There are those who believe that grammar in this country died thirteen years ago last month. That’s an exaggeration – grammar was certainly dealt a heavy loss.
In February of 2005, Eleanor Gould Packard, longtime chief copy editor of The New Yorker, passed away after fifty-four years of service to the magazine.
The anniversary of her death reminded us of another extremely talented copy editor who worked alongside of Packard at The New Yorker — Lu Burke spent 32 years at the magazine before her demise in October of 2010.
The two are joined in high regard by those who knew them: although they were housed under one employment roof for roughly the same period of time and excelled at fairly similar jobs, they had distinctly different personalities. After her death, Ms. Burke became the subject of an engaging mystery.
Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory here in Lewisville, Texas, located between Dallas, Texas and Denton, Texas (and just west of both Plano, Texas and Richardson, Texas), has performed final disposition for clients whose professions are closely related; we have even serviced two who have worked in the same department for the same company. But, the relationship between and the reputation of both Packard and Burke is a special case, something we have never seen.
The mystery and Ms. Burke first.
Although there are several shelves of memoirs written by New Yorker authors, many of which contain references to Eleanor Gould (she didn’t use the married name Packard at the office), you won’t find Lu Burke much mentioned. That, apparently, was due to her abrupt, vinegary manner. Lu was all about the business of copy editing and had little time for developing relationships.
When she passed away, obituary writers called the New Yorker magazine and it was discovered that no one knew much about her. She had lived in Greenwich Village, liked earth shoes and had dated author J.D. Salinger. As far as intimate details, Lu kept her distance.
During Burke’s tenure with the publication, her copy editing skills spoke for themselves — quite loudly, in fact. She was razor sharp; her knowledge of grammar, usage and style was legendary.
After retirement, Burke lived out her final days in assisted living quarters in Southbury, Connecticut, where she very much kept to herself.
When she passed, it came as a surprise that she left her estate — which totaled almost $1.1 million, a shocking sum — to the Southpark Library. Shocking for several reasons: she apparently knew how to stretch a buck, as most copy editors don’t amass this large of an estate; second, she did not have a library card and no one is certain she even set foot in the Southpark Library.
The size of the gift immediately attracted the attention of the city of Southbury, which owns the library; ultimately, details were worked out so that Burke’s intentions were honored.
What those intentions were is still a mystery — her love of language, her fear that books were going to disappear, who really knows?
Possessing what author Ben Yagoda termed a sense of “Talmudic vetting,” Gould was cast as The New Yorker’s chief grammarian. Perhaps one of the finest grammarians ever (she received a mention in E.B. White’s revision of “The Elements of Style,” the touchstone for such matters).
Gould’s notes on the galley proofs were lengthy and detailed to a surgical degree of precision. The New Yorker’s trademark clarity of writing was in no small part due to her efforts.
Two other interesting tidbits about Gould: one day she became completely deaf and ended up working her last 15 years at the magazine with this affliction; she once found four grammatical errors in a three word sentence.
Gould died at the age of 87, Burke reached 90 — two vital, productive giants in their field, contributors both. May they both rest in peace.