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Stanley Kauffmann Tribute: A Gentleman

The first time I met Stanley I had just started at The New Republic in the job of assistant literary editor, which has long entailed being the liaison between Stanley and the magazine. For several months I had spoken to him on the phone each week. I knew him by his singular voice, which had the genteel lilt of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. (“It’s delightful to hear from you, Laura dear.”) He was in his mid-nineties then, with bad eyesight, and used e-mail, endearingly, with cheerful ineptitude. (“Gear Laura: Many thanjs for the good wishes.”) He had written one message asking me to visit him and his wife on my next trip to New York, explaining that they spent every afternoon together in her nursing home. “Her room is now our salon,” he wrote. “She is a Laura, too.” So I took the train into the city and made my way up to Riverside Drive, where Stanley and Laura, his beloved wife of many decades, waited.

She was reading Apollo’s Angels in bed; he was sitting in a chair by the door. Together they told me the story of how they’d met: They were both in the same theater company. Laura was a dancer, and she was dating some other young hotshot in the company. “He was boring,” Stanley said, and she nodded and grinned. One morning a few weeks later when I spoke to him on the phone, he momentarily confused me for the other Laura, calling from her nursing home. “Did you take your medication?” he asked gently. When he realized his mistake, he laughed. Then he apologized for several days afterward.

I have never known a gentleman like Stanley. You could see it in his criticism—in its patience, its generosity, its evenhanded insistence on giving every film the benefit of the doubt. He knew everything about film, though he relayed his erudition with quiet, gracious confidence. But in person, too, he seemed to have been beamed from a courtlier era. He dressed the part, always in a pressed blazer and with a handkerchief close at hand, up through the last time I saw him. And there was simply no one kinder. Stanley and Laura had no children, but it is hard to overstate the devotion he inspired in the young people he taught and mentored. He worked for this place for 55 years; he was married to Laura for almost 70.

After Laura died, I went to see him every few months at his apartment, which was crammed with books. He always wanted to know how my boyfriend and I were doing—“nothing is more important,” he said—and what I was working on. Once, researching an essay on midnight movie screenings, I asked for his thoughts. “What a flop I’m going to be!” he said. “I’ve never been to one. I never saw the need. Still, it sounds like a good idea for a piece.”

I loved Stanley. I was grateful for him. He taught me much about movies and criticism—I never tired of hearing him talk about the silent films he saw in his early days as a critic, or about his amazement at the uncanny talents of child actors—but more than that he taught me about commitment, about loyalty, about the kind of real love that trumps everything. 

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