57th Street Rag
This is the first in a series of reminiscences by staff members of The New York Review of Books about their time working at the magazine.
The Fisk Building had a stolid utilitarian look, like one of Ben Katchor’s cartoon office buildings, and was surrounded by automobile showrooms, at the dowdy end of West 57th Street. New York was paradise. You took a 57th Street Cafeteria bagel on a shortcut through the Yangtze River Restaurant, passing the wonton wrapper, to an elevator crammed with other smokers, to the thirteenth floor where The New York Review had an office like a detective agency in a film noir.
I arrived in December 1963, before the NYR had been on the newsstands a year. I was twenty-one. I’d had a similar job at the legendary literary and left-wing political quarterly Partisan Review, entering and updating subscriptions, all hundreds of them, on 3x5” index cards. Through William Phillips and Phillip Rahv, the founding rabbis of the New York intellectual press, I also knew the work (and phone numbers) of the whole Upper West Side of critics newly prominent on the writing roster of the NYR.
From Rahv, the more admired of the partners (Saul Bellow called Phillips a “devious rat”), I’d learned the most important factor in producing our line of work. “Philip,” I’d asked, “What’s the key to great critical writing?” “Sensibility, Janet,” he said. You would never guess from his jackknife prose that Philip Rahv spoke like a Russian bear schooled at City College for a Group Theater production of a Chekhov play. “Sensabitty, Janet,” was what he actually said. “Sensabitty.”
But Partisan Review’s moment had passed. Torn by backstage hatreds in the aftermath of McCarthyism and the blacklist, PR’s twin strengths, exploring political radicalism and the literary avant-garde—its sensabitty—had dissipated, with many contributors flopping around embarrassingly, from the anti-Stalinist left to the right. The war in Southeast Asia was an issue they shirked. Reviewing The Partisan Review Anthology in the first issue of the NYR, Irving Howe diagnosed the malaise there as a “sense of drift.” From the first issue of the NYR, Rahv himself became a frequent contributor, gladly emancipating himself, I suspect, from the drift.
Within its first year, the NYR scraped the barnacles off the values of the older American intellectual class. Subscriptions poured in. My desk mate, Squaw Valley heiress Justine Cushing and I would plan quick lunches of soybeans at the counter of Greta Garbo’s favorite, the Vim and Vigor Restaurant/Juice Bar.
At 10 AM, Barbara Epstein would be at her desk with black coffee, searching books of Grandville prints to illustrate a review with the perfect satirical wolf or insect; Eve Auchincloss, associate editor, would be marking up galley strips; Alexandra Emmet, Bob’s assistant, would be on the phone speaking French; and twenty-seven-year-old publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth, in suspenders and a three-piece cream-colored suit, would be writing checks. We half-dozen stylish yet nerdy young helpers in the outer office simmered down fast when Bob Silvers zoomed into his office, as if running in from the rain.
I became Bob’s assistant soon after Alexandra’s engagement and a cliff-hanging episode in which I, speaking Spanglish to Mexican telephone operators, succeeded in reaching Carlos Fuentes so Bob could invite him to review Oscar Lewis’s Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and His Family for the NYR. Learning to follow the intricacies of Bob’s mental processes, editorial choices, and moral compass was a life-altering and lifelong lucky break, a First Amendment Ph.D.
Mornings, he’d dig from his pockets semi-legible names and addresses on folded blue scraps of his checkbook and attach each of them to a semi-legible assignment draft. He exchanged long chatty calls with Advisory Editor Elizabeth Hardwick and George Plimpton, his best friend. He’d plow through the piles of new books and catalogs that arrived twice a day. He’d take and make calls to writers; sign on to lunches, book parties, social events. Sometimes he’d cop a piece of my bagel. Finally, he’d burrow into a stack of manuscripts, querying, correcting, rewriting, perfecting every reviewer’s every word.
Through the open doorway (there were no office doors), you could hear Barbara’s great loud peals of laughter on the phone with Edmund, Wystan, Virgil, Vladimir and Vera, and Gore. If she’d nailed down a review or revision from one of them you would know it. You would also hear her ordering lamb chops and vegetables for a dinner party or a pickup or a prescription for Jakie and Helen, her two little kids.
Reviewers got a few hundred dollars and, from Bob, a steady pelting of mailings and messengers with supplementary material, articles, and books. Showers of hand-addressed onionskin envelopes poured in from London, Oxford, and Cambridge. When he was criticized as an Anglophile, Bob said, “They get their manuscripts in on time.”
Small stacks of books grew to a Stonehenge of teetering columns. We moved to the fifth floor where the growing of book stacks started again.
There were biweekly automobile trips to the printers in Connecticut. Barbara, Eve, and Whitney sat proofreading all day at a picnic-sized table, smoking and joking, until the next round of outsized NYR proof pages rolled in. During most of these jolly country excursions, Bob stayed in the city to work.
Poems of Allen’s Ginsberg’s father, Louis, came weekly over the transom and (as at PR) were returned to New Jersey with a rejection slip. Once the famous Beatnik himself appeared, a rather bashful supplicant. Following an arrest in an anti–Vietnam War demonstration, he wanted Bob for a character reference. Ginsberg showed Bob the petition he would hand to the judge. Bob signed his name.
On Election Day 1964, a TV was set up in our office so we could all watch the returns and experience the pathetic joy of watching LBJ trounce Barry Goldwater. I can’t include Bob (who hadn’t even voted) in this melodrama. Bob watched for a few minutes. Already on the stands was Murray Kempton’s scathing review of Johnson’s campaign book, My Hope for America, Kempton’s prediction of a Johnson win, and an ominous victory caricature of the big schnozz by David Levine. Bob went back to work.
Among his great contributions to American letters was igniting the career of fifty-seven-year-old I. F. Stone. The tiny, erudite and adorable publisher and editor of I.F. Stone’s Weekly was then a multi-decade pariah, blacklisted by all wings of publishing for his maverick fact-based politics. Elizabeth Hardwick worried the NYR would be smeared as a Stalinist coven, but Bob was adamant about bringing Izzy on board to review The Making of a President by Theodore H. White, the first of his ninety-one pieces for the NYR.
Bob talked to the poet Robert Lowell (a co-creator and contributor to the NYR) about publicly declining President Johnson’s 1965 White House invitation to a gala Festival of the Arts, in protest against the escalating war. “I…can only follow our present foreign policy with the greatest dismay and distrust….” Lowell wrote in a statement released to The New York Times. After the shock waves subsided, Bob published Dwight MacDonald’s piece on the event as “A Day at the White House.” With ruthless delight, double agent Macdonald, an invitee who had also signed in support of Lowell’s statement, reported upon the havoc it wreaked.
The rest of the crew had scattered into the twilight on November 9, 1965. Bob, just revving up, had a black-tie party at night. At 5:20 or so PM, the lights dimmed in the direction of the Hearst Building across the street. Bob interrupted dictation to look out the window. He called out each new blacked-out hunk of city blocks with relish, as bank after bank of lights flickered to black. I phoned the cleaners to hold Bob’s dinner jacket. “There goes 58th Street!” he said.
We were ushered down flights of stairs to join the mob of New Yorkers flooding in from 57th Street to the Russian Tea Room. We, the mob, were lit by a full moon. For Bob, the all-city calamity and celebration was but a small obstacle to the accomplishment of his never-ending series of tasks. The party atmosphere and candles and Harold Clurman in his bowler hat at the Russian Tea Room were inviting. But more so was getting the tux. “See you tomorrow, kiddo,” said Bob. And he tore off into the night.
In late 1966, Bob and Barbara were pacing the book-cluttered aisle between my typewriter and Bob’s desk. In a talk with the Lowells, they had developed the idea of asking Mary McCarthy for an eyewitness account of the US military operation in South Vietnam. They had sent her a telegram from the Lowells’ and she agreed to go, and now we were waiting to find out when. Barbara: smoking like Bette Davis. Bob: peering at, throwing around, stashing away books. Everyone in the room: lighting up, stubbing out, inhaling, coughing, exhaling. The phone rang. I stopped typing. The excitement was great. Bob and Barbara said, “Mary!” in a fraction of a beat. Within an hour, McCarthy was booked (thanks to me) on a flight from Paris to Saigon. The trip triggered her mind-bending three-part NYR series (and later, two books) exposing the vastness of US killing technology, the brutality, waste, and official baloney of the hideous war. (Someone said she brought eight suitcases of clothes to the gig.)
Bob and Barbara were only in their thirties, yet so certain in their purpose and aesthetic that instead of another back road of highbrow opinion, they built an intellectual highway, a place and space of mind that made Americans proud to think.
On the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, I couldn’t sleep. I was distraught. It was midnight. With whom could I talk? Who would be up and alert? Idly, I dialed the office number still in my fingers. The night watchman himself picked up the phone. “Bob, it’s awful,” I said. “What can be done?” “Have you read the new issue?” Bob turned elated. “Mark Danner wrote a terrific piece.”
As Bob’s assistants all know, as soon as this fiftieth anniversary magnum is poured, Bob will be back at his desk. Thus, a short toast to him and to the memory of Barbara, with love and gratitude for navigating such a vast terrain of intelligence with unflagging inspiration, energy, kindness, curiosity, dedication bordering on obsession, and sensabitty. Cent’anni. Sante.
Janet Coleman worked at the NYR from 1963 to 1966. She is the author of The Compass: The Improvisational Theater That Revolutionized American Comedy and (with Al Young) Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. She is one of playwright/director Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players and, for Pacifica Radio, a producer and host. She is writing a biography of Viola Spolin, the creator of theater games.
January 15, 2013, 11:35 a.m.