The Enduring Importance of William H. Whyte
The list of roles William H. Whyte played in his long life is an extensive one: magazine editor, author, urbanist, urban anthropologist, filmmaker, pundit, public intellectual, politician (unelected and behind the scenes), consultant, teacher, mentor (to, seemingly, hundreds), as well as husband and father. “He was the ultimate generalist,” says Richard K. Rein, author of a new biography, American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life. Whyte began as an writer and editor at Forbes magazine and, in 1956, published the best-selling book The Organization Man, a prescient look at corporate culture. In subsequent years, he turned his attention to the built environment, to land-use policies, historic preservation, small-scale urban development, and the creation and reinvigoration of public space.
The Whyte approach was grounded in meticulous, near-obsessive, observation. “He taught all of us, more than anything, to look, to look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then to look again—and to believe in what you see,” said Paul Goldberger, speaking at Whyte’s memorial service in 1999. “That is the first of his lessons, and the one that informs all the others. Believe in what you see, and believe in the fact that the people who use cities are often way ahead of the people who design them.” I talked to Rein last week from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, about the new book, Whyte’s special bond with Jane Jacobs, and his lasting legacy.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RKR: Richard K. Rein
It seems like everyone who met and interacted with “Holly” Whyte revered him. But outside urban nerd circles, he’s a somewhat forgotten figure. Why a book on Whyte, 23 years after his death?
Because 22 years after his death was probably about 42 years after the moment I, as a freelance writer, said, “I’m gonna write a book someday.” It took a while. A bunch of things happened in between, including a couple of failed book projects that never came together, but the opportunity presented itself. As I pointed out in the preface, I stumbled across this guy working on a very Whytean project in a little abandoned alley in Princeton, New Jersey. I went out to him and said, “Gee, this is right out of the William H. White playbook.” And I thought I’d have to explain who Whyte was, but he said, “Holly Whyte is my hero.” It took me a second to figure out who he was talking about, because until then I did not know that Holly was his nickname. To me he was always William H. Whyte, the author of The Last Landscape and City: Rediscovering the Center, the only books of his that I had read.
You weren’t familiar with The Organization Man?
I knew about it. I’d never read it. I just thought: Oh, it’s about corporate conformity in the 1950s. So that was the genesis of the whole thing. It all flashed before me about how this could work, even to the point where I thought: My preface will be this interaction with this guy in the alley, and then I’ll talk about how Whyte’s ideas can be applied to the 21st century. Obviously, as I got into it, all that changed.
So you started out thinking it was going to be a kind of handbook on urban ideas, as told through Whyte, rather than a biography?
Yes. I thought that the first 40 years of his life, before he got involved in urbanism, would be dispatched in a couple of chapters. I thought there wasn’t much more to say, that the important stuff began with the film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Then I started working backward and was amazed by how much urbanism was in The Last Landscape. The idea that, if you want to save the countryside, you have to make cities work, to keep people from sprawling. The Organization Man turned out to be far more interesting to me than I had ever dreamed. I probably would have spent even more time on that if the book had not been published by Island Press, which has an urban bent.
I think you spent enough time. One of the book’s themes is that he’s the quintessential organization man. Whyte just happens to be a visionary organization man. But he’s also something else. He’s a kind of secret agent, working behind enemy lines.
Interesting that you say that. In 1959 W.H. “Ping” Ferry, an official from the Fund for the Republic, who was trying to recruit Holly to write a book for them on the auto industry, a sort of Organization Man–type book, wrote him a letter and said, “What are you now, anyway? Private eye? Pundit? Consultant?” You’re right: Whyte did operate in a lot of different ways; he was never caught in a silo, ever. Elinor Guggenheimer, the first woman to serve on the New York City Planning Commission, was putting together a conference. She wrote to him, asking, “Holly, you go to a lot of conferences, what should I do to make it work?” He wrote back a four- or five-page letter, going into great detail about how to produce a conference. So he could have been an event planner!
He could have also made a great deal of money doing what he did. It seems like he never charged properly for the depth of his work.
That’s true. Dan Biederman is the source on that. In Holly, he recognized a guy who was just from the old school and thought: Oh gosh, I’m just spending a day, going to visit these people. I can’t charge that much for a day of my time. But, of course, his day of time brought with him vast experience.
When you started to go deeper into his life, what surprised you?
One thing that surprised me was his plain-spokenness. The first sentence of my book is, “This book is about William H. Whyte.” The editor first saw that and said, “We can’t start a book like that. People are gonna read that sentence and think that you’re a fifth grader.” I said, no, we have to start the book with that sentence, because it illustrates his belief in speaking directly, cutting through the jargon. That ethos stayed with him all through his life. I was surprised by that—and relieved in a way, because the little bit that I know about formal architecture often involves these obscure, obtuse statements from architects. When I have to go to the dictionary, every other paragraph, I begin to close the book.
It’s an interesting theme you tease out in the book. The two most important American urbanists, in the postwar era, were Jane Jacobs and Holly Whyte. Both laypeople who eschewed any kind of jargon and were always writing about cities and buildings as clearly as possible.
There are even more parallels between them. Her neighborhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is not that much different from Holly’s in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Even at the end of their lives: Jane’s Dark Age Ahead, her last book, has a lot of themes that Holly toyed with in The Organization Man. These two great urbanists, known for their love of cities, are both buried in these rural cemeteries, outside their hometowns. They have other things in common: Holly got intelligence training in the Marines; Jane was working for the USIA during the war. But at one point in my research, I read the Metropolis interview with Jane.
Which I assigned to Jim Kuntsler and edited.
Thank you for doing that. Jane says, “Holly Whyte and I were on the same wavelength,” and I thought: OK, I’ve really got a book here now!
What isn’t commonly known was the role that Whyte played in getting Death and Life written and published. Tell that story.
By the late ’50s, Whyte was the assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine and author of The Organization Man, which put him on the national lecture circuit. We don’t think of Fortune today as being a particularly influential media enterprise. But in the 1950s, it was at the top of the heap of business magazines, part of the Time-Life empire, with unlimited expense accounts and all that. So Whyte comes up with this idea for a series of articles on cities. He believed that cities were in decline, and that was a problem.
Around that same time, Jane had gone to lecture at Harvard. I quote from the memo that her boss at Architectural Forum, Douglas Haskell, sent to the organizer of the Harvard event, saying, “I can’t make the lecture, but if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, perhaps I can suggest another woman at the conference. Mrs. Robert Jacobs.” He didn’t even introduce her as Jane! He introduced her by her husband’s name, probably to make it clear that she wasn’t a single woman who was going to disrupt the entire proceeding. That was the era for women in the media in the 1950s—there were a few women who were breaking out of it, but, nonetheless, the barriers were real.
So it would’ve been so easy for Whyte and Nathan Glaser, the other editor involved, to push her out of the project. Jane had done the big article for the Fortune series, which had to be cut from something like 14,000 words down to 6,000. It would’ve been so easy for them to say, “You know, Jane, you got a great idea here. We’ve got friends over at Random House, but this is something that you and Holly ought to work on together.” You can easily imagine: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with Whyte’s name first. Or maybe: “Wouldn’t it be better, Jane, to drop your name altogether. We’re paying you all this money, but it’ll just work better, commercially, as a William H. Whyte book.” He never did that, of course.
Not only that, but he helped her secure money from the Rockefeller brothers to finance writing of the book. In later years she always credited him.
The inscription in his copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities would’ve been lost to history, but for Albert LaFarge. Albert is the editor who worked with Holly in his final years, trying to help him write a memoir, and then became the executor of his literary estate. While LaFarge was hanging out with Holly at his apartment on East 94th Street, he was going through the books and saw Jane’s handwritten inscription: “To Holly Whyte, who had more to do with this book at a crucial stage than he probably realizes, but which I, at least, will always remember with gratitude.” I sent Albert an email a couple months ago, asking if he’d taken a photo of that inscription, but this was before cellphones.
Where do you think that book is?
Well, I asked Albert about that. He thought it could have been scooped up, along with a bunch of other books from Holly’s apartment, and put out on the sidewalk or given to a used bookstore.
Can you imagine coming across it in a bookstore?
That might be worth something. But Albert jotted the inscription down, because he wanted to boost Holly’s spirits in his final years and remind him of that historic connection.
Let’s talk about Whyte’s lasting influence.
It’s partly about an identifiable need for public spaces that work for everyone. Sometimes, the solutions are easy to see. There’s a great quote from Andrés Duany in the book: “If Whyte had been trained as an architect, he would’ve had all of these blinders on.” So, yes, Whyte was looking at relatively common things—a street, a sidewalk, a plaza—and the way regular people related to them. And that’s a very accessible formula. When people hear it, they’re excited by it. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces just pulls you in. It was filmed on a handheld camera by Holly and one of his interns. Originally, it didn’t have a voiceover on it. He would show it and personally narrate it.
I’d only seen bits and pieces of it. But I watched the whole thing on YouTube recently, while I was reading the book. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. It’s crudely shot, but oddly compelling and captivating.
Well, you’re lucky if you saw it on YouTube because the guy who owns the rights to it goes around, taking those bootleg versions down.
I guess he missed last week, then. One of Whyte’s fears at the end of his life was that his work would be forgotten. I think this book helps in that regard.
I hope so. One lasting memory that I have of the whole process was that I was writing and editing this book during the last two years of our former president’s reign. The final editing occurred between election day 2020 and January 6, 2021, and it was such a wonderful reprieve from the insanity of that time. Holly was totally civil—never lost his temper, it seems, at anyone.
He was also part of an era when the organizations running the country perhaps functioned better. I don’t know that they were any more equitable, but they weren’t broken. Could Whyte operate today the way he operated 50 or 60 years ago?
I think he could probably operate that way, but would anybody listen to him? We’re living in a world of soundbites, tweets, and Instagram posts. Maybe Holly would have cut through that clutter. I don’t know. But I don’t think he could have imagined the current breakdown of our institutions. He was beginning to see problems when he was interviewed in the 1980s, with corporations that were spreading the blame to everybody else and not taking responsibility. That was a sign of things to come. Jane really saw it in Dark Age Ahead.
She basically predicted the rise of a Trump-like figure.
She predicted Trump, and the New York Times dismissed the whole book.
That Michiko Kakutani review was flip and mean-spirited. Over the course of her career, I liked her reviews. She’s a fine writer and a very smart critic—but, man, she just whiffed on that book.
I read that review and was reminded of the first review of The Organization Man, which was equally brutal, in the Sunday New York Times. C. Wright Mills dismissed Holly as an earnest boy scout. When my book came out, I was braced for that kind of a review, ready to be called a boy scout.
Featured image: Whyte, during a trip to downtown Chattanooga in 1984. Photo courtesy of Chattenooga Public Library.