02/08/2011 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs at The New Yorker : An 86th Anniversary Appreciation

When I showed up for my first day of work at The New Yorker magazine in 1972, I was greeted by my theatrically busy boss, Mrs. Harriet Walden, "Quick, quick, we've got three deadlines today!"

Mrs. Walden ran her twentieth-floor editorial pool with manic efficiency and decorum. We must be charming workhorses -- refined thoroughbreds who could haul our weight in manuscripts.

"I count on my girls for their discretion," Mrs. Walden schooled me, blowing a swirl of Dorals Ultra-Lite smoke into my face. Her glass-enclosed office was like a lab for animals being tested for secondhand smoke inhalation. The fact that two of the six of us youngsters in her Pond were men hadn't seemed to register yet with her.

I was one of a handful of editorial staff under thirty; the rest were in their fifties through seventies. If the mean streets of Manhattan were pure Lord of the Flies, inside The New Yorker's run-down hallways we employees were expected to abide by a Victorian etiquette not unlike that of the British period drama "Upstairs, Downstairs." We editorial servants knew secrets. It was a futile power.

In Walden's Pond, IBM typewriters rattled under intense editorial deadlines; we rotated through every office from "talk of the town" to fiction to stints in reclusive Mr. William Shawn's office.

Many weeks, I was assigned to Edith Oliver, the fierce theater critic, who was also head of the books department. Small, quick-witted, and gnarled, Miss Oliver was an aristocratic crone out of a Grimm's fairy tale. With one review, she could shut down a Broadway show. What might she do to a lowly editorial assistant?

Miss Oliver often snapped her fingers in my face as if I were not already riveted by her every command. Her office was a garret with wall-high shelves of books longing for a New Yorker nod.

Usually, I barely spoke a word, except, "Yes, ma'am."

"Don't 'ma'am' me, child," Miss Oliver always snapped. "I'm not Methuselah."

Once a senile writer meandered down the hall and tried to enter a door long sealed by a huge bookcase. When at first the door didn't budge, the old man used his cane like a crowbar to wedge it open. "Move aside!" he bellowed in his dramatic baritone. "I have some timely Newsbreaks!" These were the clippings and light "fillers" that echoed the magazine's ironic tone.

After one more urgent shove with his cane, the door creaked open at last. Miss Oliver and I watched a slow-motion tumble of hundreds of hardback books. We had to scramble to keep from being bonked by them.

Like literature, fashion at the magazine was a caste system. One day when Miss Oliver complimented me on my blouse, I remarked proudly that I'd just found it on sale at Lord and Taylor.

Miss Oliver stepped back in dismay. "My deah," she intoned in what I heard as an Edith Wharton voice, "you don't mean to say that you, you actually live on your salary?"

Old money and trust funds explained much of the elegance and eccentricity. Notable exceptions to fashion parades down the hallways at 25 West Forty-third Street were the writers and cartoonists. They showed up as if they had just stumbled from bed or a binge. One cartoonist locked his mother in his office with him for a day. No one seemed troubled by the scene until the police showed up, probably called by the more plebian advertising offices on the lower floors.

In those days, editorial and advertising at The New Yorker were separated like church and state used to be in this country -- like publishing before chains and media mogul takeovers. Perhaps that was why there was more tolerance for individuality and genius.

Another writer often appeared in the twentieth-floor editorial offices drunk and dressed in her pajamas. It didn't seem to affect her incandescent prose. A once-dazzling novelist was now homeless and living in an alcove right off the women's bathroom.

The New Yorker editors, however, were circumspect masters at their craft. Some of them were even kind to us underlings. Miss Rachel MacKenzie, the editorial luminary who edited Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Hersey, and Anne Tyler was one. Miss MacKenzie wore a silver coif swept back into a bun. Her startlingly dark eyebrows, oversize black glasses, and a refined smile made my speaking to her impossible. I had a frequent fantasy that if I found myself fatally ill, I would ask her to read my novel.

After almost five exhilarating years -- and countless rejection slips -- I finally gave notice. Mrs. Walden attempted to commiserate with me. "I know you think of yourself as a failure."

But I was obviously elated as I sat inside her smoke-filled cubbyhole and tried not to breathe too deeply. "No, I really don't." After all, Miss MacKenzie had promised to edit my novel -- by mail.

"Moving out West to a family farm, you say?" Mrs. Walden queried as if I had told her I was going to be abducted by aliens. "Keep in touch," she said, "if you can."

I embraced Mrs. Walden so impulsively that she dropped her cigarette.

"Well, E. B. White has a farm." Mrs. Walden commented and offered me a rare, lop-sided smile. "It hasn't ruined him -- yet."

Peterson's 16th book, the new memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth,(DaCapo Press) is one of The Christian Science Monitor's "Top 10 Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010," and contains more New Yorker reminiscences.