I interviewed him for Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair over coffee in the lobby of the Royalton, in August 1990. He was in town to push a book, of course—he always had a book to push! I forget which. It was the height of Vanity Fair and of the Royalton as the company cafeteria, and my idea in taking Updike there was to create an interesting juxtaposition of the old world of literary Manhattan (The New Yorker was still in its original offices then, just a few doors down 44th Street) and the Brave New World of Steven Meisel and Herb Ritts and Madonna and Tina and the Royalton.
He was dressed in impeccable old New Yorker style, summer version—poplin suit, linen tie—and gave the Philippe Starck décor and thin servers all in black the Updike once-over—that cool Museums and Women gaze, with a faint hint of Eustace Tilley. He was a cool customer. We talked about his early days as a writer, and he recalled with peculiar un-nostalgia his two years of living in Manhattan as a young Talk of the Town writer, in the mid ’50s, just before leaving New York permanently for Ipswich. “Salary was a hundred a week,” he told me. “Which seemed a princely wage. To give you an idea—the rent we paid on a floor-through on West 13th Street, which was a nice street, was $150 a month.”
Why did he leave? “I just felt, even those two years of working for The New Yorker, that it’s a sort of big machine for whittling you down to size, New York,” he said. “And in a town where so many people write, or are agents, or are in the book business, it would have been hard for me to develop the sense of privacy or the naïve self-exploitation that a fiction writer perhaps needs. … If you move away from New York, you achieve a certain—I wouldn’t say grandeur, but you become somewhat interesting to people who live here, because most of the people here can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s like I came from Antarctica, you know—that I’d spent seven years in an igloo or something heroic by living anywhere outside of New York.”
Nobody recognized him—or, knowing the Royalton, maybe they did and pretended not to. But, knowing the Royalton, probably they just didn’t.