Following are reminiscences of Robert B. Silvers by some of the Review’s writer.
Anne Applebaum • Christopher de Bellaigue • Christopher Benfey • April Bernard • Jeremy Bernstein • Glen Bowersock • Sarah Boxer • Stephen Breyer • David Bromwich • Peter Brown • Andrew Butterfield • Roberto Calasso • Michael Chabon • J. M. Coetzee • Robert Darnton • Natalie Zemon Davis • Elizabeth Drew • Freeman Dyson • Helen Epstein • Martin Filler • Jonathan Freedland • Jamey Gambrell • Robert Gottlieb • Stephen Greenblatt • Michael Greenberg • Alma Guillermoprieto • Sue Halpern • Joshua Hammer • Simon Head • Richard Holmes • Pico Iyer • Morten Høi Jensen • Diane Johnson • David Kaiser • Daniel J. Kevles • Enrique Krauze • Jeri Laber • Hermione Lee • Perry Link • Jeff Madrick • Hilary Mantel • Avishai Margalit • Michael Massing • Jessica T. Mathews • Edward Mendelson • Adam Michnik • Ivan Nabokov • Thomas Nagel • Jay Neugeboren • Geoffrey O’Brien • Tim Parks • Thomas Powers • Julia Preston • Francine Prose • Ahmed Rashid • Nathaniel Rich • Marilynne Robinson • Kenneth Roth • Ingrid D. Rowland • Malise Ruthven • Luc Sante • Orville Schell • Frederick Seidel • Adam Shatz • Tamsin Shaw • David Shulman • Samuel Silvers • Charles Simic • Peter Singer • Annie Sparrow • Patricia Storace • Colin Thubron • Helen Vendler • Garry Wills • Paul Wilson
April 26, 2017
Bob was a very important figure in my life. Only someone truly open to new ideas, no matter how unfashionable, could have published in 1973 an unsolicited essay on “Animal Liberation” from a young and little-known philosopher. The very idea of “animal liberation” was unknown and liable to be met with ridicule, and indeed The New York Review of Books was ridiculed for publishing the essay. But Bob’s decision to publish that essay led directly to my book of the same title, which Bob edited and published. I will always be thankful for what Bob did. He played a vital part in triggering the modern animal rights movement, and thus in reducing the suffering of billions of animals.
My fondest memory of Bob is from a tropically warm day in June 2013. New York City had recently installed a public bike sharing system, and Bob had asked me, as the Review intern, to sign him up for it. When the key finally arrived in the mail he got up from his desk and said, “Alright, let’s go.”
I followed him with disbelief down onto the street and over to the nearest bike station. Christ, I thought, now I’m going to have to teach an eighty-three-year-old how to ride a bike. With a sigh, I showed him how to work the key and retrieve a bike from its little rack, and then looked on as he struggled to get up on the seat. Eventually he succeeded and very quickly gained speed. I jogged behind him until I couldn’t keep up any longer. There I stood and looked on as my octogenarian boss raced down the street, through the red lights of an intersection, and down toward the Westside Highway, where he banked right and disappeared from view. It didn’t take long for me to begin rehearsing the speech I would give when I later had to explain to my colleagues that it was my fault the editor of The New York Review of Books had been flattened by a truck. Ten minutes passed, feeling like ten hours. Then came Bob from the opposite direction, as confident and lithe as a Tour de France contender, a broad grin on his face. He suavely alighted from the bike and slipped it back into its rack. “Ok,” he said. “Back to work.”
—Morten Høi Jensen
The first time I saw Bob Silvers was in London in the Sixties, at a party. I was too shy to talk to him, but fell in with everyone else when he decreed that the whole group should go see something—I forget what—and led us all trooping behind him through the London night, with me wondering why we were all following the pied piper and what we would find or see. I always meant to ask him if he remembered that night. He was that kind of leader whom people trusted and would follow, a quality he brought to the Review and to life.
Bob’s friends—indeed all who read his reviews—will remember with gratitude Bob’s learning, his talents, his dedication, and his sense of humor. Bob committed his working life to the transmission through the Review of a tradition—of human culture, of critical thought, and personal liberty. And Bob succeeded. He created a forum that helped us separate sense from nonsense, and that directed our time and attention to books and articles that deserved them. He insisted on substance written without neglect to style. His legacy, embodied in the Review, will live on; sometimes I think, like that of Iona’s monks, through times that require it.
—Justice Stephen Breyer
I first got to know about Bob and his extraordinary talents as an editor in a rather unusual way. In the winter of 1967 I was sent to Vietnam as a correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review. At that time the Johnson administration was still fighting the war flat-out and to win. The US Army was at its peak strength of 500,000-plus soldiers and there was a huge civilian army of US aid officials and CIA operatives working under the acronym of CORDS—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.
As conceived by LBJ, CORDS was the New Deal parachuted into East Asia, flooding the Vietnamese countryside with good works and so winning Vietnamese “hearts and minds” away from the Viet Cong. Visiting correspondents were given minders to set up their opening rounds of interviews. When I turned up for my first interview I found myself in the company of a fellow journalist who had also just arrived in Saigon and had been assigned the same minder and the same slate of meetings as I had. The journalist was Mary McCarthy, the very special correspondent of The New York Review of Books.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to Mary McCarthy because as we made our way from one American office building to the next amid the noise and chaos of downtown Saigon, she was generous to the point of saintliness in answering my flow of questions about the war, the Review, and the significance of the interviews with US officials we had just sat through. She opened up for me a vision of what the best kind of reporting could be like.
This vision was Bob’s as much as hers. He had sent Mary McCarthy to Vietnam and paid for it (a big investment for the Review in those days) because he was confident that her approach to writing about the war would be close to what he wanted, and he was right. Rereading her Vietnam pieces exactly fifty years after they first appeared one is struck by how brilliantly they bring together the skills of the reporter, the scholar, the public intellectual, and the novelist. Running through all the pieces is that kind of acute moral sensibility best described by Tony Judt, who also worked closely with Bob: “a collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth telling; the [contrarian] quality of awkwardness and dissent.”
These qualities were Bob’s as much as they were McCarthy’s and Judt’s. Bob was himself a public intellectual of distinction but, unlike any of his peers, he devoted these qualities entirely to achieving excellence in others.
He was a brilliant, demanding, funny, painstaking, and inspiring editor, a walking chronicle of postwar literary-political history, an intimidating sweetheart, and very dear to me. At the end of an editorial session, once he had identified all your piece’s weaknesses, evasions, and missed opportunities, he would close with a brusque, even peremptory, but always, somehow, hopeful, “See what can be done.” In the world according to Bob Silvers, there was always something to be done.
I was not exactly courted by Bob. My first encounter, which left me breathless, happened ten years ago, when I sent him an essay I’d written on George Herriman and Saul Steinberg. Bob said he wanted only the Herriman half. I sent him the Herriman half, and before I knew it, my essay was in galleys. How strange it was to see my words in that lovely blobby New York Review typeface with the scrawl of Bob at the top: “Again thanks for such a good piece. We hope for any corrections soon. My best, Bob.”
Bob asked for a second essay from me, about blogging. In the blink of an eye, I received a note from him. “Please don’t think these various points and markings are sent in any critical spirit. They are putting forward, you might say, a vision of a piece that would both explore in a more elementary way what blogs are and what you take the qualities of bloginess to be. It may be a Utopian vision of an article but I hope you’ll consider what we’ve tried to say.” The “we” and the “they” were creeping more and more into our editing relationship. But the balmy praise came from Bob alone: “Again thanks for such a finely done piece on a difficult subject.”
The unraveling began when I wrote a piece about how the cartoonist William Steig’s ties with the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich (famous for his orgone boxes) might have shaped his children’s stories. Bob knew a lot of Reichians, it turned out, and we couldn’t agree about “the Reichian connection.” My piece never ran. My next stumble was on Errol Morris’s book on photographic evidence, Believing Is Seeing. I remember getting snagged on details involving Raglan sleeves, cardigans, and cannonballs. Eventually, the judgment came down from Bob: “I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by it.”
Years passed. We had many phone conversations; all left my heart pounding and my mind reeling; few led to publication. Then last year I sent Bob my review of the comic-book memoir The Arab of the Future by the half-Syrian, half-French cartoonist Riad Sattouf, who used to work at Charlie Hebdo. The editing was rough going. Bob challenged my comparison with Maus. And he thought I was painting the Syrians with too broad a brush. It wasn’t my brush, I argued; I was merely trying to get across what Sattouf was implying. Down came the gavel: “I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by the review as it stood.”
This time, though, I persisted. I kept revising, calling, hoping for a return to our halcyon days. Bob kept sending new galleys, new questions, new apologies. I was sure I knew where this was all leading, but in the end I was wrong. Bob’s last words to me were: “A galley of your piece, which comes off strongly. We hope for any corrections soon. My best, Bob.”
My wife Claude and I have known Bob for over sixty years; it was possibly in 1954, certainly in 1955, when we first met him. He was coming afresh to Paris from his stint in the US Army, by way of interludes as advance publicity director—a “flack”—for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (he regaled us with many amusing stories about that) and editor of the World Assembly of Youth magazine (a monthly, I believe). He was then “discovered” by George Plimpton and Blair Fuller and hired to become the editor of the relatively new literary magazine The Paris Review, and this is when we first knew him.
We have many memories of these early years with Bob, among them a long weekend with Francine du Plessix in the villa belonging to her parents at Saint-Maxime; there Bob plunged into the Mediterranean, swimming a surprisingly agile crawl with measured strokes, but moving way, way out, virtually beyond our sight, arms pumping away, a tiny white whale, disappearing for at least an hour, to the great concern of his friends on shore: we’d not until then seen him as an athletic type. During that same weekend, he gave us a very brief and rare glimpse of American naiveté when, after requesting a sleeping pill and being given a French opiate suppository, he started chewing it and, munching away, drinking water, complained that French pills were very difficult to swallow…
Over the years we saw Bob quite regularly in New York when he was at Harper’s, living in George Plimpton’s ground-floor bicycle storage room and later, once the Review had begun, in his New York office. Bob’s workaholic habits, his extraordinary, lively intelligence, his bonhomie, kindness, and loyalty were even then legendary, as was his ability to find time for an active social life as well as for the Review. I remember innumerable luncheons and dinners, concerts and events, also the only Stephen Sondheim musical I ever saw, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in company with Bob, both ensconced in the balcony. I remember many dinners with Bob when we would meet at the 57th Street office, go nearby to Patsy’s or Jean Laffite, have a stimulating dinner and then I would walk him back at 11 PM or so to his office amid the stalagmites of books and the tiny black-and-white television set perpetually playing basketball games. On one of those occasions Bob gave me, as a very amateur Joycean, the tear sheets of a highly enjoyable article he was about to publish that demonstrated the ineptitude of the so-called “definitive” edition of Ulysses that had just then appeared, an article which became a long-running and highly amusing source of attack and counter-attack; but the final result was that the “definitive” edition discreetly disappeared in favor of the old 1961 Modern Library edition it was supposed to replace.
With Grace Dudley, Bob’s life appeared to take a new shape, and this extraordinary companionship, so full of mutual respect, understanding, admiration, and love, gave a rich new dimension to Bob’s non-office existence: he could at last receive his friends and authors in the comfortable home that he and Grace maintained. There one could immediately sense that marvelous atmosphere, a mingling of personalities, intellects, knowledge which so well reflected Bob’s mind and that of the Review. I remember on one occasion at lunch a visiting foreigner was not quite sure how he could translate the word “kitsch”; many definitions were offered, the most memorable, to my mind, being Joseph Brodsky’s: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu”…
On their infrequent visits to Paris, we would have lunch or dinner in one of our local bistros, where Grace could have both the Belvedere and the Quincy she adored, and pronounce her anathemas on whatever she considered unwarranted cultural and intellectual reputations; and I certainly remember once when seeing Grace alone with a copy of the Review in hand, her saying, “Il est tellement merveilleux, et la Review aussi.” When we talked to Bob in Lausanne just after Grace’s death in December, he was so overwhelmed he could barely keep from sobbing. In that lovely Swiss cemetery, he now lies next to her, at last at rest.
April 11, 2017
I have one overwhelming memory of Bob. We are sitting in his favorite restaurant (near the office, of course) when my wife contacts me on Bob’s mobile phone to say that her mother has died. While I sit dazed, knowing I must leave, Bob has paid the bill and run into the street like a twenty-year-old, has flagged down a taxi for me and darted back. I’ve rarely seen such agility of mind and body, spurred by such warm concern. Like so many others, I will dearly miss that nimble and creative mind: will miss his famous and treasured adjectives in response to my reviews, and his intuition that this or that book is right for me. No editor can have left among his writers such feelings of deep privilege and affection.
Bob Silvers and I exchanged faxes and e-mails for some thirty years, from 1985 until shortly before his death, but met only once, at the New York Public Library on the occasion of the second Robert B. Silvers lecture in 2003.
In the beginning he marked me down as a potential reviewer of Africa-related books, but soon discerned that I had little of interest to say about politics. By the mid-1990s he had worked out what projects would really engage me, and I began to look forward to the FedEx packages that regularly arrived from New York: review copies of new books accompanied by brief notes from Bob suggesting what approach he thought might work best.
Bob Silvers had a sure feel for which among contemporary currents of thought were significant and which were merely a matter of fashion. This power stemmed, I believe, from a coherent and historically informed world view. He knew more than a little about most things under the sun, but never tried to impose his ideas on me as a contributor. He had a keen eye, as I found, for faulty logic, for clichéd thought, and for slack prose. These and other qualities made him the great editor he was.
—J. M. Coetzee
Every piece written for Bob included three or four conversations on the phone. Most were narrowly focused on the work at hand, but not all. Sometimes he was reminded of an incident from the past—growing up with five thousand chickens on his uncle’s farm, say, or a long-ago conversation with Bobby Kennedy. And sometimes it was the world that intruded. In June 2006 Bob wanted a piece about George Tenet and asked me to call him. I did but as soon as he got on the phone it was apparent that something was badly wrong, he had been knocked askew.
“I have very bad news,” he said. His voice was low, hoarse and exhausted. I had never heard him so undone. “Barbara has died—just died—it happened only half an hour ago—completely unexpected—we knew she had cancer but we hadn’t expected this… so soon.” I knew the two of them had been putting out the magazine from the beginning. I felt terrible about intruding at such a moment. “You’ve seen her every day for forty years,” I said.
“Forty-three,” Bob said. “And even before that I knew her very well. It’s like losing part of yourself. She didn’t like to speak of it—she had great reserve—no, no service of any kind, she was dead set against all of that. She did speak of a cocktail party. But no one is up to that yet.” I suggested maybe we should put off Tenet for a week.
“Oh no,” said Bob instantly. “We must go on—we can’t… just stop. We must go on about things.” And that is what we did.
I think it was at one of The New York Review’s public symposia, organized with the University of London in Bloomsbury, when Bob was about eighty. He had been crisply introducing a roster of distinguished international speakers and writers all morning, and then we broke for lunch. As we streamed out onto Gower Street, a squall of English rain burst fiercely upon our heads. There was a great inelegant flurry of mackintoshes, cagoules, and umbrellas as we crossed over into University College, hunched against the downpour and plodding stoically for the dining room. It was then that I caught a glimpse of Bob up ahead, disdainful of all extraneous rain gear, clad in his usual immaculate dark suit with the thick silken tie, his bared silver head neatly en brosse, his shoulders sharp and square as ever, jogging unhurriedly across the rain-blasted university courtyard, perfectly upright and elegant, and laughing steadily with delight like a young quarterback who had just delivered a touchdown and was looking forward eagerly to the next game.
April 4, 2017
When I was in prison, Bob published some of my essays in The New York Review of Books. It was a gesture of solidarity that I will never forget. But it was also a way of extending help—a prisoner who was published in the world’s most important intellectual forum was protected against the whims of prison guards and party aparatchiks. I met Bob after 1989, when he came to visit Poland, and he immediately offered both moral and financial support to Gazeta Wyborcza. I met with him many times over the years, and, for me, he always represented the very best in the American democratic and intellectual traditions. By editing The New York Review of Books, he advanced many great contemporary debates. He occupied a unique place in the intellectual life of our time, a place that no one else is likely to fill.
I can’t remember the first time Bob asked me for a review; I was very much surprised when, on the occasion of my delivering the Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, he said I had been writing for the Review for forty-five years. What I chiefly remember of our interactions (for we rarely saw each other) was his kind gratitude for each piece, and his equally kind acquiescence when I felt unable to take something on. What most surprised me was that Bob, with his strong interest in politics and world events, wanted my apolitical self to write for him at all. I had read the Review from its first issue because of its authors, and was honored to be among them.
Only once did Bob respond to a review with a demurrer. I had, as usual, written what I had to say and sent it off. A day later, he phoned me and said gently, “Helen, I think this is a chapter of a book you want to write.” I had gone inordinately over the suggested length, not even noticing. Of course he was right; I cut the review in half, and eventually wrote that book. He was one of the few contemporary editors to offer generous space to his reviewers, and we all benefited, not least from writing the books he encouraged. I was shocked to hear of Bob’s death; he and the Review seemed immortal.
It was in 1969, I think, that Bob made a short stop in England on his way to Israel for the first time. Isaiah Berlin was keen to make Bob’s visit to Israel a success. Isaiah liked Bob immensely, but he was afraid that Bob’s attitude to Israel was “complicated” beyond necessity, namely, that it was ambivalent. He arranged for Bob a dress rehearsal in his Albany flat in London, to which he’d summoned three young Israelis who were in Oxford at the time and whom he believed would present Bob with the right mixture of criticism and care.
So there we were: Amos Oz, Gabriel Moked, and me. I don’t remember much about that meeting but I do remember being struck by how well dressed Bob was. In those days, I expected an editor of a lefty magazine to be wearing a weatherworn corduroy jacket over a shabby turtleneck sweater. I was surprised to see Bob with his piercing dark eyes and shining teeth, strikingly handsome in a black tailored suit, like Marcello Mastroianni in a high society Fellini film.
Bob was keenly interested in Israel. Interested but not obsessed. The intensity of his interest I ascribe to two conflicting sources: on the one hand he strongly held the view that Israel was treating the Palestinian Arabs badly. On the other hand, his brother, who spent a significant amount of time in a Northern kibbutz in the early years of Israel, conveyed to him that something interesting and humanly meaningful was emerging there. Bob held his brother’s views in high regard. So it was a combination of moral outrage and the early influence of the brother that, in part, accounts for Bob’s deep involvement, throughout the years, with all things concerning Israel.
Later, of course, I would also be struck by everything Bob was known for: a fierce and fearless integrity, intellectual brightness, a stubborn and demanding streak, a deft mastery of what the world is like, and, above all, his total devotion to his work as editor. Years later Sidney Morgenbesser took me to Bob’s office. Sidney had an uncanny ability to leaf through a book and to figure out what’s in it. Bob greatly appreciated Sidney’s quick eye and even quicker wit. Bob used to consult with Sidney on a regular basis. When Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle landed on Bob’s desk, it was Sidney who told him: “Try Avishai.”
Little had I anticipated the kind of Bermuda Triangle the piece got me into: an avalanche of reactions from all sides. I quickly realized that one of the distinct privileges of writing for the Review was that it endowed you with an illustrious group of enemies. It was Bob who taught me that a reply to criticism is best served cold.
Like many others, I, too, was dumbfounded byBob’s “work ethic.” I use the expression with caution, for it is strongly associated with Max Weber, a hero of Bob’s from his time as a Wunderkind at the University of Chicago. The Review under Bob was not particularly kind to sociology, yet Weber remained his hero. Still, it would be misleading to describe Bob as a workaholic. There was nothing addictive in his devotion to his writers. Weber would be hard-pressed to find a better example than Bob of someone for whom work truly was a calling.
It was a calling that had all the intensity of religious conviction, but rather than God, it was in the service of what is right and noble and decent in the human striving for a better life and a better society.
I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to write for the two greatest editors of this era, William Shawn of The New Yorker and of course Bob Silvers. I thought that The New Yorker’s methods were exacting, and indeed they were, but The New York Review’s were beyond my imagination. Some Review contributors have mentioned receiving from Bob an A galley, a B galley, and a C galley of a piece on its way to press. I wonder how they got off so light. It was common in my early years at the Review to get an F galley; and then to start again, with AA, BB, CC, DD. It struck me as slightly insane. After my first article for the magazine had gone to press I encountered Bob at a book party in New York. Cheekily—I can’t imagine where I got the nerve—I registered my concern about such a demanding regime. Bob looked down at me—he was very big—smiled, and said, “You see, that’s because we want our pieces to be perfect.”
Bob had an old-fashioned courtliness, increasingly rare in this rough age. And if one came to know him at all well, one knew that his longtime companion, Grace, Countess of Dudley, was a crucial and essential part of his life. Grace was also generous of spirit to Bob’s writers. In recent years Grace was very ill in Lausanne and couldn’t return to New York, so on top of everything else he did, Bob made a biweekly commute to Switzerland to be with her. (He worked on the magazine and even called writers from there, of course.) When I commented to him that this transatlantic travel was heroic and superhuman, he replied, “It’s the least I can do.”
As most people who dealt with him know, Bob could unleash a fearsome temper in making an argument or in reaction to a writer’s copy coming in longer than he’d specified. But it was never personal; nor was it lasting. Once he’d won his point—as he usually did—he moved on. If he was convinced, Bob gave way: in my last piece for him I wrote of Trump’s inauguration address that it was a cousin to his convention speech—meaning of course that they had the same negative tone. In a proof, Bob crossed that out and wrote in the margin in his crabbed handwriting, “We’re not aware that speeches can have cousins.” Once I explained what I meant, my wording stood.
For all of Bob’s ferocious seriousness about the state of this nation and the world, there was also a merriness about him. I think he understood that unless we could find humor in what was going on we’d go mad. Bob laughed easily and a lot. He saw the humor and absurdity in situations—and as a correspondent from Washington I had much absurdity to offer him. He made it fun to talk about the latest outrages. He also understood journalism. Once, a source for a piece, a well-known Washington figure, wrote him a vituperative letter complaining about my alleged misdeeds. I’d got it all wrong, out of context, and so on. I’d never seen such an angry letter from a source and I was worried how Bob would react. In time, he called me and said, casually, “I see that you must have quoted [name] accurately.”
Bob never made a change that the author didn’t agree to. Sometimes this went to great lengths. When we were closing that last article—about the first weeks of the Trump administration—a piece that called for frequent updating until the presses rolled, I was vastly relieved when it finally went to press—or so I thought. A full day later, when I’d turned to other matters, Bob called with one question, about a minor issue that likely no one would have noticed. And so we fixed it.
For my generation in Mexico, The New York Review was our first window on the Anglo-Saxon intellectual universe, scarcely known to earlier generations. Naturally my dream was to write for it. I remember having lunch with Bob around 1985. I had had the temerity to send him—unsolicited—a book review. He rejected it but invited me to eat with him and, patiently, he gave me incisive instruction on the art of writing review essays. “Be concrete” he said to me, “Tell a story.” His counsel at that lunch meeting was invaluable in teaching me the importance of putting across an argument with precision and clarity.
A few years ago, Bob asked me to write about some books on the political thaw in Cuba. For him, the theme touched a deep chord. In our conversations, he detailed his own visits to the island, his initial support for the Cuban revolution, and how he (along with Ted Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger) had helped rescue the persecuted poet Heberto Padilla and bring him to this country. With Bob’s questions, his extraordinary range of information, and the books that he sent me (even on a subject like the antiquated automobiles still running in Cuba) he sought to open up a vision of the Cuban regime that was nuanced but critical. “This is only the beginning,” he said to me about that series of articles. He seemed to be looking ahead to the denouement of a history (a story) that had marked his life.
“We’re not giving up,” he wrote to his friends at the time of the celebration of the Review’s fiftieth year. Nor did we, nor will we, his devoted readers, writers, and friends. His example will never permit us to do so.
—Enrique Krauze (translated by Hank Heifetz)
Shortly after I began writing for the Review I was at a dinner in London when a beautiful American woman, who happened to be my father’s stepsister, told me that she recalled having lunch with Bob in New York in February 1963. They had been at a French bistro on the West side, and Bob said, “Just a moment, I want to stop by a newsstand.” She answered, “But Bob, there is a newspaper strike!” They did stop however and there was one paper for sale, which he bought and gave her. It was the first issue of The New York Review of Books. The impression I retained from this anecdote, of the editor and his companion admiring the sacred object while standing on the sidewalk, was immensely powerful, and the fact that my father’s stepsister had been involved made me feel as though I was almost related to Bob. I devoted my next email to him to describing this story, and the pleasure I had felt in hearing it. But my letter was met with silence, and in this way I learned not to intrude in Bob’s private life.
Over nearly two decades, I wrote for Bob dozens of times, had an NYRB collection in my name, and was on occasion a main ingredient in the Mulligatawny that is a Review front cover. But I never lost the sense that I was on probation. This wasn’t simply because Bob held a minority stake in my professional well-being—from the commission in hand at the time of his death (“no longer than 3,500 words, such are the limitations being lowered on us”) to a review of my own book waiting in line. It had to do with the sense I had that he was a man of principle, that his principles were good ones, and that by involving myself with him I could be part of their propagation. And so, in the tradition of an elder in whose authority I had complete belief—a schoolmaster, a priest, a father—I wished very much to please him.
I believe I am one of the few people to have written an entire book in atonement for some ill-judged sentences in The New York Review. The painful mishap came early on, in 2001, when I wrote a piece about Turkey that touched on relations with the Armenians. Awareness of the Armenian suffering at the hands of Ottoman Turkey was abysmally low in those days, and without noticing it I had imbibed the Turkish line that the Armenians were exaggerating. In my piece I alluded with what now seems an unseemly disregard to Armenian casualties in the course of “rioting” against the Ottomans in the 1890s, and to some half a million Armenian deaths during the 1915 massacres.
In a letter to the Review, James Russell, a Harvard professor of Armenian history, accused me of conniving in a Turkish cover-up, and Bob of belittling Armenian agony with a blitheness he would never have permitted himself in relation to the Holocaust. I did some reading and realized that Russell’s points were sound. What I called rioting was better described as a pogrom, and at least double my “half a million” had fallen in the genocide of 1915. The strength of Bob’s reaction to the letter had, I think, something to do with this accusation of double standards. When we spoke by phone he seemed too furious to get his paragraphs going. He suggested that I was a patsy of the Turks. I answered back, saying that I expected him to see the difference between a mistake and sinister intent. The conversation ended badly.
I fumed and hopped, and yet the sense I had of letting him down, and with him the principles he incarnated, urged me to go in deeper. Rebel Land (2010) was the toughest book I have written—going around eastern Turkey digging out secrets, distrusted by ordinary people, harassed by policemen, intelligence agents, and army captains. And while Bob did not acknowledge the genesis of the book, he assigned it to Roger Cohen, who gave it one of the most generous reviews I have received.
I ended up learning my lessons with Bob. Do not dilute first principles; do not mistake comradeship for intimacy. How reassuring it was, when my editors at The Economist strapped on their webbing and boarded the merry pro-invasion flotilla in the Iraq War, to know that Bob had stayed behind and was calling it out for the tawdry fantasy it was. Not that he ever claimed expertise on the Middle East, or anything else. (The way he would say that he had been educated on a particular subject by a piece in the Review was an example of generosity and sly self-congratulation on his worth as a “middleman.”) He seemed to operate by instinct, informed by some consultation—but mostly instinct.
The pleasure I derived from him at the end was essentially the same pleasure I derived from him eighteen years ago. There is no more bracing experience for a writer than to have his work given serious attention by a sniffer-out of vanity, shallow opinion, and superfluous adjectives.
—Christopher de Bellaigue
I knew Bob Silvers only briefly, toward the end of his life, but I seem always to have known the New York Review of Books. It was, like him, a grand assurance that writers and thinkers would receive the degree of respect and attention appropriate to their calling, if not always to the level of their achievement. It was a forum open to excellence, to good prose and new thought, a kind of citadel of culture whose very presence signified what might be aspired to. For me, the conversation with Barack Obama arranged by Bob Silvers, that hour of time spent simply talking with a preeminently cultured and brilliant man, was the essence of the Review, a moment in the life of the culture unfolding on its own terms, the unobtrusive strength of the Review making it happen. It is bracing and daunting to know that so much can be accomplished in one lifetime, that discipline, taste, and generosity, persisted in over years, can put a precious monument on the national landscape.
March 29, 2017
“I’ve heard that you like Szymborska’s poems.” A typical suggestion for a review and Bob was right: I would never have thought of doing it, and it was a pleasure to do “for us.” There was nothing wrong, either, with tagging it to a paperback reprint; the point was to see that justice was done to a writer he had always admired. A neutral tone was deployed elsewhere: “This book has been getting a lot of attention—whether deserved or not, you’ll have to decide.” A word-length would be suggested and a related book mentioned without prejudice; this initial note sometimes followed up in emails by an article or two, sent as a link or attachment. Soon enough (if you didn’t say no outright), Bob would become a tributary feeder of interest in the article; and you entered a process whose stages would be marked by his characteristic refrain, “On we go!” In more casual conversation, his opinions were seldom orthodox, and could be startling in their depth of recollection and emphasis. I was reading Turgenev’s Virgin Soil? “How wonderful for you! His tenderness toward those young people—there’s nobody like him.” Bob’s authority, fortress-like and final as it seemed, never really closed off a challenge supported by reasons. His loyalty to an article under attack, no matter from what quarter, sprang from an integrity that was the other side of his endless resourcefulness. He was born to do the work he did.
Great as was the delight, these last few years, that I had in writing for Bob, the brilliant, patient, loving Editor, my experience was tinged with absurdity—because I had been an office slave at the Review circa 1980, and so had first encountered Bob in his very different Boss guise. He was a roaring, impatient beast Boss, wanting always to be fed with new drafts, phone numbers, telexes, copies of books—“Where—?” were those books, those galleys, those missing notes, those reviewer bios, those words and pages that were somehow, just barely, holding civilization together?
Straight out of college, and as incompetent as such a person could possibly be, I worked directly for Barbara Epstein—but was often enough roped in to assist Bob’s own three, sometimes four, assistants, that my nerves responded like an old fire horse to the alarm raised by the sound of his voice, usually shouting “Where—?” or “Can someone—?” or, when he had been abandoned by his staff, all scurrying about after missing telexes or just taking a breather in another part of the office—“Hello—?” shouted out over the intercom. “Hello? I’m all alone in here!”
Years later, I had one of the most vivid dreams of my life: a tsunami was rolling up at the windows of Bob’s office, everyone screaming and fleeing, but Bob, in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, was rushing at the windows and the torrent, arms spread wide, “We can hold it back!” he bellowed.
Of course the Bob I once feared and the Bob I later adored were the same person; but he conceived of the job of editor—and by extension, all who aided him—as nothing less than the job of holding back chaos. The editor was sane; but the writer was, perhaps, mad and needed, by coaxing and petting, to be brought to sanity through clarity of thought and prose. All of Bob’s gentle empathy was deployed to bring out our best; all of Bob’s ferocious impatience was deployed to chivvy the machinery of the Review forward to make the best possible.
Bob Silvers was the last public figure whose intellectual authority was recognized everywhere. Now he’s gone, the world is more lost and confused than ever. But let me explain what I mean by “authority” in Bob’s case.
Some time ago, in a Japanese brasserie downstairs from the Review’s offices in New York, Bob was telling me about an occasion when he’d been asked to define himself in seven words. This is what he came up with: “An editor obsessed with the next issue.” Exactly seven words. That was Bob. That was enough for him. Very likely, he thought there was nothing better in the world than to be this. He never wrote anything under his own name. Only comments in the margin, in his tiny handwriting. When he commissioned articles, he had such a subtle way of dealing the cards that the result was never predictable. And there was never a trace of effort. Even in his physical appearance, he seemed never to change. Always a dark suit, always a white shirt, or at least a white collar.
Bob’s only aim was to give every issue and every article he published what it most needed, and above all a quality that’s hard to explain if you don’t already have it: the scruple of truth. Bob had a talent for finding people who did have that scruple. And it was in obedience to that talent, that instinct, that for more than fifty years he built and ran The New York Review of Books.
On many occasions, one was bound to acknowledge that the way a certain subject or writer had been handled in the magazine was a little superficial or even unfair. But nevertheless one was also forced to acknowledge that the resulting disagreement, the silent duel in the reader’s mind, was useful, and sometimes precious. And you could feel sure that Bob would respond to any objection calmly, in a spirit of curiosity even. What mattered most to him, beyond any agreement or disagreement, was to avoid sloppy thinking, convoluted sentences, anything hackneyed or trite. This was the real basis of Bob’s authority. More than a unique way of thinking, it was a unique way of being, as unique as a writer’s style is unique. Here is another seven-word definition of the man: “He was the best part of America.”
I recall, with pleasure, my first conversation with Bob, when we talked about the first issue of the Review, in which the first—lead—piece was a review of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time by my former professor and mentor, F. W. Dupee. What a seemingly curious choice—a biographer of Henry James writing about a black man’s view of race in America. And then—but how brilliant a choice, for Dupee noted what no one else had to that point: the Jamesian sensibility within a passionate and (allegedly) wild-eyed, radical, politically polarizing Negro from Harlem. Bob and I talked about our friendships with Dupee, and about how canny it was of Dupee to call our attention to Baldwin’s love of syntax—to his long, graceful, nuanced, serpentine sentences. “Nobody else in democratic America,” Dupee wrote, “writes sentences like this anymore.”
I admired Bob’s shrewd instincts, his scrupulous editing, his magical ability to join reviewers to books and to issues while remaining, across more than a half century, ever as fastidious about detail and language as he was passionate about writers. It was a great and rare pleasure—and an honor—to work with him. We, and democratic America, will miss him.
My relationship to the Review was polygamous. I started life working for Bob, though I became one of Barbara’s writers—there was a ritual for the first published piece by a staff member; a mock masthead was set, with a zany contributor’s note. After Barbara’s death in 2006, I wrote for Bob, who gave me the gift of extraordinary freedom to write about whatever I wanted to think about, from the Arabian Nights, to the literature of gastronomy, to dollhouses. We also corresponded every year on Bloomsday, the anniversary of Barbara’s death, when he would write of her with gravity and great tenderness.
But it was Bob who hired me, and it was to his office in the Fisk building I would walk every morning, passing the mail room, a combination of theater and art installation, its walls scrawled with penciled witty aphorisms and graffiti, and hung with an ever shifting picture exhibition. I wish it could have been transferred intact to the Smithsonian.
Whoever arrived first in Bob’s office would meet a scene like a campsite ravaged by a grizzly bear, strewn with papers, letters, chocolate bar wrappers, and the remnants of whatever fruit and sandwiches anyone had naively left in the refrigerator. One would rebuild pathways and tunnels through the overturned labyrinth of books and manuscripts, piled so high that we created makeshift cubicles and partitions of them, turning our three desks into semi-private spaces.
Bob and Barbara had their own editorial languages. Barbara and I would communicate about a piece in fluent Krazy Kat, while anyone who worked in Bob’s office possesses a glossary of Silversisms, “Old boy, Kiddo, please see what can be done, soonest, slogging,” among them. “I can’t talk now, we’re breaking a story!” he would shout rapturously into the telephone during press week, in the tones of Cary Grant in The Front Page. After one of his lengthy contemplative sighs, Bob would utter a rueful, “Sorry, gang!” Calls to Grace Dudley would end with an echoing, “Youngie, I adore you…’dore you…’dore you.”
Bob was an acute observer of his writers’ quirks and needs. New parents would be greeted with, “How is that remarkable infant?” Writers who loved gossip would be served up a gleaming, carefully arranged platter of it. He had observed how telephone shy I am, never comfortable with words that vanish, and devised ingenious circumventions. Our basement has a corner dedicated to carcasses of answering machines that I will never throw away, because they contain marvelous monologues of Bob’s, which he would leave on the machines, knowing I would respond in writing.
I particularly loved the night shift, from 2:30 to roughly 10:30, often beyond, when the offices were shadowy, and the work took on a concentrated, pregnant intensity. I noticed Bob looking at his watch repeatedly one night; this was strikingly unusual on a working night uninterrupted by a dinner or an opera. It was 1984, the year of the famous Olympics in Sarajevo. “Kiddo, would you mind if we turned on the television? I don’t want to miss Torvill and Dean’s Bolero, I’ve heard it’s marvelous.”
I turned on the television, and we pulled up chairs, settling down side by side to watch their breathtaking number in the ice dancing competition, our faces frescoed with television colors and shadows in the dimly lit office. The dance, with its intricate spins, leaps, traceries, and embraces, became an inscription on the ice, an embodied calligraphy; we seemed to be watching not only a lovers’ dance, but also an enactment of writing. When it ended, Bob sighed. “Well, we can’t all be Olympic skaters,” he said. He turned off the television, and went back to his desk. He scrabbled for a pencil, the instrument that transported him back to his own realm. “We must slog on as we are, Kiddo.”
March 27, 2017
Talking about literary reviewing, over lunch, a few years before his far too early death, Bob said something to the effect that the only thing worth writing about was genius. Around the same time, I noticed that the titles in the Review seemed to include the word “genius” more often than they did before.
Genius, as Bob perceived it, was morally and intellectually passionate, committed to its own views about art and justice, but with no wish to impose those views on anyone. More than once, when I was working on a piece about a writer he admired, he sent an annoyed e-mail about a review published somewhere else that objected to the writer’s idiosyncratic views—“his insights, his anger”—and that recommended instead some vapid, moderate relativism designed to let readers “feel reassured by a nonexistent state of compromise.” For a reviewer confronted by an unsettling or extreme vision in some writer “X,” it was a “deep fallacy,” he said, to “trundle in Y to offset it.” The fantasy that author X—or thinker X or politician X—can be balanced by Y is a futile attempt to evade anxiety in a world where passionate intensities are inescapably real in politics, art, and everyone’s inner life. “The neglected question is, what is the genuine power and originality of X?”
He said he never wanted to write anything, only to encourage others to write. But he often seemed as much a co-author as an editor, even though he never actually co-wrote. A parcel of books would arrive from the office with a few sentences in them underlined by his obviously rapid pen. Weeks later, when an essay about the books finally got written, those sentences would turn out to have been the focus for a dozen paragraphs of argument. A quick word or two in an e-mail message or phone call would develop into a unifying theme. Later, he would casually refer to “our piece on so-and-so.”
In his messages and phone calls Bob tended to be formally expansive or cheerfully abrupt. His editorial attention felt nothing like love, but it had the same effect. It made his writers braver and more generous, more sure-footed, more confident in looking forward to a goal rather than downward to their feet. The one genius he never wanted to read about was himself.
My last memory of Bob is entirely happy. We met for lunch on election day. We didn’t talk much about that; it had all been said. He was positive, brisk, shining with enthusiasm. And the enthusiasm knew no bounds when he heard my afternoon was committed to the Martin Luther exhibition—I might write about it, he said, why not?—and while I was in that vicinity, there was another exhibition I should take in, and I might write about that too… No time to lose! Keen to find a cab as fast as a magic carpet, he strode out into the road and turned full-on to the traffic, head back, arms stretched wide, a massive dark shape against the river light. It made me laugh with the joy of the moment. If he always stopped cabs like that, I wonder that he survived to his great age, but what struck me at the time was, “Just look at Bob—look at him, his vigor, his strength…he looks thirty.”
I was picked up and brought on to The New York Review by Barbara Epstein, with whom I had some of the most enchanting and gossipy dinners of my life, and after she died—hard to realize it is eleven years ago now—I thought my time with the Review would be up. Then I began, very occasionally, to be sent books by Bob, whom I hardly knew, in such a way that made it hard to turn them down. They were almost always exactly the books I wanted to read and review—he had the great editor’s sixth sense of what would fit. (In my case, for instance, Alice Munro’s stories, Cather’s letters, Updike’s biography and collected stories, Colm Tóibín’s essays, Jenny Diski on Doris Lessing and dying, Stevie Smith’s collected poems.) There would follow courtly, mildly firm notes about deadlines (“if something were possible by July 20, that would have advantages”). In due course, there would be a single sentence about the review, which I waited for with the same kind of eagerness and trepidation with which I used, in the 1970s, to anticipate the comments on my Observer fiction reviews from Terence Kilmartin, my first editor-mentor. It was very satisfying when Bob called your piece “strong”; it was exciting when he said it was subtle or perceptive. Sometimes there would be a gloss, always interesting and precise, as here, on an ill-chosen word:
On galley 1, we’ve been trying hard to avoid the word “compelling.” It’s become very widely used but there is a vagueness about it. Who or what is compelling who or what to do what? The increasingly popular usage seems to imply that the reader feels compelled to read on. But that does seem vague. The word is sometimes used to mean that a work is captivating, sometimes that it is intensely interesting; but it gives, we think, the impression that a more definite meaning is missing. The word “gripping” in your original seemed to say more. Perhaps you could consider this. We’ll soon send another galley.
My admiration for Bob—his acuteness, his professionalism, his remarkable attentiveness, his intellectual range—grew up through these semi-formal exchanges. But I had another link to him, through his relationship with Isaiah Berlin, the founder of the Oxford College, Wolfson, where I am president. I had encountered him also in that Anglo-intellectual Oxford setting, where he was debonairly at home. Isaiah’s own words about him pay the best tribute of all. I would almost call it “compelling”:
Bob combines a warm heart, an all-absorptive and sympathetic intellect, and an undeceivable moral insight with a degree (unequalled in my experience) of interest in and understanding of a vast variety of ideas and movements, social, political, moral, artistic. He responds without fail to every manifestation, small and great, of culture, of original creative power—and, indeed, to an infinity of human issues—and shows an extraordinary understanding of the characters and aims of those involved in them. His contribution to contemporary culture is outstanding.
Reading the flood of tributes and homages to Bob, I’m surprised at how little has been said about the part that The New York Review played after September 11. At a time when the country was traumatized, its intellectual class paralyzed, and independent thinking suppressed, Bob turned the Review into an essential place for debate and analysis, reporting and exposing. On the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq; the war on terror and US policy in the Mideast; the infringement of civil liberties and the cowering of the press, Bob pushed his writers to question the ruling axioms of the day in a way few other publications dared. This resulted in a flood of denunciations, angry letters, and cancelled subscriptions, but Bob never buckled. In his brilliant tenure as editor of the Review, it was, I think, his finest hour, which in fact continued to his very end.
Bob always knew exactly the right gift to give everyone, whether it was for a happy occasion, a milestone, or an illness. When Bob’s niece (my sister, Miriam Silvers McAteer) was gravely ill in 1991, Bob visited her at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in northern Manhattan. She was on a respirator, and Bob learned that she would not be able to speak for several weeks. Her hospital room was filled with cards and flowers, but Bob knew just what she needed. He soon returned with pads of paper and a huge collection of colored pencils. Now Miriam could communicate, keep journal notes, and doodle. Of all the gifts that she received during that final illness, Bob’s was the one that cheered her the most.
I don’t know how Bob found me, but I do remember the first letter he wrote to me, out of the blue, asking (or actually more or less insisting) that I review a book by Wendy Doniger. It was a short letter, with no preliminaries: we want you to review this book; you have 3,500 words; we’ll pay such and such; we need it in two weeks; great thanks. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Over the years, I became addicted to his short, incisive comments, handwritten on the proofs, always exactly on the mark.
He was wise and occasionally impish. Sometimes he would send me books to remote, outlandish places deep in the Indian countryside. One of them was sent by express mail—probably the first time such a notice was addressed to someone in the village—but FedEx refused to deliver the packet. In classical Indian fashion, they kept sending more and more terrible forms to be filled out, each longer than the previous one; they were supposed to be printed on some specified stationery and then notarized, and they came with a threatening letter telling me that unless I complied with these demands at once I would have to pay thousands of rupees in storage charges per day. After some fruitless weeks of trying to follow the escalating instructions, I gave up and called the main Fedex office in Bangalore to tell them to return the book to the sender. They said, “No Sir, we can’t do that.” I lost my temper and told them to throw it into the Godavari River, or to feed it to the water buffalos, but under no circumstances did I want to see it. Two hours later it arrived at my door. When I told Bob what happened, he seemed particularly delighted. He said that though the Review had sent out tens of thousands of books to reviewers, this was the first time a water buffalo had ever been invoked.
As a writer on the affairs of science, technology, and society, I found the range of Bob’s interested receptiveness astonishing, running from nuclear and chemical weapons, to cancer and biomedicine, and on to architectural acoustics, particle accelerators, and even the patenting of human genes. Patents might have made another editor’s eyes glaze over, but not Bob’s. He had already published a piece of mine on the breast-cancer-gene patent case when it was making its way through the federal courts. One evening some weeks after it appeared, I recounted to Bob and Oliver Sacks the oral arguments I had recently heard in the case at the Supreme Court. Bob asked if I would write a follow-up piece once the case was decided. He understood that the outcome would be enormously important, which it was, for both patent law and biomedicine.
In my long experience with the Review, which began more than a quarter century ago, with an assessment of Bill McKibben’s powerful The End of Nature, I found Bob eerily prescient and exceptionally wise. I’m saddened that I won’t ever again see any of his welcome encouragements—“A wonderful, important review, but we wonder if you might consider the following….We hope to have your revisions soon.”—scrawled on a page of proofs.
—Daniel J. Kevles
When I first started writing for the Review in 2002, I sprinkled some high-end vocabulary in my piece, thinking, well, this is The New York Review of Books, after all. But when I got my galleys back, such words were invariably struck, first by Barbara Epstein, who was my editor until she passed away in 2006, and then by Bob, although I’d mostly stopped by then. When he called, unfailingly, not more than forty-eight hours after I turned in a piece, the words he used to thank me were not big. But always unexpected:
Oh, Michael, listen, I want to thank you for this extremely—clarifying piece that does so much to shed light on these matters that simply aren’t being discussed. It’s quite a, shall we say, overwhelming set of developments. Now of course, we do have our little…thoughts. You’ll see them. There’s a bit toward the end where we thought you might add something, but of course we leave it entirely to you. You’ll have a galley tonight and we’ll look for changes soonest.
Click. He never said “goodbye.” Ever. I was after all one of fifteen or twenty contributors he was dealing with that fortnight, and he surely had someone else to call, someone else to reassure and encourage and remind of the ticking of the clock.
When Barbara died, I was quite nervous about my future with “the paper.” I’d spoken to Bob only a few times, and never beyond pleasantries and perhaps a sentence or two about George W. Bush. What would he need with me?
So there was a celebration of Barbara’s life held at her apartment. God was it hot. Her cavernous living room was filled with her and Bob’s friends. I thought I might try to steal a moment to go up to Bob, remind him of my existence; but every time I looked over, he was surrounded by people who were, first, literary giants, and, second, friends of his for decades.
I was ready to retreat. I was standing alone near the fireplace when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was Bob. He did not say anything like, “Well, I do hope you’ll continue writing for the paper.” That would’ve been gauche. But he was all smiles, and as he lingered I kept wondering why he didn’t excuse himself to go talk to someone more important. And so, with the grace and generosity that I later came to know well, he communicated to me what needed to be communicated. Clarifying indeed.
I once heard it said of Bob Silvers that his mission was to make journalists write like academics and academics write like journalists. There’s something in that. For a newspaperman like me, the commission from Bob was a summons to raise your game: to reach for a standard of rigor and precision higher than the rhythms of daily journalism might usually allow. Of course, this standard never needed to be codified. Pleasing Bob was the goal, and you could tell, just from reading the Review, that even the world’s most acclaimed writers stretched themselves to attain it.
And yet, for all the talk of exacting demands, Bob was never a forbidding figure. Quite the reverse. In a phone call he would be playful, even conspiratorial, laughing easily when I dialed in from, say, the Republican convention to give him an update on the unfolding circus. He seemed to marvel at each fresh absurdity the world could serve up.
He was protective of his writers, urging them to use the letters column to hit back at any criticism that had come their way—turning what would otherwise have been a rebuke into an “exchange.” And it was clear that for some of his writers he felt a respect that was close to love. I suspect Tony Judt was in that category. When I reviewed a posthumous, and superb, collection of Judt’s essays, the headline Bob chose for the piece was: The Best Man Among Us.
After receiving a galley from Bob, I would squint to read the handwritten notes in the margin, preserved even in PDF form. They would often question a detail so arcane, only an expert would have spotted it. Yet as you made the correction to, say, a year in the career of Ariel Sharon, you would know that Bob could do the same on a piece about Matisse or container ships. His knowledge, and his curiosity, seemed as vast and endless as the ocean.
To be like that, even into his late eighties, was a sign of more than just a voracious intellect. It was an attitude to life. In that respect, and in so many others, Bob was a model—the best among us.
March 25, 2017
The eyes we wrote for are gone. But a great deal remains: the intelligence, the analytical rigor, the concern for what matters—the editorial ideal that Bob embodied. Bob expressed an entire world view through his editing, a panorama that encompassed art, politics, fiction, economics, music, science, philosophy, current news—often in a single issue. We wrote for him to add to that world view, to participate in it, and—Bob’s particular genius—to serve it in our way.
His sympathies ranged wide. He would often ask me about my manic-depressive daughter. He had experienced the illness up close with Robert Lowell, and he understood the wreckage left in the wake of a manic surge. These sympathies were essential to the editor, because the editor was the man: I’ve never known anyone whose life and work were so completely entwined.
I felt his support most deeply—the emails, the phone calls, the memos, the shared effort to get it right—when I wrote about unglamorous subjects: the travails of New York’s Muslims after September 11, 2001, for example, or the hard road walked by the urban displaced. He was personally, and very discreetly, involved in the struggle to keep neighborhood libraries open in the poorest precincts of New York. And what pleased him most about the Occupy Wall Street movement was that they had set up a lending library in Zuccotti Park.
I sent a piece to Bob about New York’s housing crisis only a few hours before he died. I knew he was too sick to read it, but I could still feel his eyes.
Unlike some of the others who are writing in this space, I only knew Bob as an editor—but I like to think that this was the best and purest way to know him, because Bob was an editor with a special kind of genius. He had a talent for matching people with books, and books with one another. He minded about language and grammar; he knew it was important that the article flowed. He talked me into writing about people and subjects I didn’t think I cared about—Sheryl Sandberg, for example—but also let me write about things it had been hard to imagine anyone else caring about, like revolutionary Mongolia or Stalinist Ukraine. And of course it wasn’t just me: he seemed to get the best out of all of his writers, understanding that it wasn’t the subject that mattered or even the author, but the effort of the latter to engage the former that made for good writing. Because he expected that effort, everybody made it. I never got over the thrill of receiving a little parcel of books with a New York Review return address, and I’m sure no one else did either. Just knowing he was waiting for an article was inspiration to finish it, polish it, rewrite it, and edit it, because in American literary journalism there was no higher standard than Bob, and we all wanted to meet it.
By his relentless insistence on clarity and the quality of writing, Bob extended the boundaries of what would command the attention of the general inquisitive reader. The Review did many different things, but one of them was to present complex and often abstract ideas to nonspecialists without sacrificing accuracy. I hope this will continue even though he is gone.
Bob had a profound curiosity and knowledge about the world beyond the US borders, and, to my eternal gratitude, he embraced nearly every idea that I threw at him. He dispatched me with relish to places that few Americans think much about; pushed me to think hard and deep about ethnic strife, the abuses of dictatorships, human rights, and the challenge of radical Islam, and gave me ample space to explore those themes. Some of my fondest memories are of dropping by the Hudson Street office to see him after a trip, sharing a wry laugh about Robert Mugabe’s awfulness or the sheer weirdness of Timbuktu. He was an engaged, passionate, lovable man, and I will deeply miss him.
There was always a special frisson when the FedEx man arrived, unannounced, at my door in London with a pack of books and a typewritten note on unheaded paper inviting me to “consider” some “challenging” book on a topic relating to the Middle East or the Islamic World. Bob’s earlier perusal would usually zoom in on a critical aspect of the book’s approach, but he was unfailingly courteous in accepting my suggestions after I had finished reading, whether this involved a shift of emphasis, or perhaps dropping one of the books, or even adding one that had escaped his notice. He was also remarkably accommodating when it came to accepting my suggestions of books to review. Unlike other editors I have known who respond to submissions with silence, until a galley arrives several months later, the email responses were always reassuringly polite, even complimentary, with “strong” being one of his favorite adjectives. This is not to say that there weren’t occasional tussles. He was ruthless in the pursuit of clarity, exorcising traces of the specialist jargon that litters scholarly writing on Islam, and that sometimes crept into my submissions. His insistence on making me unwrap some of the more obscure convolutions of academic discourse was an education in good plain writing and intellectual common sense.
Back in 1985, Bob heard at a dinner party about my recent trip to the Afghan border. He called me (we did not know each other at the time) to see if I would write about it for The New York Review. That was the first of a series of articles I wrote for the Review, essays on my missions for Human Rights Watch to places like the Soviet Union, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria, Cuba, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, and quite a few others.
At times it seemed like Bob was gently directing my work. After a 1990 article on my trip to Kazakhstan, he remarked: “It would be nice if you were to go to some of the other ‘stans’ and write about them.” And so I did.
Bob was a perfectionist, concerned with the big picture, but also with the tiniest detail. On the rare occasion when I discovered a mistake in a galley he had already signed off on—a misplaced punctuation mark or a missing comma—I could feel his chagrin at the other end of the phone; it was painful.
He seemed to live in his office, hidden behind the great piles of books on his desk. But he also managed to break away for a cocktail party, immaculately dressed and completely relaxed, in order to meet a visiting dissident writer and, perhaps, to commission a piece. Chances are he then returned to his desk, donned his blue cardigan sweater, and went back to work.
I still cannot entirely take in that Bob Silvers is dead. I know, he was well-struck in years. I know, none of us lives forever. But he was so youthfully, passionately, energetically engaged with his work that the flame seemed inextinguishable. He was utterly selfless in his dedication and unfailingly generous in his critical intelligence. My memory now lingers lovingly over our phone calls—his voice so distinct in its dry wit—and I treasure as relics of his magnificent vocation every canny scribble he wrote in the margins of the pieces I sent him. We shall not see his like again.
One of Bob’s much-remarked gifts was for spotting the kind of unexpected topics that might break one open in some way, and so he guided one’s development with wide-angle inspirations as much as with zoom-lens close-ups. I sent him a piece on Frederic Prokosch and, out of nowhere, he asked me two years later if I’d like to write on Maugham. He didn’t know—no one knew—that Maugham was a lifelong fascination of mine, and five years later I ended up producing a whole anthology of essays by Maugham, the only such project I’ve ever done, stirred no doubt by Bob’s gentle and intuitive prompting.
Who else could ask me—and get me—to spend many weeks one summer producing a long piece on William F. Buckley, in whom I knew, before that summer, I had no interest whatsoever? Or to put everything aside to write 3,000 words on Sherpas, on Sudanese fiction, on Isabel Colegate’s book about hermits (it was Bob who tweaked the reference to St. Jerome)?
There was nothing he wasn’t alive to, and he had the intellectual excitement of a brilliant graduate student, combined with the authority and ease of someone who’d been at the center of the intellectual world for half a century. He’d met Maugham—of course—while he was living on the Seine in a barge, with a Golden Age group of other American expats in the early 1950s, and he pointed out how Maugham could be best understood in relation to Henry James and Edmund Wilson. I wrote on Kenneth Tynan for him, and when I opened the “book under review,” as Bob always called it, it was to find a picture of Bob, along with Marlene Dietrich and the Tynans on their wedding day. There was no one he didn’t know, and yet few things he didn’t seem eager to learn about, as if his fund of knowledge could always be extended. At that first dinner, with Rea and Angela Hederman, he hurried in at 9:00 PM, all graciousness and dash, ordered his vegetarian entrée—how did he manage to be such a man-about-town and someone who never left his office?—and then lit up with enthusiasms. “What I wouldn’t give,” he said—he was well into his seventies then—“to have a piece on Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. An editor’s dream!”
Once, I said something about V.S. Naipaul, and he referred me to Conrad’s early stories. He began talking about diplomacy at the turn of the century, and then about what had happened in Iraq the previous week. He spoke about Tibet, Isaiah Berlin, the sea—a gleam in his eye—and I realized, as his paper suggested, that he was passionately devoted to national and international politics, to science and philosophy, to the future of fiction and the history of art, to human rights and history and everything to do with the world of thought. Soon, after he turned eighty, I was reading pieces on Jimi Hendrix in the Review, and on the television drama Treme.
As it happens, I was closing an article for Bob one hour before I got the news of his passing. Only he, I’d been telling friends, would have so rich and nimble a sense of curiosity that, shortly before turning eighty-seven, he was sending me two books by Tanizaki, and asking if I’d mind seeing “what could be done” with them. Only he would be sending me messages with the galleys saying how “fresh” and “telling” he found the approach, and making me believe I’d fulfilled the dream he’d planted in me: to give him pleasure. I’d never have guessed he’d lost his partner of forty-two years, Grace Dudley, only weeks before.
So many of his writers helped change the world by giving all of themselves, with a vengeance, to their art. Bob gave himself to them and each one of us, selflessly and without distraction, as if the urging of others towards great writing—and art—were the occupation of a lifetime.
March 23, 2017
Bob Silvers was a happy man. All who knew him remember his warm smile, his twinkling eyes, his hearty laugh; remember the unbridled joy he took in work, thinking, reading, talking, editing; remember the love he felt for prodding his writers to extract from them a better idea, a better sentence, a better essay. He led a life of continuous activity, dedicated to the mind, in pursuit of excellence, committed to virtue, and among a wide circle of admiring friends. Aristotle had a word for this combination of traits: eudaemonia: happiness, prosperity, blessedness. We were blessed to know him.
Ever since I first wrote for Bob, I’ve constantly had a piece or two on the go for him. I still do. This is because each piece takes a year or even eighteen months to produce. I initially made a few suggestions to him for books I might review. He would send me something entirely different, on a subject I had never written on, with one of his lovely typed notes asking whether something might be done. I would go away and do reams and reams of research to see whether anything might be done that would impress Bob sufficiently. The Review pays generously, but it doesn’t stretch to an eighteen-month salary per piece. Why do it? For Bob. He was irresistible, with his baffling confidence that you could write about an improbable topic, his tremendous excitement about the idea of publishing something on it, such that you couldn’t possibly disappoint him, his habit of greeting you in public with that gorgeous cheeky grin of his, as if he were about to make some droll remark, then launching straight into a conversation about the issue on which you were supposed to be writing. It was a feeling of being swept up in something that made you much better than yourself. Phone calls with him ended quite peremptorily, when the issue about the piece was resolved to his satisfaction, often leaving me talking into the air, which I suppose we shall all being doing now, since it’s so hard to believe that he’s gone.
I only had the amazing fortune to work with Bob for three years. He heard me speak on the subject, called, and asked me to write about the nuclear negotiations then underway with Iran. I told him I’d like nothing better, but the situation was changing constantly: a piece would have to wait until some definitive moment. No, he said, now is a good time—it will work. Deeply skeptical, but surfing on his confidence, I tried, and it did work. Amazingly, the piece stands up still. How did he know? And how could one man possibly know enough to do the same for music, art, literature, science, the law, and public policy? His gift for grasping the core as events swept by made his writers and his readers lucky beyond measure. These three years have been the greatest privilege of my career.
No matter what you were writing for Bob—and it was always for him—he invariably made you feel that you had his exclusive, undivided attention, as though you were the only writer in the world at that moment, and yet part of a greater family of minds and ideas. This is a rare gift, and he gave of it generously and genuinely. It has inspired intense loyalty, to him and to the Review, in so many grateful writers.
At times I have wondered whether this loyalty created a kind of telepathy that would account for Bob’s truly uncanny ability to track you down anywhere in the world—even before cellphones and the Internet. In the summer of 1991, I was in Moscow: late on the momentous evening of August 19—it must have been about 2 PM in New York—the phone rang in the empty communal apartment where I was staying temporarily while friends were at their dacha with the children. I answered in Russian, and a voice on the other end of the scratchy line said: “Please hold for Robert Silvers.” Bob knew I was in Moscow, though how he discovered where I was living and what the telephone number of the apartment was (there were no “white pages” in the USSR) is still a mystery to me. But Gorbachev had been kidnapped by coup plotters, tanks were patrolling the streets of Moscow, Yeltsin was on the move, and Bob had a writer in place: he politely asked if I “might consider” writing something “for the paper,” as he referred to the Review. It was an offer not to be refused—and I wrote it in record time.
Several months later—October or perhaps November—I was living in a different part of Moscow. My summer hosts called to say a package addressed to me had appeared mysteriously on their doorstep. I went to fetch it, and found a FedEx box that had seen better days. (FedEx had just begun deliveries to Moscow in 1991, but it was a rocky start.) Sure enough, inside were five copies of the September 26 issue of the Review. The air bill showed they had been sent in September.
I was again in Moscow—but no longer the Soviet Union—in the summer of 1994. I had finished an article for Bob before I left, but as the timing wasn’t sensitive, and I was there for several months, I assumed I would receive a FedEx full of galleys at some point (delivery to Moscow was much more reliable by then). In the meantime, I was invited to Sochi by an art center affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Culture to give a talk at a contemporary art festival that included many Moscow artists I had written about. We all flew in on the same flight and stayed at the same hotel, but according to the Soviet rules still in place, I had to board the plane from a separate “Intourist” gate, and be housed in a more expensive room in the “foreigner’s section” of the hotel (thus ending up as the only Ministry guest with air-conditioning).
Not long after I arrived, a fax came through in the middle of the night. The hotel staff was thrown into a tizzy. They had never seen anything like this. The next morning, they brought me five or six pages—galleys from Bob that required immediate attention, of course!—and apologized profusely. The machine had run out of paper, and they had to send someone out that morning to locate another roll of thermal fax paper. By the time the printer had caught up there were a good thirty pages in all, with URGENT marked on top.
As the recipient of such a document, I was immediately regarded with a mix of curiosity and awe by the hotel staff. They knew I was American (they had my passport). Only a Very Important Person would receive such a lengthy fax. But I didn’t look particularly important, or wealthy. I didn’t travel with a body guard or interpreter. Why did I speak Russian? Was I a diplomat—or worse? Then what on earth would I be doing in the company of such decidedly bohemian, even slovenly (and somewhat rowdy) Muscovites, of whom the locals obviously disapproved?
The questions I could read in their eyes turned to avoidant deference two days later, when I asked them to fax all those pages back to New York, covered in foreign scribbles, addressed: ATTN: Robert Silvers.
The first three times Bob called me about story edits were: just as the fireworks started on July 4, then on Labor Day, and finally on Christmas night—three separate pieces, by the way. He supported my occasional iconoclasm, for which I was always grateful. All know that his breadth of knowledge and understanding were unmatched. But I think of him above all as a man of unyielding moral distinction in a time when that is especially scarce.
I remember my first meeting with Bob Silvers in the spring of 2001, at the old offices of The New York Review in midtown. A friend of mine who worked for him, Miranda Robbins, made the introduction. I was very nervous. I had met with his formidable co-editor, the late Barbara Epstein, around 1994 or so, and had made the mistake of using the word “conceptual.” “Never use that word outside Morningside Heights,” she reprimanded me.
Bob wanted to know what I was interested in writing about. I told him I was fascinated by the history of the French-Algerian war, not least by the way it was reverberating in contemporary France. A one-eyed French general, Paul Aussaresses, had published a memoir in which he’d confessed to (and boasted about) the murders of a number of leading Algerian nationalists who, the French army claimed, had committed suicide in custody. (They had been “suicided,” as it turned out.) An Algerian woman, Louisette Ighilarhiz, meanwhile, had published a powerful book about her experience of torture in a French prison.
The piece was published in 2002 as “The Torture of Algiers,” the beginning of my association with the Review. Not long after, I told Bob I wanted to travel to Algiers to report on the end of the civil war. An immediate yes—and, most importantly, all the resources I needed to make the trip. I was thirty years old. This seems almost unfathomable to me now. Who else would have taken such a chance?
How tragic to lose Bob when his sure literary choice and political courage are more needed than ever. He always knew what books would entice a reviewer, and his insistent corrections always worked for better. We must carry on his legacy.
—Natalie Zemon Davis
Bob had a profound love and understanding of music, and for years he and Grace Dudley made the Salzburg Festival a central fixture of their calendar. He so revered the music dramas of Richard Wagner that I was never surprised to encounter him on important Wagner-Abende (evenings) in New York or even distant cities. At the 1985 premiere of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s neo-traditional production of Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera, I ran into him, Grace, and my fellow Review contributor, the late Jonathan Lieberson, with whom they frequently traveled at the time. Given the starry cast—James Morris, Gwyneth Jones, Peter Hofmann, Jeannine Altmeyer, and Helga Dernesch, conducted by Edo de Waart—this was indeed, as Grace authoritatively proclaimed, “A Walküre to get down on your knees for!” Bob’s musical judgments tended to be rather more tempered, and often quite wry. At the 1999 premiere of Dieter Dorn’s mounting of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera, he said of the excruciatingly sluggish tempi that James Levine exacted in the famous prelude that “I thought he was going to stop.” Then he aptly summed up the stripped down, slo-mo, preciously stylized staging as “a Robert Wilson Nōh drama.”
My 2010 post for the NYR Daily on the Met’s ponderous new “Valhalla Machine”—the $16-million mechanized unit set devised by Carl Fillon for his Ring cycle—prompted Bob to reminisce about his having seen the celebrated minimalist productions of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, at the Bayreuth Festival while he was stationed with the US Army in Paris during the early 1950s. I agreed with his assessment that this was the ideal way to present such psychologically rich music—without visual distractions—and envied him that experience. After even the lengthiest and most arduous work on a piece, Bob would signal that he had to turn to other articles with the same words: “And on we go!” I always thought of this in terms of Siegfried forging ahead, in Brünnhilde’s words, zu neuen Taten (to new deeds), as one stood aside and Bob headed off to his next heroic editorial feat.
March 22, 2017
The first thing I thought I knew about Bob Silvers, when I came to work at The New York Review nearly thirty-seven years ago, was that he did not sleep. He was always in the office when I arrived in the morning, and still there when I left at night, and he seemed to spend weekends there, too. One year when the office Christmas tree was decorated with mandarin oranges, we discovered on a Monday morning that he had eaten all of them, presumably sometime in the small hours when the local options for food delivery were closed. In those days he smoked—black Nat Shermans—and he would sometimes absentmindedly toss a smoldering butt into his wastepaper basket, setting it on fire. When this happened he would get up, his eyes never leaving the page he was reading, and step out into the hall while his assistants rushed to put out the flames.
Bob had a heart as huge and fierce as his devotion to writing. Because he feared nothing but falsehood, he was a brave, true friend to an astonishing variety of people. Standing under the elevated railway in the Chicago Loop turned him back into a student again, in love with the world. He never lost that student’s sense of joy, that curiosity, that overflowing delight in existence. At lunch, he invariably took all the olives and picked most of the blueberries off my dessert. Stuck in a Madrid traffic jam during the Gay Pride parade, he, his longtime partner Grace, and I sat for nearly an hour next to a galleon on wheels full of bumping, grinding Spaniards in bathing suits. There was nothing to do but laugh.
—Ingrid D. Rowland
Bob’s assignment letters and his editorial suggestions were the briefest I’ve ever received, and the clearest and most on point as well. He had an unerring nose for what was wrong or lacking in a piece, and he was always gracious in pointing it out. Having been an editor myself, I know how hard that is. Bob was a master of the art. There was never a “Who he?” and many a “Have you considered…?” It may seem like a stretch, but his notes sometimes reminded me of Ulysses S. Grant’s battlefield dispatches, which were famously succinct, famously clear, and famously effective: “Attack Hood at once and wait no longer for a remnant of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay…” Bob’s were, to my relief, less urgent, but no less cogent: “If we had something by early next week that would be fine, but it’s the piece that matters, not the time.” I don’t want to belabor the Civil War analogy, especially not in these times, but it’s worth remembering that Robert E. Lee’s dispatches were famously vague and famously confusing, and that Bob (and Barbara) were able to assign, guide, and send into action the most amazing cohort of writers, armed with the power of the word, which is always stronger when well edited.
My mother Barbara was Bob’s co-editor from The New York Review‘s founding in 1963 until she died in 2006. I started working at the magazine when I was eleven, in the mailroom doing the stamps. One coworker was a poet, another a comedian, another a transvestite dancer. The conversations flew over my head, but I do remember an atmosphere of chaos and discipline, creativity and rigor, irreverence and seriousness. That’s the real art of editing that Bob perfected: to unscramble the inchoate, wild ideas in the entropic washing machine of writers’ brains.
Or in this one’s, anyway. The first piece I wrote for the Review nearly twenty years ago was about health and social status. My draft had flummoxed a very fine editor at another publication, but Bob got the point right away. He asked a few astute questions and suddenly the draft’s defects were obvious to me, and I also saw how to fix them. I’d known Bob all my life, but who was this wise man who seemed to understand not only public health, but also ancient Roman art, Middle East politics, and constitutional law? Years later, I learned that he’d skipped four grades and graduated from high school at fourteen. He was an intellectual athlete, cantankerous at times, but fundamentally generous, decent, and un-snobbish. He also had a powerful moral intuition, helping writers and readers come to grips with every calamity from the Peloponnesian War to the war on terror.
In January, shortly after his friend Grace died, I stopped by the Review to see him. He’d been by her side throughout her illness, and seemed devastated. And he himself was ill. And we were about to inaugurate a new president. “There doesn’t seem to be any hope anywhere,” he said. Then we talked about a science piece he was working on and his desk was piled with manuscripts and books and assistants were reading and answering phones and asking questions and he was like an old general preparing for one more battle. I am so sorry he didn’t make it this time.
It always came as a shock, while working for Bob, to encounter him in the street outside the office. Not just because it was rare—he spent most of his hours, after all, at his desk, surrounded by his towers and battlements of books—but because he always seemed to be running. It was as if he could not tolerate another second away from the desk, from the work he loved, from his writers. It was something to behold, a powerful, athletic man fifty years my senior, in a beautiful suit and scarf, manuscripts stuffed beneath his arm, racing down Broadway.
The New York Review was my graduate school, its back issues my syllabus, and Bob my dean, tutor, and dissertation advisor in one. Working for him—first as an intern and editorial assistant, and for the last decade as a contributor—has been the thrill of my professional life. Bob is often described as boundlessly brilliant, patient, wise, intuitive, curious, tireless, and principled. He was all those things. But I was most moved by his generosity. He was not only generous with Joan Didion and J.M. Coetzee but with the young writers he nurtured in their early careers, including a clumsy former assistant who misplaced manuscripts and mailed packages to the wrong countries but dreamed of one day writing for the Review.
Editing is not a competition but I bristle when I see Bob described as “one of the greatest” of our time. He was the best. No one compares. Bob ran to his writers and they ran to him.
I received an email from Bob on March 8, asking for a piece about President Trump and immigration. “The forced emigration seems to become more menacing day by day,” he wrote. “A question is what states will be able to provide in the way of protection and what sanctuary may mean. Another question is the numbers of people being seized and deported and what are the plausible alternatives. I do hope that you can present some of the complexities of what has been happening in a piece in the 3,000 word range.”
It was such a welcome message—mainly, of course, because it was from Bob. But also because his comments, as they so often did, brought a shot of pure caffeine, awakening thinking about matters I assumed I already understood fairly well. Although he had no special expertise, Bob had considered the issue enough to identify crucial points of inquiry. One phrase in particular got my attention. I had written many news stories about round-ups and deportations. But with his reference to “forced emigration,” Bob was asking me to view that enforcement more broadly, to see that a country long powered by a dynamic of receiving immigrants was now reversing its direction in an essential way.
Once again, I was embarking on a piece for Bob with confidence that his insight, his implacable disdain for mushy prose, and his moral compass would expand and clarify my work. I knew he had not been well, but I was relieved to detect no lack of vigor in his message. And now the overwhelming sense of what we have lost is deepened by re-reading his closing words:
I see we have a deadline of March 31. This may not be enough time for the kind of analytical summary we hope for, and of course we can wait longer. Let’s soon be in touch.
Whenever I started to write a piece for “Bob”—who indelibly occupied that name in the world of arts and letters—I always felt I was joining a fraternity that brought together the most interesting, unfettered minds, the most thoughtful editorial standards, and the best of the written word. And so, when I finished editing a piece with him I always felt deep satisfaction, that I had completed something leaving me without reservation. Such is a rare experience for a writer.
That Bob is now gone is like suddenly finding a mountain that has always been reassuringly outside one’s window suddenly disappeared.
For me, being welcomed at the Review—first by Barbara, then by Bob—meant that it was worth my writing and maybe even that what I wrote was worth reading. Bob made all my dealings with the paper simple and untroubled, and when he was actively interested in my subject, lively and fun. He had judgment, probity, and context—what more could one look for in an editor? The loss to all his writers is profound, and the loss to our poor imperiled world, incalculable.
If there was a single quality to highlight any communication with Bob—telephone or letter—it was his joyfulness and delight, every hour, every day with the hundreds of people he must be writing to, speaking to in order to get an issue out. He was constantly joyful. How he did it issue after issue is beyond my understanding, but perhaps the only way he could get through the daily slog was his determination to love what he was doing and share that joy with those around him and above all with the writer.
He believed in the writer so much. Nobody I have ever worked for gave me such an inspiration and thrill to be writing, researching, putting words to paper, as Bob did. He was a factory of thoughts and inspiration even to the most novice writer. And he never failed to convey to the writer his conviction that this article would be the best ever.
Once he called me from a cab on the way to the airport and had me find a manuscript that hadn’t been taken out of its filing cabinet for at least a year. He’d realized that there was a comma two thirds of the way through the piece that should have been a semicolon. He directed me to the sentence that was troubling him and had me make the change, and then told me to put the whole thing back in the files.
Every so often, when I was one of Bob’s assistants, he would decide that he didn’t trust us to go through the books that were sent to him by publishers hoping for reviews, and he would insist on seeing them all himself. Of course, we got hundreds of books every week. We would cover his desk with towers of them and he would work at great speed, throwing each reject into some corner of the office; it became rather meditative and soothing after an hour or so, like surf on a stony beach, hearing those books hit the wall so regularly. Wasn’t it Proust who said somewhere that he could evaluate a writer’s quality by reading any sentence of his work? But that wasn’t what Bob was doing; or, not the only thing. Without using the table of contents or the index, in just a few seconds of flipping through pages, he was always able to find some essential paragraph, and then he would evaluate the strength of the writer’s argument as well as his prose. How he could find those passages so quickly and unerringly is something I’ve never been able to explain to myself.
Years later, when I started writing for him, he sent me galleys at 11:45 the night before my wedding—and he was a guest at the wedding. At the top of the galleys, in his most painstakingly legible handwriting (I could just see the look of angry concentration as he gripped the pencil), he wrote, “we hope for corrections soonest.” I think he was very pleased with himself at having one-upped his own reputation for calling his writers at three in the morning, asking for corrections on Christmas, etc. I think his attitude was that anyone as pitiless with himself as he was, working to the limit of his capacity not just day after day or week after week but all the time, year after year, his whole life, could ask whatever he wanted of others. I always thought that was fair. (But I didn’t start work on the galleys until after I left for my honeymoon. Bob acted as if he understood.) Then, last year, when I wrote him from the hospital to tell him that my father was dying, he sent my dad the warmest, most graceful note imaginable, perfectly sincere and loving without in any way being heavy handed. It made my dad really happy for a minute, right before the end.
In the spring of 1945 there was a mission called Alsos that followed the American troops into Germany to learn what the Germans had done in their nuclear program. In the event ten German scientists were rounded up and put in gentle detention in a manor house near Cambridge, England, for six months. Heisenberg, who was one of them, recognized the scenery. They did not know that the place was wired so that every word they said was recorded. A few years ago I visited it with Michael Frayn, and the don who owned it said that he knew nothing about it until repairs were being made on the floor which revealed the wires. That there were transcripts was revealed by Samuel Goudsmit, who wrote a book on the mission and was shown by General Leslie Groves, who had ordered the Alsos mission, a bit about Goudsmit’s parents who had been murdered in a concentration camp. But the British refused to release the transcripts despite the urgings of many historians. I must have brought this to Bob’s attention at some point and then I forgot about it.
I think it was sometime in 1991 that Bob called me and said he had gotten the transcripts. I never learned how, but shortly thereafter a package arrived at my door with them. They were not any copy but they were in fact a copy of General Groves’s own! It was clear where Groves’s concerns lay. Every time one of the Germans would mention the Russians and how they might be tempted to sell out there would be a festoon of exclamation points. At this time—before Hiroshima—these Germans were under the illusion that they had a lot to teach. Then came Hiroshima and the bottom fell out. Otto Hahn, who was the first to observe fission, was almost suicidal. They began blaming each other and then the Americans for having done such an immoral thing. It is all there in their own words. It is like a play. This is what I wrote about—thanks to Bob.
March 21, 2017
Bob’s trust in his writers was absolute. I once expressed doubt that an obscure subject (Sherwood Anderson’s love life, maybe, or was it Japanese tea?) would interest readers. “Well,” Bob countered, “does it interest you?” That, he made clear, was the standard, the only standard.
The blue office cardigan. The bespoke suit with its marvelous silk lining. The word “marvelous,” on the top of an A galley—and then the B. His gleeful, conspiratorial laugh. (The time he sent me to England to consort with the world’s top spies.) The way, when he called, he’d always say, “Oh,” before my name, as if it had just that second occurred to him to pick up the phone. I will miss that voice and that laugh. I will miss—of course—his passionate mind, his nimble pen. Yet the words that came immediately to mind yesterday when I learned of Bob’s passing were these from Wordsworth: “The best portion of a good man’s life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” These I will not miss, for they were given in perpetuity.
How Bob found me in a small village outside Verona in the mid-1990s I have no idea. An airmail envelope arrived with the postman. I was asked to review a work of criticism on Joyce, Svevo, and Saba. And I reviewed it, receiving in return, always by post, a carefully handwritten edit which amounted to a lesson in how to be critical while nevertheless showing an author the proper respect.
From that point on, for twenty-two years, books would arrive, perhaps once every three months, by courier, never announced beforehand (in which case you might have said you were too busy), with a friendly and peremptory note, always indicating how many words were required, how many dollars would be paid. First by post, then fax (at any time of the day or night), then email, the edits would arrive. Lesson after lesson in succinctness, in dispatch, in an awareness of the reader’s presumed range of reference. And always respectful, always suggesting rather than asserting. Always enviably cheerful. Phone calls late in the evening to check a fact or discuss a change in punctuation before the paper went to press. Then brief notes of thanks. Handwritten thanks. Bob was always thankful, genuinely thankful, I felt, that the work had been done. It was important that his words came by hand. Jotted on the side of a fax, or a PDF. However heavy the edit, he always communicated encouragement. A strange mixture of assertiveness and generosity allowed you to find your own position, without simply being pushed somewhere. You never felt he wished he had chosen someone else for the job.
Last night, collapsed on the sofa, I was astonished to realize what a large space this man had come to occupy in my life, how lucky I had been to receive those notes of thanks and hear those gusts of laughter on the phone. We shall not see his like again.
I was always embarrassed to call the office with corrections and additions to a story. There were so many of them, and they seemed like such trivial reasons to waste a great man’s time. I’d plead with his assistants to take the correction down themselves—it’s only a word change!—and not bother Bob with it, but they must have been under strict instructions to pass writers’ calls directly to him. “Hello!” he would boom into the phone, pleased as a Labrador puppy with a twig, and I could hear him leaping around the suggested word, snuffling and worrying it, nudging and patting, until he was satisfied that it fit. To his endlessly open mind, nothing was as satisfying as a word or a punctuation mark that made a meaning more clear, or a midnight discussion, hours before press time, about the central idea of a paragraph—particularly when the author prevailed and he felt as though some new thought had been born. He was not a squeezy-huggy man, he rarely expressed affection, but always, always, in his dealings with his beloved life-partner, Grace Dudley, his writers, their manuscripts, what impelled him was an almost superhuman capacity for devotion.
When Bob wanted an article, he really wanted it, and was determined to get it. I observed that often, but the best remembered time was his reaction to Barack Obama’s March 29, 2008 speech at the National Constitution Center, in which the then-candidate was extricating himself from the sticky Jeremiah Wright situation. Bob admired the way Obama used the immediate problem to open up the whole subject of race relations in America, in a realistic but eirenic way. And, as usual, he was impressed by the writing skills (he had already told me that if Obama won he would be the first real writer in the presidency since Lincoln). I was in Siena, but he called to ask me if I had seen Obama deliver his speech on TV. I said no. He had what he thought a good idea (it was): Would I do a piece comparing this speech with Lincoln’s Cooper Union address? I said I was in Italy, and I would need the text of them both. He said he would handle that. They arrived post haste. I wrote the piece (edited with him by phone). Then he thought of publishing a booklet containing my piece and both the speeches, but the Obama campaign refused to grant the rights to his speech. I assumed at the time that the campaign feared its candidate would be called arrogant for cooperating with any comparison to Lincoln. The one time I met Obama afterward, I asked him if that was the reason for denying the rights. He could not remember involvement in what his campaign was doing to protect him. I was complimented by a number of people for thinking of the comparison, but I had to admit the whole concept was Bob’s, and he had blown away the obstacles that stood in its path. No one else would or could have done that. He wanted it into existence.
About twenty years ago, stuck in a taxi on Fifth Avenue, I saw Bob round the corner on 58th Street, dash past the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, squeeze through the stopped traffic in even greater hurry, and sprint uptown with his jacket open and his tie flying over shoulder. Next time I talked to him, I asked him about it, since I never saw anyone run so fast in Manhattan, except some young fellow who had snatched a purse and was fleeing from the cops, and he laughed and told me that he was late for an appointment with Grace.
The New York Review under Bob was a journal not only of opinion but also of values. Bob made no bones about where the Review stood on the biggest human rights issues of the day, perhaps because he understood that literary excellence required basic freedoms. The Review was a voice for dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, a window to prisoners locked up for their beliefs, and a sentinel against the counterterrorism excesses in Washington. There was always room for a letter of protest, a snapshot from a country under siege. Its name suggested a literary journal, but there was no more thoughtful forum for addressing the most pressing threats to liberty and democracy.
Bob was the most meticulous editor I ever encountered, though the experience could be sobering. He was the only editor I knew for whom the editing process could require more thought and effort than the drafting of the original article. My greatest sense of accomplishment as a writer was when I realized that my submissions had graduated from the ranks of the presumptive rewrite to those of the mere edit.
He always spoke about what “we” might do with an article. He had deep respect for the line between editor and writer—and once I had gained his confidence he would defer to me if we disagreed—but the care he put into editing was as if his name were on the byline as well.
I think of our rip-roaring lunches, stories and laughter—gossip and politics and books—effervescence! incandescence!—such a fine time! Bob, in one of his excellent suits, would invariably end up with food on his chin or on the suit or both. Sometimes I would pick off a particularly flagrant bit and he would be unfazed, amused, delighted even—and back upstairs to work he would go.
Our twenty years of fruitful friendship were based on deep respect and restraint. We only met once. We communicated by emails with few words. I treasure a couple of messages from ten years ago, in which Bob broke his silence and revealed some personal feeling. The first message enclosed a letter from a reader, correcting a mistake in a review that I had written. Bob wrote: “Unless this is false, it seemed worth doing. Do you see some objection and would you want to reply if not?” I sent him a reply. The following day I received this unique and unexpected response from Bob: “Thanks for your excellent reply. You’re the only one of our contributors who deals gracefully with such letters.”
Near the end of 1988, Bob was visiting Beijing and wanted to meet Fang Lizhi, the brilliant astrophysicist who had suddenly and courageously begun to speak out for human rights and democracy in China. Orville Schell told Bob that I knew Fang and could be a conduit. And so it happened, one frigid evening, that I met Bob for the first time and led him, together with his companion Grace, the Countess of Dudley, to the eighth floor of the drab rectangular apartment building where Fang and his wife, Peking University physics professor Li Shuxian, were living. Only one of two elevators in the building was ever working. This was to save electricity, but it meant, on that night, that Bob, Grace and I had to walk about fifty yards along an unlit exterior walkway, eight stories above the ground, in order to reach the Fangs. Bob and Grace were inexperienced at this walk, so I worried. I shouldn’t have.
Inside the apartment, Bob and Fang bonded immediately. An hour later, Bob asked, “Will you write something for us?” Fang said yes. Bob turned to me: “Will you translate it?” I said yes. The result was “China’s Despair and China’s Hope,” published in the February 2, 1989 issue of the Review. As simply as that, a lifetime tie between Fang and Bob, and between me and Bob, began. It is one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.
What strikes me most about Bob’s genius as an editor was his capacity to see the larger dimensions of a subject and his ability to enlarge the vision of a reviewer. Not that he imposed a viewpoint, but rather he suggested aspects of a subject that you, the reviewer, had not considered. We had many long phone conversations, especially in the days before email, when he recommended supplementary reading. On the following day, I would receive a FedEx full of photocopies and clippings from sources I had never heard of. Although he said he wanted to make the Review‘s articles shorter, mine often grew longer, thanks to his suggestions about something additional that was worth taking into account. In my experience, he did not interfere much with actual phrasing; and on the rare occasions when he made changes, he always sought my agreement and brought me around after more long phone calls. Bob kept a mental list of what he called “non-words”—that is, expressions so over-used that they had lost all their force. In one of my first articles, back in 1973, I used the phrase “in terms of.” He insisted on deleting it, because, he explained, writers used it as filler when they thought there was some relation between A and B but did not know what the relation was. Never again did I use “in terms of,” and I have blue-penciled it whenever I’ve found it in the papers of my students. Bob left a mark on writing and reading that will last for generations.
What I’ve been thinking most about is the utterly unique way in which his eyes would twinkle when something pleased or delighted him, when I’d written something that he thought might incite some controversy: a disturbance in the culture. Like so many others who have worked with Bob, I’m not the same writer I was before: more precise, less inclined to digress or to use two adjectives when one would suffice. I’ve long since internalized his editorial guidance. But beyond that, I will never forget Bob’s sparkle of mischievous amusement. It was, and will remain, among the most inspiring and meaningful rewards I can imagine.
At a Park Avenue dinner party given by the collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund not long after I began writing for the Review in 1985, it emerged in general dinner table conversation that the guests included several other contributors to the paper, among them the great Ronald Dworkin, who was particularly close to Bob. At one point, Betsy Dworkin posed this question to the group: “What power does Bob Silvers hold over our husbands that he can call at all hours on a weekend, rouse them out of bed, and get them to run to his office as if they were firemen?” There was laughter at what seemed like comic exaggeration, but in those pre-Internet days I more than once had that same experience of being urgently summoned by Bob late on a Saturday night, racing in a cab down a nearly deserted Park Avenue, past his and Grace’s apartment at 62nd Street, and then west on 57th Street to the seedy and freezing Fisk Building, where he would be huddled in an overcoat and muffler puzzling over my B galleys amid towering stacks of books. The sense of immediacy and high excitement that Bob brought to the inherently solitary task of writing was just part of his magic, but it gave you an exhilarating sense that what one thought and expressed mattered tremendously if it mattered so much to him, enough to get you to midtown after midnight with your pajamas still under your pants.
As a doctor working (mainly) in war zones, I found that The New York Review was about the only thing I would make time to read, years before I ever thought of writing for it. Until I began writing about Syria’s assault on doctors and the polio outbreak there during the civil war. Now I’d rather be published in the Review than in any prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal—Bob’s review (and that of his colleagues) was far more rigorous, and the end result far more satisfying. Bob’s loyalty to writers was not only a marker of his integrity, but had real effects. The Review stood behind me despite the World Health Organization’s attempts to undermine me. When my story was challenged by WHO in a letter addressed to “Ms Sparrow,” I was reluctant to respond. Bob persuaded me. That was my first experience of the extent of his editorial skill—changes in words I had previously thought picky, and his singular act of adding all my international medical degrees and accreditations after my name resulted in annihilating WHO’s response, and led to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding the cross-border Syrian polio campaign to the tune of several million dollars.
The last time I saw him, on November 6, he made me laugh—on an otherwise unbearable evening. He was a man worth writing for, worth grieving for, and will be much missed.
Bob had a wonderful gift for gently steering writers onto new terrain. Once he asked me to review The Rake’s Progress and I begged off, citing my near total inexperience of opera in performance. He said, more or less, “Just go see some operas.” A few years later when Jenufa came up I felt a little more ready, and with Bob’s incomparable encouragement set to. A good many operas followed, for me a life-enhancing experience, and much of the joy of it was the continuing and evolving conversation with Bob on a subject so dear to him. Writing for him always extended beyond the immediate occasion. I had the impression that he always had the Review’s whole archive in mind all the time, with each piece another element in that larger structure.