“Ask the cub if she wants to interview Barbara Epstein,” the editor said. I would love to be able to say I got the assignment because of my impeccable literary credentials, but the truth is that I was a) the juniormost reporter in the pecking order at that time and b) the only one who was free at a point when everyone else at the pink paper I worked for was busy monitoring a stockmarket crisis.
Epstein had come to India in search of writers for the book she co-edited with Robert Silvers, India: A Mosaic. Confronted with a young, babbling, barely post-adolescent reporter who was clearly awed at the prospect of interviewing the woman who had midwifed The Diary of Anne Frank into the world and been a keystone of the New York Review of Books, Epstein was kind. She shared her memories of the early years, of calling authors in the middle of a publisher’s strike and asking them for reviews that the NYRB couldn’t afford to pay for. That first issue–February 1, 1963–included contributions by Mary McCarthy, John Berryman, W H Auden, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and William Styron.
Epstein died on Friday at the age of 76 of lung cancer. Robert Silvers said in a statement: “She handled every kind of piece and worked with many famous writers, including Gore Vidal, W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson and Larry McMurtry,” Silvers said in a statement. “She brought to bear on all the work of the Review a superb intelligence, an exquisite sense of language, and a strong moral and political concern to expose and remedy injustice.”
This conversation between Mark Danner and Robert Silvers captures the essence of what it was like to work at the New York Review of Books:
MARK DANNER: The New York Review, I had expected to be this grandiose place, but actually when you opened the door, it looked like a warehouse. In fact, warehouse is… There were piles everywhere of New York Reviews, issues going back twenty years. There were piles of manuscripts. There were piles of these bottles for the water cooler. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere were these stacks of books, stacks that were going back and forth like this, almost falling. Obelisks into which people had built the books. Books along the floor… to someone who likes books, and I’m afraid I do, it was a wonderful, paradisical place.
Nonetheless, it could be dangerous. I do remember sitting and Bob would be talking on occasion to someone who came in, a VIP, as we slaves would refer to them. …. And one day, and I’ll end with this, this is still my greatest moment of my life. Bob, who smoked at the time, he doesn’t any more, was speaking I think to the ambassador of Israel if I’m not mistaken, and he flicked his cigar behind him. Well, it happened to land in a very full wastepaper basket. And the first thing I noticed, I heard a sniffing sound. I looked up and this poor man, this wonderful diplomat – very distinguished – was ashen-faced and pointing with both hands. Bob, of course, was just talking away. And my colleague, Shelley Wanger, was looking over at me, and flames were shooting up. So this is where I realized, as Nixon would say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And I walked up very nonchalantly, no hurry, grasped the wastepaper basket, and walked out the door, just like I did it every day. And of course immediately afterward we ran and dumped the water cooler in. But that is the kind of self-control that you have to have to be in this business.
I love what Robert Silvers had to say about book reviews in the same conversation:
What we saw was that the book review is a form that is capable of being used to address nearly any kind of issue, and any kind of question because there’s always a book. There were books on Vietnam, there are books on Kennedy, there are books on every – the most intense issues are addressed in books. And book reviewing can be a way of bringing critical perspectives to bear on the most intense political issues.
At the same time, we believed in the writer. And so we didn’t think, we thought the form of the book review should be put in the hands of the best possible writers in America and in the world. And we also thought that the imagination of writers often contributed something new and special to observation of … So, therefore, we would send, and still do, novelists, poets, to report on and observe political events. We early on sent V.S. Naipaul, for instance, to Argentina to write a book, what became a series of articles that would turn into a book, called “The Death of Eva Peron.: This was at the time of enormous repression in Argentina, and we knew that he had an enormous ability to observe events, as he had written a small book about Trinidad. And we thought it would be extremely interesting if he went to Argentina. And we got some money and sent him there. And all through our days, we have often done this. We have sent Joan Didion for instance to cover the national political conventions time after time. Or the poet, James Fenton, we’ve sent him to Ethiopia. Those are just a few examples of our feeling that the writer, the imagination and the gift of the writer, who is not usually writing about such matters, should be, that these people should be persuaded, if they will, to go and look at what is happening.