my husband and myself, a young and harmless couple, George was unfailingly kind. He had allowed us two months off for our honeymoon in the summer of ‘46.He was genuinely interested in our future. But to someone who he thought might have betrayed him, he was unfair, implacable, without appeal.

At home or at the office, George’s mornings began by quarrying papers and periodicals—WWD, Musical America, Publishers Weekly, Celebrity Service, were only a few of them— to find people and ideas for the arts section of the magazine, which contained movie reviews, record, theatre, and book reviews, as well as longer articles and essays. George would then assign the day’s duties to his army of three: return a pile of unsolicited manuscripts, buy house seats to Born Yesterday,go with a photographer to interview pianist Ray Lev, find out where Katherine Anne (Porter) was, rewrite captions, attack this month’s “Passports.”

“Passports” was the contributors-to-this-issue page, and it gave a deal of trouble—as did captions—because all copy was written to count, without a permissively ragged last line. These long-ago capsule biographies yield such nuggets as: “J. D. Salinger does not believe in contributors’ columns,” and a photograph of Truman Capote as a short-haired high school senior in shirt and coat and tie. When George was particularly distressed by the copy we kept, he’d shame us with superior examples from the Bazaar and Vogue.

Yes, that’s about right now, he’d say, reading the 12th version, just run it through the typewriter once more. Five versions later, he might sit down and write it as it should be, typing impeccably, with a wide left-hand margin. Meanwhile, we’d be dispatched to find a print of Edgar Allan Poe at the Bettmann Archive, to rummage through antique shops on Second Avenue—George collected them—for mechanical banks to illustrate an article on managing money, or to interview Count Walewski, who ran an astrological shop where you could buy charms against the evil eye.

At one time or another George assigned such unusual subjects to interview as Paul, the wholesale florist; Cecilia Staples, creator of Christmas displays; and the freaks at the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. Interviews with violinists, opera, stage, and movie stars were more run-of-the-mill—but not Marion Brando at 21, not Albert Camus talking on wartime France, not Dr. Rene Spitz introducing his movies on childhood deprivation. One interview was never used. My first day as his assistant, George, not knowing what to do with me, sent me to research a flea circus. Merlin, in some respects, was George, and like T. H. White’s Merlin he found lessons in our animal friends.

George kept a parrot with the usual bad disposition. I forget whose famous thumb it almost kept. A small, unraveled dog upstaged by anywhere from four to seven cats and a shifting human population filled George’s house on 86th Street. House and zoo were presided over by a Boris Karloff look-alike called Leo, who had a huge scar on one side of his face and did not appear to speak any language with ease.

When the magazine lacked a regular record critic, I was it. One or two mornings a month I listened to new releases on the phonograph in George’s basement. The parrot was in his cage, the dog sulking elsewhere, Leo mowing the tiny back yard, the cats all too prevalent. In time to Stravinsky, or Street Scene, or El Amor Brujo, these feline thugs pounced tirelessly from the tops of cupboards, just missing my lap, the stacks of albums, and my careful notes.

George cared for many animals. I seem to remember him recommending that a friend have his dog psychoanalyzed (but it might have been the friend’s two-year-old son). Another friend had an animal act—dogs and monkeys, not fleas. Friend and act attended one of George’s parties, where they performed in the back drawing room to SRO guests, leaving Truman Capote in his black turtle neck and the parrot in his cage stranded unnoticed in the front room.

George’s large parties, the ones that, went “on the magazine,” were concentric or, in the 1940’s fictional cliche, like nests of Chinese boxes. In the central box conversed the luminaries the party was given for: Richard Wright, Cartier-Bresson, Maggie Teyte, Tennessee Williams, and others of equal wattage, surrounded by a second wall of magazine and book editors. These were circled by a third group: editorial assistants, relatives, home town friends, who passed hors d’oeuvres and kept the glasses brimming.

My mother saved my letters home. A report on guests at one such party included Carson McCullers, Kay Boyle, Andre Eglevsky, Allan Tate, Virgil Partch and Sam Cobean (two gifted young cartoonists), Bessie Breuer and Paula Lawrence, Louise Dahl-Wolf, Horst, and editors from Mademoiselle, the Bazaar, and Vogue.” Well,” said Mr. Slaggard of Ludington, Michigan, “it takes all kinds.” During the evening on this his first trip to New York, Mr. Slaggard had talked with a French professor, with Sam Jaffe’s Indonesian wife, with George Dangerfield who was then on the Saturday Review, and a mad, hungry, red-haired Parisienne singer. Was it at this party that Kay Boyle, in cowboy costume, late in the evening stood upon her head?

George also gave smaller parties at which seven or ten of us sat around a circle, consuming prodigies of bourbon and settling the world’s hash—arts and literature, that is, not politics. George voted the Democratic ticket and left leftist dabblings to those of us who attended meetings of the I. C. C. in aid of friendly Henry Wallace. As the evening lengthened, we’d plan perfect magazines, free from the advertising department’s machinations, the banalities of the art department, and the use of half the editorial pages for dresses, shoes, hats, coats, bras, girdles. . . .

At Vogue, so an acquaintance who worked there told me, no one spoke to you for six months. To the credit of Mademoiselle, its editorial staff was like an extended family, celebrating birthdays, marriages, farewells, reunions. Christmas at the magazine was lavish, as though we’d imbibed the copy we had written for the December issue. Of the many presents George gave me, I still have three: a silk scarf from the Greek War Relief store, an ornamental buckle once worn by a Mid-western draft horse, and the de Chirico pencil drawing he gave us as a wedding present. At other times of the year the MLLE family could be quite quarellsome.

Drunk or sober, George gossiped, about the staff, about everyone worth the telling in New York. To sit in his office while he honed, through several phone conversations, a scandalously indiscreet account of the party he’d been to the night before, was to follow a play through its rehearsals. Only George could have detected the haunting resemblance between Mary Martin in Peter Pan and Burgess Meredith. Only George would notice a Mademoiselle production editor, during a slow train ride to Yaddo, proofreading the tombstones in the graveyard beside the track.

Then, as now, MLLE’s audience was “young women from 18 to 30”—college students, young career women. In the 1940’s, readers also included young marrieds returning to college on the G. I. Bill, struggling toward that postwar world we wanted: peace, plenty, babies, and barbecue pits. Not only the bloated August college issue, but every month of the magazine was built around a theme such as Mothers and Babies, Canada, or What’s New. Distinguished writers—Auden, Katherine Anne Porter, Louise Bogan, George Dangerfield, Margaret Mead—produced lead articles for these issues.

Less compelling to reread are the magazine’s reports on How Young People Live Today. Indeed, some of these model young couples appear pretty dippy today, to use a golden oldie. Not George’s fault, really; his heart belonged to Les Enfants du Paradis, Fred Alien, Yma Sumac, Tom Mooney’s quartet, John Cage, and Edith Piaf, rather than MLLE (pronounced “Millie”) readers in Kansas.

Fiction was more like it. For about ten years under George, and continuing under the late Cyrilly Abels and Rita Smith, Mademoiselle published some of the most interesting fiction around.(Interesting, Betsy? Provocative, stimulating, memorable, offbeat, quality. . .keep trying.) Fiction by Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, Shirley Jackson, Wallace Stegner, Paul Bowles, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, appeared side by side with stories by Europeans like Colette, Marcel Ayme, Erik Linklater, and P. H. Newby. Unthinkable nowadays in any fashion magazine to find Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, Louis MacNeice’s radio play, The Dark Tower, or E. M. Forster’s Symposium on music and the arts, which he was imported to Harvard to give.

George imported himself to Cambridge to hear it, staying with my mother and, on his return, wrote her the following note without secretarial intermediary:

    May 8, 1947

Dear Mrs. Day:

Back in New York, I decided that I wanted a day to think about Harvard, Music and you—a day on company time, naturally—so I took Monday off, and blissfully reviewed the Forster, the Hindemith, the chatelaine of Garden Street. Admiration and affection persist. I wish that alcohol had made me more talkative while your son was there, less like a male Ilka Chase for the Owens. I realize now that I emptied cans of Broadway dirt all over your nice clean rugs. Since it was also on my mind to show that I was reacting sensitively to the symposium, the effect was possibly like a creaking March-banks who has taken to selling French postcards on the side. Please forgive same. The Cardigan memoirs improve with study.

    Many, many thanks
    George Davis

Whether it was fiction, or nonfiction, George was a gifted editor. He had an ear for the rhythm and structure of prose, an unslakable love of words and their correct usage, and a high regard for technicalities. He did not find my congenital misspellings cute. When he had to write an important letter, he would ask me to leave the room, believing that my infirmity was contagious.

He was a patient editor. Mademoiselle had published a story of mine in January 1946, and George bought two more before he left. He had me run them through the typewriter ten times or more, and edited them with me, line by line, Would the husband really say that? George wanted to know. Shouldn’t the rich family be more arrogant? Was that dowdy explanation at the end necessary? At times George seemed to see the story more clearly than its author. Yet he mouthed no principles of good writing other than, “Say it without saying it,” and, “the story either works, or it doesn’t.” He tried to teach me to be sharper, funnier, deeper, crueler, more aware of the vicissitudes of life. If Betsy were walking through a slum choked with garbage, George once remarked, she would notice the one geranium blooming on a fire escape.

At the same time, George did not applaud dreck for dreck’s sake, even if it were a step forward for humanity. A story Cyrilly Abels very much wanted to publish concerned a Negro handyman embittering away on a filthy basement pallet. While the author’s heart was in the right place, his prose was awkward, and George turned the story down.

When George dug his heels in, nothing could move him. In October 1948, he resigned from the magazine.

George’s chief—and long-suffering—antagonist was Miss Abels. George had promoted her from Harper’s Bazaar to be MLLE’s managing editor. It was her unenviable job to make him conform to deadlines. The immediate cause of George’s resignation was their wrangle over Barbara Ward’s age. Was she indeed plausibly young enough to be eligible for a Mademoiselle Merit Award—annual awards which the staff, at least, took with the utmost seriousness. George held to the negative, and I did not support him. I felt sure that I had lost his friendship, as well as the magazine its style. I could not even make the reconciling gesture of quitting with him. Months before I had tendered my resignation to take place on December 1. My husband had finished Columbia Law School and was about to be employed. We were heading toward babies, if not barbecue pits.

George forgave me. “Went to lunch with George today,” I wrote in my journal early in 1949.”He has moved to a tenement on East 48th Street and J, it seems, has moved with him along with the records, a few pieces of furniture. George has been ill, poor, and be-set upon; but it still makes a good story. I should like to subscribe a fund to send him to Paris—a fund large enough to create an obligation in George to write.He should be the one to live here” (my husband and I had moved into Peter Cooper Village, then just built) “alone, without a telephone or drunken disturbances. With a regular income, no animals, and some slavey to keep the place silent and clean. He’d probably go nuts in order.”

When we did get a telephone, George called to gossip, to congratulate us on first one daughter, then another. When he helped Fleur Cowles start the brief-lived Flair, I was among the friends he called in to do piece-work. Several times he came to dinner. More often we lunched. . . . I just barely remember something hideous. Don’t retrieve the year. J, or a friend of J’s, beat George up and robbed him. George suffered a concussion, lost teeth; his lower jaw was broken and had painfully to be wired together. Lover’s quarrel? The tact and squeamishness George so often deplored prevented me from getting to the bottom of the story.

However, by 1952 the times for him had mended. Some years before Kurt Weill’s death, George had restored his friendship with Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya. When Weill died, shattering Lenya’s world, George became close to her, and in 1951 they were married. George had much to do with the revival of the Three Penny Opera and with the resumption of Lenya’s career here and abroad. These years George seemed once again purposeful, happy, even somewhat serene. (He liked to think he had changed. After his first visit with Lenya to Germany, George, the Francophile, admitted to me that at last he understood why I liked the music of Brahms.) It was a great shock to learn of his death in Berlin of a heart condition in 1957.There was so much ahead for him.

How much I shall never know about George. Was Mademoiselle a come-down from the Bazaar, or a sought-after challenge? Who or what supported George those years in Paris? How did his family view him, his nephew the dentist, his visitors from Ludington? Was the loss of his beauty a central horror or also a source of humor? Vanity did not seem a be-setting concern. (Once, I remember, he bought a pair of Adler Elevator shoes, but seldom wore them.) Did he follow the advice he gave me: never to take drugs, and to avoid psychoanalysis, which might leach a writer of his material?

How much of George was writer, how much editor? Certainly George never disowned his novel, The Opening of a Door. It was an obligatory test of one’s allegiance to find an out-of-print copy in some secondhand book store. Through the years he wrote excellent short copy, but what I remember best are the armatures he built into other people’s work. Armies of now middle-aged authors are in business because of George. But of his own writing, does more than the one book survive? In the ten years I knew him, he could scarcely bear to hand in a single paragraph. It could always be run through the typewriter one more time.

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