Issue 221, Summer 2017
Bob and I lived on a barge in Paris for about a year and a half. He appeared in my life in 1955, when George Plimpton jumped on the barge (there was no phone) and asked me if this wonderful, brilliant fellow who was about to run The Paris Review could possibly move onboard since I had a spare room. I met Bob, and we immediately hit it off. I was studying at the Sorbonne, and Bob clearly knew more than any of my teachers. He moved in and we had quite an unusual life. Musicians of all sorts would fall by to jam, girls from the nearby Crazy Horse would drop in on their breaks while Bob was interviewing some author or editing some piece for the Review. Nothing seemed to faze or distract him. We had a “nautical maid” who came in once a week and would leave a pot-au-feu on our potbellied wood stove. As there was no electricity, we used Coleman lanterns. Plimpton would occasionally drop by for a few nights and sleep on an army cot we would set up in the main cabin and in the morning would walk up the street to the Plaza Athénée, to write home on their stationery asking for money and complaining about how expensive life in Paris had become.
Few who knew him later in life, as the great editor of The New York Review of Books in a double-breasted suit and tie, would recognize the Bob of those days. Already, though, he had an incredible ability to explain complicated ideas and concepts to people without making them feel like ignorant fools. I would come back from a class, for instance, and ask him to explain the difference between Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which he would do patiently and simply, without being at all condescending … at least, I didn’t think he was.
Bob once gave me some of the best advice I ever had. When I went into the army, he told me that on the second day or so a terrifying sergeant who had treated us as if we were subhuman would sit our group down and ask us if anyone had prior military experience. “Put your hand up,” Bob said, “and when questioned, say, ROTC in college.” I did and was instantly made a squad leader, which improved my life enormously. So did the letters he sent, telling me about the literary and musical scene in New York and offering all sorts of additional advice about how to survive in the military.
Basically, Bob didn’t change much. Yes, he became sophisticated and worldly; he and his companion, Lady Grace Dudley, lived an incredible life on two continents; he cofounded The New York Review; he lost weight (and kept slim) swimming laps every day; and he learned many things from people from all walks of life. His energy was legendary: many evenings, he would follow an opera by going down to the office to work. Until Grace died, at the end of last year, he went to visit her once or twice every month in Lausanne. When I asked whether it wasn’t difficult, all the traveling back and forth, for a man in his mideighties, Bob threw open his arms—it was a gesture he had as long as I knew him—and said, “But when we are together we have such fun!”
Through it all, Bob remained one of the most sensitive, thoughtful, caring men I have ever known. We had lunch a month or so ago, and he told me he had gotten an honorary degree from Oxford, which pleased him enormously. “Do you want to read what the don said about me?” he asked, passing a piece of paper my way. “For Christ’s sake, Bob, it’s in Latin,” I blurted. “Well, here’s the translation,” he said, with that wonderful smile and chuckle he had, and slid another piece of paper across the table. “It’s a long way from the old barge, don’t you think?” And again he threw open his arms.