Interesting to compare the beginnings of the NYRB with how reviews of books get started now. The whole interview is quite fascinating.
This was one time you could start a book review essentially without money.
Jason saw that with no other place to advertise, the publishers in New York would cover the costs. He called and asked me if I could leave Harper’s and start a new book review. I went to see Jack Fischer, the editor of Harper’s. He said, good, it’ll be a great experience. You’ll be back in a month.
You didn’t have any notion this would become an institution in this way?
No. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it was very possible that I would come back, and it was very kind of Jack to say my job would be held open. I asked Barbara Epstein that morning if she would join me as co-editor. She said yes. We met the next night with Lizzie in the darkened Harper’s offices. We looked through the books that had come in for review, and we thought of various people who might write on them.
The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W. H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred Dupee—Lizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.
What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, “I’d rather do another book.” They all just assumed a new book review was needed.