‘This man is not going to daunt me:’ Talking with Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey
Editor’s note: Two weeks after this interview with Blake Bailey was published, multiple women came forward to accuse him of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct. Details of the allegations may be found here.
A masterful writer obsessively preoccupied with whether and how he’d be valued by history; a deeply sensitive charmer with a real mean streak; a transgressive who disavowed the labels usually affixed to Jewish writers, but who wanted his work to be understood in the company of the Jewish greats.
If Philip Roth wasn’t a good man, he was certainly an original one.
Capturing the problem of Roth became the task of Blake Bailey, the literary biographer who, after writing about the lives of Richard Yates, John Cheever and Charles Jackson, turned to Roth. It was a fraught assignment from the start: Roth had first chosen a friend, Ross Miller, to write his biography, a decision that led to the acrimonious dissolution of their friendship, and, predictably, the Miller biography to boot. For Bailey, a biographer who had never previously worked with a living subject, it wasn’t the easiest choice of a next chapter.
I spoke with Bailey about the 800-odd page result over the phone. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first meet Philip Roth?
I met Philip in May, 2012. I wrote him and said “I understand you’re looking for a biographer, can we talk.” He called me, we chatted a bit, and decided to meet on the Upper West Side, at his apartment. It was the nicest I would ever see him be dressed on a non-public occasion. He always dressed like a quasi-preppy Bucknell undergraduate from the 50s, pressed blue button-down and khakis, so forth. He had just had spine surgery.
I don’t think we even touched on the subject of a biography. At the end, he said “Why don’t you come back in a couple days, on Saturday.” When I did, he was in a far grimmer mood. I inquired about his back, and he said “you didn’t come here to ask about my back, sit down.”
He asked me to discuss the Jewish American — having just told me that he didn’t consider himself an American Jewish writer — the Jewish American literary tradition as it related to Bellow, Malamud and Roth. I told myself this man is not going to daunt me. I think that was my most impressive asset in his eyes. I would respond, and he would get impatient and finish the answer for me, and sort of recollect it as my having nailed the answer myself.
He asked me what I thought of his reputation for alleged misogyny. I said “I think it’s possible to write about a bad woman, singular, without having a brief against women, plural.”
I was struck by your choice to open the story of Roth’s life in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem district, because it’s a spot quite culturally distant from the version of Jewishness Roth came to represent. Why in your mind was that the right starting point for this story?
Simply because this reminded Philip of the land of his ancestors — of 19th century Galicia. Of the grinding poverty, the resignation to hardship. He says so, and then he makes an impertinent remark. That’s very typical Philip.
Did you have concerns about what it would mean to be working on an authorized biography with a living subject? Did Roth have concerns about working with you?
First of all, let’s clarify what we mean by authorized, because that term tends to carry a stigma. For me, authorization just means complete access. He has no control over the content. I had essentially the same agreement with Philip that I had with the estates of my three previous subjects: He needs to give me his total cooperation, all his papers that are pertinent to the task, all his letters, let me quote freely. He needs to encourage friends, family, lovers to cooperate. That access is exclusive. In exchange, he gets to vet the manuscript for factual accuracy.
He was terrified, justifiably, of what was going to be written about him. I think he hoped that because he had been so super cooperative, and because he knew he could charm a person, that I would go easy on him and give an essentially sympathetic account. Insofar as my book is sympathetic to Philip — and I think it’s quite sympathetic to Philip — it’s because that’s what the evidence bears out, it’s not because of my tender feelings. Philip had carefully read my Cheever biography. He and Cheever were friends, and the Cheever biography is not hagiography, to put it mildly. He was most interested that it be good, and that it be accurate. He hoped it would be sympathetic, too.
Some critics, most prominently Laura Marsh of The New Republic, have suggested that your biography includes some of the same biases, particularly toward women, that Roth has often been accused of having in his own work. What’s your response to those charges?
Well, obviously I disagree with them.
Listen: People tend to love or hate Philip. For the people who love him, you’re too hard on him. For the people who hate him, you can’t possibly be hard enough. What I am most disposed to emphasize is Philip was a darling man. You had six or seven or eight former lovers at his bedside when he was dying. One of them was 86 years old and needed a helper to be there, but she was there. You’re doing something right if you can get so many people who loved you to come and say goodbye to you.
I’m an empiricist. I collect evidence. I try to give each theme, bad or good, its due emphasis.
What were your interviews with him like?
We had six-hour sessions, broken down into three hours apiece. We were sitting in his studio, a charming little cottage in the woods. He was always eager to get started. He always had something to show me. He knew exactly where he wanted to pick up. He had a fentanyl patch; I thought in those early sessions he was suffering from a degree of dementia, short term memory loss, and later understood that to be mostly the effects of the fentanyl. But make no mistake: in his last years Philip’s memory was compromised.
For those first two or three years I would receive, at least twice a week, fat envelopes: some new gem that he had disinterred from his files, always with a translucent strip of brown masking tape on the back of the envelope, lest the post person see the eminent name and get curious. Philip likes to be in control of stuff. He went overboard with my predecessor. But for the most part it meant he was working hard for me.
That’s quite an intense immersion in someone else’s life. You mentioned your tender feelings — what were your personal feelings toward him?
It was impossible to get to know Philip without feeling tenderly toward him. He was an extremely darling man. He was funny, confiding in a way that was not in his best interest. He was lonely. I always found him pretty touching.
I could see, of course, the obnoxiousness. I find fascinating the compartmentalization of his personality — he writes about this degenerate, foul-mouthed, transgressive person, Mickey Sabbath, then he writes about this consummately decent man, Swede Levov. Both are, arguably, equally dominant sides of Philip Roth. I find that interesting, that push and pull between those moral extremes in his personality.
Can you tell me more about that quality — confiding in a way that was not in his interest?
During the first week that I was in Connecticut, he wanted me to go to his favorite restaurant in Litchfield, the West Street Grill, and talk to the owner, Charlie. He said “and on your way back, pick up these meds and drop them off.” I got lost, and was late and kind of flustered when I came by Philip’s house after. He gave me a drink, and he starts telling me a story about the woman who was the model for Faunia Farley in “The Human Stain” — I call her Sylvia in my book. It was a ribald anecdote, not the sort of thing that was doing him any favors. It was one of many times when I was thinking to myself, while laughing, “why is he telling me this? Does he think I’ll respect the confidence? I’m not offering that. That’s not on the table.”
Do you think he trusted you? Did you trust him?
Yes. We trusted each other.
Philip would get things wrong. But not because he was a deliberate fabulist like Cheever. It’s just because one, they happened a long time ago, and two, he’s turned the raw material of his life into fiction, and that warps your memory.
Do you have a favorite memory of Roth?
I’ll give you a typical memory. It’s not necessarily my favorite. Toward the end, Philip was in poor health, and he was getting more worried about things. In late 2017, he was recovering from transaortic replacement surgery. He was just knocked out. Could barely stay awake. I had some questions to ask; they were kind of tough. He was getting more and more animated. At one point he said, “you know what?” and kind of shook himself. “This is the best I’ve felt in weeks, you fucker!”
That was typical Philip. There are all these photographs, especially late in life, where he’s looking grim and beetle-browed. You could always, even in his worst moods, appeal to his sense of humor. That was always a half inch beneath that baleful glare.
Why should readers today care about the life of Philip Roth? What about readers 50 years from now, or a century?
Philip embodies some archetypal qualities of the devoted artist. Whatever hard things you want to say about Philip the man, the lion’s share of his adult life was spent at a desk in utter solitude. This was a man who had a great talent, and made the most of it.