After Barbara Epstein died of lung cancer on Friday, June 16, at the age of 77, it was natural for the large circle of people—many of whom came to know her over four decades of editing The New York Review of Books—to remember her intellectual prowess and her skill as an editor.
Also her bubbly, girlish enthusiasm, generosity to young people and wicked sense of humor—refreshing, and in some ways unexpected, in a literary lioness of her stature.
“She had a wonderful combination of seriousness and gaiety,” said the foreign-policy writer David Rieff, who grew up with Epstein often nearby, as she was a friend of his late mother, Susan Sontag. “That was very attractive and moving and interesting about her.”
The critic Daniel Mendelsohn, Epstein’s friend for many years, said that he never showed up at Epstein’s apartment on the Upper West Side without a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on hand.
“She would open the door, and she’d have this electrified look on her face and say, ‘Oh, goody! Let’s have some champagne,’” he said.
They often ate dinner in her kitchen, gossiping and trading stories. On other occasions, they met at Café des Artistes (near Epstein’s home) or Café Luxembourg (near his). She would usually order a glass of champagne, and “she loved to order a steak.”
Mr. Mendelsohn said Epstein was “a formidable editor” and “incredibly supportive of younger writers.” According to her friends, she continued to work until very close to the end of her life.
Epstein leaves a great imprint on the literary world and on several generations of writers. After co-founding The New York Review of Books in 1962, she spent the next four decades consumed with editing and encouraging, polishing and cajoling some of the great voices of the time, from W.S. Pritchard to Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal.
“She represents something in our culture, particularly in our New York literary culture, and it’s a little chilling to know that that’s gone,” said the former editor in chief of Knopf Robert Gottlieb.
“She only took writers that she liked to edit, that she liked to read, and editing just meant reading,” said Mr. Vidal, speaking by phone from the lobby of a hotel in Rome. “And sort of like the British monarch has only three powers—the monarch in the case of Queen Elizabeth has the power to advise government, to encourage and to warn—she was like the monarch [of the] New York Review. She never exerted any power beyond those powers. And I don’t know anybody who worked with her who objected to it.”
Epstein was known to shun the spotlight—Robert Boynton, the director of N.Y.U.’s magazine-journalism program, said she wouldn’t sit for a profile of her that he’d wanted to write for The New Yorker five years ago—subscribing to an increasingly rare editors’ code that reserved celebrity for the writers.
“She was a very stylish editor, who was able to let the writer say precisely what he wanted to say and not to interfere, but to enrich his understanding of his own subject,” said Edmund Morgan, emeritus professor of history at Yale, whose friendship with Epstein goes back more than 40 years.
“She had a tremendous influence on the way one wrote, because of her sense of language,” said another of her authors, the novelist Darryl Pinckney. “That was the reason she was friends with so many poets since her youth. Her language was like a poet’s, and she had the ear of a genius, so as an editor she could always purify your prose …. It was sort of less coarse when Barbara got finished with it.”
With her co-editor, Robert Silvers, Epstein had recently presided over a special resurgence at the Review, partially the result of the journal’s matchless intellectual engagement with the present war in Iraq.
And if Mr. Silvers is known among those who know these things for having shepherded many of the Review’s most searing pieces about the war in Iraq and the media’s failure to report on W.M.D. and torture, Epstein, to those who knew her, was also a political force to be reckoned with.
“She was very much concerned with what was happening to the world, and not very happy about it,” said Mr. Morgan. “And that’s something that affected her life a great deal.”
According to Mr. Mendelsohn, politics was never very far off the agenda during their long conversations. “She was a very strong person of the left in an old-fashioned way,” he said. “One was always talking about Bush, whatever the current events were. She had a very strong sense of outrage at the shenanigans of the current administration.”
Pankaj Mishra, a contributor to the Review and one of Epstein’s formidable young discoveries, recalled that after the last Presidential election, Epstein’s feelings ran so deep that she had “an almost physical reaction to events that she felt would have harmful consequences.”
“I remember meeting her during the long Gore-Bush standoff in Florida in late 2000,” wrote Mr. Mishra in an e-mail. “She had a very hoarse voice and looked slightly unwell. She confessed slightly guiltily that she had been very anxious, not sleeping well, and smoking very hard. I still remember her saying, ‘Terrible things will happen in this country if Bush gets elected.’”
These discoveries were also the hallmark of the editor’s genuine generosity. Mark Danner, a professor at Berkeley and one of the Review’s contributors, remembers making a blind cold call to the publication’s offices right after he graduated from Harvard. It was Friday evening, and of course Epstein answered the phone. “I kind of stammered out, ‘Oh, I just got out of college … maybe you need someone?’” Mr. Danner said. “And she did this very direct and amusing interview of me: ‘What did you study? Who are you? What do you read?’” Mr. Danner limped through the conversation for about half an hour, and Epstein said, as she often did to keen youngsters: “Why don’t you come down to talk to us?”
“Barbara never stopped taking an interest in young writers,” wrote Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in an e-mail. “She loved to recruit new reviewers, and she always wanted to know what we were reading, which writers we thought we were important. Then she’d actually go and *read* our recommendations—and in my experience she was always ready to fall in love.
“She called me the morning after she started reading Mary Gaitskill’s last novel, just to say how much she was enjoying it. She never gave up on literature or relaxed into nostalgia. I think this inspired us all.”
“What I would also say about her is that she was a person who was always a lot of fun,” said Mr. Morgan. “I never talked with her without coming away feeling better about the human race because it had such a person in it.”
Then he addressed himself to the reporter.
“You never met her, did you?” he asked. “You missed something.”