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Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

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.

—Robert Silvers

JOHN ASHBERY

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.

ELIZABETH HARDWICK

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.

DIANE JOHNSON

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.

ALISON LURIE

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.

LARRY McMURTRY

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,
Barbara

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.

PANKAJ MISHRA

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.

EDMUND S. MORGAN

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.

DARRYL PINCKNEY

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.

LUC SANTE

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.

PATRICIA STORACE

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.

GORE VIDAL

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.

Letters

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

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