Ben Sonnenberg loved to read a juicy obit, such as he’d find in the Daily Telegraph; so he would want you to be entertained, and have your sense of wonder expanded, on the occasion of learning that he died peacefully on June 24, at 73, surrounded by his family.
Faithful readers of The Nation will know that his name wove in and out of these pages, sometimes in a byline (as when he filed a column about videos) but often within the copy of this or that other writer, who would cite him without further identification. "According to Ben Sonnenberg" was enough—because for many of this magazine’s editors and contributors, some of whom (such as Arthur C. Danto) he helped recruit, Ben was a deeply loved friend, confidant, instigator, arbiter of style, source of ideas, connector to people and whatever word Cavafy would have used for kibitzer.
A partial account of how he attained this status may be found in his memoir Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy (available right now from Amazon, as Ben would have wanted me to mention). The story of a privileged but oppressive upbringing on Gramercy Park, and of dandyish revolt on both sides of the Atlantic, Lost Property takes you as far as Ben’s 50s, when his astonishingly refined but radical and playful sensibility, vast network of friends and determination to give away as much of his inheritance as possible (Property Thrown Away With Both Hands would be more like it) led to his founding Grand Street. For the next decade, under his editorship, it would be the most elegant, eclectic and utterly personal literary magazine in America.
Ben in his glory (details available at nytimes.com). But it was perhaps when he gave up Grand Street, and the salon became less crowded, that Ben’s deep splendor became most evident. A dandy without snobbism, an aesthete without pretense, he devoted himself during a long and busy retirement to projects such as translating the extravagant Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck (because Crommelynck had fallen into undeserved obscurity, and there were young theater artists Ben knew who could profit from him). He tirelessly promoted works he admired (beginning with those of his wife, Dorothy Gallagher, available right now from Amazon). He collected man-walks-into-a-bar jokes, watched Law & Order between screenings of Tarkovsky and Sokurov, and mailed his grandsons a three-year supply of whoopee cushions and plastic dog doo.
"I have been amazed over the decades by Ben’s unfailing support," Maria Margaronis recalled after he died, speaking for herself and many others. "He sent me things, he praised my work, he tried to get editors to let me write for them; he extolled our mutual friends." And he did all this, during the Grand Street years and beyond, after multiple sclerosis had made him a quadriplegic (or, as he preferred to say, a cripple).
He taught many things to everyone who knew him—and not the least of these lessons, which you could learn by watching him command an entire room from his wheelchair, was that there is no such thing as inconsolable. You just have to be as generous, kind, smart and endlessly imaginative as Ben.
Good luck to the rest of us.