Earlier this year, New York lost one of its all-time greatest chroniclers. Mclandlish Phillips, a reporter for the New York Times who later left journalism to spread the Gospel, became known for his local reporting, as well as his lyrical articles about vanishing institutions in an ever-changing New York.
In his 1962 collection of writings, City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York, Phillips remembers “Book Row,” the area just south of Union Square centered on Fourth Avenue that used to be New York’s used book center. He recalls a conversation between Jack Biblio and Jack Tannen, founders of Biblio & Tannen at 63 Fourth Avenue:
“We came from a slum neighborhood—East New York in Brooklyn,” Mr. Biblio said. “In those days, a penny was a lot, but a bunch of us were terribly interested in books and the rental of a Tarzan book in a store on Pitkin Avenue was ten cents for three days.
“Five of us kids each chipped in two cents, and all five of us read that whole book in three days. We didn’t need a quick-reading course.”
“To work for one dollar a day in a bookstore—just to be in a bookstore—that was Nirvana,” Mr. Biblio said. “Kids today won’t start for ninety dollars a week. It’s nothing today for a boy ten years old to come in and pull out a ten dollar bill. It’s quite a different world.”
“We started the business in 1928,” Mr. Tannen said. “We slept in the back room and we worked eighteen hours a day and we each took a dollar-a-day out for the first three years.”
“We didn’t have hours. As long as a customer was in the place, we stayed open,” Mr. Biblio said.
“If a customer came in and spent one dollar—big sale—we’d go out and have coffee and,” Mr. Tannen said, implying Danish.
Phillips’ book is chock full of anechdotes such as these, that only a seasoned reporter, who was also a seasoned New Yorker, could amass.
The breadth of Phillips’ coverage is also evidenced by the headlines to which his byline is attached, such as: “City Surlpus of Elks, Rams and Yaks Declines: High Bids Totaling $793.50 Accepted for 34 Left-Over Animals from Zoos,” “In Van Cortlandt: Bodies Washed Up on Lake Shore—Park Aide Says Silt Cut Off Oxygen,” “Singer Takes Charm to Rikers Island,” and “Aged Wait in Stony Solitude, But Not for Buses.”
Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.” In this article, that won him widespread praise and notice, Phillips reveals that Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.
While still working at the Times, Phillips helped found The New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation. In 1973, Phillips left the Times and journalism to preach the Gospel on the Columbia University campus and to work with the fellowship. Phillips died in April of this year at the age of 85.
Phillips will be remembered by fans of New Yorkiana for his unique flair for New York writing and his commitment to getting the story straight. The New York Times obituary for Phillips quotes his 1969 article about the closing of Lindy’s Delicatessen, a New York institution:
“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”
Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:
“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”
Phillips, McCandlish. City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York. New York: Liveright, 1974.