Paying tribute to Victor is something I like to do, hoping each time to loosen that complicated Navasky knot. I’ll now have another go and look back at a favorite Victor anecdote to see if there’s something I missed before. The anecdote goes like this: One rainy rush hour Vic and I had miraculously scored a cab in the scrum outside Grand Central Station. Just as we settled in, we spied a frantic Barbara Tuchman—historian, Pulitzer Prize winner, and vocal enemy of The Nation—flailing about with no taxi prospects in sight. I was undoubtedly amused and thus wholly unprepared for what happened next: Vic opened the door, dragged me out, and offered a befuddled Tuchman our cab, something she later mentioned with astonishment to a few friends who, like everyone else in New York, were also friends with Victor.
I eventually reflected on this episode, concluding that the inane aphorism “No enemies to the left” had a far healthier Navasky version: “No enemies, period.” It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but one that explained how, among other things, Vic was able to keep a fractious Nation staff together: The door was open to our sometimes obnoxious behavior, to our unwelcome opinions, but also overwhelmingly to the good stuff each of us might produce. It may also explain how he was able to dissolve some of the New Left disdain for Old Left issues in Naming Names by opening that history to highlight the virtues of courage and loyalty. If he came later to feminism than one might have expected, the door was open to Katha Pollitt, and the case was made.
All this in a man who could also be tough as nails, famously about money. But, really, he rose above simplifications—both personal and political—and was not just parsimonious, as Bud Trillin famously described him, but also placatory and principled. A complex, enigmatic knot, to be sure, but a rare and inspiring one as well.
When I asked Victor how much The Nation would pay me for each column, he really did say, “Something in the high two figures.” And when I asked him to be a bit more specific, he really did say, “We’ve been paying $65”—which, of course, sounds more like something in the middle two figures. It might have been then that I began referring to him as “the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky.” Or it might have been back in the days when he was editing Monocle, a magazine with a pay scale so low that it once sent me a bill for a piece of mine it was running.
So why did I and so many other writers, fully aware of the pay scale, write for him? I think the overriding answer is pretty simple: We liked him. He was hard to say no to. He didn’t seem interested in using The Nation for self-aggrandizement. He tended to see the good in people, even in hard-core right-wingers. He took well to teasing. I think that may be one of the things I’ll miss the most now that the old W. and P. is no longer with us. He took well to teasing.
Calvin Trillin is The Nation’s “deadline poet.”
My friendship with Victor started in the sterling halls of Yale Law School in the late 1950s. As if he hadn’t enough to do inside those heavy legal tomes and large classes where you might be called on at any moment to explicate Dobbin v. Horse or Hex v. Vex, Victor had, with two other grad students, started a political satire magazine called Monocle. Somehow, with his uncanny antenna, he suspected that I was a satirist, caught me in that gothic hall and invited me to contribute. The pay was $1 per article. I sent him a parody of a best-selling novel about a lawyer titled By Love Possessed. My version ran as “By Law Distressed.”
As indeed I was, because I soon dropped out of law school to pursue a writing career. Victor advised me against that action, being a man of practical good sense, but I didn’t listen to him, being a man of impractical good sense.
Now 10 or so published books and editorial stints on Monocle, the Times Book Review, and The Nation later, here I am.
Of course Victor helped me along the way. And of course he inveigled many other writers to contribute to the several publications he edited after pursuing a short legal career.
I’d say he too found his true métier—editing—at which he was very good, and also fundraising, which was a necessity of the job.
Victor was a good man, a political man, a moral man, a courageous man, much loved by his good wife, Annie, and his three children, and by his students at the Columbia Journalism School, where he taught.
Victor, I cannot thank you enough for your life. I suspect there are many others who would say the same thing.
Richard Lingeman was a senior editor of The Nation.