Tribute to Robert B. Silvers (1929- 2017)

Robert Silvers Memorial

SPEAKER: Mark Danner

DATE: April 26, 2017

LOCATION: The New York Public Library

Celeste Bartos Forum, NY, NY

I heard about Bob’s death when I- shortly after I stepped off the plane in Beirut and after the initial shock, which was overwhelming- I knew he’d been sick. I’d spoken to him at various times when he was visibly weakening, but I in no way ever allowed a possibility that he would die. I was convinced he would live into his nineties, mid-nineties, as his parents had done. His father had famously played golf until he was ninety-three. After the initial shock in Beirut, I realized I had no idea what I was doing there and the one man who could tell me, I could no longer call. I had been calling him to find out what I was doing - in Baghdad, Sarajevo, Mar-A-Lago, to name a really exotic place - for thirty-two years. I met him when I was twenty-two. I was a depressed college student sort of cramped up sitting on a couch in Whitney Ellsworth. And Bob came charging in. He looked like a movie star. I’d never seen anybody- he was extremely handsome with this extremely elegant suit, tan, manicured. He really looked like a camera-ready Hollywood version of what a New York editor is, but never is.

He sat down, he snatched up this paper I’d brought him, this writing sample which was a piece about El Salvador that I’d done at Harvard for Stanley Hoffmann. I was very proud of it. [Motions extremely fast reading] He proceeded to read it in front of me literally that fast, which was a bit disconcerting, needless to say. And then he said, “Mark, you know, the left. You speak about the left in El Salvador. In what sense is there really a left in El Salvador?” he said. And I was a little struck by this because I’d learned I was the expert on El Salvador in my college class and I began to describe what the left was and he argued with me. And we got into a very strenuous argument during which he revealed that he knew far, far more than I did about El Salvador and FMLN and God knows what else- more even than Stanley Hoffman. And in the heat of this argument, he suddenly stood up and said, “Well, yes, you’ll be hearing from us,” and he was out the room. He had this very disconcerting way, as many of you know, of leaving or of hanging up. It would be [motions an abrupt hang up].And he would leave [motions a speedy, abrupt exit] like that. So I was left sitting there. No one came to collect me, I was just sitting in this room and I eventually kind of skulked out thinking, “Well, I ruined that opportunity.” It was my only job interview ever. I got a call a couple of hours later, offering me the job from Barbara Epstein and I said, “Well, I’d be working for you of course.” I’d fallen in love with Barbara instantly, the most charming person I’d ever met. “No, no, Bob. Bob is very attracted to you,” she said. So within a month I find myself sitting in this famous office with the toppling huge piles of books. These piles going up into this continent of cigarette smoke floating above the office. Every now and again, the books would topple down catastrophically onto someone’s desk, or onto someone’s head and Bob would stomp around. He was a very imperious boss, actually, and I want to get that note into this- these events today.

He could be very baby-like, I would say, if things didn’t go his way. There was a constant problem with getting the galleys from Bob’s hands into the hands of Stanley Hoffmann, who vacationed in Lucca- Lucca, Italy. And he’d send these things and he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get there in a day. And he would- when they weren’t there in a day, he would say, “Well, this is horrible! How awful! How awful!” And he would stomp the floor, the piles would fall and so on.

But the amazing thing about this job, I very quickly took on the night shift and would work for him from 2 o’clock until – it was supposed to be two-to-nine, but usually two-to-ten, two-to-eleven, two-to-twelve, he would pile things into the inbox as soon as you gave any sign of leaving. And it was a marvelous thing because he would throw these pages, edited pages, into his outbox on his desk and it was my job to skulk over, grab the page, skitter back to my desk and retype it. And these would be manuscripts that needed a lot of work. And it was the most astonishing, magical thing to look at what he did with prose. I’ve worked with many editors and I’ve been an editor myself and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was as if there was a kind of scrim over writing. It had dirt on it, it had smudges, it had all sorts of strange things in the middle and eventually he would pull that scrim off and there it would be: clean and resplendent. Clear, above all clear. Clarity. Or another analogy might be: days go by and you don’t wash your glasses and suddenly you do and the world suddenly is bright. Or cleaning the Sistine Chapel, there’s another grand metaphor. He would, in some way, restore- and while I agree with Ian that his great value was protecting and helping the oppressed, another great value was clarity, was just clarity. Curiosity and clarity. And this he instilled into the prose he worked on.

And the most amazing thing I remember- I’ll use his name because he’s long gone: George Ball. He was known as a wonderful writer. The State Department man had done this piece for Bob and he edited it, completely rewrote it in this marvelous way. And I typed it up, we put it into galleys, we sent it to George Ball, utterly rewritten. Bob wrote his usual note “Dear George, thank you for this very strong piece. You’ll see we had a suggestion, or two. Hope for changes soon. Best, Bob.” And I got the call and I thought “Oh my God, what is he going to think? ‘Well, Bob hasn’t changed a word, I’m so flattered.’” And this happened again and again and I think this speaks not simply to the amor propio of writers- it speaks to the unique ability he had as an editor to make clear what the writer wanted to say. And it was an extraordinary ability that I have simply never seen replicated. I should say he- this kind of gorgeous alchemy he performed- he really performed on me.

One of the reason I had gotten the job at the Review, I think, is because I used reading The New York Review in college as a procrastination aide. I would just- when I had to write a paper I would read The New York Review, read the New York Review. So I knew the paper very well, but I had a terrible fear of writing. And it was Bob, really, who’s faith, who’s little messages, who’s little- you know, he would send  you a New York Times clip from that day. I remember Joan Didion once saying to me “Why does he send me New York Times clips everyday? I read them everyday.” I was the one sending them at the time. He would send you these clips and of course they were his way of saying, “Hello, I’m thinking about you. I’m thinking about your piece. I want your piece. I have faith in you that you can do it.”

And during- I had these huge struggles with him about pieces I did: a big series on Haiti that we fought about deadlines, I did an enormous series on Bosnia that went on for a couple of years, eleven pieces. And most of the editing of these pieces went on after midnight when Bob and I would get into these phone calls that would go on for literally three hours, four hours. I remember the light rising up in Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was then living as we got to the end of this last piece on Srebrenica, which was 40,000 words, the horrible massacre of Srebrenica. And my back, just hurting so much that I was lying on the floor with my feet up on a chair and we got to the forty, or so footnotes that had to somehow be matched up because they weren’t in the right order. And finally, we’d been wrestling with the angels, you know, just wrestling and wrestling with these various issues for hours. I finally said weakly, “Bob, do you think we could do the footnotes tomorrow?” And he said, “Absolutely not, a set is about to arrive.” This was five in the morning.

So, I think at the end of the day, the shock- and I’ve been walking around in a funk since he died- is the loss of Bob’s faith, his faith. He had faith in me and what I wrote. He had faith to hold the issue open to allow in what I wrote. He had the kind of unremitting, unvarying, unfailing faith that you really are only entitled to- from a parent. He was a man who had- people said he worked hard. He didn’t work hard, that’s what he was. There was no division between what was him and the being of an editor, of a great editor. And there was one other aspect of that and that was: he was a man in love.

The greatest moments in working for him at night, if you stayed late enough, was that moment when he got up and charged in- I’m going to read this little note I wrote to him after she died, if I can find it. I had spoken to Bob the day Lady Dudley died. I had been going to call him on  his birthday, but she died two days before. I talked to him in Lausanne and he said to me- I had written him already, but he said to me, “I don’t know where I am” and later on, “I don’t know who I am.” And these were such tremendously shocking things for him to say. I became terribly worried about him, not just because he was in so much pain, but that he wouldn’t recover. And I wrote him this:

“Dear Bob, on the plane from California yesterday I spent some time thinking of Grace. I recall I had come to know of her was when you used to pause during our evenings working at the Review office in the Fisk Building to rise suddenly from your chair and race into Whitney’s office to call her. That would usually be around midnight, or so. From my humble desk back in the office, I’d hear bits and pieces of your side of the conversation and I was always struck by how animated and happy you sounded. You’d speak for half an hour, or so and then return to plop down at your desk and take a manuscript, pencil and cigarette again. You always seemed revitalized. I came to look forward to these pauses. It was not only that the transformative effect was so strong and so lovely, it struck me looking at you with my twenty-two year old eyes how you seem to have everything: a great vocation to which you’re deeply devoted and at the same time a love of your life. I thought how rare it must be for a man to have both. Anyway, you seemed awfully lucky to me. This was thirty years ago, or more. Later I came to know Grace a bit and found I never left a conversation with her without feeling exhilarated. I thought again how lucky you were. I can only imagine how hard the pain of loss must be, but I wanted to write with these memories so vivid now in the thought they might be some small help. Ever, Mark.”

As I say, I expected him to live into his mid-nineties and I think if she had lived longer, he certainly would have too. And now we’re all here left. I think I have to try to keep working in the way he taught me to work. Because indeed for thirty-two years that is among other things what he taught me. So, okay, good luck kiddo, thanks. What Bob said at the end of night, “We have to keep slogging on- we must keep slogging on” and then finally, “thanks, a lot!”

Mark Danner pays tribute to Robert B. Silvers at the New York Public Library on April 26, 2017. 

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