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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

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Among the books on the first Anchor list was To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson, the dean of American letters. Wilson’s narrative account of the intellectual background to the Russian Revolution, which he traced back to the works of Marx, Engels, and their philosophical precursors Hegel, Taine, and Michelet, was an ideal prototype for Epstein’s concept: Written in workmanlike prose, it combined the virtues of journalism and scholarship. It was informative and easy to read—upper middlebrow.

In the early days of the Epsteins’ marriage, Barbara was “the wife,” a familiar type in that pre-feminist era, when in even the most progressive intellectual circles smart and sexy women deferred to their husbands. Born in Boston of Russian- and German-immigrant parents, she entered Radcliffe at the age of 16 and fell in with the arts-and-letters crowd. “The day we met she was sitting in the Radcliffe College cafeteria, smoking,” wrote the novelist Alison Lurie in one of the memorial tributes published over the summer in the Review. “Her black turtleneck Jersey, unstructured hair, and stack of books not on any assigned list instantly marked her as what would presently be called a beatnik.” She was known around campus as “Bubsey.”

The poet John Ashbery was also a classmate and friend. They met their freshman year, in the fall of 1945, on the steps of Widener Library. “I was struck by her clothes,” Ashbery recalls. “She had a ragbag, pre–Annie Hall look, odd bits of costume.” They “took tea” at the Window Shop on Brattle Street and attended chic Brit films like Black Narcissus and Whisky Galore.

Epstein’s first post-college job was at Doubleday, where she discovered and edited Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. A stint at Partisan Review—a useful training ground with its stable of high-strung, at times bellicose contributors—prepared her for the next and last chapter of her long working life in literature.

“There is a whole sort of Cultural Establishment,” Wilson noted in the journal he kept, chronicling the literary life. The Epsteins and Lowells were “the headquarters of the literary department.” Still only in their thirties, they were a celebrated pair, Scott and Zelda minus the alcohol-fueled marital theatrics—a power couple, to invoke the groveling term of our own status-obsessed day. They even made it onto the guest list for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza, destined to become a mythic social event. Held in honor of the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, the ball was attended by 500 of the host’s glamorous friends, from Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow to Lionel and Diana Trilling—in a literal sense, the smart crowd.

Their parties were famous. On any given night, you might find in the Epsteins’ high-ceilinged living room a cross-cultural crowd of iconic sixties figures: Lillian Hellman, Jane Jacobs, Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth. “One was always aware that there was a large and complicated world out there,” recalls the Epsteins’ daughter, Helen, now a science writer at work on a book about aids in Africa. (The Epsteins’ other child, Jacob, is a TV writer in Hollywood.) “The whole place would be flung into turmoil—servants running around everywhere, a hundred people gathered in the living room. Then there would be Dad’s oddball interests, some guy who had invented the first mail-order catalogue, this person who had made a high-end cooking pot, or the great mathematician Norbert Wiener.” It was before the age of militant moderation that has seized the aging boomer intelligentsia of Manhattan—before the Death of Fun. “These evenings at the Epsteins’ are so strenuous that I am usually a wreck the next day,” Wilson complained.

Depicted in Wilson’s journals as a precocious curmudgeon, prone to grousing but “energetic and full of ideas,” Jason Epstein was a brilliant literary entrepreneur. (Or is that an oxymoron?) He would go on to found the Library of America, the Gardening Book Club, and the Readers’ Catalogue, a telephone-book-size compendium of books in print that would have had a good chance of success if it hadn’t been blown out of the water by Amazon.

“We were both working at Doubleday, but we met in the Village,” Epstein says, recalling the pre-Review days. “Barbara was wearing a black leotard and had her hair cropped short. I fell in love with her and never got over it.”

We’re in the spacious kitchen of his apartment in the old Police Building down on Centre Street, which was renovated into co-ops some years ago. With its marble pillars and chandeliers, the lobby has the gloomy splendor of a government reception hall in Naples. Above us hang rows of copper pots and pans—we could be on the set of a Martha Stewart show. (Among his other achievements, Epstein is a fabled gourmand.)


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