My memories of my four years as an editorial assistant at The New York Review in the 1980s now seem indelibly connected to three people I knew well when I was there—David Daniel, Bob Tashman, and Charles Rosen, all friends who have passed away (Charles just this past year). Each seems connected to a New York City that is quite different from the city of today, each had a tough-minded love of great writing, and each took an enormous delight in antic ironies. This was when writers dropped by offices because it was, if not exactly the only means to get copy to the editors, a way to talk with others about serious or simply entertaining subjects. This was before smoke-free workplaces, before writers hunkered down with their blogs, before the downsizing of creative people in too-pricey New York, and well before—and this is one strand of my experience at the Review I want to highlight here—being an “aesthete” had dated, absurd, slightly musty connotations.
Which is to say, my memory of the Review is permeated with a sense that all sorts of aesthetes, loosely defined, were highly valued there. That was the difference between the NYR and my previous employer, The Nation, and also in some ways The New Yorker, which—the truth is now out—we at the Review in those days always viewed with mildly dismissive irritation. We read it, of course, but I recall my friend Sara Laschever, then running the Reader’s Subscription, advising me that, with some exceptions, the magazine was often impossibly “middlebrow.” This wasn’t exactly news. That’s what, after all, my former colleagues at The Nation thought—after all, what kind of magazine did not have a letters page? (The cantankerous letters pages at the NYR were their own special institution.)
Among the Review’s aesthetes was David Daniel, a pale, Gumby-like fellow, a witty southerner, a fierce chain-smoker, and, although full of Firbankian panache, far too serious about High Art to be considered camp or campy. My friend the art critic Jed Perl wrote a beautiful tribute to David in 2003, “From Alabama to Manhattan,” reprinted in his 2013 collection Magicians and Charlatans, and it’s hard to outdo what Jed wrote, particularly his observation that David (nicknamed “Alabama” during his first years in New York City) evoked Jean Cocteau, with “some of Cocteau’s unwillingness to take a stand in the wars between the traditionalists and the modernists.” David was one of the first people I met in New York who lived here because he was utterly and only devoted to Culture, which for him was a curious combination of Manhattan music and dance and serious southern writing. He was mad about the New York City Ballet, about which he wrote a great deal, and he was also mad about Eudora Welty, Lincoln Kirstein, and, of course, Truman Capote. It was an eclectic, fairly short list.
Conservative politically and thus an outlier at the Review—he sometimes would decry “liberals” to me after a few drinks—he nonetheless seemed to have adapted completely to New York City. That is, he had adapted culturally. Financially, he always seemed on the brink of ruin or destitution, like a lot of people I knew then. Somehow, though, he now and then would think nothing of treating me to dinners at expensive restaurants. Or else he would phone me very late at night and tell me, between drags on his cigarette, about his day scraping together an income with various magazines but also about the world. It usually involved some of the celebrated people in his life—particularly three women, “Suzanne,” “Arlene,” “Pauline,” an imposing cultural law firm of abbreviated assonance. David was not only a lover of ballet but also a serious-minded critic of dance, although one with a serious writer’s block and some legendary setbacks. He once explained to me that he had completed a manuscript, a biographical/critical account of the ballerina Suzanne Farrell that had been under contract, but he had left it in a taxi. He was never able to retrieve it and he had no copy.
Yet there was a strenuously arrived at, steady flow of writing from David. He spent weeks and weeks on a dissection of Jerome Robbins and it ended up in Dance Review, an acute essay, which showed a familiar side of David—a biting, pithy eloquence—but also a side of him that I had not quite known, someone very focused and reflective, careful with an argument, and not simply full of flashing, brilliant opinions. Farrell was a special obsession of David’s. “You must, my dear, go to see her before she retires, which, trust me—I know—will be soon,” he instructed me. “She is one of the defining, central wonders of the Western world.” Oddly enough—but somehow tellingly given the way the Review was then the home to so many struggling, creative types, many of them inassimilable to the wretched day-to day demands of an expensive city—I cannot actually recall what David did at the Review. Something involving typesetting? It did not matter. He was an original, a kind of genius orphan-child for whom the NYR was the best orphanage for culture addicts and aspiring intellectuals.
The other aesthete—unkempt, straight, Jewish-guy division—was Bob Tashman, as nervously fast-talking as David was mellifluously smooth-talking, an assistant editor for many years at the Review. For some time Bob and I did not get along. It was an office joke, of sorts, our everyday friction and bitchy bickering, and thinking about this now I am not sure why. But then, suddenly, we did get along, a development that may have had something to do with Bob’s basic sweet nature and perhaps my telling our mutual friend Arthur Goldwag at the Reader’s Subscription that I thought Bob was one of the smartest people I had ever met. Heck, he was the smartest man in the office, in the entire Fisk Building. It got back to Bob, as I wanted it to. Usually dressed in a bland preppy blue shirt and jeans, hair sprouting from everywhere, Bob would careen from office to office at the Review and do fiendishly accurate impressions of people, myself included. (Something about me saying “I know!” into the phone when I was talking to a friend.)
Very tough-minded intellectually and yet hilarious in a way that would have served him well in vaudeville, Bob had all sorts of complex, fancy tastes in literature and plays and music and art and he could get quite emotional about some of those opinions. He loved to pick little fights about cultural matters. Wasn’t Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight absolutely the best film adaptation of Shakespeare ever made? Wasn’t James Joyce’s story “The Dead” the “greatest piece of fiction in the language”? He would become almost physically taunting about—or alternately physically gratified by—your tastes in books or music, depending on whether your judgments fit his own finely honed refinements. He would rant, cajole, become irritated. Bob was one of those brilliant people who almost always drop out of Ph.D. programs in which they are uneasily enrolled, as I would later understand, because their brilliance invariably is too ornery and unsystematic. Seldom would he yield to another person’s argument or a “school of thought.” Somehow Bob always brought to mind T.S. Eliot’s comment about Henry James having a “mind so fine no idea could violate it.” (Bob passed away from cancer several years ago.)
Of course, it doesn’t at all make sense to call Charles Rosen an “aesthete.” Charles had so many sides—a world-class pianist, a deeply knowledgeable musicologist, a professor at several universities—he was, in short, a very great intellectual. He, too, reflects what was best about the Review,which was not simply an atmosphere where there were a lot of opinions (New York City always had enough of that) but a place of strongly informed opinion. There was another way in which Charles evoked the NYR. As far as I could see then, there was only one room in New York that was as cluttered with books and manuscripts as the NYR’s editorial offices and that was Charles’ Upper West Side apartment. There was a steady flow of interesting people there, some from the Review, sometimes other musicians, and editors. We are fortunate that most of Charles’s NYR reviews have been reprinted (and I’m delighted to report that my own academic institution, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, will house his papers).
At the same time, I recall several of Charles “fantasy reviews” that he never got around to writing, particularly his inspired idea to review the British playwright Joe Orton’s Diaries alongside the latest installment of Ned Rorem’s diaries. (“Orton’s book was obviously meant for publication and it’s a work of genius, whereas Rorem’s book is just a lot of name-dropping.”) Charles loved Orton’s plays, could recite by memory entire passages from his work and the work of other writers he admired. Alan Ayckbourn was a special favorite, whose plays Charles loved for their outlandish plots and which he considered as brilliant as any Restoration comedy. (He often mentioned how baffled he was to see him eclipsed in attention by Harold Pinter.) And Charles loved the movies, about which he spoke with a lot of intensity. (One of the last conversations I had with him had him declaring that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was “ghastly.”) He found comic brilliance in surprising places, sometimes declaring that there was more great writing on certain American television shows like Taxi than on the New York City stage. But his High Modernist affiliations were fierce. He disliked it when modernist difficulties and small-audience appeal became diluted by the demands of big, crowd-pleasing cultural institutions. I recall walking by Lincoln Center with Charles after meeting him at the Review’s offices and being taken aback when he waved his hand across the gleaming expanse of buildings and announced, “I object to most of what this represents.”
Charles was the great source of some astonishing literary lore, some of it drawn from his personal experiences. He delighted in telling of how W.H. Auden, a friend, had once informed T.S. Eliot that, while delivering a lecture at an American university, he had seen bathroom graffiti that read, “W.H. Auden Loves T.S. Eliot.” Eliot replied, “That’s all right—I’m one third that way myself.” Always in evidence was Charles’ mischievous, sometimes wonderfully childish sense of fun. My favorite instance of this was his account of a dinner at the Hyde Park apartment of Allan Bloom in the mid-1980s. Like Charles, Bloom was a University of Chicago professor on the Committee on Social Thought. Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind had become an unlikely national best seller. As Charles told it, Bloom had purchased a new, state-of-the art oven and was eager to show it off. But something went technically wrong the night of the dinner with Charles and the oven door would not open. Charles gleefully recounted how he and Bloom crouched down and peered through the oven window as the roast burned to a crispy black carcass. The way Charles told this story it seemed to have something to do with the perilous pretentions of drawing excessive material benefit from a popular book, although the glee with which he recounted this failed meal may also have had something to do with Charles himself having been a wonderful, unfussy cook, unreliant on fancy devices. He cooked intuitively but also could recite in precise detail exactly how he managed a recipe by, say, Elizabeth David, about whom he would write an appreciative essay.
Along with recollections of David, Bob, and Charles are other, disaggregated memories: Barbara Epstein’s impish laugh from the next office, girlishly appreciative of something or someone. Hazardous towers of books that occasionally fell on the editorial assistants or some poor visiting publicist. (“What next?” I recollect one of them saying as volumes toppled into his lap, onto his head. “Will the heavens now open?”) There was something called a Telex machine in Bob Silvers’s office that brought information from Fitz, the London courier, in the form of small tissues of yellowish paper. (It might be from the Edwardian past—the Telex.) There was once the pleasure of talking to Joan Didion about Miami, which happened to be my hometown, and at that moment the subject of a book she was writing, installments of which were soon to appear in the NYR. He voice was so low, so seemingly timorous, that when it started to rain I could not hear her. I also recall making her laugh when I told her that with its film-noirish atmosphere, its freeways, and certain third-world qualities, the city of Miami was “just made for Joan Didion.”
There were, too, my numerous editorial assistant’s mistakes, one of which stands out: mishearing some instructions, I phoned up Dwight Macdonald, only to be told by a woman at the other end of the phone that he had been dead for several years. “Bob Silvers must know that.” (“So sorry!”) I also recall certain indelible sentences from the correspondence from NYR authors. Mary McCarthy, writing of the death of Lillian Hellmann, declared, in a wry riff on a line from Macbeth, that Hellman “should have died heretofore.” I remember taking refuge from the Review’s pressures and intensities by visiting my friends at the next-door magazine, the industry-conscious, very un-Review-ish but tony Art and Auction, especially my friend Stuart Greenspan (now gone), who walked debonairly with a cane and had a lovely low giggle. A man with cosmopolitan tastes, he somehow had found himself working for a trade magazine. He would take me out to dinners in pricey Tribeca restaurants on his expense account.
Thinking about Stuart’s passing reminds me why the forceful but in some ways fragile aestheticism of that time came under so much pressure in the mid-1980s—namely, the new threat of AIDS, which also claimed my friend the painter David Acker, who worked as a typesetter at The Nation. Many others, including friends of the Review, were caught up in its mephitic web, and New York forever changed. Suddenly ACT-UP became for many of my friends the most pressing arena of activism—right up there in urgency for many of us with David Daniel’s New York City Ballet. I had friends who were arrested at protests and who fought pharmaceutical companies and the federal government, in what seems now like an important model or dress rehearsal for the Occupy Wall Street movement (or is it “moment”?). Aesthetes suddenly gave way, it seemed, to activists.
It came to me many years later what stood out about the Review for someone in his twenties, new to Manhattan. I owe the realization to a friend, Patricia Crain, who had briefly worked as an editorial assistant at the Review and later at Art and Auction. “For anyone new to New York City and interested in ideas, in writing, in culture,“ she explained, “this was the room in New York City you wanted to be in.”
Richard Kaye worked at The New York Review from 1983 to 1987. He is Acting Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Hunter College and in the Ph.D. Program in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.