Robert Gottlieb has been Editor in Chief of Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. His new memoir, Avid Reader: A Life, will be published in September. (April 2016)

Brilliant, Troubled Dorothy Parker

She struck a chord with the public: from the start, her voice spoke to a wide range of readers. Her generally sardonic, often angry, occasionally brutal view of men and women—of love and marriage, of cauterized despair—triggered recognition and perhaps even strengthened resolve. She told the truth as she perceived it, while using her wit and humor to hold at arm’s length the feelings that her personal experiences had unleashed in her.

Dancing in the Dark

Sarah Hay and Sascha Radetsky in Flesh and Bone
What did ballet ever do to the world to deserve the way it’s always being represented by writers and filmmakers? Poor ballet! It’s so hard to get right; it’s so fragile an enterprise; it’s so battered by economic and sociological realities. Why does this fiendishly demanding but deeply rewarding process …

An Actress Like No Other

Setsuko Hara as Noriko Somiya in Yasujirō Ozu's Late Spring, 1949

Noriko, in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, is the quintessential Setsuko Hara character: she’s the archetype of the post-war, modern young woman. Yet she also embodies the virtues of the traditional Japanese woman: loyalty, self-sacrifice, suffering in silence; she’s the perfect daughter, wife, mother. She was utterly real, yet she represented an ideal…the ideal.

‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’

Lady Diana Cooper, May 1960; photograph by Cecil Beaton
What can it have been like to have been Lady Diana Cooper, “the most beautiful girl in the world,” “the only really glamorous woman in the world,” the most celebrated debutante of her era, the daughter of a duke, the wife of a famous diplomat (and so the British ambassadress …

Back from Heaven—The Science

Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, 1997
The increasing focus of science today on the study of the brain has spilled over into considerations of what exactly may be happening to people who experience out-of-body and near-death experiences. In Erasing Death, a stimulating book published last year, Dr. Sam Parnia recapitulates recent arguments that there may well …

To Heaven and Back!

Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo and Connor Corum as his son Colton in Heaven Is for Real, the film adaptation of Burpo’s memoir about his son’s near-death experience
I’ve never had a near-death experience and don’t know anyone who has, but according to a poll that’s quoted throughout the NDE literature, at least 5 percent of Americans have returned from one and told the tale. That may be a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people—given today’s population, over 15,000,000. Other estimates are lower, but they’re still huge. And most of these people seem to be writing books.


Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, 
New York City, 1972
All conductors have highly personal characteristics, but has there ever been one as theatrical, as showy, as hammy as Leonard Bernstein was? Or as exciting, as persuasive, as dedicated? There’s the Lenny problem: Is he for real or is he an act? Do we love him or do we want to kick him in the ass? Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him? And do those of us who grew up with him in all his avatars respond to him the same way as those coming to him for the first time, with no history and perhaps no expectations?

The Coach

Elena Tchernichova with a Vaganova Institute classmate, Leningrad, circa 1958
It’s not only star dancers and choreographers and impresarios who contribute significantly to the art of ballet. Crucial, too, are the teachers, coaches, and ballet masters who keep classical technique—and classical dancers—honest. In our day, Elena Tchernichova, who was trained as a dancer in the Soviet Union and later emigrated …

At the Top of Pop

Janis Joplin and the music mogul Clive Davis at a party celebrating the signing of her band to Columbia Records, New York City, 1968
Clive Davis, the mogul of moguls of pop music through the past half-century, published a relatively fluent and interesting memoir called Clive—in 1974. In 335 pages it carried him from his (not too) humble beginnings to the traumatic moment when he was fired, without warning or mercy, from his top …

How Good Was James Jones?

James Jones, Paris, October 1972
Well, anyway, here is Pearl. And I, personally, believe it will stack up with Stendhal’s Waterloo or Tolstoy’s Austerlitz. That was what I was aiming at, and wanted it to do, and I think it does it. If you dont [sic] think it does, send it back and I’ll re-rewrite …

A Very Lush Garland of Writers

‘Mr Rudyard Kipling takes a bloomin’ day aht, on the blasted ’eath, along with Britannia, ’is gurl’; drawing by Max Beerbohm, 1904
It’s hard to say which are more remarkable, the inflated ambitions of this enormous book, its actual achievements, or the perversities with which the author has undermined them. An admired academic—Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and former longtime faculty member at the California …

‘The Mother of Us All’

Ethel Waters, 1926
“The Mother of Us All.” That’s what the jazz critic Gary Giddins calls Ethel Waters. But why? She was a pioneer, yes, but that’s not what he’s talking about—lots of pioneers go unheralded or are quickly forgotten. It’s not enough to have been first, even to have been first at …

Showing Off

John Wilkes Booth with the devil whispering in his ear, 1865
Was sibling rivalry responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? So you would conclude if you took seriously the phrase “The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy,” which is blazoned across the dust jacket and the title page of My Thoughts Be …

Tame Jane

Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, a film directed by Cary Fukunaga

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong. The story, despite a confusing flashback structure, is coherent. The dialogue is satisfying. The look is convincing. What’s lacking is Jane Eyre itself—Charlotte Brontë’s feverish inner world of anguish and fury.

The Secrets of Houdini

Harry Houdini performing with Jennie the elephant at the Hippodrome, New York City, 1918. In one of his most famous tricks, he made the elephant disappear: ‘To this day,’ Robert Gottlieb writes, ‘no one understands how he did it.’
Almost the first thing you see after entering the Houdini exhibition at the Jewish Museum is a large-screen film of Harry Houdini hanging by his ankles upside-down from a tall building, high over a sea of men in fedoras, and thrashing his way out of a straitjacket. It’s terrifying, just …

Waking Beauty

George Balanchine at a rehearsal of Scherzo à la russe for the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival, Lincoln Center, 1982
Here is a book of immense ambition—a one-volume history of ballet—and of considerable accomplishment. Jennifer Homans, whom we know primarily as The New Republic’s provocative dance critic, shows herself to be both dogged and graceful as a historian—a rare and welcome combination of qualities. She’s also a passionate believer in …

Monstres Sacrés in Love

Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) and Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis)

All bio-pix are by definition ridiculous since their subjects have to be manifestly unique people—why else would the movie be made?—while what makes them unique is exactly what’s so impossible to convey. (Creativity is invisible, hence unfilmable.)

Who Was Charles Dickens?

Charles Dickens; painting by Daniel Maclise, 1839
There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again. I’ve never encountered a life of the Brontës, of Dr. Johnson, of Byron that didn’t grip me. Another such character is Charles Dickens.

My President

I was jolted the other day when The New York Times science section splashed three big close-up head-shots of FDR across the top of its front page. (The story: his death of a cerebral hemorrhage may have been linked to a melanoma.) Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was the face of my president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, more or less a year after I was born, and by the time I became conscious of the great world out there, he had become the family hero: as resourceful as he was wise, as charming as he was brilliant. Everyone we knew loved his handsome, distinguished face, was moved by his beautiful voice—the famous fireside chats!—and, most important of all in those frightening times, took comfort from the confidence he radiated. We knew instinctively that with him leading us, all would be well.

Nearly Anything Goes

Fred Astaire in Swing Time, 1936
“It didn’t take long for us to become nostalgic for the thirties, when we hadn’t even been born.” So wrote Morris Dickstein toward the close of Gates of Eden, his passionate account of the 1960s, speaking for himself and his group of fellow undergraduate intellectuals at Columbia College. He published …

Who Was the Most Famous of All?

Joseph Jefferson, Palm Beach, Florida, circa 1904
“Did you ever see Jefferson?” George Hurstwood asks Sister Carrie as he leans toward her in the Chicago theater to which he’s invited her and her “husband,” Charlie Drouet; “He’s delightful, delightful.” And when Hurstwood reports to his wife that the play was very good, “only it’s the same old …

The Silent Superstar

Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford, 1917; photographs from Jeffrey Vance’s Douglas Fairbanks
Except for his great friend Charlie Chaplin, the biggest male star of silent films, and the most loved, was Douglas Fairbanks, the idol of millions of young boys—and a number of grown-up boys, too. He was number one at the box office in 1919, before he began swashbuckling, and he …

Keeper of the Jewels

No one knew better than George Balanchine how ephemeral his art was—and he didn’t care; he was interested in his next ballet, not his last. But those of us who do care have no one book to turn to that anatomizes his work, ballet by ballet. How can that be? …

Falling Stars

Joseph Horowitz’s Artists in Exile is very ambitious, very stimulating, and very confused. Much of the confusion comes from the disparity between what the book says it’s going to be about—in the words of its subtitle, “How refugees from twentieth-century war and revolution transformed the American performing arts”—and what it …

The Rescue of John Steinbeck

The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad. There are talented writers who grow into their full maturity and then decline, slowly or precipitously. But that isn’t Steinbeck. You can divide his work up into coherent periods, …


Question: What do Shakespeare, Molière, Jane Austen, and the Brontës have in common other than genius? Answer: They’ve all been the subject of movies that aim to show us how great writers do the thing they do—that is, write. We’re not talking about movies that recapitulate a highly dramatic event …