Philip Roth and His Defensive Fans Are Their Own Worst Enemies

Philip Roth and His Defensive Fans Are Their Own Worst Enemies

Philip Roth and His Defensive Fans Are Their Own Worst Enemies

Why did it take a sexual assault scandal to raise red flags about a deeply flawed biography?


A committed atheist, Philip Roth feared only one form of posthumous punishment: being trapped for all eternity in a hostile biography. In 2007, Roth, echoing a similar quip from Oscar Wilde, said, “Biography gives a new dimension of terror to dying.” Roth’s had already been the subject of a harsh and unforgiving portrait in Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), the memoirs of his former wife, the actor Claire Bloom. As John Updike noted in The New York Review of Books, “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” This crisp summary ended Roth’s friendship with Updike, even after Updike made clear he was recapping Bloom’s book and not affirming its accuracy.

In a private note about Bloom’s book, Roth asserted, “Another writer my age awaiting a biography and awaiting death (which is worse?) might not care. I do.” Roth put enormous efforts into finding a biographer who could contest Bloom’s account. His first choice was the academic Ross Miller, but the novelist had a falling out with his biographer as the would-be James Boswell resisted the imperious dictates of the modern Dr. Johnson. Roth ended up describing his relationship with Miller as “my third bad marriage.” After unsuccessfully trying to rope in friends such as Hermione Lee and Judith Thurman to tell his life story, Roth settled on Blake Bailey, the author of highly regarded biographies of troubled male American writers, notably Richard Yates and John Cheever.

Given long-standing feminist arguments that Roth is a misogynist—not to mention the portrait in Bloom’s memoirs—it was inevitable that any Roth biography would spark arguments about gender politics. What was surprising is that the debate would center around the biographer more than Roth. In the wake of the biography’s release, Bailey has been accused of shocking acts. Four former students from the elite New Orleans high school where he’d taught during the 1990s came forward to complain that he had groomed them as minors and sexually pursued them as adults. One of these women claimed he raped her. Another former student came forward with an allegation of attempted rape when she was an adult. Finally, Valentina Rice, a New York publishing executive, told The New York Times that Bailey raped her in 2015. Bailey strenuously denies all these allegations.

Rice’s allegations also cast a shadow on Bailey’s publisher, W.W. Norton. In 2018, Rice had sent a pseudonymous letter to Norton president Julia Reidhead describing the incident. The publisher passed on the note unredacted to Bailey, who guessed the identity and contacted Rice, imploring her not to repeat the allegation.

Norton has decided to cease publishing the biography. My colleague Katha Pollitt, critical of both Roth and Bailey, thinks this decision is a mistake. She argues that Bailey, who went to great lengths to craft an apologia for Roth, ends up documenting the novelist’s misogyny. “Despite his best intentions, Bailey ends up making the case,” Pollitt argues. “For that very reason, readers should have the chance to buy the book and come to their own conclusions. It’s not a great book…but it’s fluently written and contains a huge amount of information.”

Like Pollitt, I have no problem with the book being kept in print (especially if Norton or any future publisher donates profits to charities helping assault victims). But I do think that the book is so tainted by misogyny that, even without the accusations against Bailey, its value is severely compromised.

I was working on my own review of the book when the scandal broke—and struggling for a way to characterize the biography’s unsettling handling of Roth’s personal life. Looking around, I noticed that most of the reviews were positive; only a few pointed out the misogyny. One major exception was Laura Marsh of The New Republic, who wrote, “Women in this book are forever screeching, berating, flying into a rage, and storming off as if their emotions exist solely for the purpose of sapping a man’s creative energies.”

If Bailey’s book is brought back in print by another publisher, I would hope that future reviewers and readers would build on Marsh’s insights. Bailey is consistently hostile to Roth’s two wives, Margaret Martinson and Claire Bloom. Bailey speaks of Martinson’s “motives for setting her trap” (in other words, tricking Roth into marrying her). While it’s true that Martinson did use a fake urine test to make Roth think she was pregnant, the language of “trap” simplifies a marriage that Roth himself presented in more complex terms in his novels and his memoir The Facts (1988). Leaving a Doll’s House is described as “a sustained character assassination.” By presenting Martinson and Bloom as one-dimensional villains, Bailey ends up sabotaging his own narrative, since he can’t credibly describe why Roth was attracted to them in the first place.

Roth’s feelings for his first long work of narrative fiction Letting Go (1962) are summed up with a strange metaphor: “as if the novel were a faded but beloved old girlfriend whom he hated for anyone but himself to mock.”

Roth taught literature at the University of Pennsylvania for many years. His friend Joel Conarroe, who was chair of the English department of the school for part of this time, described himself to Bailey as acting as “pimp” by funneling attractive female students into Roth’s classes. Bailey nonchalantly characterizes Conarroe as “a good-natured procurer.”

One of the themes of the book is that Roth was constantly attracted to younger, poorer, and emotionally distressed women, with whom he entered into a “Pygmalion” relationship that sought to combine sex with social improvement. Bailey presents this as a good bargain for both parties.

One late-life attempt along this line (which proved nonsexual) involved a private chef named Catherine von Klitzing. Here is Bailey’s account: “Roth would always have a weakness for vulnerable young women and with Catherine he hit the jackpot. A recovering alcoholic prone to bouts of depression (a condition she inherited, she said, from a ‘bastard’ of a father), she would sometimes become tearful for no discernible reason, and Roth was nothing but patient and concerned.” The facetious tone of this little character sketch is in keeping with the belittling way Roth’s partners and would-be partners are described throughout.

According to Bloom, in 1988 Roth made a sexual advance on a young woman she calls Felicity, a friend of Bloom’s daughter Anna Steiger. In Bloom’s account, Steiger told her that Roth “suddenly appeared and attempted to French kiss” Felicity. Bailey quotes Roth as saying this account is “preposterous” because “I for one have never found the ‘French kiss’ pleasurable.” Roth’s disdain for French kissing is quoted at length, with Bailey concluding, “For what it’s worth, a number of Roth’s old lovers were happy to corroborate the point.”

But then, more than 70 pages after this account, Bailey quotes Mia Farrow describing being French-kissed by Roth. Bailey adds in a footnote that this is “a detail that, if true, slightly belies Roth’s profound aversion to French-kissing.” Leaving aside the accusations against Bailey, his attempt to paper over fraught issues with a jaunty diffidence renders him a suspect narrator of nettlesome interpersonal relations.

It’s likely that the flaws in Bailey’s biography were ignored by critics because Roth has a sizable fan base eager to read—or at least purchase—a massive tome vindicating him from accusations of misogyny. Ironically, the book merely serves to bring those accusations front and center.

Some distinctions are essential. Although the accusations against Bailey seem credible, they haven’t been proven. Ideally, they will be examined in court, either through civil or criminal proceedings. It’s also worth noting that these accusations against Bailey are much more serious than anything Roth has ever been plausibly charged with.

To the extent that the biography reflects badly on Roth, that’s a separate issue from Bailey’s alleged crimes. Roth’s fault was that he wanted to control the narrative. He had already told his version of events in two memoirs and nearly 30 novels that drew heavily from his own experience. But that wasn’t good enough. He needed one last ventriloquist’s dummy to give voice to his lines. In the end, the dummy turned out to be packed with dynamite.

A typical Philip Roth novel is about a controlling, willful man who tries to bring an unsustainable order to his life only to be blindsided by the perversity of human nature. In the best of Roth’s novels, that perversity resides in the protagonist. In the weaker and more defensive books, perversity is assigned to others—often ex-wives or children. In trying to engineer a biography that would champion his legacy, Roth has given us another version of his signature plot.

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