A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg

A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg

A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg

Remembering Ben Sonnenberg (1936–2010)—writer, publisher, boulevardier—and his quarterly, Grand Street.


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.

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.

* * *

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.

In fiction and nonfiction, Ben gave his writers room to stretch, to divagate and take risks. It was for Ben that Christopher Hitchens reflected on his family and the discovery that his grandmother was Jewish; for Ben that Alexander Cockburn revealed his tenderer aspect in a touching memoir about visiting his old school, complete with digressions on fatherhood, Anglo-Irish attitudes and the ablative absolute. Such assignments could nudge careers from their accustomed tack. The philosopher Arthur Danto says that Ben definitively changed his life by inviting him to write for Grand Street and introducing him to Elizabeth Pochoda at The Nation: "I certainly would never have become an art critic but for him."

Through it all ran a distinct and powerful red thread. Beyond his affection for Adorno and Benjamin, beyond his distaste for and recoil from life in Gramercy Park ("I became a Socialist," he writes, "in objection to my father"), the source of Ben’s political affinities remains somewhat obscure. His sensibility was too fine-grained for public concerns to drive it; political views are also a way of claiming or accounting for one’s position in the world. In Lost Property he describes a recurring anxiety about his allegiances. As a young man he worried about whether he could be seen as a Serious Person:

My own notion of such a person came first from Silone and Sartre, then from Gramsci and Fanon; and I knew that I wasn’t serious because (a) I wasn’t wretched, poor or oppressed, (b) I couldn’t work with a group, (c) I liked mischief and (d) I was drawn "fatally," as I put it, to women.

When Irene Papas asked him if he was "an Amerrican" and warned that she was a communist, Ben assured her that he was a communist, too: "But if she’d said she was a Royalist, I’d have said I was one of those."

It was in part Ben’s love for Greece and Greeks (a central theme of our friendship) that gave his rebelliousness a local habitation. Papas and Volanakis engaged him in the struggle against the Colonels’ dictatorship, supported by the CIA, in the late 1960s: "I felt more attached to that cause than to any in America. ‘That Greece might still be free!’" That it had also been Byron’s cause didn’t hurt; nor did the way the Greeks went about such things, or the fact that it was, in America, a minority concern. (Ben loathed mass protest and the American student movement. His old friend Michael Train remembers him asking Bill Merwin with disgust, "Did you get anything out of the ’60s?") But after the dictatorship ended, Ben kept serious faith with my beleaguered country. He regularly published essays on Greek writers and translations of their work (including James Merrill’s versions of Cavafy’s poems and prose), much of it previously unknown to English-speaking readers.

Later, partly because of his connection with The Nation, Ben was drawn into the circles of New York’s intellectual left. Through Hitchens and Cockburn he met Edward Said, whom he loved fiercely and to whom he spoke on the telephone almost every day, about politics, about literature, about music, about tweeds. But his political sympathies were not the mere result of influence and chance. They were rooted, I think, in his immense capacity to delight in other people, his intolerance for bullshit, his sense that all received ideas are debased and therefore false, his bred-in-the-bone enthusiasm for making all kinds of trouble.

There was also, of course, his illness, which was both the first and the last thing one noticed about Ben. Struck by his immobility, one forgot it instantly. He rarely spoke or wrote about it (Dorothy did, in her memoir Strangers in the House, with the unsparing lightness that Ben so admired), but it colored his life more deeply than the temporarily well can even begin to imagine. "If a fly landed on his nose there was nothing he could do about it," Michael Train wrote to me. It should have been obvious, but it never occurred to me; nor did the million other things that slowly became impossible. When he could no longer turn pages, friends came to read to him. Richard Howard was one; they began with Byron’s Don Juan, in its entirety, over a long series of Sunday afternoons. "Well, that was a real education," Ben said when they were done.

As time went on Ben seemed to have more and more sympathy with those of us who weren’t famous, who remained irrevocably trammeled by the ordinary. He understood and was drawn to the qualities that hold people back: diffidence, doubt, an excess of negative capability. Ben, though, was extraordinary. To take his father’s money and give it away, not hoard it as a secret source of self-esteem; to turn it to living use, not as philanthropy but in a way that implicated the deepest part of himself; to risk it for connection and mutual transformation; to break out of his father’s house—all that would have taken rare courage, talent and recklessness even without the paralysis that was turning him to stone as he breathed life into the statues. At Grand Street‘s core was a profound and fruitful tension: it represented a revolt against good taste by true discernment and delight. As such it could not be didactic, or tendentious, or ingratiating. (What a strain it must have been for Ben, who wanted so much, I realize now, to be admired and loved, to be too proud to be ingratiating.) That was the source of its energy and its mysterious aloofness, its refusal to define itself and its originality. Like all great magazines, it was ephemeral; Ben knew when it was time to let it go.

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