Following are reminiscences of Robert B. Silvers by some of the Review’s writers; more will be added in the coming days.
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.
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