My Friend and Mentor

Remembering the New York Review of Books co-editor Barbara Epstein.

My relationship with Barbara Epstein began with a letter. Eight years ago, I found an envelope in my mailbox so small it could have easily gone missing among coupons and takeout menus. Inside, there was a typewritten message on New York Review of Books letterhead. It was a reply to a blind inquiry I had sent in search of an internship. “I don’t know of any job here,” Barbara’s note read, “but why don’t you come in and we’ll have a chat?” She had used pencil to sign her name and to correct a minor typo. I had a hard time believing the letter was real; had she really bothered to reply? Later, during the four years I spent working for her at the New York Review, the magazine she founded in 1963 with her co-editor Robert Silvers, I would learn that Barbara received countless beseeching inquiries from young people like myself. To my amazement (and, as I typed them all, my occasional exhaustion), she answered every one.

Barbara, who died Friday at the age of 77, will be remembered for her many literary achievements. She was, of course, one of only a handful of women ever to helm a journal of such cultural note. And she edited some of the most celebrated writers of our time: Gore Vidal, Janet Malcolm, Larry McMurtry, to name just a few. But it is her immense generosity of spirit and her profound humanity that I, and the others who were close to her, will remember above all. At our initial “chat,” she did not seem to care if I could type or whether I possessed any organizational skills. Instead, we talked at length about my college thesis and what books I was reading now. I was too naïve to realize that it was rare for someone of her stature to discuss, with a genuine, unhurried interest, the finer points of an undergraduate thesis. And though there wasn’t a job available, Barbara hired me part-time anyway. A year and a half later, when her assistant decided to leave, she brought me on full-time.

Barbara delighted in discovering and fostering new talent, sending notes to fledgling writers she found in obscure journals (“Perhaps you might send us some ideas?”), assigning them reviews, and walking their manuscripts through numerous iterations (“I have just a few points,” she would say delicately). She even encouraged the Review’s assistants to write, reading and commenting on the multiple drafts they produced. The joy she derived from mentoring was perhaps akin to the pleasure she found in shaping a manuscript. A suggestion here, a correction there, and the rough-hewn and unsophisticated became something polished and refined. 

For Barbara, editing was as much about the relationships she formed as it was about the prose she perfected. She loved receiving phone calls and visits from her beloved writers, many of whom became close friends through years of collaboration. Her blond head would peer over the multiple towers of books and manuscripts rising from her desk. “Send them through!” she would sing out to me in her girlish voice. Minutes later, her full, infectious laugh would float from her office. She wrote notes complimenting her writers on pieces published elsewhere (“Thank you for writing that beautiful piece.”); faxed groups of friends when an article delighted her or, more frequently, in her latter, Bush-governed years, provoked her; and mailed out books as gifts (“Thought you might find this of interest. If not, not.”), just because. She sent congratulatory bottles of champagne. These acts of kindness were not just her way of nurturing her writers, though they certainly flourished as a result of her solicitude. This was how she cared for those she loved.

There were also larger, more heroic gestures. When writers hit financial trouble, she advanced them money on their pieces, and she wrote lovely, thoughtful recommendations for fellowships that might bail them out. When I became sick with a serious illness, she held my job for me for many months, hiring a series of temps until I was able to return. You might say that as much as Barbara was in the business of fixing manuscripts, she was also in the business of fixing lives.

This is not to say she was indiscriminate with her largesse. In fact, in all realms of her life, Barbara had a refined sense of discrimination—you might call it exquisite good taste—that helped make the New York Review the influential journal it has been for the past 43 years. She could divine which writers had real potential and knew how to tease it out. She possessed a discerning sense of literary style and argument. Her feel for language was extraordinarily nuanced. Her interests also extended beyond the literary; she was politically engaged, and she expected others to be so with a similar passion. (She once sent away an applicant for an assistant job with a grim shake of her head, after the young woman confessed that politics bored her. To Barbara, this was an unpardonable sin, tantamount to admitting you were bored by the world.) Because she was so genial, and wore her talents and accomplishments so lightly, it was sometimes possible to forget what a formidable figure she was. But she always adhered firmly to her principles, whether political, ethical, grammatical, or aesthetic.

For all these reasons, the literary world mourns her death. But those of us who had the good fortune to know her, to be touched by her many kindnesses, also mourn the loss of her friendship. We will miss her gentleness, her empathy, her wit, her sense of mischief and fun. The pleasure she took in her job. The graceful way she made her long hours seem effortless. Her enthusiastic love of literature. Her effervescent presence at parties. Her unflagging support. The regular arrival of her clever notes, always signed “Much Love, B.”

It is remarkable when someone lives her life with a constant faithfulness to personal standards of decency and an authentic regard for others. It is more remarkable when these qualities are found in someone as sharp, as talented, as accomplished—and, frankly, as busy—as Barbara Epstein was. To rephrase, slightly, the final lines of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a great editor. Barbara was both.