You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Stanley Kauffmann, 1916-2013

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My experience with Marilyn Monroe began with Edith Sitwell.” This enchanting sentence was written by Stanley Kauffmann, who commanded precisely that range of cultural experience, and also that tone of tickled adventurousness. In the 1950s he worked in publishing—the greatest moviegoer who ever lived saved The Moviegoer—and one day he had the daunting task of persuading the movie star to sign off on a volume of photographs of her. Word had reached him that Monroe had met Sitwell (now there was the full spectrum of womanhood!) and that Sitwell might write a preface to Monroe’s book. He phoned the Gorgon of over-civilization at the St. Regis and was rewarded with “an aristocratic English explosion. ‘Yes? What is it?’ ‘Miss Sitwell?’ I asked. More thunderously, ‘My name is Dame Edith Sitwell, if you please.’ ” Ten days later there arrived a letter from “Dame Edith Sitwell. D.B.E. D.Litt. D. Litt. D. Litt.” apologizing for her nastiness, but nothing doing with the preface. Undiscouraged, Stanley made his way to Monroe’s apartment at the Waldorf Towers. From D.Litt. to delight: when “the globe’s Aphrodite” came to the door, “she was wearing a white terry-cloth robe, tightly belted. The top billowed out just a bit. I wondered if this was to compensate me for my wait.” Dream on, dear Stanley. But his first response to the proximity of the most famous flesh in the world was to call his wife. The phone was in the bedroom. He dialed home: “ ‘I’m in Marilyn Monroe’s bedroom, sitting on her bed.’ ‘Oh come on,’ said Laura impatiently.” He saw her twice more, once upon her return from the Actors Studio, looking “off duty,” and again as she was being made up for a big appearance (“She saw me in the mirror and waved at me as someone did something to her dress. . . . The wave in the mirror [was] quick, almost apologetic . . .”). Like every intellectual male who ever encountered Monroe, he stilled his lust with her pathos. A paperback called Marilyn Monroe as The Girl was eventually published and sold poorly. But Stanley had another “album” for his winning memoirs.

There were noisier film critics in Stanley’s time, and film critics who assisted in the creation of cults around their big ideas or their big persons. Stanley was different. His work was strong but it was egoless. He promulgated no theory and founded no school. He revered film but he did not worship in the church of “cinema.” (I remember the self-importance with which one was taught to pronounce that word in the 1960s.) He believed undoctrinally in “the cinematic and the literary and theatrical and psychological and social and political,” as befitted his diverse and welcoming temperament. His prose infused subtlety with vitality, and all the techniques of critical devastation were at his disposal, but he never raised his voice: in his millions of words you will not find a vulgar or hectoring one. In his withering reviews there was always a tincture of melancholy that a work had fallen short. He wanted so much to admire. A work of art was innocent before proven guilty, because he was on the side of art. His erudition was massive; all the traditions of all the theatrical arts were at his fingertips, and worn lightly and cunningly. His independence of mind through all the decades was an astonishment. He was sovereignly indifferent to the commercial promptings of the movie business, and was never content to serve as the last step in a movie’s promotion. He stayed out of the system. Even when he adored a film, he contrived to express his adoration in a way that made it useless for advertisements. (The business side of this magazine was regularly displeased.) He reviewed the films that he thought were important, not the films that Hollywood thought were important. He was unmoved by money and celebrity; he was a true meritocrat. His movie writing is blissfully free of knowingness, or the Manhattan disease, and free also of the high-spirited relativizing irony into which certain critics descend when they do not much like a work but do not wish to be disinvited from the party. (In its arts pages The New York Times has made urbane ingratiation into a brand.) And long before globalization, he was a film globalist. He regarded the international nature of film as one of the medium’s greatest excitements. He simply wanted to see, and if possible to support, every movie in existence. He championed obscure films from obscure places, and sometimes he was mocked for his esoteric interests; but esotericism is a provincial’s pejorative, and he was perhaps the most cosmopolitan man who ever wrote about the movies.

There was a time when culture was not only studied, but also aspired to; and when you visited Stanley in his apartment in the clouds on West 15th Street you entered a small eden of culture. Film, theater, literature, music, ballet: it all mattered. Questions of taste were questions of worldview. Huge ideas were at stake on Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway. The health of society was measured in part by the quality of the arts that it produced. The appearance of a good novel meant that we were doing alright, but a bungled Agon or Figaro made you wonder. Stanley presided over these conversations with the authority of his experience (six years ago he began a column this way: “On the morning of August 24, 1927, a few weeks before I started high school, I read the headlines in The New York Times announcing the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. . . .”), and with the authority of his cultivation (how strenuously we debated, one afternoon, the relative merits of Giovanni Martinelli and Mario del Monaco in Otello), and with the authority of his graciousness, which was infinite. He was soulful, generous, refined, funny, heartening, exacting, and joyful; a man of many sympathies and many loves; a wholly exquisite man. For thirty years it was my custom at editorial meetings to begin my report on the next week’s issue with the words: “We have Kauffmann.” The last time I did so, I had a tear in my eye. But the tear is gone, because I have been reading him. There he still is. We have Kauffmann.

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.