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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

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Robert Silvers in his office in August.  

The morning after their fateful dinner, Lowell went to the Midland Bank and borrowed $4,000 against his trust fund. Epstein and Silvers made the rounds of the publishing houses, raising money for “the paper”—as Silvers likes to call it—by selling ads. At night, they worked in the Harper’s offices. “We rang up some of the writers we admired most and asked them to contribute something within three weeks,” recalls Silvers. “There was no question of payment.” The issue was laid out on the Epsteins’ dining-room table, with Barbara as co-editor.

The table of contents was imposing. Dated February 1, 1963, the inaugural New York Review of Books contained work by William Styron, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, and Mary McCarthy, among numerous distinguished others. “Mary wrote this review of Naked Lunch that was thrilling,” Silvers recalls. (How many would apply that word to a book review?) The issue also contained the first—and last—editorial ever to appear in its pages. The Review would abjure writing about books “trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.” The print run was 100,000 and sold out instantly. Within a matter of weeks, the editors had gotten more than a thousand letters. “That was the real step,” Epstein says, “to imagine an audience that size.”

Raising money came easily after that. Brooke Astor and Sallie Bingham, a scion of the Kentucky newspaper dynasty, were among the high-toned benefactors who provided funds. Within four years, the Review was in the black, where it has remained for the past four decades.

Silvers and Epstein were a harmonious team—she called them “Ma and Pa.” As in all marriages, there were occasional clashes behind closed doors, but “we knew each other so well that we could have a kind of shorthand,” says Silvers. “We passed things back and forth in the most natural way.” Wilson recorded in his journal, “Now Barbara, who before was so quiet and kept herself in the background, with The New York Review of Books, has become quite a brilliant figure.”

Around the office, Barbara was the lighthearted one, business-like with an editing pencil but sociable and fun. She sent bottles of champagne to her authors, wrote notes, even loaned them money. She also encouraged her assistants to write for “the paper.” Luc Sante, who has been contributing to the Review for a quarter of a century, started out, William Morris–like, in the mailroom. A year later, Epstein hired him as her assistant. “I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t type, couldn’t make a restaurant reservation on the phone.” So how did he get the job? “She saw that I had a literary bent. I brought books into the office and left them lying around.”

Refuting the often-expressed complaint that the Review is a closed shop, Epstein liked to bring young writers into the fold. Daniel Mendelsohn, an accomplished classicist and all-purpose scholar, was tapped out of the blue. “They just sent me a book and asked if it would interest me,” he says. “It was like receiving the angel Gabriel.” She was “motherly,” attests the novelist Cathleen Schine. “She would call up and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if you did this for us?’ You didn’t feel cowed or burdened.”

Mark Danner was a depressed, unemployed recent grad living above the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square when he decided, on impulse, to call the offices of the Review at 8:30 on a Friday night. “I was certain no one would answer, but Barbara picked up the phone.” She invited him to come down on Monday morning. “I was wearing a powder-blue sports coat, a red tie, red-and-white candy-striped shirt, and white pants. My only grown-up clothes. Looking back on it, I’m surprised they let me in the door.”

Despite Danner’s sartorial extravagances, the interview went well. “I mentioned Auden, and she launched into a ribald story about ‘Wystan.’ She was beautiful and charming and mildly naughty. I was completely smitten.”

Still to come was an inquisition from Silvers. “Then Bob came in, coiffed and tanned, in a beautiful suit like someone out of a movie. He flipped through a long essay I’d written on El Salvador, seeming to read it instantaneously.” After a spirited debate about the nature of the left in Central America—“He knew the subject inside out”—Silvers abruptly left the room. “He left me sitting there in the middle of the discussion. I thought there was no way I’d gotten the job.” A few hours later, Barbara called and offered Danner a job.

Being an assistant to Bob or Barbara was more than just a job, though; it was the first stage of a vocation. Others include the novelist Susan Minot; the biographer Jean Strouse; S.J. Perelman’s companion, Prudence Crowther; and the editor Shelley Wanger. “Everyone was absurdly overqualified,” says Wanger.


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