The Paris Review is mourning the loss of our publisher Susannah Hunnewell, who died on June 15 at her home in New York at the age of fifty-two. Her contributions to the magazine were immeasurable. You can read our more formal obituary here, and the Art of Fiction interviews she conducted here. In this post, we are gathering the intimate remembrances of those who knew her well. The page will be updated as more come in.
You must go to this place. You need to meet this person. This is the most fucking awesome spot, go there! Ask for this.
Susannah Hunnewell would go on to detail what you would find at those places, her hands poised as if she were casting crisp spells. She was sending you into passageways, her voice getting smaller, you were going to enter the magical world she had found. You might meet a woman. She would send the address. And she did.
Other times you had to get together with her friend because this other person was the most brilliant, hilarious soul. You had to be linked because then pleasure would explode. She relished all-female dinners, planned not as political statement but as a means of maximizing excitement and outrageous storytelling. She adored rock concerts with men in T-shirts thrashing away on Fenders.
Forever helpful, she vetted hotels, found you translators, offered speedy edits, precise life counsel, her ideas as plentiful as cherry blossoms, her jokes, her use of expletives, the same.
When she long ago left the magazine where we worked together to have her first son, we were so sad for ourselves. That electric mind, it seemed, would be reserved for one little being. But how extraordinary it was as each of her sons was born, she like Jo from Little Women, the bold heroine, birthing her men. They were so lucky, those handsome boys. And even in these life experiences, she served as pioneer, issuing raves, cautions. Just you wait, she would often say about one rite of passage or another. College departure: “My god you wait. Hysterical sobbing and I mean hysterical.”
Just a few years ago, after her first diagnosis, she sent me, without comment, a photo of herself from the past. A steel gaze, a bright red mouth, hair as black as her dress, and her white hands curled over her pregnant belly, a gorgeous, mysterious, noir sorceress.
Of course with motherhood, her audience had simply broadened, in her home with her adored husband, Antonio, and around the world. We read her intriguing, epic interviews in The Paris Review, enjoyed the pages curated during her tenure as Paris editor, her many issues as publisher—the reasons for her knighthood.
She could be tender. She could gentle affection over you. She could be as present as a leaf. In the end, when robbed of her ability to gesticulate, or send you on missions, she was simply the palimpsest of affection.
You really have not lived, if you have not, she often said as preface to the next experience you needed to enjoy.
Could you imagine being so bold in your loves, in your sense of what is wonderful? Most of us hedge. I know a place … you might not like it …
But what appreciation of the world it is, of people and their talents, to say, Okay, you have to stop what you are doing right now. Go there! Get out of your house. I am telling you, you will love it. It is absolutely divine.
How much she loved the world. How much she wanted us to love this world. How confident she was in our abilities to be as open to its joys as she.
And now if only we could get the review from the new terrain she has pioneered. It would be wonderful if it would come.
—Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, among other books. She was the executive editor of George magazine.
A little over a decade ago, when I was managing editor of The Paris Review, my husband and I had lunch in Paris with Susannah Hunnewell and Harry Mathews, the novelist and Oulipo member who divided his time between France, New York, and Key West. Susannah was the magazine’s Paris editor at the time. I don’t believe I’d met Harry before, though I felt I knew him, because we had published Susannah’s Art of Fiction interview with him in the Spring 2007 issue. It is one of my favorite interviews in the archive—witty, playful, revelatory. Read it, if you haven’t.
We met, at Susannah’s suggestion, at a small market restaurant near the Place des Vosges. A friend of hers joined us. Harry ordered pig’s feet. He announced a rule that we were neither to ask nor talk about anything to do with work, not even the simple statement of what we did for a living. Despite or because of this prohibition, we talked and ate for six straight hours. Every time we finished a bottle of wine, Harry would grasp the empty bottle at its base and shoot his arm straight up in the air, a wordless summons for the next one. Many bottles were ordered thusly. None of us, apparently, had anything to do but chat. Susannah and Harry matched wits over the table; you could see how they delighted in each other’s company. Eventually it occurred to us that we could not spend the rest of our lives in this restaurant, so we left, and Susannah took me to a nearby clothing store that she loved, stocked with pieces by up-and-coming designers. With her approval, I bought a jacket and a pair of yellow espadrille wedges, whimsical souvenirs of the day. That was Susannah: hyperliterary and willing to endorse highly impractical footwear.
It was just one afternoon in Paris, but it overflowed with joie de vivre, in an almost literal sense (we lost count of the bottles). I’ve never forgotten the spirit of it. Susannah was a great connector of people—it’s what made her a wonderful ambassador for the Review, and, later, its ideal publisher. She had so much fun, and when you were around her you had so much fun, too, because she brought you right into her circle. Susannah describes Harry in the introduction to his interview as “one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures.” It follows that his audience was also idiosyncratic, an erudite and self-selecting group, and Susannah was the perfect embodiment of it. We often talk of a writer’s legacy, but what of the reader’s? Susannah’s taste in fiction, so cultivated and wide-ranging, so open to humor and invention, was a gift to our literary landscape, and her legacy will live on. She loved an intellectual challenge. She supported so many of us—readers, editors, writers—at all stages of our careers, and she helped us to be ambitious. She gave so freely of her time. I was lucky to claim a magical afternoon of it.
—Radhika Jones is Editor in Chief of Vanity Fair.
In 1993, the year I moved to New York from London, I attended Susannah and Antonio’s marriage celebration at her family’s home in Wellesley. George Plimpton was one of guests, as well as Susannah’s uncle, Michael von Clemm, a formidable banker. If you were, as I was, an outsider to the world of the Hunnewells, it looked as if everything within it dazzled. I had met Susannah through her Harvard roommate, Ellen Harvey, who I was going out with at the time.
When Susannah and Ellen first met, in their dorm, Susannah was lying on the floor and wriggling. “What are you doing?” Ellen asked. “I’m a bacon rasher sizzling in a frying pan,” Susannah said.
That summer, Ellen and I lived in an apartment at 666 West End Avenue: Vladimir Nabokov had lived there for a time, Frederick Seidel was just up the street. One day in August, I decided to make a favorite dish for a dinner party. This was a recipe from southwest France that appeared in Cuisine de Terroir; The Lost Domain of French Cooking—I still have my copy. It required a leg of lamb, which you first poached in herbs, then dried and scorched by pouring some ignited brandy over it. Finally, the lamb is surrounded by about eighty cloves of peeled garlic, submerged in semisweet white wine, and put into a low-temperature oven. Let it cook for five hours.
“Don’t do it,” said Susannah. She explained that in a New York summer, you can’t make a stew in an apartment with no air-conditioning and a kitchen the size of a closet. I pressed ahead all the same. It was a 90-degree-Fahrenheit day. The lamb cooked, I cooked—the heat of the day and fumes from the casserole got to me so much so that when supper began, I went to lie down and didn’t wake up until the next morning. Susannah foresaw the absurdity of it all.
In the mid-90’s, Susannah and I joined George, the magazine founded by John Kennedy Jr. He was, among other things, very good-looking, as Susannah pointed out. “He was so good-looking,” she said, “that you had to wear sunglasses so as to not be overly wowed by him.”
To dazzle is one thing—Susannah did that easily. To admit to being dazzled is another. To be dazzling and dazzled at the same time, that’s much rarer. That was Susannah.
—Inigo Thomas is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books. He is currently writing a book about the art dealer and spy Tomás Harris.
I was lucky enough to become friends with Susannah Hunnewell almost twenty years ago. She was a brilliant editor, translator, interviewer, and publisher, and yet, there was something wild about her. She knew how to let loose. Susannah was smitten with punk rock and all manners of bohemia. She danced with abandon, and I remember a hair-raising drive uptown as she accidentally ran red lights and swerved through traffic, pumping her fist to the ear-splitting sounds of the Ramones. She wasn’t what I might have expected from an Ivy League, blue-blooded mother of three. When she liked something, she really liked something.
Her conversation was peppered with salty language and a lot of table thumping. She was extremely generous to her artist friends, initiating commissions, lending out her chic Parisian apartment, and inviting stragglers to join her table at The Paris Review’s annual Revel. She liked to mix it up. She wasn’t interested in class hierarchy. This was part of the reason that her friends were so devoted to her. She was a set of perfect contradictions. She was so much more.
Once we went to Cooper Union to attend a tribute to one of her favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop. As we were sitting in the auditorium, waiting for the readings to begin, she began telling me about a fancy dinner party she’d attended in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Antonio. She had been seated next to Colin Powell. Though she’d initially been baffled by this unlikely seating arrangement, by the end of dinner, they were having a ball. “He couldn’t have been sweeter!” she exclaimed. Someone in the row behind us tapped me on the shoulder. It was downtown writer/actor/musician Richard Hell, who I’d known for ages. We chitchatted about Bishop, Hell introduced his wife, Sheila, and I introduced Susannah. Susannah was polite but strangely stiff. I mistook her behavior for indifference, but it turned out she was starstruck. As the lights dimmed, and we turned around, Susannah leaned over to me, eyes agog, and whispered, “That was way cooler than Colin Powell!”
The other night I had a dream. It took place by the shore of Cream Hill Lake, where I often bumped into her in the summertime. Beautiful Susannah approached, looking young and healthy, not at all in the compromised condition I had last seen her. I complimented her on her fresh haircut, chopped to the shoulders. She smiled with her shiny brown eyes, filled with their usual mischief. It was all very peaceful. The next day, I learned that she had gone. Was my dream a last visit? Had her spirit been going around saying farewell to her friends in their sleep? Perhaps it was a coincidence. Perhaps it wasn’t. She was a powerful presence. We all loved her.
—Duncan Hannah is a painter whose works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Art, among others. He is the author of 20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies.