Deborah Friedell · The New Republic
Two years ago, the New Republic was bought by Chris Hughes, a millionaire many times over: he had been Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, and was one of the founders of Facebook. Last week, the man Hughes appointed as TNR’s chief executive officer — its first in 100 years – announced that it would no longer be a magazine but a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’; most of the editorial staff have resigned, including Leon Wieseltier, who for 31 years was the literary editor.
My first job out of university was as Leon’s assistant. I think he liked it when, at my interview, I said that I didn’t care about money (not strictly true) so long as I could have free books. Like all Leon's assistants, I never earned more than the minimum wage, but it wasn’t unusual for me to find a pair of ballet tickets on my desk, or all the novels of Jean Rhys, or a not-yet-released album by Leonard Cohen, or Lionel Trilling’s essays. They were rewards, but they were also intended to improve my taste.
Sometimes Leon would order me out of the office, to see the cherry trees or go to the National Gallery. But I liked staying in the office: who knew what might happen, or who might come in? Talking to Leon was pleasure enough. 'You see out there it's 2004, but in this office it's 1954,' he would say, which suited me fine. Later I found out that the line was taken from The Sopranos (‘It’s not Shakespeare,' he once said of the show, 'but it is Balzac’). I also got to write for the magazine, which meant that I would give Leon my best effort and he would make it coherent: another kind of reward.
After two years, Leon chucked his assistants out, usually to make us go to England for graduate school, as he had. A previous assistant had kept his photograph above her bed. I didn’t do that, but on my last day he said: ‘Think of me on Addison’s Walk’ – and so I did, once I found out what and where it was. He also gave me a first edition of short stories by Henry James. One of them is about a butler in the employ of a great man, whose house is full of books and whose visitors are always splendid. At one point the master tells an anecdote about Byron; at another he reads out the best passages from Saint-Simon. ‘Quite an education, sir, isn’t it, sir?’ When the great man dies, the butler discovers he is unemployable, and comes to a bad end. I wondered if I was like the butler, 'spoiled’ for almost any other office. I think I probably had been.