Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)

Dominique Nabokov
Robert B. Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books, early 1980s

Bob Silvers, my friend and the editor of The New York Review, died on March 20, shortly after completing the April 6 issue. Together with Barbara Epstein, Jason Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Robert Lowell, he founded the Review in 1963; for fifty-four years he was either co-editor with Barbara or, after her death in 2006, editor of the Review. Bob worked almost to the very end of his life, which would be no surprise to those who knew him well, including those who have written these brief memoirs.

—Rea Hederman


Until I arrived at the Review as an editorial assistant, I had never met anyone who so rarely engaged in idle pleasantries as Bob. His daily language was pared down, accurate, and sincere. I found his example revelatory, and I would ponder his usage and elisions like a giddy college freshman. Bob would never, for instance, wish us a good weekend. Presumably he had no particular investment in the quality of our weekends, and possibly he didn’t even know when his assistants’ weekends were, since we took turns working Saturday and Sunday shifts with him.

But was he also, I wondered, rejecting the implied value of a good weekend? Is the goal of leisure time pleasure? Edification? Novel experience? If we couldn’t settle on criteria, we couldn’t possibly arrive at a valuation, in which case why bother asking on Monday morning how someone’s weekend had been? The rest of us walked around in a fever of sentimentality and superstition, it suddenly seemed to me, sloppily wishing each other good days and good trips and merriment at Christmas. But Bob said only as much as he meant. When I left the office after a night shift of taking dictation, sending out books, going over a manuscript with him, he said, “Thanks a lot!” And it felt like a lot.

Still, it was hard to get used to a professional relationship that was, by design, largely impersonal. There were four of us assistants and we were supposed to be nearly interchangeable extensions of Bob himself, the extra hands he needed to manage so big a job. Usually only Bob communicated directly with contributors, and when we worked on a manuscript he carefully went over every one of our suggestions or marginal notes. We rarely spoke to him about anything that wasn’t directly relevant to Review pieces. This too seemed to me tied up with Bob’s stringent rejection of linguistic and sentimental cliché, including the commonplaces of workplace relationships. Bob did not take us under his wing. He was not our mentor. He did not believe in us. These were impossibilities because the Review’s lexicon did not allow for them. They may not, in any case, be the best…

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