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Lives and Letters

This essay collection by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb pairs insights on art with a taste for scandal.

May 20, 2011

Lives and Letters By Robert Gottlieb Farrar, Straus and Giroux 448 pp.

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By Brooke Allen for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Back in the late 1980s, during Robert Gottlieb's tenure as editor of The New Yorker, I remember that there appeared a magazine spread on Gottlieb's museum-quality collection of – of all things – plastic purses. (He subsequently produced a lavish coffee-table book on the subject.) Now here, I thought, was a man of truly broad interests.

Twenty years later I find myself confirmed in this judgment, for Gottlieb's new collection of essays and reviews, Lives and Letters, testifies to the catholic nature of his tastes: In its pages we are treated to a plethora of informed and opinionated discussions on everything and everyone from ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev to wife-slayer Scott Peterson. It's the kind of book that ideally finds its way to the bedside table in the guest room, for it seems to contain at least one or two items that will appeal to any reader's inclinations.

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Gottlieb has served as editor-in-chief at both Simon and Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf as well as a The New Yorker, and he was for many years a very active board member of the New York City Ballet. He knows (or knew) many of his subjects personally, and has even acted as editor for a few of them. For professional reasons one might have expected him to favor the "Letters" portion of the collection, and indeed his essay on the long friendship between legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is moving and deeply felt; there are fine pieces, too, on Dickens, Kipling, Thurber, and even the trash novelist Judith Krantz, with whom Gottlieb claims to identify. He is particularly interesting on Steinbeck and the question of that author's greatness or lack thereof: "The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck," Gottlieb throws out as an opener, "is how good he can be when so much of the time he's so bad." (Steinbeck would seem to have agreed with this assessment: when asked by a reporter whether he thought he actually deserved his Nobel Prize, he answered, "Frankly, no.")

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