N.Y. Review of Books Founder Barbara Epstein

Barbara Epstein edited every New York Review of Books article.
Barbara Epstein edited every New York Review of Books article.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Barbara Epstein, a founding editor of the New York Review of Books, a journal of ideas that has helped define intellectual discourse in the English-speaking world for the past four decades, died June 16 of lung cancer at her Manhattan apartment. She was 77.

With her co-editor, Robert Silvers, Ms. Epstein edited the biweekly Review since its founding in 1963. With their connections in the highest reaches of academia, arts and letters, they recruited a glittering cast of intellectual all-stars to write for the publication, which Esquire magazine called "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language."

The Review was born over a dinner table during a 114-day New York newspaper strike. With the New York Times Book Review shuttered, Ms. Epstein and her husband at the time, writer and publishing executive Jason Epstein, devised the idea with their neighbors, poet Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick.

They hired Silvers as co-editor and brought out the first edition on Feb. 1, 1963, with essays by such literary luminaries as W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Mary McCarthy and Irving Howe.

When the newspaper strike ended, Ms. Epstein and Silvers kept the Review alive and quickly gained a highbrow following around the world. By publishing long, thoughtful articles on politics, books and culture, they defied trends toward glibness, superficiality and the cult of celebrity.

Ms. Epstein was often seen as more attuned to literature and cultural coverage, and Silvers was considered more of an authority on history and politics, but both of them edited every article in the Review.

"She was a guiding spirit of the paper," Silvers said in a statement. "Of the thousands of articles published by the Review over the years she contributed something to every one and was entirely responsible for many. . . . She largely created The New York Review of Books and what it stands for."

In the 1960s, the Review dispatched McCarthy to Vietnam and later sent Joan Didion to report from El Salvador. Their writings helped make the Review a leading voice in questioning U.S. policies in Southeast Asia and Central America. I.F. Stone investigated the politics of Watergate for the Review, John Kenneth Galbraith contributed essays on economics, and V.S. Naipaul wrote of the rise of neoconservatism at the 1984 Republican convention.

Other prominent contributors included critic Edmund Wilson, political theorist Hannah Arendt, playwright Lillian Hellman, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and Nobel laureates Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and Desmond Tutu. The consistent quality of the Review's essays prompted British art historian Kenneth Clark to say, "I have never known such a high standard of reviewing."

After years in which the Review was criticized for its complacency by both the left and the right -- Tom Wolfe once called it "the chief theoretical organ of radical chic" -- it found a new urgency after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two years ago, the Nation noted the "re-emergence of The New York Review of Books as a powerful and combative actor on the political scene."

Detractors and admirers alike recognize the Review, with a circulation of 125,000, as a fortress of intellectual rectitude and an institution in its own right. Its elegant caricatures by artist David Levine are widely known, and the lively literary disputes in its letters pages have been described by The Washington Post as "the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing." The magazine is also famous for its personal ads placed by well-read lonely hearts.

In the 1970s, when writer Grace Paley was arrested during a protest at the White House, she grabbed the latest issue, saying, "I can't go to jail without my copy of the New York Review of Books."

Barbara Zimmerman Epstein was born in Boston on Aug. 30, 1928, and graduated from Radcliffe College. When working at the Doubleday publishing house in the early 1950s, she edited "The Diary of Anne Frank" and became a friend of Otto Frank, Anne's father.

In 1980, Ms. Epstein and her husband, both central figures of the New York literary scene, divorced. Her companion in later years was columnist Murray Kempton, who died in 1997. Survivors include two sons and three grandchildren.

Ms. Epstein, who never wrote for her publication, was considered a deft and sympathetic editor who could improve an essay with a few light touches of her pencil. In 2004, she described her working arrangement with Silvers as "like this incredible old marriage, you know, it's just ma and pa. . . . It works, I hope."

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