From Otto Friedrich I learned most of what I know about writing English prose and the better part of what I know about editing a magazine, and when he died in late April, at the age of sixty-six, a week after discovering he was sick with cancer, I owed him a letter that I had been meaning to write for nearly a year. Not a long or important letter—nothing more than a response to an apt quotation that he had sent me from one of his rereadings of Nicholas Nickleby—and if I had written it at once, it would have been a matter of a few sentences. The moment passed, and Otto’s note disappeared into the sheaf of good intentions that takes up the greater part of the space on a desk otherwise reserved for manuscripts in need of a third revision. The longer I postpone my reply, the more formidable the task became. Not because of the difficulty of the work at hand but because it was Otto to whom I would be sending it, and Otto was not a man who looked lightly upon the written world.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of what was then called “The New Journalism,” Otto was the managing editor of The Saturday Evening Post, and I was one of the magazine’s newly recruited contract writers. When I first met him in the autumn of 1961 he seemed a remote and professorial figure—tall and heavy set but with the stopped posture of a man accustomed to bending over books, taciturn, unsentimental, and matter-of-fact, given to wearing the same rumpled suit for days on end, not yet forty but seeming as old as Merlyn’s owl. Over the course of the next five years, listening to him talk about the last months of the Roman Empire or Mozart’s attachment to the key of E flat with the same degree of certainty that he brought to a discussion of the Kennedy Administration’s geopolitical game theory, I understood that he joined a scholar’s love of learning with a journalist’s boundless curiosity. Free of cant and incapable of hypocrisy, Otto taught by example instead of by precept, patiently and with an unstinting kindness that he took a good deal of trouble to conceal behind a show of churlishness. He was as suspicious of metaphors as he was of politicians, and because he was a better writer than all but a few (a very few) of the most famous authors whose work he ushered into the light of print, I seldom quarreled with his judgement. By the time the Post ceased publication in the spring of 1969 I had come to recognize him as a man who summed up in his life and turn of mind what I take to be the meaning of the word “civility.”
Had I answered his note about Nicholas Nickleby when I received it in August 1994, I might have gotten by with a few bland remarks about Dickens dressed up in the costume of a Broadway musical. By early October I had doomed myself to a more formal composition—something of sufficient worth (about Queen Victoria’s gloves or the twilight of the British Empire) to excuse the lateness of my reply—and by mid-December, staring out the window at the snow, I had been reduced to waiting for the inspired arrival of twelve perfectly formed paragraphs that might meet with Otto’s muttering approval. Approval, not praise. Otto never indulged a writer with the sloppy display of adjectives that he associated with publishers’ blurbs and lipstick advertisements, and the best that could be hoped for was that the manuscript might pass inspection without attracting a scourge of marginal notes (“empty phrase,” “wrong word,” “absurdity”) that indicated not only a redrafting of the text but also the jettisoning of its presumed topic.
Very early in my acquaintance with Otto, and much to the amusement of every other writer familiar with his handwriting, I conceived the ambition of one day writing an article so flawlessly constructed that it would appear in print as it had appeared in typescript. The ambition was as foolish as it was vain. Otto invariably deleted the lead paragraph (“ornamental,” “pointless,” “a waste of space”) as well as the next three or four pages in which I had staged an elaborate introduction of character and scene. Somewhere on page four or five he would discover the narrative line and there, impatiently pointing his pencil at a short declarative sentence uncluttered with adjectives, he would say, “Here. Begin here. With the story.”
“I think that history, journalism, and autobiography are all part of the same process of storytelling, of revelation and self-revelation, of bearing witness.”
Otto loved and trusted stories. Before everything else, and notwithstanding his gifts as an editor and musician, Otto was a writer. Over the course of a life that didn’t allow him much time to write, he published fourteen books, and when he died he had a list of twenty other books in mind, among them biographies of Richard Wagner, St. Paul, and Attila the Hun, a man whom he regarded as “much misunderstood, and far more worthy than his Roman enemy.” Otto wrote books in the way that other people wander off into forests, chasing his intellectual enthusiasms as if they were obscure butterflies or rare mushrooms—books about roses and Eduard Manet’s Olympia, extended essays about Scarlatti, the Albigensian Crusade, the siege of Monte Cassino, and the fires of Auschwitz, books about Berlin in the 1920s and Hollywood in the 1940s, biographies of Glenn Gould and Helmuth von Moltke. An historian in the amateur tradition of Henry Adams and Bernard DeVoto, Otto wrote his books on an old manual typewriter, ignored the apparatus of academic scholarship, and approached the study of history in the same spirit that he approached Mozart’s piano concertos. “The only way to understand a Mozart concerto thoroughly,” he once said, “is to sit down at the piano and play it, which I do with his number twenty-seven, humbly, every six months or so.”
As a boy in Concord, Massachusetts, Otto studied the violin as well as the piano, acquiring a profound respect for the key of C minor and thinking that he might become a professional pianist. But when he graduated from Harvard at the age of nineteen in the spring of 1948, he had resolved upon a career as a novelist, and he departed for Europe that same summer with a typewriter, $65 in cash, and a good opinion of Henry James. In Paris he rented a room near the Luxembourg Gardens, frequented the café on boulevard Saint-Germain with James Baldwin, admired the sunlight on the stones of the Louvre, and discovered that there was nothing to say about Paris that hadn’t already been said, if not by Balzac or Francios Villon, then by Edith Wharton or Coco Chanel. By September he had completed the manuscript of a novel that he submitted to the judgment of Alice B. Toklas, the famous friend of Gertrude Stein, whom he called upon without introduction at 5, rue Christine, and who, much to his surprise, offered him Armagnac and recollections of Ezra Pound.She praised his writing and informed the New York Times that Otto was well on his way to becoming “the important young man of the future,” no small endorsement from the woman who had vouched for the genius of the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. But her sensibility was tuned, like Otto’s, to a cultural tradition that lost the war. The bright dream of literary reputation faded with the American reviews of the novel in which Miss Toklas had discerned the promise of fame, and by the autumn of 1950 the need to earn a living forced Otto into journalism. Married to Priscilla Boughton and already the father of the first of five children, he found work as a copyeditor for The Stars and Stripes in Darmstadt, Germany, a newspaper that he despised in a country that he detested.
For the next thirty-odd years Otto paid the bills by working for various newspapers and magazines, among them Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, and Time. An editor by accident and a writer by design, he continued to play the music of J.S. Bach on Thursday evenings and to compose the historical studies of which he once said, “I am my books. Every sentence there is me.” The sentences present the portrait of a man defined by the ferocity of his will to know—a humanist in the old, Renaissance usage of the word, connoting skepticism, wit, resourcefulness, irony, and a belief that among all the world’s wonders, none is more wonderful than man.
On choosing a topic:
“I write about Scarlatti because I love to play his music, and about Monte Cassino because the sight of it moved me.”
On the aesthetic of newsmagazines:
“Writing about something as though it were exciting, even though you know nothing about it, even though you are thousands of miles away, even though it is not exciting at all.”
On the rubble of ancient wars:
“Bloodshed that is old enough to appear romantic is a valuable item in the tourist traffic.”
On his rose garden:
“What I miss most, I think, is water. A fountain would be grand, but even that would be only a beginning. A perfect rose garden should have not just fountains but ponds and moats and waterfalls, all designed to frame or mirror the beauty of the flowers. If only I were Andre Malraux and had Versailles as my planting site, I might achieve something interesting.”
On the uses of narrative:
“I think that history, journalism, and autobiography are all part of the same process of storytelling, of revelation and self-revelation, of bearing witness. It is the process of the Ancient Mariner clutching at the wedding guest and insisting on his story. ‘There was a ship, quoth he.’”
Otto was never at a loss for a story to tell, if not about drifting ships then about earthquakes, or flowering trees, or the company of the Chrisitan miracles gathered on the island of Iona. His life was not without sorrow—two of his children born disabled, his right eye gone blind with disease, none of his books profitable enough to release him from his chores as an editor, a siege of mental illness so severe that for a year it brought him near insanity—but like the Merlyn imagined by T.H. White, he found that the best thing for being sad was to learn something. I never once heard him complain of his misfortunes, and I suspect that he had little liking or patience for the kind of people—quite a few of them writers of large reputation—who display their afflictions as if they were made of gold lace. Under circumstances nearly always unfavorable, and well versed in the “trembling” of the “anatomies,” Otto relied on the courage of his mind and his capacity to conceive the future as a blank sheet of paper, never any farther away than the next sentence, the next diminished seventh chord, the next verse. Believing that we are all caught up in the telling of stories (some more complicated and more beautiful than others, many of them incoherent, a few of them immortal), Otto assumed that no matter how well or how poorly we manage the plot, we are all of us engaged in the same enterprise, all of us seeking evocations or representations of what we can recognize as appropriately human.
I often have heard it said that the truth shall make men free, but it was Otto who taught me what the phrase means.
He made of the same adventurous spirit his riposte to a world “devastated by evil lunatics” and the trampling of art “in the sewers of baser minds.” Having written a book about several of the occasions on which the world, quite literally, came to an end—the sack of Rome, the Black Death, the Russian Revolution, Auschwitz—Otto entertained few illusions about the evil of which men were capable. But he also knew that against the weight of the world’s superstition and greed the best resource is the imaginative labor of trying to tell the truth—not because the words can reelect Abraham Lincoln, rebuild the walls of Troy, or restore the life of a lost child, but because they evoke a sense of energy and hope. Otto wasn’t interested in lies, no matter how well reviewed in the literary press or how often repeated on the political talk shows, but from an author in whose voice he recognized the attempt to tell the truth he would listen to anything and everything—to reports of fourteenth-century marvels at Samarkand, news of yesterday’s disarmament conference in London of Geneva, explanations of the Revolution of 1848, the music criticism of Rameau’s nephew.
Delighting in the music of history, he could begin anywhere, changing the harmonies to fit the key signatures of different centuries, improvising variations on a single melodic line. Cicero was no less real to Otto than Boris Yelstin or Winston Churchill. Cicero’s execution coincided with the failure of the Roman republic, which in turn gave rise to the empire and its eventual ruin, which prepared the arrival of the Visigoths and then the Catholic Church, which provoked the mockery of Voltaire and the idealism of the eighteenth-century philosophers from whom Jefferson derived the ideas that informed the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
The memorial service took place on the afternoon of May 24 in Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue in New York City, directly across the street from the building in which the The Saturday Evening Post once had its editorial offices. I suspect that Otto would have approved of the eulogies, especially those spoken by two of his daughters who had so well learned what they had been taught in the house on Long Island Sound that they cherished the memories of their father not with the easy adjectives sold on newsstands but with the harder eloquence of verbs and nouns. The service began with the playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and as I listened to the theme presenting itself in a succession of different rhythms and voices, I thought of Otto setting the libretto of human feeling to the counterpoint of time. The music shifted to an aria from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and I remember that two years before going to Paris in the summer of 1948, Otto had traveled around Europe to pay his respects to various artists in whose work he had found inspiration. “Barging in on living monuments,” he once said, “a tourist collecting a generation.” At Rappallo in the north of Italy Otto invited himself to tea with Sir Max and Lady Beerbohm; in Rome he found George Santayana, reclining in striped pajamas on his bed at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. In Munich he briefly took piano lessons with Georg Pembauer, who was said to have been a pupil of Liszt, and on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Lausanne, he accosted Richard Strauss, by then a bent and white-haired man of eighty-two, with the first pages of a piano concerto he had begun to write on the voyage from New York. The elderly lady accompanying the composer on his afternoon walk angrily waved Otto out of sight, never guessing what it was that Otto had come to say or that forty-nine years later, on Lexington Avenue and East 53 Street, the music of Der Rosenkavalier would oversee the departure of Otto’s civilizing spirit.
Within the profession of journalism I often have heard it said that the truth shall make men free, but it was Otto who taught me what the phrase means. The truth isn’t about the acquisition of doctrine or the assimilation of statistics, not even about the scandal in Washington or Los Angeles. It’s about the courage to trust one’s own thought and observation, to possess one’s own history, speak in one’s own voice. Stories move from truth to facts, not the other way around, but in the attempt to convey the essence of a thing, the teller of tales must give it a name, an age and an address.
Most of Otto’s books never sold more than a few thousand copies, but although he knew that the reading and writing of history settles nothing (neither the grocer’s bill, the argument in the faculty lounge, nor next year’s election), he also knew that the study of history is the proof of our kinship with a larger whole and a wider self, with those who have gone before and those who will come after, and that we have nothing else with which to build the future except the wreckage of the past. Time destroys all things, but from the ruin of families and empires we preserve what we find useful or beautiful, or true, on our way to death we make of what we have found the hope of our immortality. History is about the passion of thought and the will to understand, about Darwin sailing for the Galapagos, or Dostoevsky in trouble with the police, about Otto Friedrich, sick or in pain, blind in one eye, playing Bach’s Partita in C Minor on a winter night on a piano badly out of tune, planning his next raid on the kingdom of the past, wondering how he might hearten himself and his fellow men with story not yet told.
[Photo Credit: Bags]