Academic journal article American Jewish History

"The Saddest Man I Ever Knew": Ralph De Toledano and the Jewish Roots of American Conservatism

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"The Saddest Man I Ever Knew": Ralph De Toledano and the Jewish Roots of American Conservatism

Article excerpt

Writer Ralph de Toledano's death in 2007 was met mostly with indifference. The handful of newspapers that did mark the solemn occasion referred to the Moroccan-born, New York-raised Jewish intellectual as "a friend of Nixon" and a "nonconformist conservative" while relegating him to a marginal place in the story of American conservatism. (2) But having written several novels, poetry collections, and over twenty nonfiction books that ranged in topic from communist infiltration to the life of Robert E Kennedy to the history of jazz, he was so much more. In addition to publishing countless articles in Newsweek, National Review, and King Features and other venues over a prolific seventy-year career, Toledano played a greater role in American politics than historians have acknowledged. It was his friend and colleague, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who observed the irony in which a man who had done so much for American conservatism was remembered so little. In a witty obituary that couched praise with censure, Buckley suggested that Toledano had been forgotten, partly because of his own standoffishness, and lamented: "It can't be predicted that this poet of melancholy will live on, other than in the archives." (3)

That is certainly where Toledano has been relegated, at least until now. Except for his correspondence with the influential anticommunist crusader, Whittaker Chambers, which was published in 1997 as Notes from the Underground, no study of Toledano's life or legacy has ever been completed. Appearing as a footnote in the biographies of central conservative figures that he befriended, like Chambers and Richard M. Nixon, or cast in a supporting role in broad historical studies of the conservative movement, Toledano remains, at least in public memory and scholarship, a man who wasn't really present at creation. (4) Even though he was: at every critical juncture in the initial stages of development of American conservatism, Toledano played some part. He was an intimate confidant of Chambers, a close friend of Buckley, and a dedicated supporter and advisor of Nixon from the onset of his career. According to historian Rick Perlstein, it was Toledano's adulation of Nixon in Seeds of Treason, the bestselling book he co-authored about the Alger Hiss trial, that brought the ambitious young congressman to the attention of Dwight Eisenhower and helped secure him the vice-presidential nomination in 195z: "Ike read the book and liked the cut of the young man's jib." (5)

It is not only from the historiography of conservatism that Toledano is conspicuously missing. Despite growing up in New York and studying at Columbia University in the 1930s under the notable literary critic Lionel Trilling, Toledano, who was born in Tangier to Jewish-American parents and descended from a famed Sephardic rabbinical dynasty that dated back to medieval Spain, has been completely left out of the numerous histories of the New York Intellectuals. (6) The Washington Post obituary noted: "His political views migrated steadily rightward through the decades, a political path trodden by a number of leftist intellectuals from the 1930s and 1940s." (7) But there was nothing common about Toledano's turn to the right. If anything, he had been one of the first Jewish intellectuals to clear that unmarked path: having grown up in a middle-class liberal home and dabbled with socialist ideas in college, he had abandoned his leftist sympathies by the late 1930s, and never truly felt comfortable with either the radicalism nor liberalism of fellow New York Intellectuals, the famed group of writers, scholars, and critics who wrote for a handful of polemical magazines from the 1930s to the 1960s and redefined the American left. "I was never at home in the liberal community," Toledano wrote in his autobiography, explaining his early decision to "turn my back ideologically on Partisan Review which did not even know of my existence." As an editor at the anti-Stalinist magazine The New Leader in 1940, Toledano had already espoused staunch anticommunist ideas, to such a degree that during military service in World War II, he was dropped from a mission to Italy for being, in the Army's words, "too anticommunist. …

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