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


Mark Danner: 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. 

Return to the Speaking Page

© 2017 Mark Danner