“Of all the foolish things I did when I was leaving,” he says, “was something exemplary: to leave without a follow-up sinecure.” Max Frankel, the courtly editor who preceded Lelyveld, kept an office, and a column in the Times Magazine, upon his retirement. The combustible Abe Rosenthal, who preceded Frankel, carried on from the op-ed page for eleven years before he was finally shooed from the premises. When Lelyveld retired in 2001, he simply went home. He wanted to be a writer again.
Over drinks with the literary agent Andrew Wylie, Lelyveld mentioned a few book ideas, all of which involved conventional reportage on foreign soil. Lelyveld’s lone previous book, Move Your Shadow, was a word-perfect and brutally incisive account of South African apartheid, and it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. He still harbored fascinations with India, China, and elsewhere.
“And then,” Lelyveld recalls, “I started talking about Ben.”
Ben Lowell was a family friend from Lelyveld’s boyhood. He was a rabbi, as was Lelyveld’s father. But while Arthur Lelyveld was for decades a pillar of institutional Judaism—he lobbied President Truman to urge the establishment of Israel—Lowell was an on-again, off-again pulpit rabbi who gravitated toward radical politics and other desperate causes. For a short time, he was also, as Lelyveld writes, “the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available.”
As Lelyveld spoke to Wylie, he was imagining himself as Lowell’s biographer, dutifully chronicling an admittedly obscure life. Wylie had a different idea. “He said, ‘Of course, that would be a book about your father,’ ” Lelyveld says. “My first reaction to that was resistance.”
In 1996, as Arthur Lelyveld lay dying, a friend asked Joe if he knew about the camp trunk full of family memorabilia in the basement of his father’s synagogue in Cleveland. No, Lelyveld answered, he hadn’t known. He was by now two years into his job atop the Times. He wasn’t much for nostalgia or, frankly, for synagogues. He preferred Yeats and Cummings to anyone’s Bible, tending to see religion as his father’s occupation and little else.
He took some of the documents from the trunk but ignored them until his retirement. When he found himself alone for a week at the family cabin in Maine—his wife, Carolyn, was stuck in New York—he began reading his parents’ letters. A whole world, long buried, came flooding back. Boyhood pain mixed with a reporter’s pleasure. “In a certain sense, I became a little cold-blooded,” he says. “I saw the opportunity for a story.”
The story would have at its core two mysteries. Who, exactly, was Ben Lowell, the shadowy figure who so brightened the life of a sad boy merely by taking him to a few Yankees games and listening to his precocious political chatter? And what had happened within the family to make this boy so sad in the first place?
Lelyveld devotes roughly a third of Omaha Blues to Lowell, particularly his minor collisions with history. Lelyveld has doggedly reported out the details of Lowell’s life, and it is a not-uninteresting life. But Andrew Wylie was right: The guts of this book would concern Lelyveld’s own family.
As an adult, Lelyveld had a vague, chilling memory that his parents had once abandoned him—turned him over for safekeeping to a Nebraska farm family—in the summer of 1943, when he was 6 years old. But in his mind, he couldn’t nail down the particulars, and wondered if he had magnified a lesser trauma.
The letters in the camp trunk confirmed his memory. His father was traveling the wartime U.S. on behalf of pacifism and Zionism. His mother, Toby, was a former actress who decided she needed to do some graduate work at Columbia University. So they sent their son to stay with a family named Jensen in Tekamah, Nebraska, where little Joe Lelyveld helped out with the hogs, attended church services, and wondered what he had done wrong to deserve such exile.
His parents were not well suited for each other, nor for parenting. Arthur was a kind man whose talents and ambitions could not be contained by family life. Toby was impetuous, reckless, and, on occasion, adulterous; there were breakdowns, suicide attempts, and separations. Then came teary reconciliations with her always-grateful husband. By the time Joe was 7, his parents had settled (to use the word loosely) in New York. Having been abandoned once, however, he would become disinclined to challenge his parents—ever, about anything—for fear of provoking another split. So he learned to fret in silence, internalizing their frictions. His father thought him a morose and disaffected boy. “You’ve got to be more outgoing,” Arthur would tell him, as if “outgoing” were a switch to be flipped. His parents were less cruel than selfish, often giving the impression that they simply didn’t like him. This proved crippling. The adolescent Joe Lelyveld was both fragile and steely (as would be the adult Joe Lelyveld).