Barbara Epstein

Founder and co-editor for 43 years, with Robert Silvers, of 'The New York Review of Books'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Barbara Zimmerman, editor: born Boston, Massachusetts 30 August 1928; Co-Editor, The New York Review of Books 1963-2006; married 1954 Jason Epstein (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980); died New York 16 June 2006.

It was Thomas Carlyle, writing in the Edinburgh Review, the greatest literary journal in an age of great literary journals, who said that the whole of literature had become one "boundless self-devouring Review". He may not have meant that as a compliment to the culture of the early 19th century, but the terrific importance of certain journals to the making of public opinion and the development of English prose has been mirrored in our own day by very few publications, and The New York Review of Books is one of them.

Barbara Epstein was co-editor of the New York Review for more than 40 years. She was complete in her devotion to the art of editing - almost never writing herself, and forever lobbying her writers to do more and do better for the paper - but she found that the task required more energy and more outrage as she got older. She was proud of the magazine's more recent position as the only mainstream American publication to speak out consistently against the war in Iraq. "I'm not interested in the public eye," she once said, "but I'm interested in the public ear, and I want our writers to fill it with brilliant sentences."

She was born Barbara Zimmerman in Boston in 1928, and was early in thrall to the secret life of books. She graduated in History and Literature from Radcliffe College in 1949 and went straight to New York, where she began working for the publishers Doubleday and Co. She showed an immediate talent for getting along with authors, and the relatives of authors, which brought her into contact with Otto Frank, whose daughter had written the hundreds of pages of what would become Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, the English translation published by Doubleday in 1952.

Zimmerman went to meet Otto Frank when he first came to New York and she claimed never to have understood just how universal and total the diary's appeal would become. But she did understand Frank's wish to enjoy a nice time in New York, and, on his subsequent visits, after his daughter's book was famous, she would attempt to take him to places where he might drink a few cocktails. "Otto would be keen for a Martini," she said years later,

and Jewish hostesses on the Upper West Side would organise these parties for him. But when you arrived at the door with him, and the hostesses opened it to welcome him in, they would routinely burst into tears amidst cries of "your poor, poor daughter", which kind of put paid to the Martinis.

She had an affinity for poets and political writers. She edited Theodore Roethke's The Waking: poems, 1933-1953 (1953) for Doubleday and went on to work at the publishers McGraw-Hill and later had a spell at the Partisan Review. In 1954 she met and married the publisher Jason Epstein, a leading light at Random House, and it was at a dinner party of theirs in the winter of 1962, during the long, acrimonious strike at The New York Times, that the idea was floated that would lead to the founding of The New York Review of Books.

The party was attended by Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick (a married couple at the time), who felt the time might be right to create a literary magazine that was better than any other. Jason Epstein knew the publishing industry was hurting from the lack of a proper place to advertise their books, and writers too were suffering from not seeing their books reviewed. "Jason was, like, kids, let's put on a show!" said Barbara, and the Lowells used their influence to attract as many high-profile contributors as possible.

Barbara Epstein said the first task was to call Robert Silvers, a senior editor at Harper's Magazine. He and Epstein immediately became joint editors, which they continued to be for 43 years. The first issue, dated 1 February 1963, had a sterling list of contributors writing for free. Hardwick wrote a piece about Ring Lardner, Norman Mailer wrote about Hemingway, and there were also pieces by Gore Vidal, William Styron, W.H. Auden and Mary McCarthy.

Almost immediately, within two issues, the New York Review was the country's leading intellectual journal. Never stodgily academic, and never skittishly book-chatty either, the magazine was based on the best traditions of British literary journalism, running long review-essays every fortnight that were both contentious and highly polished, the best work being done in that form in the language.

During the Vietnam War the journal shocked several of its initial backers by criticising US foreign policy - one of them excused herself from making further contributions - but the magazine continued to run occasional pieces by the likes of Hans Morgenthau and I.F. Stone. Epstein herself was often to be found in a state of quiet agitation about the progress of American political life, and was known to have joined her younger staffers when they went on the march on Washington in 1965.

Epstein was always on the lookout for young writers with a point of view and a strong writing style. She would criss-cross New York to the launch parties and readings of fledgling authors, looking for evidence that the new person had the ability to write pieces - "and have you anything for us?" she would say. Epstein didn't often write but she thought like a writer, with a second-to-none talent for making inexperienced essayists feel they could make the grade, bringing them into the life of the magazine with her sense of purpose and her sense of fun.

"She was so fizzy and festive," said her friend the writer Nora Ephron, "with such an appetite for trivia and gossip, that you completely forgot she was an editor of the New York Review." At her apartment on West 67th Street, Epstein gave some of the best parties in New York. She loved allowing younger writers to test their mettle against some of the old lions of American cultural life. "You'd go in there," said one of them yesterday,

and on one side of you there'd be Merchant and on the other side you'd have Ivory. And Joan Didion would be looking at you, with Barbara listening intently and letting out gales of laughter as the evening progressed. She loved to see new people coming along and making their names. And those people never forgot the infectious pleasure she took in their progress. Gore Vidal still talks about it, the greatness of Barbara's appetite for literary quality.

Barbara Epstein believed in the forging of better standards in literary, cultural, and political life: she hated weak arguments, amoral judgements, and cowardly or pretentious writing. Together with Robert Silvers, she believed in the higher form of journalism as a lamp to carry readers through dark times, and was proud to have played her part in creating a Review that could ask more thoughtful things of modern life than modern life was in the habit of asking of itself.

Andrew O'Hagan