Many child prodigies burn out. Some grow into narrowly smart adults. John Gross remained a wide-ranging prodigy to the last. Rosy-cheeked, twinkly-eyed, schoolboy-faced, the writer and editor with most claim to be Britain's foremost man of letters was, despite years of ill-health, still enriching and astonishing friends with his conversational prowess, springing on them obscure but absolutely relevant references and quotations which (he proffered gently) "you might find useful or – possibly – be amused by." In his twenties his talkativeness was observed by Michael Frayn and his then wife, Gill, who, driving to Venice, were asked by Gross for a lift to Dover. (Gross said he was going to Boulogne for a few days, "to bring his address book up to date.") But Gross was still in their car at Ostend, and also at Strasbourg, where he got out, still talking.
Gross was born in the East End of London in 1935, his parents of East European Jewish descent. The family moved out of Mile End at the start of the Second World War, first to Bracklesham Bay, Sussex, then to Egham, Surrey, where the turreted towers of Royal Holloway College later formed a Guermantes chateau-like image in young Gross's memory. At war's end, the Grosses returned to Tredegar Square, E1. Gross's father was a local GP, remarkably like the genial Dr Dreyfuss who revives a suicidal Shirley Maclaine in Billy Wilder's film The Apartment. At home, Dr Gross let his son John take centre stage, proudly prompting him to provide digested passages of Bleak House or Hard Times. A walk around the neighbourhood accompanied visits to Tredegar Square for Gross's school and college friends: Mile End and Whitechapel Roads; Petticoat and Brick Lanes; many a verdant bomb site. Gross would point out Black Lion Yard, where a dairy sported wooden doors and the painted sign of Evans & Son, "Cowkeepers – Milk fresh from the cow", a faded slogan both in English and Yiddish. Bevis Marks synagogue and the Jewish cemetery next to Queen Mary College could be on the route, together with Blooms eatery, Whitechapel bell foundry, Toynbee Hall and Spratts dog-biscuit factory. He led the way down a dreary street off Commercial Road full of Jewish liturgical bookshops – "More bookshops here than in Golders Green," said Gross.
However, the aftermath of war was finishing off the old Jewish East End, with the spread of GLC council estates and a rising Jewish middle-class decamping to Hampstead Garden Suburb. Gross's education engendered a lasting restlessness. He moved from school to school, his parents concerned to cherish his Jewish roots while nurturing his obvious brightness. Egham Grammar was followed by a period boarding at the Perse School in Cambridge. There he was a pupil in Hillel House, in its last year as a haven solely for Jewish boys. The house magazine, The Orient, published in 1948 a piece by the 13-year-old Gross, "The Cinema as a Living Art". In this, Gross mentioned "the booksie boys", a term borrowed from Timothy Shy, the penname of D B Wyndham Lewis and Ronald Searle for their St Trinian's stories, and was followed by allusions to the Andrews Sisters, Milton, Tchaikovsky, Harry James, Malvolio, Chaplin, Frank Capra, Al Jolson, Jean Kent, Jean Gabin, and Jean Sablon, among others. Stanley Price, also a Perse pupil and later a writer, recalls using his prefectorial status to request from a several-years-younger Gross advice for an essay about Keats.
"Have a look at Hyperion," opined Gross.
"Isn't it rather long?" Price said.
"Yes," Gross replied, "but you'll find you only need quote a stanza," – which he then proceeded to recite, text unseen.
Such prowess bowled over those who examined him for entrance to the City of London School and then Wadham College, Oxford. He arrived at the university in the autumn of 1952, at 17 one of the youngest among an entry of older youth, many of them National Service veterans. (Gross had been turned down for flat feet, among other things.) His contemporaries included George Macbeth, Anthony Thwaite, Adrian Mitchell, Gordon Snell, Gabriel Pearson, Philip French, Eddie Mirzoeff and Christopher Ricks. Among the young women, Anne Harrop (later Thwaite), Gill Palmer (later Frayn), Sarah Rothschild, Carol Goodman, and Susan Loewenthal. He served on the staff of Isis, the weekly in which he was later featured as an "Idol", hailed for having read all of Proust by 14 but now catching up with back copies of Hotspur. A memorable issue of Isis carried a riskily irreverent parody of the New Statesman, assembled in part by Gross. He was by no means a swot; he could be seen talking in La Roma and the Kardomah cafés more often than researching in the Radcliffe Camera or Bodleian. Despite this, he won a seemingly effortless First, and a fourth year in which to do a never-completed B Litt.
Gross moved on to a fellowship at King's, Cambridge and posts with Queen Mary College, London, and Princeton in the US. But although he had a don's skill of asking and provoking the right questions, he felt more at home on Grub Street than in the Groves of Academe. Even so, his publishing jobs didn't always last: at Victor Gollancz, where an heir was needed, Gross fatally turned down as glib and meretricious several books which went on to be bestsellers; his career as literary editor of the New Statesman was shortened by colleagues who had political and artistic differences with him; his tenure at The Spectator was said to have been the shortest ever. His nomadic editorial life was eventually capped by a seven-year spell at the helm of the TLS, which he rescued from moribundity, naming the hitherto anonymous reviewers and bringing a knowledgeable sparkle to its grey pages.
As a writer and anthologist, Gross produced a number of good books. Among his own works were essays on Kipling, Dickens, and James Joyce, a study of Shylock, a memoir of his East End boyhood, A Double Thread, and a vivid and instructive survey of English literary life, The Rise & Fall of the Man of Letters (1969, reprinted 1991). This neatly gave F R Leavis his due as a critic, but also put him in his place as a would-be literary policeman. Gross never completed a long-considered work on the literature of Empire. Successful anthologies – of essays, parodies, aphorisms and comic verse – were put together every few years by him for OUP. All the while he served without self-interest on innumerable committees: for the National Portrait Gallery, for the Government's honours advisors, and notably for three long spells at the London Library. Gross was an eloquent enthusiast for that institution's quirks, and would delight in showing novice members such trophies then on the open shelves as a first edition of Moby Dick and the (also priceless) boxed scrolls which formed the catalogue of the Imperial Library in Peking. Douglas Matthews, a former librarian of the LL, says, "It was amazing at meetings how quiet he could be until near the end, when he'd turn the debate with a brilliant, thoughtfully worded summation."
Although Gross's own reading was voracious and wide-flung, from Chaucer to Saul Bellow, he was entertained by detective stories, from Agatha Christie to J.I.M. Stewart, from Simenon to Ed McBain. He enjoyed TV thrillers, particularly the CSI series. His love of games was expressed in party charades and as a judge of competitions: he was thrilled to give a New Statesman prize for a palindrome to "You look Welsh, look you." Jewish friends were more likely than the non-Jewish to hear his slightly estranged views on the Promised Land, but the only sense in which he ducked Jewish "issues" was in disclaiming intimate involvement except by birth: regarding the Holocaust, his parents had managed to sidestep it and he had been "one of the lucky ones". He thought he remained lucky in rarely having to confront hostility as a Jew. The threatened sacrifice of Isaac always raised his doubts about what kind of God the Jews worshipped. He observed generously on one occasion that "the history of non-anti-Semitism remains an unwritten subject."
In later life he got closer to his Hebraic roots with lengthy periods in New York, that half-Jewish city. He worked as a daily book critic for The New York Times, a paper whose corporate culture he never warmed to, and later as a reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. In his passion for books and films he had what he called "the true addict's thirst for detail", but as a critic, though immensely perceptive, he sometimes let his generosity take the place of the brashly assertive judgements contemporary journalism favours. Clive James noted this tendency to fairness in his witty verse gazeteer to the London literary world, "Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage":
And there was Big John Gross, the Man of Learning
Who kept his massive mental motor turning
By feeding it some colourless, Slavonic
Extractive lightly qualified with tonic.
To go away, or else to stay behind?
Big John could never quite make up his mind...
But wavering, Gross noted, went with the territory; from the start he felt he had had simultaneous roles in two different plays.
Gross's even-handedness didn't prevent him from being the most helpful person any questioner on literary matters could turn to. He had a taste for improbable connections and he knew nearly everything. (Such as the answers of 49 out of 50 of the questions he once overheard a television contestant on Mastermind being made to face.) An early enthusiast for the boys' books of Herbert Strang, Gross delighted in revealing that a Mrs Herbert Strang also wrote books for girls, and that the name of both Mr and Mrs was actually a pseudonym for two middle-aged men who worked most of their lives for OUP. Hearing a friend mention a book about Sarah Bernhardt, Gross immediately listed other biographies of the actress that might be useful. A scathing reference to Peter Rachman would prompt from Gross the suggestion that one read a certain book about the notorious landlord that didn't reveal quite as much evil as one had been led to expect. A conversation with him might touch in minutes on Virgil, Stendhal and the early Catherine Cookson. His good friend, the TV film-maker Eddie Mirzoeff, says (as do many) that he'd never have read half the books he did without Gross's input.
His life was private but very social. Friends rarely saw the inside of his small flat in Bayswater, but for an essentially solitary man, who had never had a best friend as a child, he was relentlessly gregarious. He was to be met at local pubs to begin with and then at drinking clubs like Zanzibar and latterly, in his Sunday Telegraph drama critic days, at the Ivy and Wolsely, where the doormen and proprietors greeted him as an old friend. He repaid hospitality with an annual do at the Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge at which former college mates were seen and Nobel and Booker prize-winners encountered publishers' secretaries and starlets Gross had run into a few days before. "Come and say hello to..." he'd say, as he led a bemused guest over to Claus von Bulow, Vidia Naipaul, Lady Lever or Lord Heseltine. At home he never switched on the oven and was believed by many to be unable to use the kettle. He was married for 23 years to the beautiful Miriam May, also a redoubt-able literary editor, and after the marriage ended in 1988 they remained close friends, having long telephone conversations every day until Gross's death. Their son, Tom, is a journalist, living in Israel, and their daughter, Susanna, is books editor of the Mail on Sunday.
Despite his air of practical incompetence, Gross mastered the communication skills of Skype – his love of conversation made it vital, though he always found it hard to close down. In his last years of serious illness his correspondence was largely e-generated. Old friends took him to concerts and Glyndebourne, and an affable Iranian chauffeured him on country visits. Heart problems didn't stop him talking: the medical staff in his final days at St Mary's in Paddington claimed he was their most loquacious patient ever. His daughter, Susanna, was with him at the end, reading aloud a Shakespeare sonnet.
John Jacob Gross, writer and editor: born London 12 March 1935; editor, Victor Gollancz 1956–58; assistant lecturer, Queen Mary College 1959–62; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1962–65; literary editor, New Statesman 1973; editor, Times Literary Supplement 1974–81; editorial consultant, Weidenfeld 1982; writer, New York Times 1983–88; theatre critic, Sunday Telegraph 1989–2005; married 1965 Miriam May (marriage dissolved 1988; one son, one daughter); died London 10 January 2011.