“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le Carré piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”
-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002
As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.
All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.
Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.
I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.
In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.
But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.
In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.
Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.
I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.
I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.
The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”
The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”
I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.
The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)
I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.
Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.
And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.
The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.
And it still says “Bessel.”
Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.
(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe a tilde, or even an umlaut or two.)