BARBARA EPSTEIN; POSTSCRIPT Series: 5/5

By Remnick, David | The New Yorker, July 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

BARBARA EPSTEIN; POSTSCRIPT Series: 5/5


Remnick, David, The New Yorker


American magazines, including this one, do not begin fully formed. They start out, depending on the times, with high spirits or with a stern sense of mission, but the idea itself, the complete set of ingredients that might make a magazine distinctive enough to last--that's almost never in place. And yet when The New York Review of Books made its debut--Volume 1, No. 1, dated February 1, 1963, appeared in the midst of a four-month-long printers' strike at the Times--the idea for an intellectually vigorous books magazine was so perfectly cooked, and its founding editors, Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, so skilled and connected, that an extended family of friends and sympathizers rushed to fill the chairs at a vast table of contents. The poets Auden and Warren, Lowell and Berryman were there; Dwight MacDonald, Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, and F. W. Dupee were among the critics; Elizabeth Hardwick, William Styron, Mary McCarthy, and Norman Mailer all set fiction aside for the moment and wrote essays. And that's only the half of it. The result was surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.

Epstein and Silvers, who were then in their mid-thirties, never wrote for their own magazine, except ceremonially. But their sense of mission did not lack for ambition, or even ego; their editors' note in the first issue said that the Review, if it ever took off, would not bother to write about books "trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud." None of the writers got paid for their efforts, the editors announced; Volume 1, No. 1 was really just an experiment "to discover whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one."

The Times soon returned, of course, but, by June, so, too, had the fledgling Review, and for forty-three years Epstein and Silvers kept it going at the highest level.

"The whole thing was so Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney," Barbara would always say. "A bunch of friends thought it all up at dinner one night and the next thing you know the show was on--forever!"

They really did it all themselves, or nearly so. The two worked in adjoining offices, and, like the fabled Collyer Brothers, they were dwarfed by a perilous cityscape of galleys and manuscripts that always seemed in danger of toppling, and crushing them. Into their seventies, they worked the hours of first-year law students. Any writer hoping to call the main number with the idea of leaving an apologetic voice message on, say, Tuesday at 2 a. …

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