NEW YORK, N.Y. – Robert B. Silvers, the exacting and perpetual editor of The New York Review of Books who responded to private groaning over the state of criticism and helped create a literary magazine of lasting influence, died Monday at age 87.
Silvers, who had served as sole editor of the Review after fellow founder Barbara Epstein died in 2006, died at his home in Manhattan after a brief illness. The publication confirmed his death to The Associated Press after sending an announcement on Twitter.
The Review was conceived in late 1962, in the midst of a newspaper strike in New York, when poet Robert Lowell and his wife, the author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, met at the Upper West Side apartment of Barbara and Jason Epstein, a publishing executive. They shared an old lament — the dreadfulness of book reviews — and saw a chance to change it.
Lowell secured a loan of $4,000 and Silvers, with Harper’s at the time, was brought in as co-editor. The first issue of the Review came out in 1963, with the declaration that no time would be wasted on books “trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or call attention to a fraud.” Norman Mailer, William Styron and others quickly agreed to write for the new publication though they initially weren’t paid.
Widely appreciated and honoured, the Review has published classic essays by Mailer, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal among others, and even managed to turn a profit. “The Fifty Year Argument,” a documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, came out in 2014.
The NYRB has also been criticized as elitist, insular and prone to running far more work by men than by women. Tom Wolfe mocked it as “the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic,” while Saul Bellow labeled it the New York Review of each other’s books. The Review itself was quite capable of attack, whether Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone taking on the Vietnam War, Mailer sticking it to Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” or McCarthy giving the axe to David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest.” The magazine also was an early opponent of the Iraq War and a frequent critic of Donald Trump.
In 2012, accepting an honorary award from the National Book Critics Circle, Silvers said that while the Review avoided editorials, its stance from the beginning was “to be skeptical of state power and to take the side of people who had suffered from it.” State power, in turn, suspected the Review. An FBI report from the 1960s cited Silvers for using “individuals with ‘leftist tendencies’ to review books dealing with security matters and the U.S. government.”
The Review never rested. For decades, Silvers and Barbara Epstein presided lovingly over every word and punctuation mark, every cover and every assignment, with the imposing, Anglicized Silvers (Wolfe once wrote that Silvers’ accent “arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London”) specializing in politics and history and science, and the short, outgoing Epstein in fiction and the arts. (Epstein and Silver were presented an honorary National Book Award in 2006.)
Silvers was often at work at nights on holidays, surrounded by assistants at the Review’s book-mobbed offices. One writer, Timothy Garton Ash, told of being called at home on Christmas Day because the editor had spotted a dangling modifier in his story. Daniel Mendelsohn would remember being on a ship on the Aegean Sea when he was urgently summoned to the telephone. Convinced a close relative had died, Mendelsohn warily picked up the receiver and heard Silvers’ enthusiastic voice on the other end, suggesting that a semicolon be changed to a period.
“For you and Barbara the Review has been a vocation,” Hardwick once wrote to Silvers, “a calling, having much of the benign obsession and the sacrificial cast of those living out less secular vocations.”
Silvers also knew how to play. A lifelong bachelor, he was an opera fan and socialite who lived on Park Avenue with Grace, Countess of Dudley, widow of the 3rd Earl of Dudley, who died last year. Their friends included George Plimpton, Katharine Graham and Peter Duchin.
A businessman’s son, Silvers was born in Mineola, New York, and grew up on a farm in Huntington. He was an early reader who absorbed books of all sorts with the urgency of gulping down water. By 15, he had been admitted to the University of Chicago and he needed just 2 1-2 years to graduate.
In his 20s, he served as press secretary for Connecticut Gov. Chester Bowles, worked in the Paris offices of NATO and was an editor for The Paris Review. He was an assistant editor at Harper’s when Jason Epstein called and asked him to join The New York Review of Books. As Silvers recalled, his editor at Harper’s wished him luck and predicted he’d be back in a month.
Silvers served on the boards of the PEN American Center, the Council of Foreign Relations and other organizations, and edited several essay collections. In his 2012 speech at the book critics ceremony, he said among the pleasures of editing was the “anticipation,” knowing that he was going to encounter something “delicious or pleasurable or fine.” He saw himself as “someone who dreams of bringing together the writers he admires and a group of readers he hopes will appreciate them. And then stays out of the way.”