book review

Book Review: Lance Morrow’s Wonderful ‘The Noise of Typewriters’

The late Robert Novak’s 2013 memoir The Prince of Darkness was endlessly interesting, but also tiring in an odd way. Seemingly every day he went to Duke Ziebert’s for long, boozy lunches, only to return to his office to write what for a long time was a daily column. The reader feels exhausted merely reading about how hard Novak was on his body.  

At the same time, memoirs like Novak’s were and are essential reads as a way of seeing how different media used to be. Paraphrasing George Will, the print media of not terribly long ago is another country relative to today. And it wasn’t just the drinking. It was also the money. While the journalists weren’t necessarily paid grandly (this changed for Novak as his fame grew), they lived and traveled that way. For Novak, annual foreign travel was part of the deal, as he was expected to opine from locales not just the United States. The journalistic world that Novak inhabited is long gone, but one positive (beyond progress as a powerful positive) is that the memoirs of how things used to be are perhaps even more interesting given how at odds they are with modern times.

In which case, add the great Lance Morrow’s 2023 The Noise of Typewriters to the list of essential reads about journalism and the people who populated the profession. At 180 pages it’s way too short, but what a rewarding 180 pages.

Time Life co-founder Henry Luce looms large in the memoir/history even though Morrow never actually met him. Morrow was a weekly columnist at Time magazine when it was most certainly fab, and when Time was viewed as essential reading in a world with exponentially fewer entertainment options. As Morrow recalls, “I knew that my story would be read by every mayor and every governor in America, by every Senator and Congressman, every Justice of the Supreme Court – by the president of each corporation, by all who were in power in America, or wished to be in power; and by every lawyer, every doctor and dentist, and by their patients in the waiting room.”

It brings to mind Reggie Jackson’s three home runs on three pitches in Game 6 of the Dodgers/Yankees World Series (a clincher for New York) back in 1977, or even Christian Laettner’s last second 1992 shot that vaulted Duke into the Final Four over Kentucky.  I saw (the use of “I” would no doubt bother the proper journalist in Morrow!) both live, and then for fun will add that I saw Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart’s “Miracle at Michigan” live back in 1994, and was so taken by it (and perhaps a little bit tipsy) that I ran out of the Chicago bar where I was drinking in an attempt to bring people in from off the street to watch the replays. One negative about progress and multiple, multiple entertainment choices is neither Jackson’s nor Laettner’s nor Stewart’s heroics would carry in 2024 the immense meaning they did way back when.

The view here is that the digression about sports is apt. Time magazine used to be such a big deal. See who Morrow knew was reading his columns. Without disdaining progress for even a second, it’s hard at times to not miss the shared experience with regard to television, sports, and to a smaller but still large degree, reading. Nowadays, the Wall Street Journal editorial page (where Morrow is a regular, and the locale from which he routinely entertains me) is probably the closest an opinion writer can get to mass readership, but even its reach is limited compared to what it once was, and compared to what Morrow enjoyed in his days at Time.

Which of course explains the “fancy expense accounts” that Morrow knew well, along with his memory of being able to “push a button” from his desk, “summon a copyboy,” “hand him an expense advance requisition slip, and presently he would return with an envelope containing $75 in cash.” In his excellent collection of essays from this year, The Lede, former Time writer Calvin Trillin features a 1998 New Yorker column in which he writes that “I never passed an impressive mansion in a foreign capital without thinking, ‘It’s either an Arab embassy or the home of a Time bureau chief.’”

From this, we can easily deduce that Morrow’s knowledge of who was reading his every word directly correlated with “fancy expense accounts,” expense advance requisition slips, and impressive mansions. The reach of newspapers and magazines used to be vast, but in a world that grows more segmented by the day, it no longer is. It’s difficult to not be a little big nostalgic, and sad about what’s no longer, but the memoirs once again make up for it. The world was just so different.

Take the drinking alone. What’s changed in the United States? We used to be a drinking country. This is not a yearning for the past, but it’s a comment. It wasn’t just Novak drinking heavily. Morrow recalls that Luce “was extraordinarily tolerant of alcoholics on the staff of his magazines.” Both of Morrow’s parents were prominent journalists, and he recalls being sent by his mother on Sundays to get her ammoniated (I don’t know what that is) Cokes that she would drink while writing in bed. They were a hangover cure. In a separate column for the Wall Street Journal, Morrow recalls his mother’s ability to match men, including Richard Nixon, drink for drink. It just doesn’t seem like these people roam the earth anymore. How could they drink so much and write so much?

It all makes me wonder in reading Morrow what he thinks of writers today. About those he’s remembering in Typewriters, he explains that he’s “fond of the subject and the cast of characters,” hence the book. Me too. Morrow, like Trillin, like Novak, brings the characters to life. I just wonder how he thinks those of the moment measure up to those from his day.

William F. Buckley always comes to mind. To read about him, and most notably to read about him through the beautiful obituaries he would write (memorialized so well by the excellent James Rosen), was to see what a remarkable challenge people like John O’Sullivan, Rich Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru and others faced and face in stepping into Buckley’s shoes. It insults none of them to say that Buckley operated on a level that few did, or ever will. He seemed to know everyone, and was on the level with or swam above everyone of importance from all walks of prominent life. How to measure up to such grandeur?

It seems that’s at least partially what Morrow was thinking when he wrote of a New York Times Magazine hatchet job done on Buckley late in life. Morrow’s power of description is so great (look up his Journal essay on Robert F. Kennedy yelling at a pregnant – with RFK Jr. – Ethel for dropping a pass in football), and about the Times piece he wrote that the article on Buckley “was accompanied by a full-page, extreme close-up of him that showed every pore and bristling white whisker of his ravaged, unshaven face.” Morrow added rightly that “running the photo was an act of pure malice, schadenfreude.” Let’s throw in desecration. Buckley was a monument. Forget politics. He was just amazing. How dare they?

Of course, it says much about Morrow that he swam in circles populated by people like Buckley. Sure enough, he was at a dinner honoring Buckley at the Pierre in 2005, and was seated next to Abe Rosenthal, executive editor at the New York Times from 1977 to 1988. About Rosenthal being at a dinner honoring the alleged enemy in Buckley, readers will be spared the nonsense about how cordial relations between left and right used to be. It’s not true, plus we’re arguably worse off when both sides are getting along as is. At the same time, Rosenthal attending Buckley’s 80th speaks again to how well-regarded he was across ideology and professions. Morrow relayed to him the story about the picture of Buckley at exactly the time when a loud ballroom briefly turned quiet. It was just then that Rosenthal erupted with “THOSE COCKSUCKERS!”

As for the speech Buckley gave at the dinner, Morrow recalls that “Bill read a very long, uncharacteristically tedious speech that (I may be wrong) made no sense at all.” If youth is an ass, so is age in a very real sense. This is no insight. I never knew Buckley (though he did unexpectedly respond to a letter I wrote him with a letter – apparently he did this with everyone…again, amazing), but have read enough about him to imagine that a younger him wouldn’t have allowed the older version to give a speech, let alone read a speech. That’s what lousy speakers do, and there was nothing lousy about Buckley.

Morrow has strong opinions about H.L. Mencken, whom I’ve never really read. Probably like most, I’ve read a funny quip here and there. Among libertarians, it’s just accepted that he was something. At the Cato Institute, the extraordinarily funny and kind (and the late) P.J. O’Rourke was the Institute’s H.L. Mencken scholar of some sort. Morrow’s fandom isn’t as great, and while his critiques are difficult to argue with, his critique of Mencken seemed a bit overdone? Getting more specific, he writes that Mencken “taught middle-class Americans to dissociate themselves – to repudiate – their origins.” Ok, but how many Americans actually read him? After which, it seems repudiation of one’s origins is as old as mankind, and can likely explain why cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London are so rich and popular: they took on the strivers eager to escape their pasts. It strikes me that Mencken’s columns didn’t teach Americans to repudiate as much as they were a mirror into what America was – and is – all about.

Morrow adds that Mencken “taught Americans an idiom of contempt that would come back to haunt the country a hundred years later.” That too seemed a reach. Prominent as Mencken was, it’s hard to imagine that a poll of notoriously oblivious-to-history-and-news Americans (a compliment, I say) from 100 years ago would have revealed broad knowledge of newspaper columnist. To then say his musings are still having an impact seemed too much.

Which brings us to John Hersey, the author of the famous, 60,000-word New Yorker essay, “Hiroshima.” Morrow writes that Hersey’s piece is broadly viewed as the best piece of journalism in the history of journalism, and he would know. What makes it interesting, but also chilling, is that Morrow believes Hersey “achieved a journalistic sainthood that he did not quite deserve.” To be clear, Morrow isn’t necessarily revealing contrarian instincts in going against journalistic consensus as much as he’s posing a question through facts. Which is where it becomes chilling. Hiroshima was tragic, sickening, with 100,000 killed alongside 100,000 injured. Morrow isn’t playing denier as much as he’s asking what if Hersey “had gone to Nanking months after the Japanese army had perpetrated the Rape of Nanking,” that included the rape of 80,000 women and girls and the killing of something like 300,000.

From there he writes of the late Iris Chang’s book, aptly titled The Rape of Nanking, only to feature a passage that brings new meaning to Dostoevsky’s line that “A beast can never be so cruel, so artistically cruel” as man. About the Japanese, Chang reported that “Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts, nail them alive to walls. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them torn apart by German shepherds.” Where to begin with all this?

Chang adds that the spectacle at Nanking was “so sickening” that “even Nazis in the city were horrified.” Yet nowadays it’s only a “canceling” (a word conservatives have devalued almost as much as they have ‘woke’) offense to wear Nazi military garb, not to mention that on the matter of immigration, we allegedly don’t want people from “shithole countries.” Ok, but what was Japan not terribly long ago? Do historical atrocities anywhere else at any other time compare to those the Japanese committed in Nanking?

What about China’s military buildup today? In light of what was done to some of its people, would conservatives lucky enough to read Morrow’s book stand by their view that China’s military expansion must be checked? Let’s expand the question to Russia. It lost something like 28 million people during World War II. Based on that, is it so beyond the pale that Russia and its people might be a bit touchy about their border, particularly if a bordering country long seen as Russian were about to join NATO? Americans would surely and perhaps rightly be quite concerned if Xi or Putin were to announce a military alliance with Mexico, and we’ve never suffered the horrors of invasion in the way both countries have.

About this commentary, if readers want to see it as an apology for either Xi or Putin, that’s their right. But to see it that way is to miss the point. The point here is that memories are long. We say never forget about 9/11, but the Chinese and Russians are supposed to move on? Sorry, but look at what the Japanese did, look at what the Germans (another non-shithole country?) did to Russia, and then look at it through the prism of conservatives hiding behind their know-nothing protectionism, and excusing it with “the Chinese are treating the Uyghurs badly.” Let’s agree that the Chinese are treating the Uyghurs badly, while at least pointing out that if we cease trading with countries based on human rights violations, we will have very few to trade with.

Further on Japan and Hiroshima, Morrow notes that “Luce thought the Hiroshima bomb had been unnecessary. So did Eisenhower. I’ve been in lots of arguments about it.” It brings up one of so many questions I’d like to ask Morrow, but also George Will, Cato co-founder Ed Crane, and so many others. What’s the answer to what happened? To this day Morrow seems a little conflicted? On p. 111, he writes that “One also acknowledges, uneasily, the argument that the Japanese were finished, in any case – their resources (oil, etc.) exhausted – and that Truman might simply have waited, resisting the temptation to deliver the decisive, apocalyptic blow.” Yet two pages later Morrow writes of estimates that as many as 500,000 Americans would have died in a traditional invasion of Japan. The question here is why this even a question, and I’m not talking about nuclear weapons. If Japan was finished, why would the U.S. have ever wasted 500,000 precious lives to further reveal what was already known?

Japan was quite simply destroyed. There was seemingly no economy left in Tokyo, so why either nuclear weapons or an invasion? About these questions, they’re obviously easy to ask in retrospect. Hindsight and all that. At the same time, it’s a bit terrifying to contemplate what the plans for Japan were without the bomb. It just seems there’s a contradiction that remains unexplained. Absent the bomb, why on earth were we willing to allow so many Americans to die in an effort to further finish a country that was already finished? As in let’s leave the bomb out of the discussion and ask why people like William Manchester felt they were being sent to near-certain death? But since Japan was finished, why the bomb?

The happiest story of all the journalists Morrow wrote about concerns one of his editors at Time, Henry Grunwald. Grunwald’s well-to-do and reasonably famous Viennese family escaped Vienna before the Nazis arrived, then escaped Paris as the Germans moved in there, and ultimately they caught a ship in Morocco that took them to the United States. About this, Morrow notes Grunwald’s observation that the movie’s rendering of Casablanca was quite a bit nicer than the one his family saw up close. Morrow adds that Grunwald “loved America and adopted it as it had adopted him; he took energy from it and blessed it as his refuge and salvation from the narrowly escaped evil that killed six million Jews.” Conservatives (and increasingly libertarians) look askance at immigration. Conservatives worry about “culture” and “assimilation” (I’ll take immigrants ANY day over the Americans I’ve seen at Penn Station on St. Patrick’s Day…), while libertarians worry about immigrants bringing their “statism” and a desire for “handouts” with them. No, immigrants are turning away from the past when they come here. They want to make it on the biggest stage. They so plainly do. And if they were coming for handouts, then logic dictates the border wouldn’t empty (as it so often does) every time the U.S. economy takes a dive. Immigration is a market signal, and a beautiful one as people who love themselves enough to get here, get here. Grunwald is more than an anecdote.  

Perhaps the most remarkable passages are about Robert Caro, someone Morrow describes as his “hero.” With good reason. Wow. Caro taught him that “luck emerges from diligence.” Caro has recognized in writing about people like Robert Moses and LBJ that if you turn enough pages, you happen upon really important stuff. Caro and his wife apparently turned 32 million pages at the LBJ Library alone!

In researching LBJ’s college years at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Caro and wife happened on fellow students who said a man by the name of Vernon Whiteside would have the crucial details about LBJ’s time there, including in student politics. The problem was that there was no Google or internet search when they were researching and writing The Path To Power. They ultimately found out Whiteside was alive, but all they knew what that he and his wife lived in a mobile home “in an unidentified locale north of Miami that had ‘Beach’ in its name.” Having happened on this rather vague tidbit, “the Caros got out maps and started calling every mobile home court in every Florida town or city north of Miami with ‘Beach’ in its name.” They found Whiteside, and the talk with him provided “memorable material for a chapter that shed fascinating light on LBJ’s early ambitions, ruthlessness, and curious amorality.” Caro’s persistence and work ethic stagger the mind. Truly.

About journalism more broadly, Morrow writes that Luce “would not even permit people from the business side to set foot on the editorial floors.” Think tanks in many ways operate that way to this day. The view here is that it’s a mistake. Reporting would be improved with business knowledge. At risk of being trite, reality improves reporting.

At a dinner party of journalists in New York that included big names like Joan Didion, the talk expanded to Hollywood and scriptwriting. There was and still is crossover. Morrow chimed in that Jack Warner described writers as “schmucks with Underwoods.” The response at the table was uncomfortable laughter. Morrow had relayed a very common anecdote, and was embarrassed.

Looking back, he recalls that journalists in New York “thought faster and talked faster and more wittily than those in the capital.” It raised a question about whether that’s still true today. The bet is they’re more equal, and that’s the problem. The guess here is that Washington journalists were formerly not as witty as New Yorkers because what happened in Washington was formerly not as important, by design. Now it is.

It brings to mind all the whining among political pundits about the divide in the U.S., the lack of civility and all that aforementioned nonsense. Politics is all about being at odds, and a lack of civility. It has to be. At the same time, perhaps one reason for what some would say is a growing divide can be found in the importance of Washington, and by extension the wittiness of Washington journalists. Of course they are. D.C. is where the action is nowadays. Government is huge. If it were to ever actually shrink, or if it were to ever localize, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that some of the greatest D.C. talent would exit in concert with the shrinkage.

Bringing it to a close, a few more Henry (Harry) Luce anecdotes. Upon FDR’s death, Luce was said to quip “I suppose it is my duty to go on hating him.” Morrow notes that while Luce hated FDR, “intellectuals hated Luce, in part because they envied his enormous readership.” It had me wondering if by extension the intellectual in Morrow had fallen out of favor with intellectuals given the reach of his column. Did its reach alter his own approach to writing?

Lance Morrow closes his wonderful book with memories of Time’s 75th anniversary in March of 1998. It had to have been fascinating owing to the magazine’s prominence that hadn’t yet dimmed. All those famous people gawking at famous people. Think about it. Luce wasn’t there, having died thirty years earlier, but since he upended journalism with Time, it would be interesting to have asked an older him if in Time’s enormous prominence, he could see when it wouldn’t be.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

    View all posts
Scroll to Top