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Editorially Infallible: A Tribute to Stanley Kauffmann

I started working with Stanley at The New Republic in 1978, when I was twenty-four and he was sixty-two. The best part of my job was proofreading his reviews. It involved no work, since we both regarded him as editorially infallible. We spent a few moments each week on the phone correcting the typesetter’s errors, then moved on to an art he relished as much as film: conversation. That is, he entertained, and I listened. There were stories about meeting Marilyn Monroe in her hotel room, about discovering Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in the slush pile at Knopf, and about the rigor of Meryl Streep, who attended the Yale School of Drama, but was not, he admitted ruefully, one of his students there. Eventually I was invited to his apartment in the Village for drinks, with my friend and fellow editor, Ann Hulbert. Courtly and mocking, he greeted me with the sentence, “I imagined you as a little old lady with a pencil in her bun.”

Over the years, I learned more. Stanley said he had to work hard to convince Alfred Knopf to publish The Moviegoer, and to give Percy a decent advance. Knopf fired him soon afterward. Meanwhile, A.J. Liebling had just finished The Earl of Louisiana, and happened to read a review of the Percy novel, whose protagonist lived and breathed New Orleans. Liebling bought the book, and recommended it to Jean Stafford--his wife and a National Book Award judge that year. Stanley couldn’t resist gloating when it won the fiction prize. Over countless dinners he gave urbane accounts about  these interactions with many of the major writers, directors, playwrights, and actors of the 20th century. He corresponded with T.S. Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw, among others. But he also loved hearing about the lives of his friends, and boasting to others about their more modest accomplishments.

Stanley followed John Gielgud throughout his career. In Before My Eyes, he explained why he considered him a hero. Gielgud, he wrote, had been a companion through the years, “but my feeling about him nowadays is much more than the weepiness of seeing an aging actor whom I first saw when he and I were young. His companionship has been more than merely long-lived; it has been, as the effect of all good artists is, an enlargement and clarification of experience.” He went on to say that “much of the pleasure is in the patent evidence that, unlike so many gifted people, particularly gifted Americans, he has grown by living like an artist.”

Last month, I went down to West Fifteenth Street for a visit, with another mutual friend fromThe New Republic, Jeremy McCarter. Stanley was too weak to stand up and offer one of his bone-crushing embraces. Although Laura died last year, her presence was manifest by her gardening shoes at the door to the terrace. He was, as he once wrote about a young actress, “alarmingly bony,” and deaf in one ear. He talked dispassionately about the experience of being a very old man. But within moments, his mind was leaping around with its usual dexterity: asking me about my daughters, turning to answer Jeremy’s question about an early one-act J.M. Barrie play (he quoted a few lines of dialogue), then urging us to go out immediately to see the latest Kiarostami film.

Stanley spent much of his life in the dark, alone or with Laura. But no one relished good company more than he did. Speaking of Graham Greene, he asked Laura one time (actually, doubtless more than once), “Do you remember that lunch with Graham in Antibes?” She played her part: “No.” He prodded her, “Yes, you do, Pea.” It was his nickname for her—short for Peaches (origins unknown). “He made the best martini we ever had--with absinthe rather than vermouth.”

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