Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
The first year I worked at Commentary, my relationship with Norman was positive, if not friendly. He took me to various meetings and events; invited me and my wife to the dinner parties that usually included one or more of The Elders; and even took us to Hannah Arendt's New Year's Eve party, an invitation he coveted as much as the narrator does his invitation to the grand soiree of the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past. We also did several radio talks about the magazine on WBAI, the radical FM station, which made me feel like I was his second in command.
Still, I was never comfortable with Norman. From our first meeting, when he had been at his most ingratiating, which wasn't much, I sensed that part of my identity at Commentary seemed to be that of the house epikoros (a Jewish ignoramus), one of the new breed of suburban Jews who didn't know a blintz from a midrash. When Norman, an up-from-the-ghetto urban Jew, used a Yiddish expression, he'd sometimes glance in my direction to see if I got it.
But the differences went beyond that to temperament: his was aggressive and ambitious; mine was circumspect and diffident. He did much of his socializing with other highflying players in the status league--Mailer, Jason Epstein, Jack Thompson. To their dinners at The Palm restaurant I was never invited. I didn't feel left out of this circle, since I didn't have the freedom or money or interest to carouse with them. As it was turning out, other than the magazine and the New York intellectual scene, Norman and I didn't have much to talk about. He had next to no interest in me personally and seemed to regard his main role in the relationship as that of setting me straight or giving me the lowdown, which in time made me a bit standoffish, being able to take only so much of his categorical and reductive thinking. Everyone, seemingly everything, significant was shunted into a slot in his mind: Roger Straus was the publisher; Steven Marcus was the young academic; Willie Morris was the Southerner; Isaac Rosenfeld was the luftmensch. Moreover, Norman moved at a different pace, propelled by his ambition. I remember going with him to a big reception at the Israeli Embassy. When we arrived, I went to the coat check to stow my briefcase. After a minute or so, when I entered, Norman was already at the far end of the long, crowded room, having glided through the throng like Gale Sayers, and was shaking hands and talking animatedly to a man who turned out to be Shimon Peres.
Things were quite different with his wife, Midge. She had been very welcoming and helpful from the start, when she baby-sat Paul and Ivan while my wife and I were apartment-hunting. A curious relationship then developed between us. With Norman and their crowd she was a tough, knowing, wisecracking master of New York intellectual repartee, a Jewish Mary McCarthy who liked to fall into a side-of-the-mouth delivery. With me, she came on very differently--quiet, gentle, a woman of feeling. Alone, she was one of the easiest people to talk with I've known; like a good dancer she followed effortlessly, often letting me lead, our minds in sync. We talked about writers and writing without the gossipy knowingness such discussions took on--"You know what's really behind Saul's new book, don't you," or "the real reason Irving has taken a job at Stanford." We also talked a lot about the Midwest, where Midge had been raised and I had been educated, and about raising kids in the city. Midge had girls and I had two boys, so there were those differences, too, to talk about. Though Midge was a dark, vibrant woman, our relationship wasn't ever flirty, and so I was completely taken aback when one evening, as a group of us were drinking cocktails, Ruthie, their 5-year-old, climbed into my lap and said, "Why don't you stay here all the time and be our Daddy?"
I have no idea what was said in the tight moment that ensued. Maybe nothing. But it made me wary with Midge, not to say Norman. About the only overt outcome, if it was that, came one day soon after when Norman and I found ourselves at the water cooler. He said, "You think you're pretty bohemian, but you're not. You believe in being faithful, and bohemians don't."
I had long since stopped thinking of myself as bohemian, and though the issue of fidelity was beginning to come up in the course of therapy, both my wife's and mine, it was hardly something I wanted to talk about with him. So I said, "It's pretty hard to be a bohemian in Riverdale. I have enough trouble being Jewish on my block."
"No, you'd be just the same if you were living in the Village. You're essentially square."
That was about it. Whatever his subtext was, he wasn't getting all that much out of his freedom, which, from what I saw and heard, pretty much came down to his getting drunk at parties. He was drinking and smoking heavily, had a painful ailment and sometimes couldn't drag himself to the office. He was also going through a prolonged writing block, while I was writing fairly regularly for Commentary and also had branched out to The New Republic and Book Week (then the literary supplement of the Herald Tribune). I don't think he was annoyed by my modest literary success but rather because I wasn't devoting myself heart and soul to the magazine.