Seventy years ago, on March 27, 1946, the renowned New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling fell in love. Bard of battered boxers and Bowery boozers, Liebling had not, however, fallen for one of the many dolls in his life. Instead, he fell for a guy — or, better yet, an ideal embodied by this particular guy. Newly arrived in New York, Liebling’s love interest not only resembled Humphrey Bogart, but also seemingly lived a life as daring and dramatic as Rick’s in “Casablanca.”
This particular Rick, however, spoke much less English than did Claude Rains as Captain Renault, and the little he did speak was lathered with an authentic French accent. He was a thin and tubercular French-Algerian writer, in a suit too big and adorned with lapels too wide, and his one novel had not yet been translated into English. And yet Liebling rightly sensed that the future of French literature and thought was in the hands of this stranger. whose name was Albert Camus.
Long before he met Camus, however, Liebling had been primed to fall in love with most anything and anyone French. His father, Joseph Liebling, was an Austrian Jew who, arriving penniless in New York, made his fortune as a furrier. With his wife, Anna Slone, the daughter of a fully assimilated and well-to-do Jewish family in San Francisco, Liebling provided, good schools, German nannies and European vacations — a cosmopolitan and cultivated childhood — for his son, Abbott Joseph, and daughter, Norma.
Abbott is a name that measured the social aspirations of the Lieblings. An Americanization of Abraham, Abbott reflected the family’s conflicted attitude toward their Jewish roots: Determined to be accepted as Americans, the elder Joseph Liebling, who neither practiced nor professed Judaism, nevertheless would not entirely forswear his origins. Perhaps as conflicted as his father over his Jewish heritage, Abbott Liebling grew to dislike his first name. In the early 1920s, when he was a student at Dartmouth — where a polite anti-Semitism was as commonplace as ivy-covered walls — Liebling started edging away from Abbott altogether in favor of plain old Joe.
The name was as plain as the person. With round-rimmed glasses and a rounder belly, preternaturally small hands and pigeon-toed feet, the young Liebling was hopeless at sports. These handicaps, however, drove him into the boxing ring; though never much of a fighter, he became a lifelong student of what he later called the “sweet science.” It was no accident that in a piece in The New Yorker, Liebling dwelt on a golden age of Jewish boxers, when bruisers like Abraham Belasco were drawing cards in cities like New York and Chicago. But just as his father lifted himself out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jewish boxers pulled their sons from the ring. As the Jewish ex-boxer Freddie Brown told Liebling: “When the kids didn’t have what to eat, they were glad to fight. Now that any kid can get a job, they got no ambition.”
Liebling’s biographer, Raymond Sokolov, makes much of Liebling’s ambivalence toward Judaism. He argues that Liebling, embarrassed by his Jewish roots, tried eagerly to transplant himself in fields that had become foreign to Jews, such as the boxing ring and football gridiron. While Sokolov perhaps makes too much of his subject’s “yearning for the normal joys of muscular Christianity,” he does capture a key element of Liebling’s character. It seems that this effort at self-reinvention largely succeeded, if only in Liebling’s eyes. As his third and last wife, his fellow New Yorker writer Jean Stafford, noted dryly, “Even Hitler didn’t make him an intensely self-conscious Jew.”
There were, in fact, other fields where Liebling went about fashioning a new self the way his father fashioned a mink pelt. By far, France was the most alluring of all these fields. With his father’s blessing and billfold, Liebling embarked for Paris in 1926 for a year of study. Though he enrolled at the Sorbonne, Liebling found his real education in the city’s cheap restaurants and red-light districts. Chatting up prostitutes and attending boxing matches, he never bothered to find the charter members of “the lost generation,” who reminded him of “monkeys on a raft.” For the rest of his life, Liebling could not shake France from his system. This was, in one sense, quite literally the case. As he noted in his 1995? gastronomic memoir, “Between Meals,” Liebling became a professional glutton in France. But more elusively, he became fully A.J. Liebling in France: The language, history and people settled in his mind, shaping his sense of both himself and the world. France, he wrote, “represented for me the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living.” As a result, when he covered the French military collapse in 1940, Liebling was shocked as much by the significance as he was by the swiftness of the German victory. Suddenly, that continuity had been broken, and “nothing anywhere can have meaning until it is re-established.”
In 1944, Liebling, back in Paris to report on the city’s liberation, re-established his own continuity with intelligence and reasonable living. When he looked back at August 25, the day he entered the city, Liebling declared it was “to be one of the happiest of my life.” Three years later, in “The Republic of Silence,” he introduced a wide selection of French Resistance writings to American readers. Borrowing the title of an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre — in which the existentialist, who spent the Occupation puffing peacefully on his pipe at the Café de Flore, declared fatuously: “We were never more free than under the German Occupation” — Lielbling’s book reprinted pieces by such Resistance luminaries as Vercors, Jean Guéhenno and François Mauriac.
Oddly, there was no article or mention of Camus, who by war’s end was the editor of the most important Resistance journal, Combat, and whose 1942 novel “The Stranger” had already won critical acclaim. Perhaps determined to repair this oversight, Liebling sought out Camus when the young writer disembarked in New York City for a speaking tour. Calling on Camus at his hotel on West 70th Street, Liebling was struck by the visitor’s “absurd suit” — of which the patterns seemed to “date from before the great crash of 1929” — and by his wide smile, lithe poise and quick mind. The two men chatted about another kind of absurdity, embodied by both the figure of Meursault in “The Stranger” and the eponymous hero of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” condemned to roll a boulder up a mountainside for all eternity. “For a man arrived at such a grim conclusion,” Liebling noted in his Talk of the Town article, “M. Camus seemed unduly cheerful.” When Liebling asked him why, Camus replied: “Just because you have pessimistic thoughts, you don’t have to act pessimistic. One has to pass the time somehow. Look at Don Juan.”
Over the next few weeks, Liebling became Camus’s guide to the city. He sponsored Camus’ speech to a packed auditorium at Columbia’s McMillan Hall, where Camus reflected on “the crisis of mankind,” and led him up and down the streets of Little Italy and the Bowery. Standing on dark and dank streets, Camus and Liebling gazed in wonder at shop windows stuffed with blinding white bridal gowns. At jazz dives they listened to bad singers. While Liebling drank a lot, Camus drank little, and one time he had to send his drunken companion to his apartment in a taxi. The attraction between the two men was mutual, with Camus telling a friend in Paris that he “loved Liebling at first sight.”
In his lucid account of the friendship between Camus and Sartre — and its famous collapse — Ronald Aronson speculates on the basis of their mutual attraction. Short, wall-eyed and awkward, Sartre was the pampered child of a bourgeois family and spent his childhood immersed in books. An intellectual who battled on behalf of a working class he never met, Sartre was primed to fall in love with Camus. Not only did Camus have the street cred — he hailed from a poor working-class family in Algiers — he also had the good looks.
While the Sartres and Lieblings could write, they could envy Camus for nothing other than his working-class authenticity and seductive presence. Resentment perhaps played a role into the explosive break-up of Satre and Camus in 1952. Liebling, though, remained loyal to Camus until the ends of both their lives. Devastated by the news of Camus’s death in a car wreck in 1960, Liebling himself had just a few years left to live. A victim of a lifetime of overeating in restaurants and overcommitting to editors, Liebling was in failing health in 1963, when he reviewed the English translation of Camus’s “Notebooks.” He marveled over the purity of the French Algerian’s language, and praised the courage and commitment Camus had shown in his life and work. “He was,” Liebling wrote, “not only a great writer, but a great man.”
Tellingly, it was perhaps with this great man that Liebling had his last conversation before his own death. On December 21, 1963, Stafford called for an ambulance; already suffering from pneumonia, Liebling had collapsed and fallen comatose in their apartment. Strapped to the gurney, delirious and dying, he began to speak wildly and passionately in French. But not to Stafford. Though she could hardly decipher her husband’s words, Stafford believes that he was conversing with his old friend and hero, Camus.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”