Editor of the New York Review of Books for more than half a century
In the winter of 1962-63, a printers strike closed all the newspapers in New York for nearly four months and hastened the demise of several of them. But it also changed literary history. A group of friends working in the world of books and magazines were dismayed at the decline of American literary journalism and book reviewing. With no New York Times to review new books and nowhere for publishers to place their advertising, they thought they saw an opportunity.
Working quickly, they produced a new journal, which appeared for the first time on 1 February 1963, and was called the New York Review of Books. None of the contributors was paid, which was the more remarkable given their eminence: Bill Styron, Cal [the poet Robert Lowell], Gore [Vidal], Norman Mailer on Hemingway; and then of course Lizzie [Hardwick] did a piece on Ring Lardner.
Those were the words of Robert Silvers, who co-edited the Review with Barbara Epstein from the beginning, who outlived her and almost everyone else concerned with its creation, and who has died at the age of 87, still editor after 54 years. And far from only in name: he edited much of the content until Epstein died in 2006, and all of it from then until his final illness.
Silvers was born in Mineola, a village on Long Island, the son of a businessman, James, and a music critic, Rose (nee Roden), and his early life was a story of astonishing precocity. The University of Chicago then had a minimum age limit and Silvers entered just after his 15th birthday. By 19 he had graduated and, after briefly and fruitlessly studying law, had found a first job, as press secretary to Chester Bowles, the governor of Connecticut.
Drafted into the US Army, Silvers had the good fortune to be posted to the SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) base in Paris, where military duties left him time to study at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po. He remained in Paris after he left the army, working for the small Noonday Press before George Plimpton asked him to join his new Paris Review. Plimpton later said that Silvers made the Paris Review what it was. Becoming an editor seemed to me quite a natural thing, Silvers told Andrew Brown of the Guardian more than 50 years later, something I could do without even making a choice.