Scant Dishing From a Print Pooh-bah

A Former New Yorker Editor Collects Some Of His Prime Pieces

Robert Gottlieb: A man of letters who is
a pleasure to read but no unique stylist.
Michael Lionstar
Robert Gottlieb: A man of letters who is a pleasure to read but no unique stylist.

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published June 29, 2011, issue of July 08, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Lives and Letters
By Robert Gottlieb Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages, $30

There is something poignant in reading a collection like this, one that comprises mainly long, discursive reviews of long, intelligent books about long-dead people. Our author is a notable man of letters, the former editor in chief of both Simon & Schuster and The New Yorker. The pieces, whose subjects include Bruno Bettelheim and Isadora Duncan, Harry Houdini and Katharine Hepburn, originally appeared in esteemed journals like The New York Review of Books. Ten years hence, will there be such men? Will there be such journals?

Some genres seem pretty sturdy: One imagines there will always be a market for short stories and novels, for long-form reportage, for the shorter book reviews (the length of this one, say). But the 5,000-word review, in which the author is liberated to stray from the book at hand and take his own intellect out for a walk? I suspect the market for such writing is bearish. To get a sense of what will be lost if the market crashes altogether, go read old collections by Elizabeth Hardwick, Cynthia Ozick or Joan Acocella. Not only do these formidable but accessible critics do you the ultimate favor of empowering you to discuss the book at hand without actually reading it, but they also combine a passionate attachment to literature with a casual, frisky outlook on authors. A good book might last forever, they seem to say, but its writer is always human. The critic is not allowed schoolgirl crushes. Rigor, wit, even gossip — but no gushing.

Like the greats, Robert Gottlieb is a pleasure to read, a good synthesizer, broad-minded and curious. But he is not a unique stylist, and he offers no fresh or eccentric perspective. He is amiable and highly competent, but that argues against collecting his works between hard covers. Then there is the problem of concentration. Collections reveal the extent to which we all recycle ideas and tropes, building our own cabinet of clichés. In Gottlieb’s case, these include the adjective “acerb” — used at least three times — which means, according to my dictionary, “acerbic.” Another Gottlieb habit is to chide biographers for printing prurient tidbits about their subjects while at the same time reprinting, and thus further spreading, the lurid gossip. Here, some examples are required, if only so I can engage in the postmodern game of quoting him quoting others, and so be the third to defile these graves, after the biographer and Gottlieb.

Reviewing a biography of dancer Margot Fonteyn, Gottlieb quotes the biographer quoting a lover who said, of Fonteyn’s vaginal muscles, they “are so strong that she can activate me on her own accord.” Gottlieb then tut-tuts: “But did the world really need to hear such things about a woman who was famously reticent and fastidious, and whose family and friends will presumably be reading this book? I don’t think it’s prudery on my part that makes me recoil, on Margot’s behalf, from this gratuitous invasion of her most private life.” This is like beginning a sentence with, “Not to be a gossip, but….”

In his review of Francine du Plessix Gray’s memoir of her parents, “Them,” Gottlieb uncharitably cites her description of her father’s bathroom: “I never observed any object in the least associated with sexuality or sexual enticement — except just once, when I was in my late teens and saw, pathetically curled up in a neat heap, a little yellowish condom, clearly unused.” Gray had a perfectly miserable childhood, and the book under review is her attempt, however flawed, to understand her neglectful parents. Here is Gottlieb’s pissy dismissal: “What can it mean that she has felt it incumbent on herself to share that little condom with the world?” What can it mean that Gottlieb is so vexed by it?

There are more examples that testify to Gottlieb’s intolerance of the prurient interests of others, revealing nothing more than his own prurient interests. Suffice it to say that one such passage involves Hepburn’s sexuality and another involves the expression “ectoplasm presumably issuing from her vagina.”

I was grateful for these passages, which relieved the fear and trembling that would overcome me in the middle of yet another essay about a forgotten female artist of the 19th or early 20th century: Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Judy Garland, Lillian Gish (who, I realize, did great work into the Reagan years). I confess that I am not the audience for such remembrances, which would have to be far more vigorous, catty or acerb to reel me in.

In the end, the proportions are just off. Any collection will have its good stuff and its bad stuff, and here there is just too much of the latter. That means the book should have been shorter. But there are some terrific pieces here, and they are the ones in which Gottlieb hops off the silent-film-era nostalgia train and gets his spats dirty. His review of Renata Adler’s book about The New Yorker, a book in which Gottlieb is personally implicated, is brutal and a great treat to read. (Full disclosure: Adler once dialed a wrong number and called me by accident. Seriously.) His attack on Richard Schickel’s biography of Elia Kazan is actually a roundabout defense of Kazan’s autobiography, which Gottlieb edited. That’s just the kind of serious conflict of interest that makes for some serious page turning. Settle those scores!

Not long ago, I reviewed another underwhelming book, written by the erudite, half-Jewish Daniel Menaker, another big man of publishing. That book was ostensibly about the art of conversation, but it got good only when Menaker got gossipy about the publishing world. There exist editors who are unusually gifted writers; my old editor Paul Elie, for example, wrote a beautiful book about midcentury Catholic writers. But in general, what the world requires from late-career publishing pooh-bahs are candid, irreverent books about the people they knew, loved or loathed. The more vaginal ectoplasm, the better.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column of The New York Times. His memoir, “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate,” is just out in paperback from the Free Press, and he blogs at markoppenheimer.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.