Arthur Gelb, a Bronx native, joined The New York Times as a 20-year-old copy boy in 1944 and retired in 1990 as the managing editor.
City Room is his dramatic and amusing account of a newspaper and a city, describing in detail the major events that took place and the characters he met over those years.
From the moment Mr. Gelb started out on the lowest rung of the paper, he kept his eyes and ears open, being completely fascinated by the sights and sounds of the city as they came to him through his new job.
His constant awareness makes for a riveting book, as he records conversations with hard-boiled reporters, the sage advice of editors, and one-line zingers with perfect pitch. His portraits of the high-and-mighty, and the down-and-out, are convincingly drawn.
Among the paper's oddballs was the female religion editor so wary of the opposite sex that she demanded the dry cleaner launder her clothes separately from men's; the reporter who believed so strongly that paper money carried germs that on payday he immediately exchanged his bills for new ones; and the city editor who encouraged his charges to be creative, saying that reporters who tried to be objective produced "something like a symmetrical pile of clam shells with all the succulent goodness carefully removed."
The book is rife with stories of newsmen in their day-to-day activities as they make their rounds through police precincts and City Hall, at popular bars and restaurants such as Sardi's and Lindy's on Times Square, and in the inner sanctum of the Times' offices themselves, so the reader is privy to the hierarchies and power struggles within the paper's administration. Toward the end of the book, Mr. Gelb comments on the recent scandal involving Times reporter Jayson Blair that resulted in the resignation of Executive Editor Howell Raines.
City Room is a personal rendering of a major institution; its liveliness comes from Mr. Gelb's instinct for news as well as from his sweep of understanding of human nature.
A large part of this book involves his relationship with A.M. Rosenthal, who gained national prominence as executive editor. Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb were inseparable friends, and together they made significant changes in the paper, perhaps the greatest being the expansion of the daily paper from two staid sections. Today, readers of the Times come to expect Sports, Science, Food, Home and Weekend supplements, but the origin of and battle for this substantial and risky innovation makes fascinating reading.
Other intense moments in the book include a compelling account of the publication of the Pentagon Papers; the issue of police corruption in Mayor John Lindsay's administration, revealed by undercover police Officer Frank Serpico; and how the city and the Times handled the Northeast blackout of 1965. (The Times was the only metropolitan paper that managed to publish that day.)
Because Mr. Gelb was such a central figure at the Times, his memoir is virtually a history of the paper during those years. And because the Times is our paper of record, its own story is very nearly a history of the central events of our country over that time.
Mr. Gelb made his mark on The New York Times as an editor, but it's the reporter in him that brings this book to life.