Once upon a time, boys and girls, there was no internet. Instead we had a weekly magazine called New York. As opposed to the New Yorker, New York didn’t decide to exclude the lady in Dubuque–or Fairbanks, Alaska which is where I was one of its subscribers back in the early 70’s. 

New York was where serious writers wrote about serious issues in a narrative style that may not have made its readers think but certainly gave them some lively topics for dinner table conversations. Gail Sheehy immortalized Red Pants, a midtown Manhattan streetwalker, in a story about prostitution in the Seventh Avenue Sheraton. Joe McGinnis brought the camaraderie of a baseball series to the political game. Gael Greene reviewed Manhattan’s loftiest restaurants as though she was writing softcore pornography. And then there was Michael Korda.

The editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Korda wielded enough clout that it didn’t matter that he was a mediocre writer. He was a gifted gossip with ambitions of being edited himself one day, so he took an anecdote about having dinner with his wife and cloaked it in a mea culpa that examined male chauvinism. Suddenly everyone was talking about this—national magazines, the lady in Dubuque, Nora Ephron.

Korda and his wife were dining out at a place that befitted their social station–let’s say Le Pavillon–when a group of slightly intoxicated gentlemen were seated nearby. Apparently Mrs. Korda was quite the looker because as the evening progressed, it became obvious that she was the topic of discussion at the next table. The Kordas did their best to rise above the situation until one of the adjacent diners gave a waiter a card to present to Mrs. Korda. It was something he’d picked up in a novelty shop, an invitation for its recipient to become more intimately acquainted with its sender.

This was too much for Korda, who picked up a heavy glass ashtray (yes this was a very long time ago), threw it, and connected with the offender’s forehead.Because it was Michael Korda who launched the missile, he wasn’t escorted from the restaurant but his wife gave him hell. In a somewhat overwrought diatribe, she tore his act of gallantry to shreds. Suddenly Sir Galahad of Park Avenue became the poster boy for male chauvinist pigs everywhere. As Mrs. Korda pointed out, his violent reaction to a stupid drunk indicated that he saw his wife as his property, complete with a no-trespassing sign.

Korda, his editorial instincts sensing an opportunity, accepted her point of view and turned it into a piece for New York which he later cobbled into Male Chauvinism and How it Works. 

Even though Korda was one of the most powerful publishers in the country, it’s unlikely that this book would ever have come into being if his hurled ashtray hadn’t, as the kids say now, gone viral. What had been a minor case of aggravated assault flamed into a version of The Lady and the Tiger. Was Korda justified in defending his wife’s honor or was this something that should have been handled by Mrs. Korda herself? In the early seventies, when men were still debating whether their wives should enter the workplace, this was a true hot-button issue, one that Nora Ephron turned to ridicule with a few devastating questions in Esquire. What sort of restaurant would deliver a cheap novelty card to one of its patrons?  Was Korda’s reaction prompted perhaps by the idea that the awkward invitation had been meant for him? 

The part that interests me about all of this is not only has this all been forgotten, it’s untraceable. Everything that’s ever happened is alive and well in the internet archives–except for the Korda episode. When I tried to fact-check–Were the Kordas at Le Pavillon or were they slumming at The Automat? Did Korda throw an ashtray that came with ashes and cigarette butts or was it pristine?–this cause celebre apparently never transpired. Maybe it’s enshrined forever in Korda’s cri de coeur, Male Chauvinism etc, but I really don’t want to scour used book sites to buy the damned thing. Nor do I want to subscribe to Esquire in the hope that I’ll be able to unearth Nora Ephron’s essay. (Maybe I would if she were still writing for it….)

Still I find this comforting. Not only does nobody remember Korda’s social faux pas, nobody cares. Someday in the future, poorly behaved celebrities of our time will be as moribund as Michael Korda and their misdeeds given not so much as a shrug. The sad part is misguided men are going to embarrass themselves and the women sitting beside them again and again–and for five minutes, we’re all going to be forced to pay some degree of attention to that.

My question is: Which is more humiliating, being struck with a heavy glass ashtray in an exclusive restaurant or receiving a restrained slap at an Oscar ceremony? I say bring back the duel. Pistols at dawn and be done with it.

(This has been revised after reading Korda’s brief account of his misdeeds in his publishing memoir, Another Life. It wasn’t a drink in the face, although I’m sure the assaulted man would have preferred that. Blood is so messy.)