A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg
Grand Street was more than a magazine; more even than a salon. It was also an alembic for turning gold to life. Ben was a child of money: a collector's child. His father, born in Brest-Litovsk, worked his way from the Lower East Side to the corner of Gramercy Park by promoting the wealthy and the not-yet-famous. (He once told Victor Navasky that he could write a five-word ad guaranteed to hook his interest: "The truth about Victor Navasky.") Ben wrote, in perfect but perhaps unconscious anapests, "His business was public relations. Our house was a blush for that fact." In the beginning of Lost Property, Ben describes what it was like to grow up in that house, "a house of remarkable bathrooms," according to the New York Times, the finest of which reportedly led Tennessee Williams to say, "It looked so shabby when I took it out, I couldn't go." It wasn't enough for Ben; he pretended to a school friend that he lived at the Frick. This was partly to spite his parents, whose preoccupations suggested that he was "subordinate to Sheraton, second to George the Second"; he hated more their dishonest profession that their acquisitiveness served a practical purpose. He felt snubbed by the servants, too—"real English butlers and real Irish maids"—and wondered whether he or they were more dispensable. That experience of contempt gloved in obsequiousness may lie at the root of his lifelong love for disobedient dogs.
Raised on a stage set furnished with quotations, companioned by books, Ben lived allusively. He was Oscar Wilde; he was Julien Sorel. He was, above all, a bad boy. Spat out by three schools, he stole from his father, broke hearts like mere Meissen, ran up impossible bills at the best restaurants. He went to Europe—Italy, Greece, Spain, Berlin—where he was recruited for the CIA by a man he calls Merle Dankenbloom, settling Hungarian refugees in the United States. In search of a holster for his Chief's Special revolver, he confided to the gunsmith that most of his trousers were made only for suspenders. "When you wear a gun, you dress for the gun," came the unkind reply. In London in the '60s Ben worked at writing plays; his shirts were made by Kilgour, his jackets by H. Huntsman, his boots by C.J. Cleverly, who sent a man each week to clean them with the shin bone of a goat. He made friends with Ted Hughes (but not Sylvia Plath), with Bill and Dido Merwin, with the composer Elisabeth Lutyens and the theater director Minos Volanakis; he lunched (he boasted) with the Duchess of Devonshire. He had many lovers, whom he often treated badly. His long relationship with the writer Sally Belfrage ended badly too. Suddenly, it seems, in 1964, he married Wendy Adler, who was just 17; the following year their daughter Susanna was born, and they moved back to New York. None of this drama could free him from his father's shadow, the paradoxical burden of his shrinking trust fund or the paralyzing sense that "you always have to appraise, to appraise and to be not unworthy also of being appraised."
All this is related in Lost Property, in Ben's distinctive, dry, self-deprecating voice. (As it turned out, he was a brilliant writer, but he was far too sociable to confine himself to that, and to make too much of a fuss about it would have seemed somehow vulgar.) His Virgil for the memoir is Theodor Adorno, with Walter Benjamin as his pensive sidekick: two cultured, fearless, radical thinkers against themselves. After Ben died in June, I opened Minima Moralia (for the first time, I am ashamed to say) and found on the first page the following reflection: "The son of well-to-do parents who, whether from talent or weakness, engages in a so-called intellectual profession, as an artist or a scholar, will have a particularly difficult time with those bearing the distasteful title of colleagues." This, Adorno explains, is not only because the man's independence is envied and his motives mistrusted but because his gratuitous presence appears to repudiate the strict division of labor, imposed by society even on the life of the mind: "It is as if the class from which independent intellectuals have defected takes its revenge, by pressing its demands home in the very domain where the deserter seeks refuge."
How powerfully these lines must have resonated for Ben, who spent years trying to slip like a ghost through the walls of privilege, to subvert it satirically (if not deliberately) by taking the performance of it to extremes. "Baudelaire saw with the dandy himself," he writes in Lost Property, "that the need to be odd, at whatever the cost, is finally a heroic shape taken in their decadence by leisure and inherited wealth." Insubordinate and fastidious, waspish and endearing, tender, funny, ironic and littered with famous names, Ben's memoir is the Indian rope trick that enabled his escape. In it he turns his not inconsiderable sharpness (a favorite construction of his, that double negative of nice distinctions and faint praise) deftly against himself. As it unfolds it becomes more poignant, even celebratory. It is the verbal trace of a man shedding his skin.
The opening sections of Lost Property first appeared in The Nation in 1979. Ben had begun writing reviews for Elizabeth Pochoda, the literary editor whose assistant I later became, mostly of books about the theater, his first love. These are self-consciously aphoristic, unashamedly abstruse, encrusted with references: they place things, smartly, carefully, in their right context and rank. They do not eschew words like "banausic," "tergiversation" and "concinnity." They are also full of exact insights that, like all the best criticism, reveal something of their author's own preoccupations. Of Witter Bynner, a now almost forgotten friend of Robert Frost's: "He makes his mark with lethal acts of indelible levity." Of the aerialist Philippe Petit (quoting Ned Rorem): "He lacks eroticism, vulnerability." (Ben lacked neither.) Of the connoisseur Bernard Berenson: "Berenson's reputation combined the fever of large sums of money with the emollient of superfine taste in a double erotic character: that of adulterer and of servitor of the very rich, both roles needing complaisance." Berenson's life, Ben goes on, exemplifies a fear of the nineteenth century's prohibition against personal transformation: "He attempted a sort of appeasement, particularly in his excessive, painful and exhausting habits of work, by insistently offering the prospect of conversion into capital of the pleasures of looking at pictures." Two years after this review appeared, Ben published the first issue of Grand Street, through which he aimed to convert capital into pleasure.
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Ben's father died in 1978. The mansion at 19 Gramercy Park was sold, leaving Ben and his sister in control of "a fairly large sum." By then Ben had three daughters. Two marriages were behind him, as was a long relationship with the film critic he calls in his memoir "Sophie Zevon Clumber." The multiple sclerosis he had diagnosed in himself when he was 34 was making it difficult to walk. He bought the apartment at 50 Riverside Drive; he met and married the writer Dorothy Gallagher. His new life—the life of the Ben I came to know—began.
Grand Street reflected all of Ben's eclectic interests: stories, music, Greece, politics, the relationship between art and money; poetry, often of a formal strain; strands of European high culture; passages from the eccentric ways of the old haute bourgeoisie; criticism and high-octane literary gossip. (William Carlos Williams, writing to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth's Hospital: "Why have you never protested against Eliot and his gleet?") The magazine began as a cabinet of curiosities in which Ben could display the talents of his friends—Ted Hughes sent poems for the first issue, blessing it, as Ben said, with his "beneficence"; Penelope Gilliatt contributed a memoir of Northumberland, "a bony version of Greece"—and rapidly became a means for making new ones. He wooed writers he admired and discouraged those he didn't with finely chiseled notes ("Dear Harold, I like your poems so little that...").
Most editors talk about nurturing new talent. Ben actually did it, with all the literary and material means at his disposal. He read with real attention and he paid real money, affording writers the privilege to which he was born and later condemned: time and space to think, at leisure and with care. Some of his protégées were beautiful young women. Ben loved women, always, the more beautiful, the better, but he did not diminish them. "He let younger women be featured, he allowed them to matter," says Amy Wilentz, who wrote for him on Haiti and feels now that he gave her her career. Susan Minot worked with him on some of the stories that became her first novel, Monkeys. "I was her accompanist," Ben writes in Lost Property, "essential but subordinate. Her performance, not mine, was the thing." Susan, a close friend until the end, remembers it slightly differently: "He was very sure about what he liked; he could be very withering when you chose to keep something he thought not good." Stuart Klawans, who also published short fiction in Grand Street, recalls Ben's editing thus: "Ben had noticed a few places where the writing could be a bit more, well... Did I remember the nocturnal scene in Lolita where Nabokov describes the taillights of a car as 'anal jewels'? Perhaps I could manage to work up a little of that."
Grand Street played its part in the short story boom of the '80s alongside The New Yorker and The Paris Review, but it was far more open and idiosyncratic. There was no such thing as a "Grand Street story," none of the cultishness associated with powerful gurus like Esquire's Gordon Lish. Ben had no qualms about taking work turned down by The New Yorker—a fertile stream that brought him stories by, among others, Alice Munro, Daniel Menaker and indeed Susan Minot. But he also published fiction that would never have been considered for those glossy pages, even in the more liberal reign of Robert Gottlieb. Like an eighteenth-century duchess with a taste for libertinage, Grand Street could accommodate all sorts under its decorous covers: the whimsical, the eccentric, the gnomic, the erotic. Ben loved evocations of pleasure and its dark inner lining. Steven Millhauser's "Snowmen" invents airy, ephemeral sculptures that transfigure a neighborhood; Kent Haruf's "The Autopsy of Sam Adams" carefully details the dismembering of a horse. "For me, as doubtless for many men," Ben wrote in Lost Property, "a love of literature began in masturbation and was linked to pornography." He stayed true to that insight and to its refined expression in European letters; Harry Mathews's story "Singular Pleasures" is an American riff on that venerable tradition.