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Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)


It may be that my bad spelling, and her tolerance of it, led Barbara Epstein and me to form our attachment. We never managed to meet, we spoke on the telephone only briefly and at long intervals, but I don’t think I’m presuming to call what we had an attachment—first an editorial attachment that grew from our mutual love of good sentences and good sense. In time it became personal.

As soon as I dared, I dedicated a book to Barbara Epstein: Sacagawea’s Nickname, a collection of essays about the American West which she edited for this journal.

In one of our brief phone calls I mentioned that I was reading Edmund Wilson’s diaries. “Oh, they’re his masterpiece—I mean the whole lot of them!” she said, her voice lifting as she said it.

In the Fifties volume of those diaries there is a picture of Barbara, with her then husband Jason Epstein, dining on a terrace in Rome, in 1954. She was a deeply appealing young woman, with a distinctive Smart-Girl-of-the-Fifties air, which led me to wonder if perhaps a thread of nostalgia for that long-ago time played a part in her tolerance of my messy typescripts and frequent misspellings. Neither of us could read the other’s handwriting but Barbara would dig in and gradually my pieces were improved.

My typescripts probably looked like what all typescripts must have looked like when Barbara was a young and sprightly editor about town. Writers were just messier then—not everybody likes neat.

Probably the deepest conviction that Barbara and I shared—a conviction we at once recognized in one another—was the belief, common in the Fifties, that the highest possible aspiration was to somehow connect with literature, and then to live for it, in it, near it.

That conviction has lost none of its potency. One big thing Barbara and I had in common was that we belonged to an age before spell check—this, in itself, makes for a kind of bond.

Barbara Epstein’s death means the loss of a great woman, but also the breaking of a great order—the order that Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein created and sustained at The New York Review of Books. It’s an order, needless to say, that we literates have benefited from and cherished these last forty years.

In March Barbara Epstein sent me a book to review. I had then just survived the three-and-a-half-month awards season in Hollywood. I was too tired to read, much less review, so, with profuse apologies, I sent the book back. Sometimes, if she thought I really ought to review a certain book, she would send it back to me two or three times, and usually I accepted my fate and wrote the review. This book she didn’t send back. Instead I got this letter, dated April 4:

Dear Larry,
I understand. Something lovely will turn up soon, as you deserve.
As ever,

Although I didn’t then know Barbara was ill, that note had a different tone. I see it now as a gentle goodbye. How we will miss her.


I first met Barbara Epstein in New Delhi in 1997. She had come to India to give a talk on Edmund Wilson, whom I had idolized since discovering his books in a neglected old library in the North Indian city of Benares. I never expected to meet anyone who had known Wilson; the young Americans I met in India had barely heard of him. Such youthful idealism as mine does not usually survive its encounter with reality. Yet Barbara’s graciousness, wit, and ironical intelligence more than matched my fantasies of the remote American world of Wilson.

Like many writers, I feel I was a special beneficiary of Barbara’s generosity. When I first met her I had published a travel book in India, but I was still struggling to find my subject, voice, and audience. Her startlingly straightforward invitation—“do you have anything for us?”—brought me out of the sterile resentfulness I had drifted into, and introduced me to literary possibilities—reportage, memoir, the long review-essay—that I otherwise would never have fully realized.

For weeks afterward I worked on a small piece of memoir about reading Edmund Wilson in Benares. When Barbara finally published it, several drafts and months later, I felt I could at last call myself a writer. She would later become both an editor and a good friend to me. Looking back, I find it almost impossible to separate the two.

It was while working with her that I learned the most valuable lessons of our friendship. I began to see more clearly how literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; how it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; how it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.

Barbara was strongly political. But this did not stem from any sense of personal incompleteness, or the related impulse of self-aggrandizement which deludes many intellectuals into ideological crusades. Her concern for justice and her hatred of violence flowed out of her instinctive compassion, and she showed tremendous kindness to strangers as well as colleagues, friends, and relatives.

Committed to a way of writing and an ethic that rejected the self-important and the merely rhetorical, Barbara stood aloof from people who took it upon themselves to magnify American power in the world during and after the cold war. She—with her co-editor Robert Silvers—valued intellectual and ethical clarity about the so-called national interest, which explains partly why this New York–based magazine spoke directly, during the latter half of the American Century, to so many people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The commitment of the Review to a cosmopolitan liberalism becomes even more bracing as America’s image darkens in the world and many great American institutions appear diminished. I find it hard to imagine a more important legacy than the one Barbara helped to create, even though I know she would never have put it quite like that herself.


I cannot think about Barbara without thinking selfishly about myself because her death has left such a gaping hole in my life. But my personal loss may reflect what a larger world than mine has suffered in her departure from it. I have lost not only a dearly loved friend but also a guide who led me into that world, her world, a company of men and women engaged in thinking and writing beyond the limits imposed by academic or professional conventions and orthodoxies. My experience may suggest some of Barbara’s capacities for expanding the minds of the people she encountered.

When we met, almost forty years ago, I was a successful academic, four or five books to my name, active in what seemed to me to be the cutting edge of historical research, though it did not actually cut much beyond the walls of academe. By a lucky chance, something I had written caught Barbara’s eye, and she tried me with a couple of book reviews. The way she did it took me by surprise: no request for so many words by such and such a date about a volume to be sent if I agreed to terms. No. A book arrives on my doorstep with a one-sentence note wondering “if the book might interest you.” The implication was that I might wish to write something about it for her. No due date, no length specified, no need to return the book if not interested. I was overwhelmed by the high style of this mode of address, which was not, I think, accidental. It was an invitation to be yourself, to show what you’ve got, no holds barred.

Barbara’s style of editing (and style, in the best sense, is the word I keep coming back to) was of a piece with her invitation. Does this paragraph need something more? Could we have some examples? She seldom suggested changes in wording. The words were up to you: Why would I have asked you to write if they were not? But would you want to explore this idea a little further? Would you want to mention something that seems to be related?

As she continued to surprise me with unannounced books, as we chatted about them on the phone, as we met for lunches and dinners, as we found fun in laughing at ourselves and the things we did—Barbara was always fun—I gradually came to realize that besides giving me a new and wonderful friendship, she was giving me a chance to grow. She knew what my academic specialties were, and she sent me books that neatly fitted them, but she also sent more and more books that would stretch my capacities, move me a little beyond myself. After I had written a review of books about George Washington, she sent me to California to assess an exhibition of artifacts associated with the man. After I reviewed books on Salem witchcraft, she brought me to New York to review Nicholas Hytner’s film of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Barbara was moving me into the company of people that she and Bob Silvers had been gathering at The New York Review, people who brought to their writing the imagination and resonance that comes only to those who can think beyond themselves and beyond any particular subject: Garry Wills, who could write with equal daring, erudition, and wit about Saint Augustine or John Wayne; John Updike, who could write best-selling novels or direct his imaginative originality to paintings; Freeman Dyson, who could put together words as artfully and elegantly as he did equations. It was an honor to be placed on the same pages with such people.

But honor was the least of what Barbara brought to me and to everyone who came to know her as I did. Along with her keen insight into what we were and could be, she brought to friendship a loving loyalty that knew no bounds. That truly was her style, the ultimate expression of a humanity that honored not only her friends but the entire race.


I’d always heard that the phrase “The Love That Won’t Shut Up” had been coined by Barbara Epstein when she was a student known as “Bubsey” among her friends. Barbara went back with many of her friends a long way, to Radcliffe, to her early days in publishing and apartments shared with painters as young as she. Out of Boston, never to live anywhere other than Manhattan, she knew a lot about New York, about its politics and literary culture. She cared about the city as that place of refuge people made their way to. An adolescent in the boondocks reading about Capote’s Black and White Ball in Esquire, I’d heard of her before I knew what The New York Review of Books was. I found out what it was and ever afterward I associated Barbara and Robert Silvers with the courage, brilliance, and glamour of liberalism in America, an image she dismissed as ridiculous and was sure I’d get over once I’d come to work for her in the Review‘s offices.

The squalor of the old offices in the Fisk Building on West 57th Street was very much in keeping with a serious and therefore precarious publication on the eve of the Reagan years. And yet books were streaking across the ocean and galleys were zooming in from the West Coast or the East Side, nearly all by messenger, by overnight delivery, because everything was urgent, every contributor was at the center of a drama called his or her “piece.” Incredible battles went on during press week as indescribable things rotted in the office refrigerator. Someone’s laughter in the typesetting studio would provoke to fury someone doing layout next door and the storms, the slammed doors. It was a family. When it was not press week, Barbara could time her departure from the office to sneak into the ballet for the second half, for Suzanne Farrell. The best of a generation of women writers were devoted to Barbara, not to mention those legendary other guys, of the queer persuasion. Her gift for friendship meant that everyone knew where to find her most days of the week—in her office. For years, decades, she sat there, on the phone, then reading, reading, and if either a manuscript or a galley then chances are she wasn’t reading it for the first time when she said she had to hang up and get back to work. The New York Review of Books was a dedication. She gave to it everything she could.

Barbara had an ear of genius. She respected style as the writer’s series of decisions, and understood what her friend Elizabeth Hardwick said of the joys of revision, how personal it was as a process, because a writer’s entire history and culture can be involved in the changing of a word. Barbara could be interesting in her suggestions and questions, because she was on the writer’s side, on the side of bringing out what the writer was trying to say. She had taste and refused to allow what she considered the false note or coarse moment. These were moral as well as aesthetic choices. Writing never lost its connection to life, to society, for Barbara. Her sense of the language, her love of literature and of good writing, went with a faultless moral refinement that guided her philosophy and conduct in all things, big and small. The shits are killing us, she sometimes remembered Paul Goodman saying, and as the political and cultural situation in the US continued to deteriorate, the Review‘s purpose became a form of witnessing, though Barbara would not have put it that way. She was a deep anarch. Her humor never let anyone else down.

She did not forget her roots in publishing with Jason Epstein, as the work she did for the Garden Book Club, Readers’ Catalog, and New York Review Books showed. Barbara was a great publisher as well as a great editor. Her imagination, her human sympathy about what artists needed, usually had her doing things for people in secret, unasked, behind the scenes. She had a huge maternal streak, and she dazzled the young writers she brought on, one after another, with the most intelligent care, but she also seemed like a contemporary, no doubt because she was always herself—interested in others, in the intellectual life. Murray Kempton once defined a great beauty as the woman no man was not better for having known. Barbara pretended he’d been referring to the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor. She was fiercely proud of her children, Jacob and Helen, and of the people they married, Susie and Peter. She was embarrassed after she’d done a grandmotherly thing of showing a photograph or reporting a story. She called her grandchildren the last great love of her life.


I guess I’ll never know what possessed Barbara Epstein to ask me to be her assistant in 1981, after I had fully demonstrated my indolence over a year of employment in the Review mailroom. I couldn’t type, for one thing, and my phone manner was, at best, wooden; I had never before made a restaurant reservation, let alone chased down reluctant eminences and cajoled them into supplying details to fill out their contributors’ notes. Nevertheless, she took me on, and proceeded to give me an education that put the whole of my previous schooling in the shade. I had long enjoyed playing with language, but she taught me how to write. I had always nursed heated opinions, but she taught me how to think critically. I was ignorant of the world of grown-ups, and resentfully surly about it, but she clued me in.

Her core curriculum, probably not very surprising to faithful readers of this magazine, was largely unknown to me then. She had me read Edmund Wilson, Auden’s essays, Macauley and other canonical stylists, the Puritan divines and the rest of F.O. Matthiessen’s reading list, even—I admit to kicking and screaming—Henry James. She ensured my deep familiarity with the Review‘s illustrators emeritus: Grandville, Daumier, Doré, Callot, Bewick, Wilhelm Busch. She taught me that simplicity is always the best bet; that needless complication is usually a sign that something is being concealed; that thoughts and sentences always benefit from unpacking; that “forthcoming” means “available when needed” and by extension “frank”—not “soon to be published.” Barbara made many contributions to my vocabulary, both by addition and by subtraction. One day, opening some pompous invitation or other, she exclaimed, “Oh, forgetski!” Where did she pick that one up? I’ve never heard it said by anyone else, but into the larder went “forgetski.” Later, when I was writing for her, I used the word “ilk” in a piece. She struck it out. When I asked her why, she said, “It always makes me think of milking an elk.” We both recalled W.C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer. Out went “ilk.”

I’ve had many other editors over the years, some of them very good, but Barbara was of a whole other order. Her method ranged from the discreet and microscopic to the radical and wholesale, as needed. She had a gift, something like second sight, for knowing exactly what a piece was missing, and those lines and paragraphs she willed into being turned out more often than not to be the hinges on which the argument turned. The most durable thing I wrote under her guidance achieved that distinction as a result of her simply ordering me to cut the manuscript by two thirds—she could perceive the essence through the flapdoodle. She possessed one of the greatest minds I’ve ever encountered, and she gave all of it to other people’s work. On top of that she was funny, mischievous, infectiously enthusiastic, occasionally prodigal, sometimes incorrigibly teenaged, the best sort of company. The world is a much lonelier place without her.


Knowing and working with Barbara was to witness her magically recomposing the world. Somehow her delicate relentlessness, the depth and diversity of her friendships, her delicious malice, and the splendor of her love of literature were all part of a kaleidoscopic whole. Somehow she made the paper’s pursuit of excellence into a festive pilgrimage. The galleys covered with her witty scrawls and affectionate notes were part of such an ancient enterprise—a person with a stylus and words, doing the work of making a world where power is disciplined by integrity, and thought is infused, in the least sentimental way, with the possibility of human love. What I learned through her, at the Review, is the heart of the enterprise.


In a long career I have had almost no serious dealings with editors. That is why it took me some time in working with Barbara on The New York Review to realize when it came to an entire piece, or indeed a sentence, she had a perfect ear for tone that would, as we say in the theater, play. Or not play. Needless to say, we had ferocious rows, particularly when Camelot bewitched, for a short time, the higher bookchat. “Prove,” she would say, “that Bobby Kennedy was ‘ruthless.’” As the decades passed, she agreed with me on that point but struck the practical note that, in the piece we’d disagreed on, the adjective had an ad hominem ring that clashed with my usually cozy style. Ideally, in response to a direct ad hominem attack on oneself she favored simply going around it in such a way as to negate it without resorting to “sez you” (English for tu quoque).

Ultimately, in fact, she could accept almost anything in the way of a point of view if she was convinced that it was expressed in good faith: needless to say, she had a difficult time dealing with the baroque lies of the neocons which have made mephitic the swamps of bookchat. During the last year of her life, despite all sorts of physical debilities, she insisted on reading Point to Point Navigation, my second memoir. A week before she died she rang to say she was mailing me the manuscript with her notes. But before she could do so, as her son Jakie put it to me, she had transferred to whatever is the next stop on the line. Thus, we who knew her best are bereft.


Barbara Epstein and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ September 21, 2006

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