On April 3, Robert Silvers accepted the Paris Review’s Hadada Prize for a strong and unique contribution to literature. These were his remarks.
When something like this evening happens, you ask how you got here, and I thought back to the autumn of 1954, when I was a soldier at NATO military headquarters—called SHAPE—near Paris. One of the best things about working there was that, by some international understanding, practically everyone had Wednesday afternoon off—you could go to the Louvre, you could go to the Café de Flore. And there, one Wednesday afternoon, at the kiosk in front of the Flore, I bought a copy of The Paris Review and took it back to our international barracks at Rocquencourt and read it in my bunk. I thought I should know more about it.
For unknown to NATO, some of my old college friends at the Noonday Press in New York had asked me to be their scout in Paris and see what books I might find for translation. So on some of those Wednesday afternoons, I would see publishers. And one day, I went to number 8, rue Garancière and climbed a few steps, and there, in a very small room, was George, sitting with his hat on against the cold, and I said, “I’m from the Noonday Press, and I’m looking for books.” And George said, “Well, golly, have a seat.” And we started talking about the last issues and the writing that might be collected into a book by Terry Southern or Evan S. Connell or Merlin’s Alex Trocchi, and the sequel to his own book The Rabbit’s Umbrella.
The sun began to set over the Luxembourg Gardens nearby, and suddenly the lights came on in the street, and George said, “Pati Hill is having drinks on the Île Saint Louis, and why don’t we go over there?” So we walked down to the Île de la Cité and over the little bridge to the Quai d’Anjou and found the beautiful Pati Hill—once a model, now a writer for the Review—and she offered us tall glasses of blanc de blanc in her charming rooms near the Seine. And among the blur of American and French writers and artists there, I talked to John Train, who was one of the founders of The Paris Review, and he asked me to see him at his flat on the Avenue Franco-Russe the following Wednesday.
The upshot of that evening was that within a few months, thanks to John and George, I left the army and once again went up the stairs to the office in the rue Garancière, where George pulled out a dusty wire tray that had the words managing editor written on its side, but with curiously tattered strings running across the top and a slip of paper that said, “Don’t put anything in this box.” George rather ceremoniously removed the strings and he put in the box a manuscript with the words in big red letters “Needs Cutting,” and with it a pile of angry-looking bills from Monsieur Tequi, our Paris Review printer, one saying “Troisième avis—à payer immédiatement.”
Ever since that day in 1954 I’ve been an editor. Perhaps the luckiest ever. First in those years in Paris with George, and then as Paris editor with Blair Fuller and Nelson Aldrich, and then at Harper’s Magazine, where I had the luck to have Elizabeth Hardwick write for me her brilliant essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which planted the idea of a need for something new and quite different.
And then on a morning in January 1963, during the seemingly endless strike by typographers at The New York Times, there was the luck of having my friend Jason Epstein call and say that he and his wife, Barbara, had dinner the night before with Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, and it was clear that this was the only time when a new book review could be started without a penny, since publishers were desperate to advertise and would take a page, and would I leave Harper’s to start a new paper? When I told Jack Fisher, then editor of Harper’s, that I would give it a try he said, “Great! You’ll learn a lot and be back in a month.”
And now, on the verge of fifty years later, most of them working with Barbara, there seems piled up behind me a papery mountain of some thousand issues of The New York Review of Books, each with about fifteen contributions. And could that actually mean I’ve been involved in editing more than fifteen thousand pieces from thousands of writers? Among them writers of sublime talent starting, say, with Elizabeth and Mary McCarthy and going on now to Zadie Smith, while working with literally hundreds of fellow editors and assistants. It wouldn’t have happened without the help of a few people at mysterious moments—George and Jason and Rea Hederman, who joined us as publisher in the 1980s and gave us, among much else, an absolute and unparalleled editorial freedom, and Elizabeth and Barbara and Grace Dudley, whose fineness of mind and spirit has been the center of my life. And all this luck, and love, I owe in some way to the afternoon I walked into the little office on the rue Garancière and talked with George, until the street lights came on.