My first assignment for Barbara Epstein at the New York Review was to discuss a book that, three years later, still hasn’t been published. My second assignment I also undertook in early 2003; the resulting piece didn’t appear until 2005. And my third assignment, an artifact of last summer, was something Barbara and I were still discussing in the most preliminary way a month or so ago. And I think it must be in part because everything happened so slowly at the New York Review—at least it did with me—that it came as such a shock that Barbara died so quickly, and we wouldn’t be talking anymore.
One spring day in 2003, she called and left a message saying she would be glad to have me write a review I’d proposed; and I was surprised at the voice on my machine, which was not the aloof or formal or even stern voice I must have imagined. The voice on my machine, and still in my ear today, was husky, sweet, and sly, with a sort of drawling pleasure in its own sound such as you hear in the voices of American leading ladies from the 30s and 40s and otherwise, alas, don’t seem to hear at all. The voice was at once matter-of-fact and nonspecifically flirtatious: the voice of a reasonably old woman with nothing to prove and, at the same time, still perceptibly the voice of a proud and clever schoolgirl.
Barbara and I talked on the phone maybe a dozen times and saw each other half that often; I can’t claim I knew her well. And yet if the first thing you wonder about most powerful and impressive people is what they are really, truly like, this was not the case with Barbara Epstein. I felt right away that to know her better would deepen but not alter my first impression of kindness, quickness, playfulness, and a slight, saving wickedness. By no means stuck in time, Barbara nevertheless seemed, in her seventies, visibly and audibly continuous with the girl and young woman she must have been; and it was likewise impossible to feel that her office voice differed from her kitchen or dining room voice. Not in publishing, which is after all a world of voices, or anywhere else do you meet with—do you hear—many voices like that one.
Barbara Epstein was a model editor: gentle, curious, encouraging, unforgiving. She could tease clear prose out of the famously opaque. “O Harold,” she once complained to Harold Bloom after he turned in the first draft of an essay, “will you write this so I can understand it?” And he did. She could also put the most timid contributors at ease. She was very good with younger writers—with young people in general. She seemed to take a sincere interest in their opinions, their gossip, their likes and dislikes, and this made it easy to risk stating the obvious or sounding stupid in the interest of saying what you actually believed. I was always surprised at how much better and more happily I wrote for her than for anybody else.
Barbara Epstein, founding editor of the New York Review of Books, always insisted on paying for her n+1s. Usually she bought them at the corner newsstand—she also had two simultaneous subscriptions—but one time when I was supposed to go by her office, she asked me to bring along a couple of issues. There, next to the hundreds upon hundreds of review copies and the television always tuned to CNN, we had the following conversation:
Me: What will you do with them?
Barbara: I’m going to send one to Italy and one to Paris.
Barbara: To Gore Vidal and Diane Johnson.
Me: Wow. Thank you.
Barbara [producing checkbook]: How much do I owe you?
Me: Oh, no. We’d be honored –
Barbara: No, no. You need the money. How much are they?
Me [finally]: Nine dollars … times two.
Now, mostly this is a story about how our friends should stop cadging free copies of the magazine from us, because Barbara never did. But it also, I think, speaks of some quality in her, that she maintained—not just her generosity to young writers, which is rare enough, and not just her graciousness, but also her continued commitment, her utter lack of complacency. She was committed to literature, and to a particular view of literature as a meaningful intervention in the more immediate worlds of politics and finance. Aestheticism—thin or otherwise—was simply never an option. At Radcliffe she had studied with F. O. Matthiessen, a writer who naturally and gracefully combined intellectual history with biography with a fine appreciation of style. She believed, as people of her generation mostly did, in the monuments of classic European modernism, but at the same time it would be difficult to find someone in publishing who so consistently and intelligently sought new writers to champion. It must have been a function of the strength of her convictions: the backbone of her thinking, her confidence, was strong enough to sustain revisions, amendments, and novelty. Of course I’m also just grateful to her—but it seems that people who only had the most casual contact with Barbara always came away with the same sense.
In Nabokov’s letters, one finds him asking Barbara to print his reply to Edmund Wilson’s Onegin review in full: “Since you were not too shocked by some of Edmund’s epithets,” says Nabokov, “you ought not to be shocked by mine.” Of course she wasn’t! She was open, lively, generous—and there was her sing-song voice. It was impossible not to fall in love with Barbara. And it’s incredible to think that before she co-founded the New York Review, she had shepherded to publication the diary of Anne Frank—that book about a girl with whom, also, it’s impossible not to fall in love.
She was a true friend to our magazine from the very beginning, and to several of us she was a warm, kind, generous editor. She lived in the same world as we did (though more graciously), and knew that we needed the money.