An article, by Shelley Wanger, in The New York Review of Books looks at the earlier years of the iconic magazine, in which she played no small part; it is 1975.
The Review was in a colorless block at 250 West 57th street, in the Fisk Building, a 1921 Carrère and Hastings brick structure whose lobby smelled of the Chinese food from the Yangtze River Restaurant that opened onto it. Lincoln Kirstein got mugged in the elevator there after delivering a piece to us. The Review, on the fourteenth floor, was a maze of small rooms, with little light, dark wood furniture, books, galleys, manuscripts, and cockroaches everywhere, reminiscent of the broom closet look of editorial offices at that time in Paris. Bob had two assistants who sat in his office with him; I was replacing Deborah Eisenberg. One of the first, most daunting things I had to do was sit at the front desk—perhaps there was a headset, or was it just quieter?—and on the phone take down a piece from V.S. Naipaul, who was in Zaire. How many times can you politely say “What?” and “So sorry”? But somehow the task got done. We were not in that space for long, though long enough for Bob’s other assistants Annalyn Swan to depart for Timeand Daphne Merkin to leave to pursue her own writing.
In the new, spacious, light-filled rooms on the thirteenth floor—Suite 1321—there was the addition of some industrial carpeting in the main offices, which nonetheless retained a comforting air of disheveled, bohemian mess. Bob’s habit of chain-smoking long, thin, dark brown Nat Sherman cigarettes created a thick cloud of smoke that made his office look like a bad day in Beijing, only compounded by the occasional fire that started in the large, boxlike brass floor ashtray with lions’ feet to the left of his desk and the smoke from just outside where Luc Sante, one of Barbara’s assistants, sat and exquisitely rolled and smoked his own cigarettes.
Many nights Bob came tearing back into the office at 11 pm after a dinner. One of his three assistants I worked with—Shay Cunliffe, then Tamar Jacoby, Mark Danner, and later Pat Storace—would be there: two of us did the 10 to 6 shift and one the 2:30 to 9, which could drift to later. Sharon Delano, an assistant editor, was often there reading copy or, when we were about to go to press on Thursday evening, reading the boards with Barbara Probst.This was the way it was back then, not only in the offices of magazines, but in many other industries. I remember working in many places as a summer student in the mid to late 1970s, where the offices were filled with chain-smoking men, some in business suits, others not. I also fondly remember clouds of smoke hovering in the air above each chain-smoking individual, and sometimes joining together to create one large mass that would eventually float away, that is, if it were summer and the windows were open.
Many business offices were not the neat orderly ones we often encounter today; many, as Wanger describes, “retained a comforting air of disheveled, bohemian mess.” It was energetic and disorderly; it was unplanned and liberating. And I agree; it was comforting in some inexplicable way that modern offices are not.
You can read the rest of the article at [NYRB]