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Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days | The Nation

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Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days

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His cruelty act finished, Rahv tossed the manuscript into a wire file on the desk and said, "Not bad. But too long."

About the Author

Ted Solotaroff
Ted Solotaroff (1928-2008) was an editor at Commentary and Book Week, the founding editor of New American Review and a...

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The drums of hell stopped banging, and my spirit returned to me. I said that I'd be glad to cut it. "How many pages should it run?"

"Nah, I'll cut it," he said, dismissive of the task.

I knew a bit about editing by now, and there suddenly were good things in the review I wanted to preserve. Also I had doubts about the editorial sensitivity of someone who would read something with its author sitting right there in the hot seat. "If you'd just mark the places where it needs a trim, I could take it from there."

"No, I'll do it," he said, upping the overbearingness a notch. Well, at least some version of it would be in PR. My unease about his editing (Rahv's manner reminded me of the line in a Joyce story about a woman who dealt with moral problems like a butcher deals with meat) along with my lingering resentment of the "Norman's young men" comment made me want to just get out of there.

I stood up. So did he. "Come on," he said. "I'll take you to lunch. We'll mark the occasion of your becoming one of our writers."

My long-cherished hope sprang up and bloomed. Once again, he was Philip Rahv, not just the editor of PR but the author of the seminal "Paleface and Redskin," the critic who wrote as sensitively about Henry James's heroines (I'd cribbed a bit from his introduction to The Bostonians) as he did about Raskolnikov and Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov, the one among the elders who had stood up squarely against Joe McCarthy, calling him a political bum.

I assumed he'd take me to Schwabens, a literary in-place in the Union Square area. But instead he led me into a coffee shop next door, where we sat at the counter. "Take the chopped liver," he said. "It's the specialty here."

My stomach had been up all night and through the morning churning with the rest of me. "I think I'll have some scrambled eggs," I said.

He seemed insulted, as though he'd brought me to a famous steakhouse and I'd turned down the filet mignon for a hamburger.

"You're making a mistake," he grumbled. "The chopped liver is special here. You should try it."

Some occasion, I thought ruefully. I stuck to my choice of eggs and tried to turn the prickly coffee shop gourmand back into the critic I admired. I told him how much I'd learned from his introduction to The Bostonians and that I had drawn upon it in my dissertation. He responded by ordering another cup of coffee. I settled for an Alka-Seltzer. "So what's going on with Norman?" he asked with much more emphasis than curiosity.

I'd been at Commentary five or six months by now and was bored spitless by the question. So I asked him what he thought was going on with Norman, which probably was what his question was the opening for anyway. "He thinks he's become a major radical. It's like that joke about the rich man who buys a yacht and takes his mother out in it. She asks him who's going to steer it. He says he is. 'I'm a captain now, Mom,' he tells her. She says, 'By you you're a captain. But by the captains are you a captain?'" Rahv then delivered himself of a long rap, the high points being that Norman was essentially an arriviste who was trying to turn himself outside in, that he had no basic ideological position that grasped the social forces today, that he was much more a "political swinger" than he was a radical. He needed to take Commentary in a new direction to make his mark, and what direction could he go but left? But it wasn't all that left anyway, and it wouldn't last. He was under the spell of that other "swinger," Mailer, and that wouldn't last either. Norman Podhoretz was too bourgeois.

Rahv's tone, his stance, his linkage brooked little reply. If there was going to be a significant radicalism, he wound up saying, it would come from the campuses. He was teaching at Brandeis now, and he sensed an inchoate restlessness there. "It started with those Negro students, and if we get into a war with Cuba or Vietnam you'll see it spread like wildfire."

Soon after I'd started at Commentary, Norman Mailer gave a Saturday night party that ended with him drunk and stabbing his wife, and then staggering off into hiding. The following Monday the office became Mailer Central as Norman received reports about his friend's whereabouts, state of mind, options. After sneaking into his wife's hospital room to beg her not to press charges and the next day appearing on Mike Wallace's talk show, Mailer was arrested, remanded to Bellevue and spent two weeks or so there.

Not long after his release he turned up at a party where I happened to be, and I met him for the first time. I expected him to be chastened by the experience. He entered the party with his entourage, his chest high, his expression exuberant, as though he had been spending his time on the expert slopes at Killington rather than in the city psychiatric ward. Wherever Mailer was became the party. The star of his entourage was the ex-middleweight Roger Donoghue, whose knockout punch had once killed a man. Lithe and ruggedly handsome, he drew my attention away even from Mailer. I thought of Sergius O'Shaugnessy, the narrator of The Deer Park and, more recently, the cocksman par excellence of "The Time of Her Time," Mailer's sensationally explicit account of a three-night stand in which the deft, cunning "messiah of the one-night stand" slowly boosts a smartass NYU student up the wall of her semifrigidity and finally over into the promised land.

At one point I was introduced to Mailer. Half smiling, half squinting, he gave me a measuring look, the affable observer who misses nothing. "You've got a pug's nose," he said. "You ever box?"

"Some," I said. He asked me where; I told him mostly in the Navy. "Not competitively," I said. "Mostly self-defense."

"Is that how you got your nose?"

"Sort of. Actually, my nose is a long story," I said, stumbling around, wondering if I should tell the story to him, deciding not to. "But, yes--I did get it broken the second time in a grudge bout in boot camp."

He smiled. "You win?"

"Actually, I did. I was lucky the other guy quit. After three rounds I couldn't hold my arms up anymore."

He nodded. "I know how that feels." Suddenly, he feinted with his hands and mine came up. "Quick hands," he said.

It broke the ice--in me. He was that famous, that charismatic--I'd felt as shy as a girl despite what we were talking about. Still, I was relieved when someone else walked by and I could get out of Mailer's magnetic field, where his words zinged and mine seemed to float as light and evanescent as soap bubbles.

About a year or so later, there came a surprise. I was leaving the building after work when I saw Mailer by himself, trying to hail a cab on Third Avenue during rush hour. I had to look twice to make sure it was him. He was wearing an overcoat and a watch cap pulled over his ears against the cold. He didn't look chesty and keen at all; he looked boyishly oppressed, diminished without his entourage, his face pinched in the cold air.

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