Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer

In recent years, as his odometer headed toward triple digits, Roger Angell became known around our office for the way his cheerful longevity complemented his talent. He was not only the greatest of baseball writers; he had also lived long enough to see Babe Ruth, of the Yankees, at one end of his life and Shohei Ohtani, of the Angels, at the other. Age conferred authority. When Roger covered the Yanks in their late-nineties heyday, Joe Torre, the team’s heavy-lidded chief, would sometimes interrupt one of his avuncular soliloquies to a clutch of young reporters and look to him for affirmation: “Roger, am I getting that right?” Sitting in his office, Roger, much like Torre, held court, telling stories about playing Ping-Pong with James Thurber, editing William Trevor and Donald Barthelme, and watching ballgames with the Romanian-born artist Saul Steinberg, who would put on a flannel Milwaukee Braves uniform before sitting down in front of the TV. I once came to him complaining about how hard it was to find writing that was truly funny, and Roger, as if recalling a recent Tuesday, replied, “Harold Ross said the same thing.”

And yet Roger was hardly stuck in the past. When the Internet came along and climbing stadium steps no longer held much allure, he watched games late into the night and filed twenty-four-karat blog posts. Although he was insistently modern, he knew what some were thinking when they dropped by his office to see him, natty as always in crisp khakis, a blue Oxford shirt, and a Paul Stuart blazer: Holy shit—he’s still vertical! When at ninety-five he published a collection of personal essays and other writing for this magazine, he gave it a characteristically wry and self-knowing title, “This Old Man: All in Pieces.”

No one lives forever, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Roger had a good shot at it. Like the rest of us, he suffered pain and loss and doubt, but he usually kept the blues at bay, always looking forward; he kept writing, reading, memorizing new poems, forming new relationships. When another versatile, sports-minded writer, Budd Schulberg, reached his nineties, he gave away his star-studded address book to a younger writer. He had no use for it: “Everyone in it is dead!” Roger kept replenishing his address book, and his life, with new and younger friends. He went to spring training in Arizona and Florida, full of hope, always on the trail of new prospects. His thirst for the sensation of being alive survived the worst. Roger was married for forty-eight years to Carol Rogge Angell, but when she was dying she told him, “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.” After Carol died, Roger followed her instructions, and his heart. He began a long and wonderful love affair with Peggy Moorman, whom he married in 2014, and who was by his side until the end.

“Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love,” he wrote in “This Old Man.” “I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”

Roger died on Friday. He was a hundred and one. But longevity was actually quite low on his list of accomplishments. He did as much to distinguish The New Yorker as anyone in the magazine’s nearly century-long history. His prose and his editorial judgment left an imprint that’s hard to overstate. Like Ruth and Ohtani, he was a freakishly talented double threat, a superb writer and an invaluable counsel to countless masters of the short story. He won a place in both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in the Baseball Hall of Fame—a unique distinction. The crowd of friends from the magazine who drove four hours north to watch him receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award at Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, wore custom jerseys declaring themselves Roger’s “Angells.”

Roger was born to a very particular sliver of twentieth-century American society. His father, Ernest Angell, was a Harvard-trained lawyer who went on to lead the American Civil Liberties Union. His mother, born Katharine Sergeant, was educated at Bryn Mawr and became this magazine’s first fiction editor, a close editorial partner to Harold Ross. After divorcing Ernest Angell, she married another founding eminence at the magazine, E. B. White. Mrs. White, as she was known at the office, neglected to tell Roger the news of her wedding; Roger, who was nine at the time, heard about it only a couple of days later, through a relative who had read about it in Walter Winchell’s newspaper column. In a marvellous portrait of Mrs. White by Nancy Franklin, called “Lady with a Pencil,” Roger made it plain that, though both mother and son felt the pain and the disruption of the divorce, he relished the hours he spent listening to her talk about the office in midtown and witnessing her limitless devotion to language and to her writers: “It was the main event of her life—The New Yorker, and New Yorker writers, and what was in the magazine. It wasn’t a matter of power. It was about what was on the page or what could be on the page if something worked out.” Roger followed suit. As a kid, he read endlessly and developed a mean party trick, memorizing the caption of every cartoon published in the history of the magazine.

After graduating from Harvard, Roger served in the Army Air Corps. He spent much of the Second World War stationed in the Central Pacific, where he was the managing editor of a G.I. magazine. He also found time to write fiction. In March, 1944, The New Yorker published a very short story called “Three Ladies in the Morning.” The author’s byline, which came at the end of the piece, was “Cpl. Roger Angell.” After returning home, he spent a long apprenticeship at Holiday, a distinguished travel magazine of the mid-century, and finally came to The New Yorker as an editor in 1956, after the Whites had moved to Maine. Eventually, Roger led the fiction department; he was, as he often said, “doing my mother’s job in my mother’s office.” Some of the writers Mrs. White had brought to the magazine—Thurber, Nabokov, Updike—eventually became her son’s writers. Roger, who may have carried on one of the longest engagements with psychotherapists in the city’s history, once said that a shrink told him his inheritance was “the greatest piece of active sublimation in my experience.”

As an editor, Roger was devoted, open-minded, and sometimes hard-knuckled. He did not just ladle out the superlatives. His proofs were littered with ziggy cross-outs, querulous question marks, aggressive arrows, and the occasional hard-won “Yes!” As a writer he was a “taker-outer,” not a “keeper-inner,” as he said, and that urge carried over to his editing. Clarity above all. Nothing thrilled him more than to bring in someone fresh and promising. In the early seventies, he knew to be patient when the work of a young graduate student named Ann Beattie was plucked from the “slush pile.” Even as he rejected story after story over nearly two years, he kept writing her encouraging, sometimes instructive, letters. He kept Beattie in the game. Then came this:

Oh, joy . . . Yes, we are taking “A Platonic Relationship,” and I
think this is just about the best news of the year. Maybe it isn’t the
best news for you, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure
(well, almost nothing) than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a
writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you
have. It’s a fine story, I think—original, strong, and true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *