The Paris Review lost a dear friend when Susannah Hunnewell, the publisher of the magazine, passed away on June 15.
Susannah and I were once invited to a party. We met in the park at sunset and she decided, on a lark, that we should take a horse-drawn carriage. She kept asking the driver to make another turn, go farther uptown, east, then south and back, it was so beautiful, the buildings in the gold light towering around us. I’d lived in New York for twelve years but never ridden in a carriage.
Much of the time I spent with Susannah was in a kind of enchantment, talking about the small literary magazine that we cared about inordinately. We surprised ourselves by how personal this journal became to us, how much we wanted it to thrive.
Susannah was an intern at The Paris Review just after college and met then–associate editor Antonio Weiss—a match George Plimpton later took credit for, though Susannah and Antonio found each other without his help. She joined the staff and never really left. When she moved to Europe with her young family in 2000, she served as the magazine’s Paris editor.
Her literary instincts were edgy, refined, and unerring; two of her interviews introduced readers of the Review to writers long before the Nobel Committee decided to honor them. We hear her nuanced voice—and her wit—in her introduction to Michel Houellebecq: “Each of my questions met with a funereal silence, during which he blew smoke and closed his eyes. More than once I began to wonder whether he had fallen asleep. Eventually the answer would emerge, in an exhausted monotone which grew only slightly less weary the second day. His follow-up emails were whimsical and charming.” Another interviewee, Emmanuel Carrère, said her distillation of their conversations “left me stunned and admiring.” Here is her description of the husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who translate the Russian classics. It seems to me a koan about marriage:
In the beginning, the couple took turns speaking, listening respectfully in mortuary silence as the other spoke. But soon, they were interrupting each other, finishing the other’s sentence, prodding the other to speak, teasing or correcting each other, though they were always in general agreement. At the end of the interview, which, like a nine-hundred-page Russian novel, seemed to contain all subjects simultaneously, we opened a half bottle of champagne. Pevear had bought it to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but the two had fallen asleep before midnight.
In 2015, Susannah became the Review’s seventh publisher. By then, she had been married to Antonio, the penultimate publisher, for more than twenty years. You see, Susannah had a pattern of loyalty to her first loves. Susannah knew how to live. She had the ability to see beauty in what was hers. She inhabited her role as publisher with purpose and joy. Her taste was discerning and prescient, her humor raucous. Working with Susannah, people laughed a lot. Susannah happened to be beautiful and had always been. That was a simple fact about her presence. One understood that yes, she had this advantage, but she did not need it. She never shied from complexity but she understood what mattered most and never wavered. She knew every single person involved with the magazine. And she loved her life as the mother of three extraordinary sons.
The last time I saw her was a day after Antonio had taken her on one of the expeditions they’d come to enjoy in the final months of their decades-long love. We sat in her drawing room, the dog sleeping at her feet, with Antonio’s mother and two of Susannah’s friends from college. She was not talking anymore but she was fully with us. She touched our hands. Held our arms. Didn’t want to let go.
I’ll end with a poem by another writer who died far too young, “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.