Barbara Epstein

Founder and co-editor for 43 years, with Robert Silvers, of 'The New York Review of Books'


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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all