Honorary Degree 1997
Arthur Gelb came to The New York Times at the age of 20 and was hired as a nightside copyboy. When he retired 45 years later, he was the paper’s managing editor. Along the way, he was chief cultural correspondent and metro editor and had a profound influence on how The Times covered local and cultural news. He was a confidant and close associate of his long-time colleague, A.M. Rosenthal, and a prime mover in the way the newspaper was reshaped in the 1970s. A man who crackled with story ideas and did not hesitate to share them with his staff, Gelb was a mentor to many Times reporters and editors. In addition to his accomplishments as one of the most important editors in the paper’s history, Gelb was an author. His memoir of life at The Times, “City Room,” appeared in 2003. He and his wife, Barbara, wrote the first full-length biography of Eugene O’Neill, published in 1962. Under the title “O’Neill: Life With Monte Cristo,” they expanded it in 2000 as the first part of a multi-volume work. In 2006, as part of its “American Experience” series, PBS aired a documentary about O’Neill that was written by the Gelbs, along with Ric Burns, who directed the film.
|Arthur and Barbara Gelb at a
Metropolitan Opera gala, 2009.
Gelb, who called himself a “one hundred percent New Yorker,” was born in Manhattan on Feb. 3, 1924. When he was still a toddler, the family moved to the Bronx. Gelb attended DeWitt Clinton High School and entered City College when he was 16. He was a junior when World War II broke out. Anticipating greetings from his draft board, he dropped out of school in 1942. Poor eyesight kept him out of active military duty, so with an abiding interest in the theater and in writing, he embarked on a series of part-time jobs until applying for a copyboy opening at The Times in 1944. Working at night, he enrolled at New York University because, as he revealed in “City Room,” he felt he “wouldn’t be able to keep up with [CCNY’s] rigorous academic demands while working full-time.” He got his bachelor’s degree in 1946. A year later, The Times made him a reporter and he covered such diverse beats as health news, City Hall and the United Nations. He also wrote features about the cultural life of New York and, in the mid-1950s, was invited by the legendary theater critic Brooks Atkinson to be second-string reviewer for The Times. Gelb’s interest in promoting emerging new talent took him into clubs, cabarets, coffeehouses and anyplace else that piqued his curiosity. In 1960 he wrote the first significant review of a new young singer he heard at a basement cabaret in Greenwich Village. Her name was Barbra Streisand. In 1962, he went to a Greenwich Village coffeehouse to check out a new young comic and became the first critic to write about Woody Allen.
Gelb’s responsibilities at The Times continued to expand. He was named metro editor in 1967, supervising local news coverage while also heading the paper’s culture pages. In 1976, he was named assistant managing editor and, a year later, was promoted to deputy managing editor. It was a period of dramatic change at The Times and Gelb was in the thick of it. He supervised the launch of the new daily sections that would appear each weekday: Sports Monday, Science Times, Living, Home and Weekend. The result was a new look for the paper, but as it went from two sections to four, it managed to retain its essential character. Gelb also contributed to the redesigns of the Sunday Book Review and Travel sections. Finally, he was appointed managing editor in 1986, reporting only to the executive editor. He held that post until 1989, when he turned 65, the Times’s mandatory retirement age for reporters and editors.
After stepping away from the newsroom, Gelb remained with the company for the next 15 years. He was not only its éminence grise but for 10 years served as president of its charitable wing, The New York Times Foundation. In that role, he allocated a major grant to CCNY, which honored him with an honorary degree in 1997 and a Townsend Harris Medal in 1998. In 2000, he was asked to direct the just-launched New York Times Scholarship Program, which each year gives scholarships and other aid to students from families in distress. He retired from that post in 2005. Gelb died on May 20, 2014. He was 90.