A newspaper is spotted several times along the history of literature, but no one has ever seen it. If that newspaper ever existed, then somewhere, at least in some obscure and never-visited archive, should lie a copy of Rockefeller’s New York Times.
This thought was the drive behind the search begun by Luis Alejandro Ordóñez, and the result was The Last New York Times, a novel in three acts about the same obsession: to be able to read a newspaper written for another person, a famous and wealthy one with very specific needs, and because of that, the desire to read a kind of forbidden book.
Instead what Ordóñez found was more than a forgotten newspaper, and the novel goes deep into these findings to tell the story of a myth.
The book is expected be released in June 2020 from Katakana Editores.
Benjamin thought he wasn’t the same person anymore, he couldn’t go back to work in the skyscrapers. It wasn’t easy, climbing up on a beam 100 feet above the ground and hammering and screwing and fighting vertigo, fighting against the wind and the cold. It wasn’t that he had become softer, as his job at the newspaper wasn’t any less difficult—writing four full pages every day, eight on Fridays so the Saturday edition would be ready and he could take the day off and start again on Sunday. But going back to work in construction would mean giving up, losing what little prestige he had earned through his written work, and why shouldn’t he call it that, three straight years writing and publishing, even if it had only been for one single reader and the proofs had been destroyed afterward. He knew the paper existed and he wrote it, he had gained experience, he was capable of turning any event that happened in the world into a beautiful story of hope, he knew when an event deserved only brief mention or when it was worth writing about in several parts, developing the story to its conclusion. Whoever happened to read the paper, if an occasional copy was left behind in one of the Rockefeller residences, would certainly think so; that was how the old man saw it, or at least that was what Benjamin concluded, since no one ever said otherwise or complained to him about inappropriate content or about a disheartening or unbelievable story, and above all because only the old man’s death had put an end to his work.
None of that was any use now. His notebooks were nothing more than that, notes. Nobody at The New York Times would vouch that he was part of their team because he wasn’t, and nobody at the Rockefeller Foundation knew him, except perhaps some accountant in charge of recording his weekly wages. The only proof of his work during the last three years was the copy of the newspaper that had been left unread and that he had picked up from his desk.
He didn’t want to read the paper. Not the last one. Not the one he had ended up with because no one knew what to do with it. Benjamin took this as a sign of respect, but he couldn’t fool himself—that copy was not meant for him. Somewhere in the halls of the Times Square Building, someone certainly knew who he was, even though they were careful not to say anything to him. Perhaps the very fact that they were so careful was tacit proof that they knew what he did. The newspaper of old man Rockefeller, only read by the powerful, venerable old gentleman himself. When no one came to get it, they decided to just leave it there. Benjamin would not be the only one to violate the fear and respect generated by that mysterious newspaper that had once embarked every day to wherever John D. Rockefeller happened to be.
When he woke up on Tuesday, he told his wife he was going to the old man’s funeral, and he’d think about the future after that. She remained silent, as she usually did whenever her husband mentioned anything related to his job at the newspaper, or whenever he spoke about the future.
After going to mass with his wife, he set out to find out where the funeral would be; it didn’t take him long. The news was a hot item, and The New York Times itself, the one with the real news, announced that the burial would take place on Thursday at Lake View cemetery in Cleveland, where the family already had an obelisk in homage to their kin buried there.
After having wasted most of the day sleeping, Benjamin decided it was probably better to take the rest of Tuesday for himself and leave as early as possible for Grand Central the next morning. With a suitcase containing only his best Sunday suit, which he’d wear at the funeral, he boarded the train for Cleveland.
Traveling by train always gave Benjamin a strange sensation, as though he suddenly found himself in a strange, unknown reality. Through the window, he saw houses, trees, fields, buildings passing by, but it all seemed fake, like models in a museum exhibit. He wondered how things might look from up in the air, from an airship, for instance, and he remembered that only a few weeks before he had included the successful transatlantic voyage of the Hindenburg in the newspaper. It was rare for him to do this: take a certain event, a tragedy like that of the Hindenburg, and recount it with a happy ending. He considered it an important risk. It was almost certain that many people, important people, people who travelled the world, visited Rockefeller. During those conversations someone could make a comment about current events, did you hear about the Hindenburg airship, Mr. Rockefeller, yes, what a beautiful flight, I wish I could have been there. No, it was one thing to keep the old man happy, quite another to make people start treating him as though he were senile.
But in the picture unfolding before him through the train window, Benjamin recognized many stories of his own invention. Stories from Rockefeller’s paper that had told of people overcoming the aftermath of the Great Depression with spunk and determination suddenly appeared through the window, demanding that Benjamin provide an errata sheet. It was better to find shelter in the ever pleasant pages of The New York Times that he carried on his lap.
Reading himself in the newspaper for the first time was a complete revelation. Such a curious thing—to recognize each and every article, each and every sentence, each and every word, but at the same time to feel like they were so foreign to him, as though they didn’t belong to him because, in fact, they didn’t. He found a somewhat unclear sentence, a misused adjective, two switched letters, and there was nothing he could do about it. Had there been a reader, he would have had to decipher what Benjamin meant to say with that sentence, contrasting the adjective with his own knowledge of its true meaning, and shifting the letters as though he were dyslexic. Being able to open his newspaper, flip through the pages, read each story, each op-ed, each article was a completely unexpected pleasure, a pleasure The New York Times had robbed him of for fear that the newspaper would make its way beyond John D. Rockefeller’s surroundings. The old man wanted his own newspaper, with personalized news items tailored to his liking, why was it such a bad thing for others to read them as well? They didn’t even allow Benjamin to keep copies for his personal records. After three years of writing the newspaper the old man read every morning, Benjamin had kept only the last issue because that day, May 24th, there was no longer anyone to deliver it to.
While working on the May 24th edition, Benjamin received the news of John D. Rockefeller’s death at 97 years of age and, consistent with his role at the paper, he set that item aside as one that could not be included in the day’s edition. He finished his work, which consisted of four pages, turned the plates in, and left for the day. The next day, the last edition of The New York Times, the one that did not include the news of John D. Rockefeller’s death in order to avoid any risk that the old man would read it, was waiting for him right next to the memo ordering him to vacate the office by the next day at the latest.
He was never truly sure how the mechanism worked. Who he answered to. Who gave him orders or who paid him. The envelope of money always arrived punctually on his desk, the same way that the newspaper arrived punctually in the hands of John Sr., he imagined. But at The New York Times they ignored him completely, and he never had to report to the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation, if it was indeed the foundation that was responsible for overseeing his job; perhaps his payment came directly from Standard Oil itself. What was certain was that the contempt he felt from the Times and his distance from the Foundation and the oil company gave Benjamin the liberty to create his newspaper like a true work of art every day—something singular, original, unique, and impossible to replicate.
The secret lay in his method. Benjamin started by reading the Times, and from there he chose his stories. He also kept notes of what he heard on the street, on the train, in conversations with friends, so he could incorporate stories of everyday people. Once he decided on the topics, he chose the titles and started writing them all at once because he had no time to waste turning things over in his head. The easiest news, like that of the successful flight of the Hindenburg, he saved for last. The most difficult ones were the others, the ones that demanded he recreate lives and personal stories, adverse circumstances overcome through persistence, or altruistic spirits who helped out others from their privileged social positions or from wherever they found themselves by chance. A central aspect of his credibility was never repeating himself, even if the stories he wrote were similar. The worst thing that could happen to Rockefeller’s New York Times would be for the old man to think that a particular news item he was reading could not be true.
Translated by José Ángel Navejas