Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.
Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."
Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.
Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)
Question: How has the role of alcohol in journalism changed over your career?
Calvin Trillin: Well, part of that is simply the way that the role of alcohol has changed in our society. You know if you look at Mad Men, the series about advertising in the early ‘60s, that is indeed how people used to drink, and they weren’t just reporters who drank that way. Everybody drank that way. We were talking about it the other day. I knew somebody from the army; he was my commanding colonel in the army who’d become a PR guy, and he had some story. He just needed to hand me a press release really. We went to lunch and had I don’t know three or four martinis in order to do this, in order to make this handoff. That was quite common, but that was true in the advertising business. It was true certainly in New York, and Jimmy Carter famously railed against the two martini lunch or three martini lunch; I can’t remember ‘cause it’s all on the expense accounts but that was very common. And I think on the other hand I would agree with Gay that there was a connection between reporters and alcohol. It’s hard to remember, but being a reporter is only lately a respectable occupation, and it certainly--when I was a boy I think a newspaper reporter, maybe there were a few exceptions like the White House or the Washington columnist for The New York Times or something, but basically it was thought of as a bunch of people in sort of greasy suits with a folded up paper with these thick pencils and a bottle in the lower left hand drawer. And I remember a friend of mine saying once in Washington; this was early on in my career as a reporter. He had just spent a lot of time calling somebody’s secretary trying to find out what happened at some meeting that didn’t make a lot of difference, and he knew the secretary was lying to him, and he knew when he finally got the guy on the phone he would lie to him and he would know that he was lying to him, and he would know that he would know that he was lying to him. And he said this is a guy who had a masters degree from Berkley and a Bachelor’s degree from Yale and all that, and he said, is this a job for a college graduate? And the answer, really, was not exactly. This is only lately in the last, say, 30 years or so, that I think that it’s been thought of as respectable occupation.
And there was a lot of drinking. I think there’s less now simply because people drink less, or they drink different things that don’t seem to be as potent as the three martinis or the bottle in the drawer, but I think that’s partly a societal change. I don’t think it’s just journalism. However, I do agree that the people who go into journalism now – I think there was a piece by Maureen Dowd, since she wrote it with someone else I can’t remember who, several years ago called "The Nerds on the Bus" or something like that. It was a reference to a famous book among journalists called The Boys on The Bus by Tim Krauss which follow the people followed the presidential campaign, and this piece was basically about these are different guys now. These guys have been to Harvard, and they have little machines to do things that the old guys on the bus never thought of, and they have families at home and they tend to stay married to them for a while. So they’re a different group of people than used to be on the bus or covering things, and I think probably tend to drink less partly because of their era and partly because of who they are.
Recorded on: October 8, 2009