Late in 1962, New York City’s seven daily newspapers were shut down by a strike of their printers. With the papers’ book-review sections idled during the 114-day strike, several enterprising intellectuals came up with an idea to publish their own journals about books.
On Feb. 1, 1963, the New York Review of Books hit the newsstands and quickly sold out its print run of 100,000 copies. The editors were Barbara Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, who left their jobs at other publications to put out the new journal’s first issue.
“You’ll be back in a month,” Mr. Silvers’s boss at Harper’s magazine told him.
Fifty-four years later, Mr. Silvers was still editing the New York Review, which he and Epstein built into what Esquire magazine called “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language.”
Mr. Silvers, whose editorial guidance and carefully penciled suggestions gave shape to thousands of articles — including literature, art and music, science, economics and politics — in what he called “the paper,” died March 20 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by the Review’s publisher, Rea Hederman, who said the cause was “most likely pneumonia.”
Along with Epstein, Mr. Silvers built the New York Review of Books into a sober, rigorous, politically engaged publication that reaches far beyond simple book reviews and far beyond New York. Since Epstein’s death in 2006, Mr. Silvers carried on alone as the Review’s chief editor.
Formidably erudite, Mr. Silvers reigned over the semiweekly publication from a desk surrounded by teetering piles of books and manuscripts. He was known to change into black tie to attend the opera, then return to his office and work until after midnight.
It took two shifts of assistants, decades younger than Mr. Silvers, to keep up with him. He often softened his editorial queries with the suggestion, “Our readers will want to know.”
“There is only one story you need to know about Bob,” contributing writer Timothy Garton Ash told the Guardan in 2004. “ ‘Four o’clock on Christmas Day: the family is gathered around the turkey, and the phone rings. It’s Bob. ‘Tim,’ he says, ‘How are you doing? On column six of the third galley, there’s a dangling modifier.’ ”
From the beginning, the publication enlisted renowned writers — W.H. Auden, Gore Vidal and poet Robert Lowell contributed to the debut issue — and gave them the freedom to engage with ideas and social problems as they saw fit.
“I believe in the writer,” Mr. Silvers told New York magazine in 2013. “That’s how we started off: admiring the writer.”
In the 1960s, Mr. Silvers and Epstein sent author Mary McCarthy to Vietnam, where she wrote some of the first critical dispatches about U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. Later, investigative journalist I.F. Stone reported on Watergate for the Review, Joan Didion wrote about the United States in the 1970s and El Salvador in the 1980s, V.S. Naipaul analyzed Republican politics. Other regular contributors included literary heavyweights such as Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Stephen Jay Gould, Garry Wills and Susan Sontag .
“American intellectual life — poor, fragmented thing that it is — would be vastly poorer had it not been for the Review and the model that it gives for how to write for a generally educated audience,” Sontag told the New York Times in 1997.
The New York Review also became known for its intellectual feuds carried out week after week in its letters to the editor and for its sometimes laughably highbrow personal ads, once spoofed by Woody Allen in the movie “Annie Hall.”
Often derided as reflexively leftist — journalist Tom Wolfe called the New York Review “the chief theoretical organ of radical chic” — the publication had no defined political point of view. From its first issue, it was critical of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, reflecting Mr. Silvers’s longtime support of human rights in the face of oppression.
In 1969, he went to Cuba and met dissident writer Heberto Padilla, “who insisted we could only talk while walking in the park,” Mr. Silvers said in 2013. “There he slipped me a sheaf of poems that we published when I got back.”
Through the efforts of Mr. Silvers, former senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), writer Bernard Malamud and others, Cuban authorities finally allowed Padilla to leave the country in 1980.
Robert Benjamin Silvers was born Dec. 31, 1929, in Mineola, N.Y. His father was a businessman, and his mother was a music critic for the New York Globe.
Mr. Silvers entered the University of Chicago at 15 and graduated in 1947, when he was 17. He attended Yale Law School, then worked as press secretary to Connecticut Gov. Chester Bowles (D) and served in the Army with a unit attached to NATO in Paris.
He was an editor of the Paris Review, lived on a yacht on the Seine (with pianist Peter Duchin) and studied at the Sorbonne and the Paris Institute of Political Sciences. He returned to New York in 1958 to work at Harper’s magazine, where he edited an article by writer Elizabeth Hardwick critical of the state of book reviewing at newspapers.
That article helped provide the intellectual foundation of the New York Review of Books. During the newspaper strike of 1962-63, Hardwick, Lowell (her husband at the time) and book editors Jason Epstien and his then-wife, Barbara, came up with the idea. They brought Mr. Silvers in as co-editor and co-owner.
“We published nothing that each of us had not read and gone over,” Mr. Silvers once said of Barbara Epstein. “We shared every piece, every assignment. We had no division of labor.”
Despite its relatively small circulation, now at 135,000, the Review has been profitable since 1965. Hederman bought the publication in 1984.
“Bob and I were always in complete agreement on the direction of the paper and we’ll do all we can to continue in the same editorial direction,” Hederman said in an email. “There is no successor yet.”
Mr. Silvers was never married but was linked to a number of women. His longtime companion, Grace Ward, the Countess of Dudley, died in December 2016.
As the New York Review moved past its 50-year anniversary, Mr. Silvers remained as curious and intellectually engaged as ever.
“I always feel I want to learn from the articles we publish,” he said in 2013. “And I have to assume that there’s an audience that wants to learn in the same way.”