01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
In the wee hours of the night, when even the frantic pace of midtown Manhattan has slowed and our readers are safe in their beds, a man in a ratty cardigan sits alone in his office on the 29th floor of the Time-Life Building, his craggy features washed by the light from his computer terminal. As an assistant managing editor, Jesse Birnbaum is the last person to read every story, headline and caption before it appears in PEOPLE—our last line of defense against error, slip and sloppiness.
As this magazine's arbiter of language for the past five years, Birnbaum has prowled those lonely nocturnal ramparts, zapping clichès and goring oxymorons. With the new year, though, comes a change: Birnbaum, 65, is retiring, sort of, to become a contributor to TIME magazine. His influence on PEOPLE will certainly endure. "Jesse gave us commitment, a dedication to excellence," says managing editor James R. Gaines, "and a conviction that only the right word or phrase would do."
He also, it should be noted, gave us reason to groan aloud. Like many who cherish the language, Jesse Birnbaum is a pun maker only another could love. Rare is the story meeting or cover conference that has not been broken up at least once by a Birnbaum mot, not always bon.
Birnbaum's journalistic career started at TIME in 1951, when he was hired as a fill-in music critic. One of eight children of a window washer and a housewife in Passaic, N.J., he is a graduate of Florida Southern College and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. His distinguished 37-year career took him to writing and reporting assignments for TIME in San Francisco, London and Paris, where he was editor of TIME'S European edition. He was appointed assistant managing editor of DISCOVER in 1980 and joined PEOPLE in 1983. His wife, Elizabeth, is a violist and music teacher. They have two sons, David, 37, a lawyer, and Daniel, 32, a composer.
In his continuing effort to initiate young writers into the glories of the language, Birnbaum occasionally issued in-house memos on usage by which erring staffers were gently tweaked and sometimes instructed. He also leaves us a comprehensive style-book to deter future generations of PEOPLE writers and editors from crimes, large and small, against the language.
And so we say goodbye to a friend and a respected colleague. He was, says Gaines, our "always reliable safety net." So if you find any grammatical error in this issue of PEOPLE, be kind; a man like Jesse Birnbaum is not easy to replace.