Ben Sonnenberg, 73

Ben Sonnenberg, founder of Grand Street literary magazine, dies at 73

Ben Sonnenberg started Grant Street after becoming
Ben Sonnenberg started Grant Street after becoming "bored of my attitudes of fastidious disengagement." (Gilbert Fletcher/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

Ben Sonnenberg, 73, a onetime wild child of privilege who used his inheritance and eclectic taste to build Grand Street, the literary magazine he founded and edited during the 1980s, into one of the nation's most respected small journals, died June 24 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He had complications from multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Sonnenberg was the son of Benjamin Sonnenberg, a Russian immigrant who came to the United States as a boy and became an influential publicist with clients such as CBS, Pan American World Airways and Philip Morris.

The elder Sonnenberg was a prodigious art collector whose 37-room Manhattan mansion was furnished like a museum and attended by a small army of servants. For Mr. Sonnenberg, it was not a warm place to grow up. In his 1991 memoir, "Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy," he recalled a relationship with his father characterized by mutual contempt.

"He described his business as 'making giant plinths for little men to stand on,' " Mr. Sonnenberg wrote. "In fact, his clients were often large powerful corporations, and his services to them were different from the flackery which his description implies, more commonplace, more corrupt."

The younger Sonnenberg was as undisciplined as his father was ambitious. Expelled from several prep schools, the self-described "self-exiled son of a self-made man" moved to Europe, where he lived the life of a bohemian dandy on the easy flow of family money.

He read widely, wrote several plays and worked briefly for the CIA. He befriended British poet Ted Hughes and other members of the European arts and letters scene, including Samuel Beckett and composer Elisabeth Lutyens. He also devoted considerable energy to romancing women, once seducing a woman by pretending to be the editor of a literary quarterly.

"It was a pleasure when I lived in England to feel I belonged to a tradition of scapegrace heirs," he said in 1991. "With me it conditioned everything, and made me prefer to do nothing rather than come to any sort of public attention."

Then, when Mr. Sonnenberg was 34, came a stumble, a fall in the street and a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. The freewheeling Casanova needed a stick, then two canes, then a wheelchair. He became bedridden; his paralysis spread.

In 1978, his father died and left directions to sell his Gramercy Park home and its contents. Mr. Sonnenberg decided to use the windfall to start Grand Street.

"Lifelong habits of reading and writing, of maintaining cross opinions, together with a too-long-suppressed wish to teach and entertain, made starting a literary magazine a natural, perhaps inescapable, choice," he wrote in his autobiography.

"I was also bored of my attitudes of fastidious disengagement. Reading books, buying art, writing unproduced plays, seducing women: not much of a life."

Working out of his apartment on Manhattan's West Side, Mr. Sonnenberg published the first issue of the magazine in 1981 with contributions from writers such as Hughes and Canadian short story author Alice Munro. He embraced the work of known names, such as W.S. Merwin, Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver, and promoted new talents, including novelist and short story writer Susan Minot.

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