Robert Silvers in the offices of the New York Review of Books, 2004. Photo: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
In 1958, still in his 20 s, Silvers was hired as literary editor of Harpers, the long-established New York monthly, by its editor John Fischer, who may have had second thought the following year. Silvers commissioned the critic Elizabeth Hardwick to write a long essay, The Decline of Book Reviewing, a trenchant attack on the persist 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 undertaking would be open when the new venture collapsed within a few months.
We wanted to show what a paper could be, Silvers told, and they did, inspired by Silverss own credo , not to waste time on volumes trivial in their purposes 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 observed a political cause and become a sounding board for foes of the Vietnam war. One issue published a diagram of a homemade bomb on the covering which, along with the Reviews big array of transatlantic novelists, inspired someone to call it the the journal of mad puppies and Englishmen. For Tom Wolfe it was the chief theoretical organ of radical swank, and Bellow mocked the New York Review of each others volumes. 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 had already been depicted such total devotion to their newspaper. 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 apathy to clock or calendar. Timothy Garton Ashs family lunch on Christmas Day was interrupted by Silvers on the telephone went on to say that on column six of the third galley, theres a hang modifier, and when Daniel Mendelsohn was on board a ship in the Aegean, he was summoned to receive a bellow with an urgency which built him think there must be a demise 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 ran their different ways and developed diverse characters. Years afterward Perry Anderson contrasted the two, suggesting that the LRB was more daring politically, but the NYRB less respectful of literary reputation, quoting 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 phase was unjust, since the Iraq war demonstrated 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 tell most of the London press) and the rare voices of opposition received 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 my own part, the New York Review the heavyweight analysis needed to uncovered the chicanery of the Bush administration. At the same period, Silvers fostered a debate in his pages over Israel and Zionism, of a kind the mainstream American press shied away from.
I set my name on the paper, and the rest I dont care to be known, Silvers said several 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 fulfilled Jonathan Miller, one of the quartet in the indicate, and recruited him to review John Updikes novel The Centaur in the first issue.
Years subsequently Miller remembered Silvers at that time, dishevelled, overweight and chain-smoking, a contrast indeed to the figure of notable grandeur and urbanity he became in later years, in well-cut suits, with the ribbon of the Legion DHonneur in the lapel. He was often insured around and about in New York, at dinner parties, and at the opera, which he loved.
He was showered with many accolades. 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 -1 993, and edited other anthologies, including Writing in America( 1960 ), Hidden Histories of Science( 1995 ), and two volumes( 2006 and 2011) of The Company They Maintained: Novelists on Unforgettable Friendships.
At his most alarming, Silver could unfriend( to use a term he wouldnt to comprehend) a contributor, who would be bewilderingly dropped for years without rationale. At his most endearing, he was like a stern but kindly don. His quiet admonitions were devastating, but a word of praise from him would leave a novelist 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 their own lives included Lady Caroline Blackwood, between her weddings to Lucian Freud and Lowell, before he fulfilled Grace Dudley, a fascinating female 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 demise 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 suffering 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; succumbed 20 March 2017