In the dining room of the Algonquin Hotel, New York, a waiter is laying the famous Round Table at which the wits of New Yorker magazine once drank and traded toxic one-liners: Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Benchley. This is the story of one of their less celebrated - but nonetheless talented - contemporaries. It's also a mystery story. I've been turning it over, looking at it this way and that, since I first discovered it. I came to New York in the hope that I might solve it. It's about a writer's life, of all things. Specifically, it's about how a writer - a successful writer - abruptly and quite finally stopped writing; gave it up, practically overnight; lost his muse; developed a chronic case of writer's block.
However you care to put it, Joseph Mitchell was a writer who became a non-writer - and became more famous for the pages that he failed to cover than for those he did cover. I've been to his old haunts in Manhattan, and found myself on the heels of a Hollywood film crew shooting the story of Mitchell and his non-writing. Their involvement tends to support what Martin Amis once said, that people - yes, the press; but also the public - were more interested in a writer's affairs away from the desk than they were in what got produced at it.
We all want to know what J D Salinger's been up to all these years - what has the author of The Catcher in the Rye been doing with himself if it isn't creating stories? A writer called Harold Brodkey became a tragicomic figure for failing to come up with the Great American Novel during the several decades in which he was presumed to be working on it. These no-shows and our interest in them are a mystery, too - part of this mystery story.
I first heard about it six months ago. There was an article in the New Yorker about Mitchell, a writer I'd not heard of before. The article was illustrated with a sketch of a man like the young James Caan, sitting at a typewriter. Mitchell joined the New Yorker in 1938, when it was getting a name for elegant, ruminative articles and painstaking fact-checking. He remained with the magazine until his death just three years ago. Among other things, he wrote at length about a colourful inhabitant of New York's Greenwich Village, a down-and-out who claimed to be able to interpret seagull cries and, indeed, to have translated a number of Longfellow's poems into gull. "On the whole, to tell you the truth, I think he sounds better in seagull than he does in English," this character told Mitchell. He was known as Professor Sea Gull. As well as rendering poetry into fluent kittiwake, Professor Sea Gull also claimed to be working on An Oral History of Our Time, no less - a great hoovering-up of everyday speech to which he had apparently devoted 26 years of his life, and which ran to around 9,000,000 words, taken down longhand in school exercise books. He entrusted a volume or two at a time into the safe keeping of his friends and patrons. Mitchell returned on more than one occasion to the story of this scribe of the vernacular, the final account appearing in the mid-sixties. I say the final account advisedly - this is where the mystery really begins - because after it was published, "the bylines ceased", as the New Yorker put it.
But hang on a minute - Mitchell was with the magazine until 1996! It took a moment to realise what that meant: Mitchell had carried on showing up at the office for more than 30 years without producing another published word.
Every inch the punctilious, slightly donnish figure the reader expects of a New Yorker contributor, Mitchell would clock in, and the sound of a typewriter could be heard coming from his office. But his visitors reported that his desk was uncluttered. What was he doing in there? Mitchell's perplexed editors would take him to lunch, and he'd murmur something about working on a project. Tina Brown, his last editor, once proposed that he cover a fire at a famous New York landmark.
"He said he'd try," she said. "The subtext of the conversation was, he wished he could but he no longer could." No one ever pinned Mitchell down, found out what he was doing. Or not doing. It's a mystery, as I say. But there's an astonishing connection between Mitchell's non-writing career and the story he wrote just before it began: the story of Professor Sea Gull.
Some years before that assignment, Mitchell had been a newspaperman, getting and filing as many as three different stories a day. He knew his city off by heart. An old New Yorker hand, Roger Angell, told me about a friendly rivalry between Mitchell and the writer A J Liebling. Joe Liebling was always trying to catch Mitchell out. Once, in a taxidermist's, he came across a small bleached bone. "That's the male member of the opossum," the taxidermist told him. "It's the only mammal which has a bone there." Convinced that he'd at last found a piece of the great New York miscellany that his friend couldn't possibly know about, Liebling paid $8 for the bone, hurried back to the New Yorker and put it on Mitchell's desk. Without looking up from his keyboard, Mitchell said, "Ah, the pecker bone of the opossum. What do you want to know, Joe?"
He produced four books that I'm aware of - mostly collections of his New Yorker stuff - and they were well received. When stylists such as the Round Table regulars were appearing alongside him in the New Yorker, Mitchell didn't disgrace himself. This was how he captured the fatal diffidence of one subject: "He was a little like one of those men who are too shy to talk to strangers, but not too shy to hold up a bank."
The subject was Professor Sea Gull, whose real name was Joe Gould. Gould was a Harvard graduate who was living in flophouses around Greenwich Village. In the paperback I'd found, there were two tellings of the Gould story. The first, entitled Professor Sea Gull, had originally appeared in 1942. The second, longer version was called Joe Gould's Secret and was published in 1964. It had been Mitchell's last piece of work.
The Gould who emerges from Mitchell's writing is, to put it charitably, borderline credible. He was to be seen raggedly hobbling along the sidewalks late at night, muttering to himself. And he was fascinated by the dubious science of eugenics, or improving the human race by tinkering with breeding. He once measured the heads of 1,000 Chippewaw Indians on a reservation - "I really had enjoyed measuring heads," he told Mitchell.
Above all, there was the tantalising Oral History: a reporter myself (I work for Channel 4 News), I presumed to see what the great legman Mitchell had spotted in Gould. Gould had embarked upon a literary endeavour to rank alongside Gibbon's Decline and Fall - to hear Gould tell it, that is - and yet it was being composed not in panelled libraries, but in diners and lousy night shelters. It was a great story - if it was true.
In return for the price of a drink - euphemistically described as a "contribution to the Joe Gould Fund" - this hobo savant let Mitchell read a couple of volumes of the Oral History. One was taken up with the death of Dr Clarke Storer Gould - Joe Gould's father - and another was an account of measuring the heads of Indians. Mitchell was allowed to see only a tiny fraction of Gould's magnum opus, but the more he saw, the more the themes of the late Dr Storer and Indian heads recurred.
In due course he published the article on Professor Sea Gull and secretly hoped that he would hear no more of Gould. The man had begun to get on his nerves - not so much because of his importuning for contributions to the Joe Gould Fund, but because he would seek Mitchell out at the New Yorker and tell him his life story. "The sound of his voice began to make me wince," Mitchell admitted. However, the article was a great success. Readers sent Gould letters and cheques, care of Mitchell, who was obliged to track Gould down at his watering holes in the Village and pass them on.
We have only Mitchell's side of the story, admittedly, but he appears to have exercised an almost saintly restraint where Gould was concerned. He lost his temper only once. With a view to getting Gould off his hands, he'd approached a number of publishers, who had expressed interest in bringing out the Oral History. But at a meeting that Mitchell had set up, the shabby author was truculent and evasive - until Mitchell blurted out what the reader guessed a long time ago: "My God . . . it doesn't exist!" he said. "There isn't any such thing as the Oral History!"
Gould would neither confirm nor deny this. Mitchell's professional pride was dented - and, he may have feared, his reputation as a reporter. But he wasn't angry at this charlatan on whom he'd expended so much time, money and goodwill. The more he thought about it, the more he admired Gould's defiant portrayal of a misunderstood genius. Joe Gould, aka Professor Sea Gull, was a more interesting character than most writers ever create, Mitchell decided. And suppose for a moment that he had written the Oral History. The chances were that it wouldn't have been a great book. Mitchell wrote: "When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel it was admirable that he hadn't written it."
Reading this, it's tempting - to say nothing of sobering - to see it as Mitchell's explanation of his own subsequent 30-year drought. The "project" that Mitchell had mentioned to his editors appears to have been as insubstantial as the Oral History: the few words he produced in this period, an introduction to Up in the Old Hotel, are like the essays Gould wrote - and rewrote - about his father and the heads of Chippewaws. He never discussed his fallow years directly, never wrote about his non-writing. Well, he wouldn't, I suppose. It remains a matter of guesswork and conjecture. Is it possible to clear up our curiosity about non-writing, at least?
I suppose writers - of all descriptions - have a morbid fascination with it, for the same reason that motorists rubber-neck at pile-ups. Perhaps we all have a sense that talent is precious, unbiddable, and that when it departs, or appears to, it's an important loss. I suspect that non-writing writers are interesting in the same way as burnt-out footballers and dead pop stars: they beg the question "what if?". In the end, though, the fascination comes down to: what's going on behind the closed door? What's he up to in there? There's the suspicion that the non-writing writer is, after all, wrestling with a masterpiece - the Oral History, the "project" - and that some proof of this may yet turn up. Alternatively, there's the thought that he's stumbled upon a life-changing insight, leaving him unable to lift his pen or no longer needing to.
Once we know, we lose interest. So-and-so's "lost" novel? Not so great, actually, now that we've seen it. That reclusive writer? He found God - well, good for him. But the non-writing writer, the one we haven't figured out yet - he's not compromised by association with what proves to be just another drop in the ocean of books; his unwritten book doesn't date or disappoint.
Mitchell will achieve a posthumous greatness, or at least celebrity, when the film of Joe Gould's Secret is released.Tom Cruise's company was in negotiations to make it, but instead it's being shot by the director Stanley Tucci, who also plays Mitchell, with Ian Holm as Gould. When the film has its premiere, perhaps in Times Square, the heart of Mitchell's old beat, the following words will appear on screen before the end credits: "Joe Gould died in 1957. Joseph Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret in 1964. For the next 32 years of his life he came to his office every day . . . and never published another word."
Stephen Smith's "Cocaine Train" is published this month by Little, Brown, £17.99