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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein of The New York Review of Books set the table for the city’s left intellectuals for the past 40 years. But now that Epstein’s gone, home is a lot lonelier.

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Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein in their first office in the Fisk building on West 57th Street in 1963.  

It’s late on a Friday afternoon in summer, and the city has the deserted feel that it gets just before a weekend. The streets are empty; taxis have their for hire lights on at the witching hour, the time when they’d normally be headed for the garage. But on the fifth floor of 1755 Broadway, a nondescript office building on the corner of West 56th Street, work—serious work—is in progress. The “Fall Books” issue of The New York Review of Books is being put to bed. “I’ll be here all weekend,” says Robert Silvers cheerfully.

On my way up in the elevator, I had wondered if Silvers would be wearing a tie: I’ve never seen him without one. The tie is there but askew, the top button of his white shirt undone. Instead of his usual dark suit, he’s got on a red cardigan. For anyone else, this would be like showing up at the office on casual Friday in a T-shirt and ripped blue jeans.

It’s been a difficult time. In June, Barbara Epstein, Silvers’s co-editor at the Review for 43 years, died of lung cancer at the age of 77. He has been commuting from Lausanne, Switzerland, where his longtime companion, Grace, Countess of Dudley, is recovering from a serious car accident.

Between us on a table in the windowless conference room is a recent issue: volume LIII, number 13. The cover lists a sampling of its contents: the venerable Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman on three books about American foreign policy; Russell Baker on Roger Angell’s memoir, Let Me Finish; and a dispatch from Bolivia by the Latin American journalist Alma Guillermoprieto. It’s an eclectic but impressive mix—one that has made The New York Review of Books the premier journal of the American intellectual elite virtually since its inception during the New York newspaper strike of 1963.

Also in this issue are eleven brief tributes to Epstein by such old friends as Larry McMurtry and Gore Vidal. I myself knew her only from literary cocktail parties, but Luc Sante’s portrait brings her back: “She was funny, mischievous, infectiously enthusiastic, occasionally prodigal, sometimes incorrigibly teenaged, the best sort of company. The world is a much lonelier place without her.”

So is the masthead, which now contains, after editor, the single name Robert B. Silvers. Magazines are not, by nature, co-edited: Their identities depend upon the imposition of a single voice and sensibility. Paris Review was the expression of George Plimpton; Granta was the expression of Bill Buford. But The New York Review of Books was the co-expression of Silvers and Epstein, two strikingly original people who managed to speak with one editorial voice. The question being asked these days by the magazine’s loyal readers and contributors is, can it survive under the editorship of a 76-year-old literary widower who, however robust, hardworking, and determined, will now have to grapple with the burden of going it alone?

There are larger questions, too. Can The New York Review of Books survive without its founders’ specific genius. political and literary journalism it practices? A typical Review piece runs to 4,000 or 5,000 words, is pitched to readers who often have several advanced degrees, and may contain footnotes. Its intellectual and physical heft—the “Fall Books” issue came in at 100 pages—requires the kind of attention that becomes harder and harder to sustain with every new technological gadget we hitch to our belts or curl around our ears. The audience that grew up reading the Review is now in its fifties or older. Will the Review find a new audience with a younger demographic, or will it wither away like the state in Friedrich Engels’s prophecy, to be supplanted by new vessels of intellectual content? For its overwhelmingly liberal, hypereducated urban readership, it’s hard to imagine a Reviewless world.

The genesis of the Review is a literary legend by now. One night during the early weeks of the strike, Jason Epstein, then an editor at Random House, and his wife, Barbara (they were divorced in 1980), were having dinner with Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, the Epsteins’ neighbors on West 67th Street.

Their block, between Central Park West and Columbus, is on a leafy street lined with elegant old apartment buildings known for their wood-paneled walls and double-height living rooms—“the last gasp of true / Nineteenth Century Capitalistic Gothic,” as Lowell once described it. But the artists for whom these grand ateliers were originally built had long since departed for more affordable neighborhoods, replaced by editors and writers who held down actual jobs.

Jason Epstein had already made his name in the literary world by figuring out, as a 25-year-old editor at Doubleday, that a market existed for quality paperbacks. Thus was born Anchor Books, which offered to a newly literate middle and upper-middle class cheap yet elegant editions of the classics, along with new titles destined to become classics—the “backlist,” as such books are called in the business. By now, of course, it would be hard to imagine publishing without Epstein’s discovery: If you removed every trade paperback from the shelves of Barnes & Noble, there would be nothing left but the “frontlist” hardcover titles allotted their six-week window before being returned to their publishers or pulped.


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