THERE IS NOTHING SADDER--for me anyway--than watching a newspaper or magazine go under, as has just happened to the New Leader, for which I used to write.
I go back far enough to recall the shutdown in 1931 of the New York World, the Pulitzer flagship, which Pulitzer's sons sold to the New York Evening Telegram. I was working my way through Columbia College as a night copyboy at the New York Herald Tribune on West 41st Street. My last assignment of the night was to deliver late syndicated copy (this was the Stone Age, no fax machines) to a Buffalo Courier-Express correspondent in the old World Building on Park Row across the street from City Hall.
My boyhood ambition was to be a reporter on the World, a daily with a unique distinction. Its city editor, Charles Chapin, was convicted on January 14, 1919, for the murder of his wife. But the paper had other distinctions. The World was a paper with star writer-editors like Walter Lippmann, Herbert Bayard Swope, A.J. Liebling, Alexander Woollcott, Irvin S. Cobb, William Bolitho, and the great cartoonist Rollin Kirby.
The Courier-Express correspondent was on an upper floor and the World was on the second floor. It was on the World's last night, and I dared to stop to get a look at the half-empty city room. I saw a reporter shouting into a phone: "Joe, you got to lend us the money. We'll pay you back." Then he slammed down the receiver and banged his head on the typewriter before him. It was later explained to me that the sober staffers (the city room reeked of booze, bottles of liquor were everywhere) were trying to get money to buy the paper. They didn't know that the sale to the Telegram was a done deal.
All this happened some seven decades ago, but it is unforgettable to me. The end of the New Leader, announced last week, brought back memories of the once-weekly magazine's Social Democratic founding editor, Sol Levitas, a Menshevik refugee from the Bolshevik revolution. His magazine, founded in 1924, had one aim--fighting communism and down with the Bolsheviks. He surrounded himself with other anti-Stalinist refugees and together they started a publication that became must-reading even in Washington.
One of the reasons the New Leader became prominent is that Levitas and his writers were unapologetic about their anti-Stalinism at a time when fellow-traveling, united-front politics was in the ascendant. For the New Leader there was nothing good one could say for Bolshevism. Another reason was the quality of its writers and of their scholarly research about Soviet affairs.
One remarkable contributor was a Menshevik émigré named Boris Nicolaevsky (1888-1966). He read all the Soviet publications he could lay his hands on, and he would then come up with startling information the Kremlin was hiding. Part of his technique was to keep track of which Soviet political surnames were mentioned in the media and which no longer were. It was from Nicolaevsky that we learned Stalin had purged Nikolai Voznesensky, 47, a high party official in Leningrad. In 1948, his name had suddenly disappeared over several weeks without explanation from Pravda and Izvestia. There was only one explanation: Stalin at work. And Nicolaevsky was right as usual, as Nikita Khrushchev revealed in his 1956 anti-Stalin speech.
The magazine itself and its founding editor, who died in 1961, had no real sense of journalistic ethics. But who cared? For example, it often ran on-the-spot articles about events in faraway places that were actually written in New York City. Reports datelined Madrid or Barcelona during the Spanish civil war were actually written in house under a pseudonym by an underpaid staffer with a lively imagination, Victor Riesel, later a prominent syndicated columnist. When readers traveling to Spain insistently demanded to meet the writer, the New Leader announced he had--alas!--been killed in Barcelona by Fascist bullets.
On another occasion, a young staffer, Daniel Bell, today a retired Harvard professor and famous sociologist, came into the office of Levitas. Bell showed Levitas an editorial attack he had written. Levitas read the proposed article and shook his head doubtfully: "Danny, why do we want to antagonize our enemies?"
Levitas, however, had no problem antagonizing the Soviet Union, the New Leader's raison d'être. Too bad he didn't live to see what would have been his moment of triumph: the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. And too bad we will see no more of the magazine he founded.
Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.