On Robert Silvers

Andrew O’Hagan

When I was young it was possible to feel you’d made it as a writer simply by getting a phone call from one of four editors. When it came to ambition, very few of the writers I knew really gave a fuck about being in Who’s Who, being named an honorary fellow or having one of the queen’s gongs, or a million quid advance. What they wanted was for the phone to ring and for Bob Silvers to be on the line. One might have liked other editors more, might have felt they were better editors, but Silvers was a forcefield of the manners he maintained and the company he kept. Once you got used to him, he would call to describe a promising topic and exchange a line of gossip with you before ringing off in a hurry. ‘Let me know if there’s anything that can be done,’ he would say. I have a multitude of notes from Mr Silvers (it took me years to stop calling him that) but I find they are not in the filing cabinet with all the other letters and notes; they are in the books on my shelves. He had a knack of making you feel that the thing that might be done could only be done by you. ‘You may be so far ahead with Goldsmith that this book about Swift would not fit well,’ says the typewritten note in the last book he sent me, ‘but it might be mentioned. Goldsmith and Grub Street, then and now, does seem a subject in need of your comments.’

London was always the place for me, and the London Review my home, but some of us conducted a sporadic affair with the paper in Manhattan. It’s a different publication and Silvers’s cosmopolitan bellows could sometimes kindle a different flame in you, giving you a way of writing about Britain at one remove, or seeing literary history more panoramically, as he had a preference for doing. Conor Cruise O’Brien once explained to me how Irish writers first train their hopes on London before training them on New York. I’m not Irish and I’m not really at one with America, but I’ve always to some extent shared the romance of being a part of it in old New York. For me, the city didn’t just mean Frank Sinatra and Studio 54, it meant Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling, Lillian Hellman and Susan Sontag. I loved its papers, the swagger of the contributors, the New York intellectuals, with their neuroses, their arguments, their marriages, and their parties. Wilson’s disagreement with Nabokov, Lillian’s fight with Mary, and Norman’s fights with everybody, were the Boy’s Own stories of my youth. I was 29 when my first book was discussed in the New York Review and before I even read the piece I felt victorious, because the issue opened with an essay by Elizabeth Hardwick. The glamour of the moment was helped when Barbara Epstein came to my party at the Old Town Bar. She walked in clutching a copy of the paper and proceeded to smoke all my cigarettes, speaking about Lizzie and Wystan and how a good piece was hard to find.

In his office, Silvers was always surrounded by books and proofs and sitting in shirt sleeves with his tie slack. He only ever said one remotely personal thing to me: ‘You like suits and dark ties.’ Everything else was either a discussion about possible assignments or stories he’d tell me about writers. He was famously tireless about his paper and always slightly agitated about things it hadn’t covered. The tirelessness took several forms, one of them being that he didn’t sleep. I travelled uptown with him one night in a taxi after a dinner in St Luke’s Place. He was talking about Norman Mailer, whom Silvers and his partner, Grace Dudley, had just bumped into at Bayreuth. ‘I think Norman’s just spinning his wheels,’ he said. ‘He came up to Grace and me and started saying that Wotan is really a misunderstood guy, having to put up with all those wailing women all the time.’

I asked Silvers where he wanted to be dropped off and he told me the office. ‘But it’s one a.m.,’ I said.

‘No rest for the wicked. Isn’t that what you say?’

He was 82 at the time. That night in the taxi, he took out a little pill and broke it in two and popped it. ‘Keeps me up,’ he said.

‘Is that speed?’

‘Don’t know what it’s called.’ He said that it sometimes made him jangly. ‘Then I feel I want to strangle a cat.’ And suddenly that was too personal and he wanted to get back to talking about writers. ‘I really hate the way people talk about Lowell,’ he said. ‘They just don’t get that he loved literature. Once I was taking Cal to the hospital and he went upstairs to get something to read and when he came down he was carrying Dante. I thought: “Lowell’s in for the long haul.” He was great and he was mad, and he could be violent, which was bad for Caroline especially.’

He thought of the Review like a newspaper. He wanted it to reflect the world and avoid reflecting him, though reflecting the world was about him, too. He wanted a kind of 24-hour coverage in case there was ‘anything that can be done’. He sent a letter to John Lanchester dated ‘Christmas Eve, 2000’. Lanchester eventually met Silvers in London. ‘He’d flown in on the red-eye,’ John told me, ‘was doing this dinner at the Ivy, then spending the whole next day at the London Book Fair.’ John asked him how he did it and he said he was taking Pro Plus. ‘You must have the constitution of Superman,’ John replied and he just laughed and said: ‘Let’s see.’

He had a little bedroom at the office down in Hudson Street, and I don’t know how often he used it, but he would often turn up at lunch looking elegantly weary. He sat down one day at Gabriel’s on West 60th Street and held the menu up to the light, scrutinising it as if it was a precious stone. He ordered iced tea and turned to me. ‘I come here all the time,’ he said. ‘It means you can sit next to your friend and hear what they’re saying. It’s good to hear what your friend is saying.’

‘Maybe half the time,’ I said. He laughed and swayed. It was part of his elegance to find people’s remarks funnier than they were. He wore his Légion d’Honneur and ordered a spinach salad. He spoke about my going to a war zone or writing an essay about Scotland. After a while, I noticed he was reaching into the dish of sugar crystals and eating them. (I think he ate half the dish.) For some reason, he eventually turned to the question of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. ‘I was there,’ he said, ‘and, you know, Lionel and Diana Trilling were there too. And it was all quite grotesque what with the war going on and everything.’ A pause. ‘Well, it’s true,’ he went on, ‘that Truman liked all those women – Babe Paley and Gloria Vanderbilt and so on – but the one that was really slaughtered by all that was Slim Hayward. She never got over it.’

‘What, that Truman told tales?’

‘I guess. But that’s what writers do.’

There’s a kind of editor who takes a very great interest in events, ideas, personalities, but pays not a lot of attention to people. Silvers was like that. He seemed glad to see you, but he seemed glad to see everyone, so long as they were friends of the paper, ready to push it forward as events and new developments demanded. He kept his feelings hidden and rather respected other people who did that too. Only work can save your life, he seemed to say, but let’s talk about your work and not your life, if you don’t mind. ‘Bob’s patrician manner was self-created,’ Jonathan Galassi told me, ‘deliberately low-key, warm yet self-protective.’ The thing was to keep moving forward and not look back. Even at Barbara Epstein’s wake, held in her apartment on West 67th Street, Silvers was keen to work. ‘I think you should go to Iceland for the magazine,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot going on in Iceland, don’t you think?’

Many will remember him for the remarks he scrawled on their galleys. It’s not uncommon, in this business, for editors to make a point of not commenting on any of your pieces and never expressing pleasure in what you’ve done, as if the motivation for writing came with the ability to do it. Silvers didn’t take that view. He imagined writers needed all the help they could get, and he made himself quite vital in that way, clearly feeling very pleased if they did good work for his magazine. He had some stock phrases, as his colleagues know, but he never forgot that the contributor may not be a pampered superstar proud of herself, but a normal person waiting in her study and hoping that things went OK. ‘You’ve given us a voice we didn’t have before,’ he wrote on the proof of a piece I contributed about Eminem. ‘This changes the picture,’ he said when I wrote for him about the death of Margaret Thatcher. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite true or that his word of praise was over the top. It brought the matter to a happy close and you felt the effort you put in was totally worth it.

He could surprise you with a prejudice. I once spent a whole dinner putting him right about a person he didn’t really know. (He got it.) But then he could surprise you with things he did know and the extent to which he knew them. The history of Iraq, for instance, or the meaning of modernism, which he once lectured me on, over a proof, making reference, if I remember correctly, to Ezra Pound, Duke Ellington, Virginia Woolf, Picasso and Coco Chanel. A good editor’s interests can be as mysterious as a good writer’s style, and Silvers was always trying to work out if something was worth getting into. Colm Tóibín remembers going to a show by Anthony Gormley in London. ‘The show included a large steam-filled glass room where you lost your bearings immediately and went around as though in fog,’ Tóibín recalls. ‘It was my idea of fun. So I went in and out of it several times. Once as I was waiting to enter this land of pure spirit who came out but Bob Silvers. He was wearing his usual dark grey suit and white shirt and posh tie. He greeted me as if this was normal, and then he reminded me how much he was looking forward to my piece on Tennessee Williams. It was odd because I was sure he had been in his office in New York that morning. And he was definitely there the next day.’