Following are reminiscences of Robert B. Silvers by some of the Review's writers; more will be added in the coming days.
Christopher Benfey • Jeremy Bernstein • Robert Darnton • Freeman Dyson • Helen Epstein • Martin Filler • Robert Gottlieb • Alma Guillermoprieto • Sue Halpern • David Kaiser • Perry Link • Geoffrey O'Brien • Tim Parks • Julia Preston • Francine Prose • Ahmed Rashid • Nathaniel Rich • Kenneth Roth • Ingrid D. Rowland • Luc Sante • Orville Schell • Frederick Seidel • Charles Simic • Annie Sparrow • Garry Wills • Paul Wilson
March 22, 2017
The first thing I thought I knew about Bob Silvers, when I came to work at The New York Review nearly thirty-seven years ago, was that he did not sleep. He was always in the office when I arrived in the morning, and still there when I left at night, and he seemed to spend weekends there, too. One year when the office Christmas tree was decorated with mandarin oranges, we discovered on a Monday morning that he had eaten all of them, presumably sometime in the small hours when the local options for food delivery were closed. In those days he smoked—black Nat Shermans—and he would sometimes absentmindedly toss a smoldering butt into his wastepaper basket, setting it on fire. When this happened he would get up, his eyes never leaving the page he was reading, and step out into the hall while his assistants rushed to put out the flames.
Bob had a heart as huge and fierce as his devotion to writing. Because he feared nothing but falsehood, he was a brave, true friend to an astonishing variety of people. Standing under the elevated railway in the Chicago Loop turned him back into a student again, in love with the world. He never lost that student's sense of joy, that curiosity, that overflowing delight in existence. At lunch, he invariably took all the olives and picked most of the blueberries off my dessert. Stuck in a Madrid traffic jam during the Gay Pride parade, he, his longtime partner Grace, and I sat for nearly an hour next to a galleon on wheels full of bumping, grinding Spaniards in bathing suits. There was nothing to do but laugh.
—Ingrid D. Rowland
Bob's assignment letters and his editorial suggestions were the briefest I've ever received, and the clearest and most on point as well. He had an unerring nose for what was wrong or lacking in a piece, and he was always gracious in pointing it out. Having been an editor myself, I know how hard that is. Bob was a master of the art. There was never a "Who he?" and many a "Have you considered…?" It may seem like a stretch, but his notes sometimes reminded me of Ulysses S. Grant's battlefield dispatches, which were famously succinct, famously clear, and famously effective: "Attack Hood at once and wait no longer for a remnant of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay…" Bob's were, to my relief, less urgent, but no less cogent: "If we had something by early next week that would be fine, but it's the piece that matters, not the time." I don't want to belabor the Civil War analogy, especially not in these times, but it's worth remembering that Robert E. Lee's dispatches were famously vague and famously confusing, and that Bob (and Barbara) were able to assign, guide, and send into action the most amazing cohort of writers, armed with the power of the word, which is always stronger when well edited.
My mother Barbara was Bob's co-editor from The New York Review's founding in 1963 until she died in 2006. I started working at the magazine when I was eleven, in the mailroom doing the stamps. One coworker was a poet, another a comedian, another a transvestite dancer. The conversations flew over my head, but I do remember an atmosphere of chaos and discipline, creativity and rigor, irreverence and seriousness. That's the real art of editing that Bob perfected: to unscramble the inchoate, wild ideas in the entropic washing machine of writers' brains.
Or in this one's, anyway. The first piece I wrote for the Review nearly twenty years ago was about health and social status. My draft had flummoxed a very fine editor at another publication, but Bob got the point right away. He asked a few astute questions and suddenly the draft's defects were obvious to me, and I also saw how to fix them. I'd known Bob all my life, but who was this wise man who seemed to understand not only public health, but also ancient Roman art, Middle East politics, and constitutional law? Years later, I learned that he'd skipped four grades and graduated from high school at fourteen. He was an intellectual athlete, cantankerous at times, but fundamentally generous, decent, and un-snobbish. He also had a powerful moral intuition, helping writers and readers come to grips with every calamity from the Peloponnesian War to the war on terror.
In January, shortly after his friend Grace died, I stopped by the Review to see him. He'd been by her side throughout her illness, and seemed devastated. And he himself was ill. And we were about to inaugurate a new president. "There doesn't seem to be any hope anywhere," he said. Then we talked about a science piece he was working on and his desk was piled with manuscripts and books and assistants were reading and answering phones and asking questions and he was like an old general preparing for one more battle. I am so sorry he didn't make it this time.
It always came as a shock, while working for Bob, to encounter him in the street outside the office. Not just because it was rare—he spent most of his hours, after all, at his desk, surrounded by his towers and battlements of books—but because he always seemed to be running. It was as if he could not tolerate another second away from the desk, from the work he loved, from his writers. It was something to behold, a powerful, athletic man fifty years my senior, in a beautiful suit and scarf, manuscripts stuffed beneath his arm, racing down Broadway.
The New York Review was my graduate school, its back issues my syllabus, and Bob my dean, tutor, and dissertation advisor in one. Working for him—first as an intern and editorial assistant, and for the last decade as a contributor—has been the thrill of my professional life. Bob is often described as boundlessly brilliant, patient, wise, intuitive, curious, tireless, and principled. He was all those things. But I was most moved by his generosity. He was not only generous with Joan Didion and J.M. Coetzee but with the young writers he nurtured in their early careers, including a clumsy former assistant who misplaced manuscripts and mailed packages to the wrong countries but dreamed of one day writing for the Review.
Editing is not a competition but I bristle when I see Bob described as "one of the greatest" of our time. He was the best. No one compares. Bob ran to his writers and they ran to him.
I received an email from Bob on March 8, asking for a piece about President Trump and immigration. "The forced emigration seems to become more menacing day by day," he wrote. "A question is what states will be able to provide in the way of protection and what sanctuary may mean. Another question is the numbers of people being seized and deported and what are the plausible alternatives. I do hope that you can present some of the complexities of what has been happening in a piece in the 3,000 word range."
It was such a welcome message—mainly, of course, because it was from Bob. But also because his comments, as they so often did, brought a shot of pure caffeine, awakening thinking about matters I assumed I already understood fairly well. Although he had no special expertise, Bob had considered the issue enough to identify crucial points of inquiry. One phrase in particular got my attention. I had written many news stories about round-ups and deportations. But with his reference to "forced emigration," Bob was asking me to view that enforcement more broadly, to see that a country long powered by a dynamic of receiving immigrants was now reversing its direction in an essential way.
Once again, I was embarking on a piece for Bob with confidence that his insight, his implacable disdain for mushy prose, and his moral compass would expand and clarify my work. I knew he had not been well, but I was relieved to detect no lack of vigor in his message. And now the overwhelming sense of what we have lost is deepened by re-reading his closing words:
I see we have a deadline of March 31. This may not be enough time for the kind of analytical summary we hope for, and of course we can wait longer. Let's soon be in touch.
Whenever I started to write a piece for "Bob"—who indelibly occupied that name in the world of arts and letters—I always felt I was joining a fraternity that brought together the most interesting, unfettered minds, the most thoughtful editorial standards, and the best of the written word. And so, when I finished editing a piece with him I always felt deep satisfaction, that I had completed something leaving me without reservation. Such is a rare experience for a writer.
That Bob is now gone is like suddenly finding a mountain that has always been reassuringly outside one's window suddenly disappeared.
For me, being welcomed at the Review—first by Barbara, then by Bob—meant that it was worth my writing and maybe even that what I wrote was worth reading. Bob made all my dealings with the paper simple and untroubled, and when he was actively interested in my subject, lively and fun. He had judgment, probity, and context—what more could one look for in an editor? The loss to all his writers is profound, and the loss to our poor imperiled world, incalculable.
If there was a single quality to highlight any communication with Bob—telephone or letter—it was his joyfulness and delight, every hour, every day with the hundreds of people he must be writing to, speaking to in order to get an issue out. He was constantly joyful. How he did it issue after issue is beyond my understanding, but perhaps the only way he could get through the daily slog was his determination to love what he was doing and share that joy with those around him and above all with the writer.
He believed in the writer so much. Nobody I have ever worked for gave me such an inspiration and thrill to be writing, researching, putting words to paper, as Bob did. He was a factory of thoughts and inspiration even to the most novice writer. And he never failed to convey to the writer his conviction that this article would be the best ever.
Every so often, when I was one of Bob's assistants, he would decide that he didn't trust us to go through the books that were sent to him by publishers hoping for reviews, and he would insist on seeing them all himself. Of course, we got hundreds of books every week. We would cover his desk with towers of them and he would work at great speed, throwing each reject into some corner of the office; it became rather meditative and soothing after an hour or so, like surf on a stony beach, hearing those books hit the wall so regularly. Wasn't it Proust who said somewhere that he could evaluate a writer's quality by reading any sentence of his work? But that wasn't what Bob was doing; or, not the only thing. Without using the table of contents or the index, in just a few seconds of flipping through pages, he was always able to find some essential paragraph, and then he would evaluate the strength of the writer's argument as well as his prose. How he could find those passages so quickly and unerringly is something I've never been able to explain to myself.
Once he called me from a cab on the way to the airport and had me find a manuscript that hadn't been taken out of its filing cabinet for at least a year. He'd realized that there was a comma two thirds of the way through the piece that should have been a semicolon. He directed me to the sentence that was troubling him and had me make the change, and then told me to put the whole thing back in the files.
Years later, when I started writing for him, he sent me galleys at 11:45 the night before my wedding—and he was a guest at the wedding. At the top of the galleys, in his most painstakingly legible handwriting (I could just see the look of angry concentration as he gripped the pencil), he wrote, "we hope for corrections soonest." I think he was very pleased with himself at having one-upped his own reputation for calling his writers at three in the morning, asking for corrections on Christmas, etc. I think his attitude was that anyone as pitiless with himself as he was, working to the limit of his capacity not just day after day or week after week but all the time, year after year, his whole life, could ask whatever he wanted of others. I always thought that was fair. (But I didn't start work on the galleys until after I left for my honeymoon. Bob acted as if he understood.) Then, last year, when I wrote him from the hospital to tell him that my father was dying, he sent my dad the warmest, most graceful note imaginable, perfectly sincere and loving without in any way being heavy handed. It made my dad really happy for a minute, right before the end.
In the spring of 1945 there was a mission called Alsos that followed the American troops into Germany to learn what the Germans had done in their nuclear program. In the event ten German scientists were rounded up and put in gentle detention in a manor house near Cambridge, England, for six months. Heisenberg, who was one of them, recognized the scenery. They did not know that the place was wired so that every word they said was recorded. A few years ago I visited it with Michael Frayn, and the don who owned it said that he knew nothing about it until repairs were being made on the floor which revealed the wires. That there were transcripts was revealed by Samuel Goudsmit, who wrote a book on the mission and was shown by General Leslie Groves, who had ordered the Alsos mission, a bit about Goudsmit's parents who had been murdered in a concentration camp. But the British refused to release the transcripts despite the urgings of many historians. I must have brought this to Bob's attention at some point and then I forgot about it.
I think it was sometime in 1991 that Bob called me and said he had gotten the transcripts. I never learned how, but shortly thereafter a package arrived at my door with them. They were not any copy but they were in fact a copy of General Groves's own! It was clear where Groves's concerns lay. Every time one of the Germans would mention the Russians and how they might be tempted to sell out there would be a festoon of exclamation points. At this time—before Hiroshima—these Germans were under the illusion that they had a lot to teach. Then came Hiroshima and the bottom fell out. Otto Hahn, who was the first to observe fission, was almost suicidal. They began blaming each other and then the Americans for having done such an immoral thing. It is all there in their own words. It is like a play. This is what I wrote about—thanks to Bob.
March 21, 2017
Bob's trust in his writers was absolute. I once expressed doubt that an obscure subject (Sherwood Anderson's love life, maybe, or was it Japanese tea?) would interest readers. "Well," Bob countered, "does it interest you?" That, he made clear, was the standard, the only standard.
The blue office cardigan. The bespoke suit with its marvelous silk lining. The word "marvelous," on the top of an A galley—and then the B. His gleeful, conspiratorial laugh. (The time he sent me to England to consort with the world's top spies.) The way, when he called, he'd always say, "Oh," before my name, as if it had just that second occurred to him to pick up the phone. I will miss that voice and that laugh. I will miss—of course—his passionate mind, his nimble pen. Yet the words that came immediately to mind yesterday when I learned of Bob's passing were these from Wordsworth: "The best portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." These I will not miss, for they were given in perpetuity.
How Bob found me in a small village outside Verona in the mid-1990s I have no idea. An airmail envelope arrived with the postman. I was asked to review a work of criticism on Joyce, Svevo, and Saba. And I reviewed it, receiving in return, always by post, a carefully handwritten edit which amounted to a lesson in how to be critical while nevertheless showing an author the proper respect.
From that point on, for twenty-two years, books would arrive, perhaps once every three months, by courier, never announced beforehand (in which case you might have said you were too busy), with a friendly and peremptory note, always indicating how many words were required, how many dollars would be paid. First by post, then fax (at any time of the day or night), then email, the edits would arrive. Lesson after lesson in succinctness, in dispatch, in an awareness of the reader's presumed range of reference. And always respectful, always suggesting rather than asserting. Always enviably cheerful. Phone calls late in the evening to check a fact or discuss a change in punctuation before the paper went to press. Then brief notes of thanks. Handwritten thanks. Bob was always thankful, genuinely thankful, I felt, that the work had been done. It was important that his words came by hand. Jotted on the side of a fax, or a PDF. However heavy the edit, he always communicated encouragement. A strange mixture of assertiveness and generosity allowed you to find your own position, without simply being pushed somewhere. You never felt he wished he had chosen someone else for the job.
Last night, collapsed on the sofa, I was astonished to realize what a large space this man had come to occupy in my life, how lucky I had been to receive those notes of thanks and hear those gusts of laughter on the phone. We shall not see his like again.
I was always embarrassed to call the office with corrections and additions to a story. There were so many of them, and they seemed like such trivial reasons to waste a great man's time. I'd plead with his assistants to take the correction down themselves—it's only a word change!—and not bother Bob with it, but they must have been under strict instructions to pass writers' calls directly to him. "Hello!" he would boom into the phone, pleased as a Labrador puppy with a twig, and I could hear him leaping around the suggested word, snuffling and worrying it, nudging and patting, until he was satisfied that it fit. To his endlessly open mind, nothing was as satisfying as a word or a punctuation mark that made a meaning more clear, or a midnight discussion, hours before press time, about the central idea of a paragraph—particularly when the author prevailed and he felt as though some new thought had been born. He was not a squeezy-huggy man, he rarely expressed affection, but always, always, in his dealings with his beloved life-partner, Grace Dudley, his writers, their manuscripts, what impelled him was an almost superhuman capacity for devotion.
When Bob wanted an article, he really wanted it, and was determined to get it. I observed that often, but the best remembered time was his reaction to Barack Obama's March 29, 2008 speech at the National Constitution Center, in which the then-candidate was extricating himself from the sticky Jeremiah Wright situation. Bob admired the way Obama used the immediate problem to open up the whole subject of race relations in America, in a realistic but eirenic way. And, as usual, he was impressed by the writing skills (he had already told me that if Obama won he would be the first real writer in the presidency since Lincoln). I was in Siena, but he called to ask me if I had seen Obama deliver his speech on TV. I said no. He had what he thought a good idea (it was): Would I do a piece comparing this speech with Lincoln's Cooper Union address? I said I was in Italy, and I would need the text of them both. He said he would handle that. They arrived post haste. I wrote the piece (edited with him by phone). Then he thought of publishing a booklet containing my piece and both the speeches, but the Obama campaign refused to grant the rights to his speech. I assumed at the time that the campaign feared its candidate would be called arrogant for cooperating with any comparison to Lincoln. The one time I met Obama afterward, I asked him if that was the reason for denying the rights. He could not remember involvement in what his campaign was doing to protect him. I was complimented by a number of people for thinking of the comparison, but I had to admit the whole concept was Bob's, and he had blown away the obstacles that stood in its path. No one else would or could have done that. He wanted it into existence.
About twenty years ago, stuck in a taxi on Fifth Avenue, I saw Bob round the corner on 58th Street, dash past the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, squeeze through the stopped traffic in even greater hurry, and sprint uptown with his jacket open and his tie flying over shoulder. Next time I talked to him, I asked him about it, since I never saw anyone run so fast in Manhattan, except some young fellow who had snatched a purse and was fleeing from the cops, and he laughed and told me that he was late for an appointment with Grace.
The New York Review under Bob was a journal not only of opinion but also of values. Bob made no bones about where the Review stood on the biggest human rights issues of the day, perhaps because he understood that literary excellence required basic freedoms. The Review was a voice for dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, a window to prisoners locked up for their beliefs, and a sentinel against the counterterrorism excesses in Washington. There was always room for a letter of protest, a snapshot from a country under siege. Its name suggested a literary journal, but there was no more thoughtful forum for addressing the most pressing threats to liberty and democracy.
Bob was the most meticulous editor I ever encountered, though the experience could be sobering. He was the only editor I knew for whom the editing process could require more thought and effort than the drafting of the original article. My greatest sense of accomplishment as a writer was when I realized that my submissions had graduated from the ranks of the presumptive rewrite to those of the mere edit.
He always spoke about what "we" might do with an article. He had deep respect for the line between editor and writer—and once I had gained his confidence he would defer to me if we disagreed—but the care he put into editing was as if his name were on the byline as well.
I think of our rip-roaring lunches, stories and laughter—gossip and politics and books—effervescence! incandescence!—such a fine time! Bob, in one of his excellent suits, would invariably end up with food on his chin or on the suit or both. Sometimes I would pick off a particularly flagrant bit and he would be unfazed, amused, delighted even—and back upstairs to work he would go.
Our twenty years of fruitful friendship were based on deep respect and restraint. We only met once. We communicated by emails with few words. I treasure a couple of messages from ten years ago, in which Bob broke his silence and revealed some personal feeling. The first message enclosed a letter from a reader, correcting a mistake in a review that I had written. Bob wrote: "Unless this is false, it seemed worth doing. Do you see some objection and would you want to reply if not?" I sent him a reply. The following day I received this unique and unexpected response from Bob: "Thanks for your excellent reply. You're the only one of our contributors who deals gracefully with such letters."
Near the end of 1988, Bob was visiting Beijing and wanted to meet Fang Lizhi, the brilliant astrophysicist who had suddenly and courageously begun to speak out for human rights and democracy in China. Orville Schell told Bob that I knew Fang and could be a conduit. And so it happened, one frigid evening, that I met Bob for the first time and led him, together with his companion Grace, the Countess of Dudley, to the eighth floor of the drab rectangular apartment building where Fang and his wife, Peking University physics professor Li Shuxian, were living. Only one of two elevators in the building was ever working. This was to save electricity, but it meant, on that night, that Bob, Grace and I had to walk about fifty yards along an unlit exterior walkway, eight stories above the ground, in order to reach the Fangs. Bob and Grace were inexperienced at this walk, so I worried. I shouldn't have.
Inside the apartment, Bob and Fang bonded immediately. An hour later, Bob asked, "Will you write something for us?" Fang said yes. Bob turned to me: "Will you translate it?" I said yes. The result was "China's Despair and China's Hope," published in the February 2, 1989 issue of the Review. As simply as that, a lifetime tie between Fang and Bob, and between me and Bob, began. It is one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.
What strikes me most about Bob's genius as an editor was his capacity to see the larger dimensions of a subject and his ability to enlarge the vision of a reviewer. Not that he imposed a viewpoint, but rather he suggested aspects of a subject that you, the reviewer, had not considered. We had many long phone conversations, especially in the days before email, when he recommended supplementary reading. On the following day, I would receive a FedEx full of photocopies and clippings from sources I had never heard of. Although he said he wanted to make the Review's articles shorter, mine often grew longer, thanks to his suggestions about something additional that was worth taking into account. In my experience, he did not interfere much with actual phrasing; and on the rare occasions when he made changes, he always sought my agreement and brought me around after more long phone calls. Bob kept a mental list of what he called "non-words"—that is, expressions so over-used that they had lost all their force. In one of my first articles, back in 1973, I used the phrase "in terms of." He insisted on deleting it, because, he explained, writers used it as filler when they thought there was some relation between A and B but did not know what the relation was. Never again did I use "in terms of," and I have blue-penciled it whenever I've found it in the papers of my students. Bob left a mark on writing and reading that will last for generations.
What I've been thinking most about is the utterly unique way in which his eyes would twinkle when something pleased or delighted him, when I'd written something that he thought might incite some controversy: a disturbance in the culture. Like so many others who have worked with Bob, I'm not the same writer I was before: more precise, less inclined to digress or to use two adjectives when one would suffice. I've long since internalized his editorial guidance. But beyond that, I will never forget Bob's sparkle of mischievous amusement. It was, and will remain, among the most inspiring and meaningful rewards I can imagine.
At a Park Avenue dinner party given by the collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund not long after I began writing for the Review in 1985, it emerged in general dinner table conversation that the guests included several other contributors to the paper, among them the great Ronald Dworkin, who was particularly close to Bob. At one point, Betsy Dworkin posed this question to the group: "What power does Bob Silvers hold over our husbands that he can call at all hours on a weekend, rouse them out of bed, and get them to run to his office as if they were firemen?" There was laughter at what seemed like comic exaggeration, but in those pre-Internet days I more than once had that same experience of being urgently summoned by Bob late on a Saturday night, racing in a cab down a nearly deserted Park Avenue, past his and Grace's apartment at 62nd Street, and then west on 57th Street to the seedy and freezing Fisk Building, where he would be huddled in an overcoat and muffler puzzling over my B galleys amid towering stacks of books. The sense of immediacy and high excitement that Bob brought to the inherently solitary task of writing was just part of his magic, but it gave you an exhilarating sense that what one thought and expressed mattered tremendously if it mattered so much to him, enough to get you to midtown after midnight with your pajamas still under your pants.
As a doctor working (mainly) in war zones, I found that The New York Review was about the only thing I would make time to read, years before I ever thought of writing for it. Until I began writing about Syria's assault on doctors and the polio outbreak there during the civil war. Now I'd rather be published in the Review than in any prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal—Bob's review (and that of his colleagues) was far more rigorous, and the end result far more satisfying. Bob's loyalty to writers was not only a marker of his integrity, but had real effects. The Review stood behind me despite the World Health Organization's attempts to undermine me. When my story was challenged by WHO in a letter addressed to "Ms Sparrow," I was reluctant to respond. Bob persuaded me. That was my first experience of the extent of his editorial skill—changes in words I had previously thought picky, and his singular act of adding all my international medical degrees and accreditations after my name resulted in annihilating WHO's response, and led to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding the cross-border Syrian polio campaign to the tune of several million dollars.
The last time I saw him, on November 6, he made me laugh—on an otherwise unbearable evening. He was a man worth writing for, worth grieving for, and will be much missed.
Bob had a wonderful gift for gently steering writers onto new terrain. Once he asked me to review The Rake's Progress and I begged off, citing my near total inexperience of opera in performance. He said, more or less, "Just go see some operas." A few years later when Jenufa came up I felt a little more ready, and with Bob's incomparable encouragement set to. A good many operas followed, for me a life-enhancing experience, and much of the joy of it was the continuing and evolving conversation with Bob on a subject so dear to him. Writing for him always extended beyond the immediate occasion. I had the impression that he always had the Review's whole archive in mind all the time, with each piece another element in that larger structure.