Robert Silvers obituary

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.

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Robert Silvers in the offices of the New York Review of Books, 2004. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

In 1958, still in his 20s, Silvers was hired as literary editor of Harpers, the long-established New York monthly, by its editor John Fischer, who may have had second thoughts the following year. Silvers commissioned the critic Elizabeth Hardwick to write a long essay, The Decline of Book Reviewing, a trenchant attack on the prevailing middle-brow mediocrity found in the books pages of the New York Times, among others. Fischer was so alarmed by its vehemence that he published a disavowal at its foot.

At the time Hardwick was married to Lowell, and it was they, Epstein and her husband, Jason, who plotted over supper about a new review to take advantage of the strike. They asked Silvers to join them, and Fischer gave him leave, saying his job would be open when the new venture collapsed within a few months.

We wanted to show what a paper could be, Silvers said, and they did, inspired by Silverss own creed, not to waste time on books trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or call attention to a fraud. Before long the New York Review of Books had become an indispensable feature of literary life on both sides of the Atlantic. Its glittering early roster of contributors included, apart from those in the first issue, WH Auden, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Isaiah Berlin and Edmund Wilson, the last of whom conducted a famous feud with Vladimir Nabokov in the pages of the Review.

Quite soon, the Review had found a political cause and become a sounding board for opponents of the Vietnam war. One issue published a diagram of a homemade bomb on the cover which, along with the Reviews large array of transatlantic writers, prompted someone to call it the the journal of mad dogs and Englishmen. For Tom Wolfe it was the chief theoretical organ of radical chic, and Bellow derided the New York Review of each others books. Inevitably there was some truth in these barbs, if not much, but any defects were always outweighed by the Reviews sheer scope, and the excellence of its writing under Silverss tutelage.

Few editors have ever shown such total devotion to their paper. Silvers appeared to work all day and often all night, seven days a week, all year round, sometimes sleeping in the office. Stories abounded of his obsessive attention to detail, and indifference to clock or calendar. Timothy Garton Ashs family lunch on Christmas Day was interrupted by Silvers on the telephone saying that on column six of the third galley, theres a dangling modifier, and when Daniel Mendelsohn was on board a ship in the Aegean, he was summoned to receive a call with an urgency which made him think there must be a death in the family, but heard instead Silverss voice suggesting that a semicolon should be changed to a full point.

In 1979 the New York Review begat the London Review of Books, in similar circumstances to its own birth: the year-long closure of the Times and TLS. They went their different ways and developed diverse characters. Years later Perry Anderson contrasted the two, suggesting that the LRB was more daring politically, but the NYRB less respectful of literary reputation, citing John Banvilles mauling of Saturday by Ian McEwan in the New York Review as something the LRB would not have published.

However that might be, the political point was unjust, since the Iraq war proved in some ways the New York Reviews finest hour, and Silverss. It is too conveniently forgotten that the war was supported at the time by most of the American media (not to say most of the London press) and the rare voices of opposition came from an likely pair of comrades.

One was the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, whose reporters sought out sources lower down in the intelligence community to expose the fraudulence of claims about Iraqi weaponry. For its part, the New York Review provided the heavyweight analysis needed to expose the chicanery of the Bush administration. At the same time, Silvers encouraged a debate in his pages over Israel and Zionism, of a kind the mainstream American press shied away from.

I put my name on the paper, and the rest I dont care to be known, Silvers said many years ago, adding in a comparatively rare interview in 2008 that The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. Its the writer that counts. This might give a misleading impression of a hermit, which Silvers was not. When the New York Review began, the English revue Beyond the Fringe was playing on Broadway. Silvers met Jonathan Miller, one of the quartet in the show, and recruited him to review John Updikes novel The Centaur in the first issue.

Years later Miller remembered Silvers at that time, dishevelled, overweight and chain-smoking, a contrast indeed to the figure of notable elegance and urbanity he became in later years, in well-cut suits, with the ribbon of the Legion DHonneur in the lapel. He was often seen around and about in New York, at dinner parties, and at the opera, which he loved.

He was showered with many honours. Silvers was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012, and received honorary degrees from Harvard, Columbia, Oxford and Bard College. He co-edited Thirty Years of the New York Review of Books 1963-1993, and edited other anthologies, including Writing in America (1960), Hidden Histories of Science (1995), and two volumes (2006 and 2011) of The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships.

At his most alarming, Silver could unfriend (to use a term he wouldnt have understood) a contributor, who would be bewilderingly dropped for years without explanation. At his most endearing, he was like a stern but kindly don. His quiet rebukes were devastating, but a word of praise from him would leave a writer exhilarated for days. With all his meticulosity, Silvers treated writers with complete respect. Nothing written for the New York Review was rewritten without the writers approval.

Although Silvers was unmarried, he was not celibate. The women in his life included Lady Caroline Blackwood, between her marriages to Lucian Freud and Lowell, before he met Grace Dudley, a fascinating woman of Yugoslav origin, once married to Prince Radziwill and widow of the 3rd Earl of Dudley, with whom he lived for many years in an apartment on Park Avenue, and at a house in Lausanne in Switzerland. Her death in December devastated Silvers.

In the end, nothing about what Silvers was mattered beside what he did, and what he achieved with the New York Review of Books, his enduring monument. To say that he was the greatest editor of his age is superfluous: he had no possible rival.

Robert Benjamin Silvers, editor, born 31 December 1929; died 20 March 2017

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/21/robert-silvers-obituary

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