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In the Library

On Safire

The bulk of the papers relate to Safire’s tenure at the New York Times. He joined the staff in 1973 after being hired on the spot by publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger as the paper’s new political columnist. Safire’s twice-weekly “Essay” column appeared on the Op-Ed page for thirty-two years and presented a libertarian conservative point of view. The Safire papers contain copies of all his columns, as well as reader responses. I found Safire’s essay, Blizzard of Lies, in which he calls Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar,” one of the most interesting because it elicited a full spectrum of spirited responses: nearly thirty folders of reader mail. Comments ranged from “Keep meddling Mr. Safire! Someone needs to bring the Clinton transgressions out in the open” to “Your characterization of the First Lady is an abuse of the free press. It demonstrates the need to return to the days of dueling, when big mouths had to be careful what they said.”

The collection also contains documents regarding Safire’s Sunday “On Language” column, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine for thirty years. The column featured Safire’s thoughtful and sometimes biting commentary on grammar, usage, and etymology. It also attracted many fans and devoted correspondents (dubbed the Lexicographic Irregulars) who helped research the origins of words and phrases. The collection includes photocopies, drafts, and correspondence from all of the columns, reader mail, and many research files. Research files make up the bulk of the “On Language” material and contain correspondence, media clippings, dictionary entries, hand-scribbled notes, and other documents used to construct each column.

Ben Chartoff, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, worked as a processing assistant to help organize nearly fifty linear feet of these research files. “When the files arrived,” Chartoff recalled, “they were only loosely alphabetized, and packed in a mish-mash of poorly labeled, overstuffed, acidic folders.” After spending two months alphabetizing, arranging, labeling, and organizing the files, he proudly stated, “They are a sight to be seen.”

While the research files bear witness to Safire’s love for language, the subject files provide a glimpse into his many other activities, interests, and affiliations. These files contain a combination of correspondence, printed material, and research notes related to hot-button issues such as abortion, affirmative action, the environment, gambling, and privacy. I began to see Safire as somewhat of a social butterfly as I looked through materials from his home life, which include invitations to his annual Yom Kippur parties, travel memorabilia from his trips to England, Russia, France, and Singapore, and his credentials and press passes for various events.

Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books in Washington, D.C., appraised William Safire’s papers before they traveled north to Syracuse (another portion of the archive, relating to Safire’s work as a speechwriter for President Nixon, went to the Library of Congress). A longtime friend of Safire, Stypeck called SU’s collection “a wonderful archive of an extremely diversified writer.” He added, “It has not only the background notes on Bill’s books, but it has an enormous amount of subject files and column files for the columns he did for the New York Times…The depth of his relationship with his readers is fascinating.”

In addition, Safire’s affiliation with the Judson Welliver Society, a social club exclusively reserved for presidential speechwriters, is illustrated through correspondence, dinner party invitations, and membership lists. Documents related to Safire’s tenure on the boards of trustees for the Pulitzer Prize, Syracuse University, and the Wednesday Ten, a networking club for emerging businessmen founded by Safire in 1957, show the range of his interests from the literary to the entrepreneurial.

The correspondence in the collection contains both incoming and outgoing letters, postcards, greeting cards, and emails from family, friends, and professional contacts. Safire designated some correspondents with the epithet “VIP,” including politicians, actors, authors, and presidents, among whom are Bill Clinton, Norman Mailer, George Burns, and Julia Child. The VIP correspondence includes personal letters, suggestions for columns, invitations, and well wishes.

With the processing nearly complete, my current task is to select items for digitization. I plan to choose letters from prominent individuals and video from Safire’s television guest appearances, once copyright and privacy issues are resolved. We estimate that the collection will open to researchers in January of next year.

Amber L. Moore is an archivist at the Special Collections Research Center located at Syracuse University.
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