Obituaries: BARBARA EPSTEIN ; Founder and Co-Editor for 43 Years, with Robert Silvers, of the New York Review of Books'
Andrew O'Hagan, The Independent (London, England)
It was Thomas Carlyle, writing in the Edinburgh Review, the greatest literary journal in an age of great literary journals, who said that the whole of literature had become one "boundless self- devouring Review". He may not have meant that as a compliment to the culture of the early 19th century, but the terrific importance of certain journals to the making of public opinion and the development of English prose has been mirrored in our own day by very few publications, and The New York Review of Books is one of them.
Barbara Epstein was co-editor of the New York Review for more than 40 years. She was complete in her devotion to the art of editing - almost never writing herself, and forever lobbying her writers to do more and do better for the paper - but she found that the task required more energy and more outrage as she got older. She was proud of the magazine's more recent position as the only mainstream American publication to speak out consistently against the war in Iraq. "I'm not interested in the public eye," she once said, "but I'm interested in the public ear, and I want our writers to fill it with brilliant sentences."
She was born Barbara Zimmerman in Boston in 1928, and was early in thrall to the secret life of books. She graduated in History and Literature from Radcliffe College in 1949 and went straight to New York, where she began working for the publishers Doubleday and Co. She showed an immediate talent for getting along with authors, and the relatives of authors, which brought her into contact with Otto Frank, whose daughter had written the hundreds of pages of what would become Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, the English translation published by Doubleday in 1952.
Zimmerman went to meet Otto Frank when he first came to New York and she claimed never to have understood just how universal and total the diary's appeal would become. But she did understand Frank's wish to enjoy a nice time in New York, and, on his subsequent visits, after his daughter's book was famous, she would attempt to take him to places where he might drink a few cocktails. "Otto would be keen for a Martini," she said years later, and Jewish hostesses on the Upper West Side would organise these parties for him. But when you arrived at the door with him, and the hostesses opened it to welcome him in, they would routinely burst into tears amidst cries of "your poor, poor daughter", which kind of put paid to the Martinis.
She had an affinity for poets and political writers. She edited Theodore Roethke's The Waking: poems, 1933-1953 (1953) for Doubleday and went on to work at the publishers McGraw-Hill and later had a spell at the Partisan Review. In 1954 she met and married the publisher Jason Epstein, a leading light at Random House, and it was at a dinner party of theirs in the winter of 1962, during the long, acrimonious strike at The New York Times, that the idea was floated that would lead to the founding of The New York Review of Books.
The party was attended by Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick (a married couple at the time), who felt the time might be right to create a literary magazine that was better than any other. Jason Epstein knew the publishing industry was hurting from the lack of a proper place to advertise their books, and writers too were suffering from not seeing their books reviewed. "Jason was, like, kids, let's put on a show!" said Barbara, and the Lowells used their influence to attract as many high-profile contributors as possible. …