A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg
Ben Sonnenberg, writer, publisher, boulevardier, incomparable friend to me and many others connected with this magazine, is at home in his apartment at 50 Riverside Drive. The room is intimate and understated (that helpful word, with its buried anagram of "taste"). The Hudson shines obliquely through the window. His long fingers are strapped flat to the arms of his chair, which he must move by blowing through a straw. If he could lean forward he would, but as it is all must be done with the face: the half-diffident smile, the wicked glint in the eye. "Did I ever tell you," he says, with a slight caressing drawl, "Did I ever tell you about the first time I felt the earth move? I was with Irene Papas." And the walls disappear, and Ben, young, agile, full of dash and promise, is stepping out into a Greek provincial square with his dark lover, hand in hand, and she is remembering the day the fascists killed her father, there, outside the town hall where he was the communist mayor, in the civil war... "That's where my father was shot," she says, and the ground begins to quake. "Now, it's a hotel."
"For the private individual," wrote Walter Benjamin, "the private environment represents the universe. In it he gathers remote places and the past. His drawing room is a box in the world theatre." When Ben first quoted those lines in his memoir, Lost Property (1991), he meant the many rooms of his father's mansion at 19 Gramercy Park, crowded with expensive furniture and art. Later, he used them to describe the way he drew the world to him through Grand Street, the quarterly he founded in 1981 and edited for nine years. But even without the magazine, Ben knew how to make one room an everywhere. For him everything was personal, and nothing merely so. He was intimate and elusive, urbane and vulnerable. When you were with him you felt you were the only one who mattered, the one he wanted to see, though his acquaintance was enormous and distinguished. I asked him once, surprised by some connection, if he knew everybody; he replied, with a hint of flattery to deflect any suspicion of unseemly self-regard, "Only the great, the talented, the good and the beautiful."
It is difficult to describe the place that Grand Street held in the literary and political landscape of the 1980s. It was sui generis, eclectic and unclassified; it stood (as E.M. Forster said of Ben's beloved Cavafy) at a slight angle to the universe. At a time when celebrity culture was being dressed up as respectable in magazines like Interview and the revived Vanity Fair, when advertising revenues were on every editor's mind, when uncritical support for Israel had deformed the morals of a significant part of the intellectual left, Grand Street was incorruptible. Funded by the proceeds from Benjamin Sonnenberg père's public relations business—and the engine of his son's final liberation from him—it kept blithely aloof from commerce and fashion, refusing to be dutiful or polite. Like all great magazines, it was the pure expression of its editor's sensibility: cosmopolitan, rebellious, sybaritic, recherché. Adept at irony (he had a recurring dream of being cut at a party by Henry James), Ben wasted no time worrying about the spurious contradiction between elite intellectual tastes and radical political ones. "In the end," writes Theodor Adorno, one of his guiding lights, "glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so." Ben published whom and what he liked, and if it happened to be beyond the reader's ken, then it was the reader's luck to have stumbled on something new.
There was considerable traffic in the early days between Grand Street and The Nation, but Grand Street was never programmatic or polemical. "The quality of raised voices," Ben told New York, "is not attractive to me." Still, he commissioned groundbreaking essays that could not have appeared elsewhere: not in The New Yorker, not in The New York Review of Books, sometimes not in The Nation. Edward Said's "Canaanite Reading" of Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution unraveled a claim for the Exodus story as a paradigm for liberation by adducing the view of the Promised Land's previous inhabitants. John Hess's "The Culture Gulch of the Times" chronicled the Gray Lady's transformation into a painted strumpet for admen and flacks with the authority of one who had toiled for decades in her vineyards. Robert Sherrill wrote on corruption and corporate crime, Murray Kempton on betrayal, Andrew Kopkind on the distortions of the closet.
Grand Street's mystique began with its appearance: austere, restrained, Augustan. Each issue had the heft of a book, printed in hot type on heavy, creamy stock and bound in a solid color of a muted shade—"like Necco wafers, not Chuckles," in Daniel Menaker's phrase. The cover bore the contributors' names, in no discernible order, set in beautiful square Caledonia capitals: Alice Munro, Ann Carson, James Salter, Daniel Wolff; Raymond Carver, William Empson, Suzanne Ruta, William Trevor; Samuel Beckett, Amy Clampitt, Virgil Thomson, Nora Sayre; Richard Howard, E.M. Cioran, Yannis Ritsos, Elizabeth Jolley. Below, a billy goat stood atop a rocky crag, head lowered, hooves four-square, "an emblem," Ben explained, "of obstinacy, omnivorousness, capriciousness." Inside, there was little guidance for the reader unaccustomed to such respect: stories, poems and essays followed one another at will, unmarked as to genre, unpackaged, unalloyed.
Grand Street's circulation never exceeded 5,000. But if you were a certain sort of writer in New York in those days, you wanted desperately to join this club, which you couldn't ask to enter and whose rules were never explained. To be invited to write for Grand Street (as I was only once) was to be aware of Ben's sharp eye and sharper expectations, and of the exalted company to which you were being, by some mistake or miracle, temporarily admitted. If you were a young unknown (and even, I suspect, if you were a well-known known), you felt you had to come up with something better than your best. Ben's critical faculties were not suspended once he'd taken you to his heart. A piece published elsewhere that he thought not up to scratch would be met with a loud silence or a finely barbed remark, which took some time to work its way beneath the skin. At the same time, his generosity was startling. Even after his illness made him give up Grand Street, he encouraged, suggested and praised; introduced kindred spirits; brokered covetable assignments. Above all he was present: Peter Pan in a wheelchair, an acerbic guardian angel who made it seem as if being forced to live vicariously was, in fact, a gift.