Annals of Pointless Investigation: Jay McInerney, Fact, and Fiction

I liked Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City when I was assigned it in high school. But I didn’t love it. I was too young to understand McInerney’s main themes as more than abstract ideas: the struggle to be “successful” in one’s post-college life, the search for meaning in a career, the mix of people in a huge city, the awkwardness of sex and dating and how it actually doesn’t get much less awkward after age 17. Growing up a little has made me love this novel.

The book is obviously a roman a clef: McInerney and the unnamed, second-person protagonist both went to elite old-money schools (Williams and Princeton); both were aspiring fiction writers; both got fired from magazine jobs as fact-checkers (McInerney at the New Yorker, the protagonist at a magazine that can’t possibly be anything else). I’ve always wondered, though: who are the real names behind the protagonist’s co-workers at the Department of Factual Verification? Who at the New Yorker was the real-life version of “Clara Tillinghast,” the boss who made McInerney’s life such a living hell? Were these characters composites, or were they more-or-less ripped straight from McInerney’s past without much to disguise them?

I dug up this old Mother Jones review by Craig Seligman, which is an interesting read in and of itself – though that’s a subject for another post. Seligman, who worked with McInerney at the New Yorker, cops to being the inspiration for the character of Yasu Wade. He also confirms that just like in the novel, McInerney was fired for sloppy work, but he doesn’t name any other names besides his own. So I poked around some more.

McInerney worked at the New Yorker from January to July 1980. That magazine is perhaps more committed to meticulous fact-checking than any other in America, hiring Ivy League grads to do glorified gruntwork, so it’s quite likely that others besides Seligman are now prominent in their careers and thus easy to find. Who else was a fact-checker there at that time? Here’s Richard Sacks, whose tenure at the magazine overlapped with McInerney’s. So he was in the department too – in fact, the writing style in his NYT letter makes me wonder if he wasn’t in fact the inspiration for Rittenhouse, the overly mannered but highly respected senior member of the department. And Sacks drops a clue:

You certainly hated to let down Sara Lippincott or Martin Baron, who ran the department.

Sara Lippincott…Clara Tillinghast…not much of a stretch there. John McPhee’s recent New Yorker retrospective on the magazine’s fact checkers confirms that Lippincott was at the magazine in 1980.  Like the fictitious Clara Tillinghast, she’d been at the magazine for a very long time even by then. Like Clara, Lippincott specialized in checking the magazine’s science articles. Like Clara, Lippincott’s personality comes across as both schoolmarmishly condescending and maniacal toward her work (at least, that’s what her quotes in McPhee’s piece suggest to me). Did Lippincott look anything like McInerney’s description of Tillinghast? Let’s roll the tape.

Here’s Frances Sternhagen, who played Clara in the movie adaptation.

And here’s the real-life Sara Lippincott:

McInerney has protected his work with all the usual legal disclaimers, of course. But there’s no doubt in my mind at this point: Sara Lippincott is Clara Tillinghast. If anyone has any leads on other members of the department during McInerney’s tenure, I’m all ears.

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