Barbara Epstein, my friend and fellow editor for forty-three years, died on June 16. She did much to create The New York Review and she brought her remarkable intelligence and editorial skill to bear on everything that appeared in these pages. We publish here memoirs by some of the writers who worked closely with her and knew her well.
Barbara and I met on the stairs leading to the Widener Library poetry room in the fall of 1945. I forget who introduced us. What I most remember of that meeting is her clothes, which anticipated the late-Fifties thrift-shop look by more than a decade. (This phase of hers didn’t last long.) Also her expression, at once intent and distracted, immediately appealed to me. We soon became close friends, seeing each other almost daily, doing the things that Harvard undergraduates considered chic in that distant era, like afternoon tea with wonderful pastries at the Window Shop on Brattle Street, Brit flicks at the Exeter Theater in Back Bay, BSO concerts at Sanders Theater (we both got weepy hearing Ravel’s Mother Goose for the first time), and late-night beers at Cronin’s, Cambridge’s answer to La Coupole.
In between we talked about poetry. Barbara was my first critic (I hadn’t yet met Kenneth Koch, who later became our friend, along with Frank O’Hara). She had a wonderful way of letting me know if something I’d written was slightly off. Once she quoted me a line from a poem I had published in the Advocate (“I sense the fatal chill”), ostensibly to chide me for not having called her but really, I think, to suggest that I lighten up a little as a poet. As I learned over the years, this would become her own deft, incisive way of criticizing—keen but kind. I miss her terribly.
Dr. Johnson wrote or said that in memorial “disquisitions” no man is on his oath. I have in the past elevated the virtues of a virtuous friend—a little gilt on the lily, as it were. With Barbara, my closest friend for many decades, I do not know how to express the qualities that made me and so many others treasure her. I do not have fear of a sentimental tribute to a departed friend, but of a sort of paralysis in facing the complications of a unique being. I see her smiling and saying: Just give it a try, girl.
Barbara was petite, pretty, elegant, and learned, especially in literary culture. She grew up in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, and graduated from Radcliffe College. She did not share the vanity and self-satisfaction of so many students who looked upon admission to the celebrated Cambridge schools as a sort of seat on the Supreme Court. She was devastating on the limitations of some of the grand professors, who in her memory came forth more like W.C. Fields than like Socrates. All this, not as a scold so much as a benign observer of human folly.
At The New York Review, Barbara and Robert Silvers were like train conductors trying to avoid a wreck at the next crossing. A constant alert, this adjective, that sentence, red light and green light challenging the white pages. Prose—a plump monster of possibilities. About an essay on her desk, Barbara might say, quite good but academic. In literary, critical circles, to be academic often signifies knowledgeable, but not written with a gift for vivid language. In her work, Barbara struggled with some pain about her sensitivity to style. Still, I believe she was polite in her revisions and suggestions, clear about the differences between composition and preparation for the press, not to mention the eminence of agents in the peculiar process that ends in that odd item of commerce, a book.
Memorial services, spoken or written tributes, are commonly designed to remember happier days. Amusing contretemps on the tennis court come to mind as a favorite offering. But Barbara, going away so suddenly, leaves for her treasured children, Helen and Jacob, for her colleagues and friends only a sense of betrayal by the forces of nature.
So, dear one, farewell, a sad but also a beautiful word.
Everyone mourns Barbara Epstein, the brilliant, principled, and sometimes controversial editor, but my own sharpest grief, like that of other people who knew her, is about the brave, generous, loving friend. Charles McGrath, collecting information for an obituary, told me that although he’d known her slightly, he’d been surprised to learn the number of her friendships, and at the outpouring of love and sorrow that attended her death. He’d been aware of the powerful, public Barbara, the extent of whose intellectual reputation and influence she may herself have been unaware of. The editor is an irreplaceable loss, but she also leaves a terrible void for people who loved the adorable person and wonderful friend.
I was introduced to her in the Sixties by her friend since college Alison Lurie. I no longer remember whether I had already written for her by then, but it’s certain that I had a pre-impression of a scary, exigent editor. One of my first assignments for The New York Review had been a book about Vietnam—C.D.B. Bryan’s Friendly Fire, this at a time when most periodicals only assigned women to write about novels and books by other women, and certainly not on military subjects. I assumed this had been her idea, and took it as an inspiring endorsement of the androgyny of consciousness and a personal challenge I slaved to be worthy of, then and with all the things I wrote for her. When we met, I was unprepared for a small, feminine, wonderfully pretty strawberry blonde, charming and funny and a delightful companion. As Henry James said of Turgenev, she “was natural to an extraordinary degree.” This paradox impressed everyone, and partly explained the affection she inspired, though of course nothing can quite explain something as elusive as charm.
Over the years, because I lived in California, I would stay at her apartment when I was in New York; to be there was to be in the lap of beauty. She had a talent for surrounding herself with wonderful art and objects, and had chosen the smallest porcelain jug or little watercolor with her perfect eye (and could be ruthless, like an editor, about excising something that didn’t “go.” I remember Alison and me once spending an afternoon intensifying with flow-pens the colors of a faded Oriental rug we were afraid had suddenly incurred her displeasure).
One measure of her generosity was that she welcomed waifs and strays from distant places, so that often several of us would be staying with her—it could be Alison, down from Ithaca, or Darryl Pinckney from London, or maybe her Czech son-in-law—you never knew. I usually slept in the little room off the kitchen. Coming from the West Coast, I would still be sleepy when the day began for New Yorkers, but lying there I would be aware of the rituals, first the delicious smell of Murray Kempton’s (Barbara’s companion for seventeen years) bacon and eggs. Whoever was staying upstairs might still be in the bath, someone was bringing in the papers. Only when things calmed down a bit did Barbara herself come down, dressed for work most days, still in her nightie on a Sunday morning (though she was in the office even on Sunday), to scan the papers and gossip. At night there would inevitably be one of her small, convivial dinner parties, often with remarkable combinations of young critics and fabled seniors—the newcomer could merely gape. She would always say her life was not like that every night, but I think it really was—a remarkable life, and too terribly short. I still can’t believe it.
The day we met she was sitting in the Radcliffe College cafeteria, smoking. Her black turtleneck jersey, unstructured hair, and stack of books not on any assigned list instantly marked her as what would presently be called a beatnik. Very soon I was amazed by her low-key but scarily observant comments on these books, and on some other girls nearby, with their tight perms and twinsets, matching lipstick and nail polish, and matching minds. She was a freshman, only sixteen years old, and her name at the time was Bubsey, so how did she know so much? It was a question many people were to ask over the next sixty years.
Barbara’s quiet brilliance was all the more striking because she hadn’t had much backing at home. Her parents’ highest hope for their daughter was that she might become an elementary school teacher. When she moved to New York after college, opportunities for young women who couldn’t type or file and had no family connections were rare. It took Barbara nearly a year to find a full-time job, and only unusual courage and determination kept her looking. This courage was visible again at the end of her life when, exhausted and knowing how ill she was, she continued working until two weeks before her death, and came to the American Academy to accept an award (shared with Bob Silvers) for service to the arts.
It was a well-deserved recognition. The New York Review had changed serious reporting on the arts and politics and science and society, partly by giving writers space and time to say all they wanted to say, and expert help in saying it as well as possible. One result of this was a long list of books (including three of mine) that began as NYR articles, and would perhaps never have existed otherwise. Barbara’s editorial skill and her editorial tact were remarkable. Her first response to a manuscript was always enthusiastic; but when the proofs arrived the margins would be full of questions and suggestions and sometimes embarrassing corrections. Often there would be three or even four sets of proofs.
Because Barbara was so kind, generous, and modest—because she never gave speeches, interrupted anyone, or raised her voice—it was easy to underestimate how much she knew and saw. There seemed to be nothing she hadn’t read, and no one she’d never known or seen—and sometimes seen through. She gave wonderful dinner parties, successfully mixing unmatched guests. She loved a good story, and had a fine sense of the occasionally absurd behavior of the well-known. Now and then I would suggest that she should write her memoirs. Her reply was always, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” Just as well, maybe—America and Europe must now be full of people who are not only mourning her loss, but sighing with relief that some comic incident in their lives will never be revealed. Without her the whole world, and especially New York, seems darker, sadder, and most of all less interesting.