Remembering Ben Sonnenberg

There was a memorial for Ben Sonnenberg last night. Ben died on June 26 at the age of 73 – and a substantial crowd of the people who  knew and loved him were invited by his widow, Dorothy Gallagher, to muster at  the Century Club, on West 43rd street  in New York, on September 15  and honor his memory.  Speakers included two of his daughters, Susannah and Saidee, Dan Menaker, Michael Train, Anne Carson, Rebecca Okrent, Susan Minot, James Salter and yours truly.  My own brief remarks derived somewhat from this longer memorial piece I wrote shortly after his death for our CounterPunch newsletter.

With Ben’s passing CounterPunch has lost its longtime counselor. The world has lost a true humanist, in the Renaissance heft of that word, one in whom refinement of taste, wideness of culture mingled with political passion. I mourn a very close friend. His greatest literary achievement was Grand Street, the quarterly he founded in 1981 and edited till 1990, when multiple sclerosis was far advanced and his fortune somewhat depleted. His friend Jean Stein took the magazine over and it ran till 2004. As he put it laconically, “I printed only what I liked; never once did I publish an editorial statement; I offered no writers’ guidelines; and I stopped when I couldn’t turn the pages anymore.” As another great editor Bruce Anderson, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, wrote after Ben’s death, “Grand Street under Sonnenberg was the best literary magazine ever produced in this doomed country. His Grand Street was readable front-to-back. If you’ve never seen a Grand Street, the last literary quarterly we’re going to have, hustle out to the last book store and get yourself one and lament what is gone.”

When I first came to New York in 1973, I went to a couple of parties thrown by Ben’s father, Ben Sr., one of the trailblazers in public relations who gave elaborately staged parties to advance the interests of his various clients, at 19 Gramercy Park. He looked a bit like a comfortably retired Edwardian bookie in 1890s London, with enough knowingness in his glance to deliver “fair warning” to the unwary. Though he publicly prided himself on never have taken a dime from either Howard Hughes or the Kennedys, Ben Sr. certainly milked big clients like General Motors of plenty of moolah, a satisfactory chunk of which he left to Ben.

Ben Jr. detailed his somewhat raffish and caddish youth in his 1991 memoir, Lost Property, but I had already known for almost a decade the tastes that he listed on the first page and that endeared me to him: “My favorite autobiographers in this century are Vladimir Nabokov, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.” A paragraph later he cited “my friend Edward Said,” whose savage essay “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution’ – a Canaanite Reading” Ben had published in Grand Street in 1986.

There was no other cultural periodical at that time that would have given the finger so vigorously to polite New York intellectual opinion. The finger could be puckish. In January of 1989 he sent me a copy of his offer – which I published in The Nation – on behalf of himself, me and others, to Marty Peretz: “Dear Mr Peretz: Do you wish to sell the New Republic? May I know your terms? I am one of a small group whose members are eager to buy the New Republic and restore its credit as a liberal journal. We suspect you may be ready to sell from the vacancy and desperation of recent articles, which I at least associate with the moral and material bankruptcy of the state of Israel. I am the editor of Grand Street, but none of my associates is in the magazine publishing business.”

Ben’s decent obit in the New York Times by William Grimes mentioned many of the writers he published: Ted Hughes, Alice Munro, James Salter, Susan Minot, John Hollander, Northrop Frye, W. S. Merwin, Christopher Hitchens, Amy Wilentz, and the present writer. But not Edward Said. Their relationship was very close and among my warmest memories are dinners, with Ben and his wife, Dorothy Gallagher, in their apartment at 50 Riverside Drive, listening Edward’s thunders to the company about some fresh outrage of his enemies, some new libel lavished upon him, the Canaanite – “a mere black man” – and hearing Ben’s delighted laugh, raspy and soon spent because there was not much puff power in his body, imprisoned in the wheelchair or propped up in bed.

Edward Said and Ben Sonnenberg in the mid-1980s. Photo by ALEXANDER COCKBURN.

Ben was just such a physical captive for over a quarter of a century, ultimately unable to move anything but his head but I never saw him dull of eye or wit, amid what a similarly spry and creatively indomitable Alexander Pope, crippled from the age of 12, half blind and afflicted with asthma, in the “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” ruefully called “this long Disease, my life.” Great though the editorial achievement of Grand Street was, the resilience that carried him onward through the two decades that followed his Grand Street was what seized me. Ben’s late style was a marvelously warm and inspiring achievement.

I first met him in 1982, when I conducted negotiations on behalf of my father Claud, whom Ben wanted to write a memoir about spies and the Spanish Civil War. I reported to my father the large sum Ben had agreed without much demur to pony up, and Claud duly turned in a very funny essay, full of astute observations about Guy Burgess and spy mania, but also with a wonderfully tragicomic memoir about the strange death of Basil Murray and his ape in Valencia. (It can be found on our CounterPunch site, in my piece on the centennial – April 12, 2004 – of Claud’s birth.)

Soon I was writing for Ben myself, and it was always agreeable. He was good at soft-edged editorial blackmail, designed to propel one past the finishing post. The substantial checks spurred creativity, too, and, by 1985, I managed a very long memoir about my childhood, “Heatherdown,” which was well received. I never would have written it, if it hadn’t been for Ben. When, to his irritation, I quit New York for Key West in the early 1980s and ultimately settled here, in northern California, he would refer to my location as though it was in Kamchatka, filled with metropolitan wonderment that we could even communicate past the barrier of the Rocky Mountains, the wastes of the Great Basin, the Sierra, even unto a northern Pacific shore on which he had never, would never, set eyes. But we spoke on the phone constantly, and I like to think these hundreds of parleys – interspersed with occasional visits – brought us far closer than if I had been trudging down the West Side from my old roost on Central Park West and 94th street.

He had been a young flâneur in London in the 1960s and, no doubt, we passed each other unwittingly from time to time in the Kings Road: I in the long, dark navy velour overcoat, velvet trousers, borsalino hat, chiffon scarf I affected at that time, Ben in the tweed suits made for him by Huntsman  on Savile Row and shoes handstitched by Cleverly, “bespoke shoemaker” in the Burlington Arcade.

Not long after I moved to Petrolia, probably worried I wasn’t warm enough, nor adequately shod,  in this Kamchatka-in-the-Pacific-Northwest, he sent me two of his exquisite old tweed suits and brown walking shoes and, since we are the same build, I wear the herring- bone Scotch tweeds and the brown brogues often amid the winter chills of Petrolia, sometimes wondering that if I keel over in the road and some stranger finds me and looks at the label on the inside pocket, he’ll see “Huntsman & Sons Ltd. B. Sonnenberg 5.6.69” and launch off into some surreal farce of confused identity of the sort Ben loved. Earlier this year he sent me no less than six pairs of black shoes, of minutely varied design, supplied by the diligent and extremely expensive Mr Cleverly. At least physically, I can stand in Ben’s shoes and when he was alive could feel that at least I was doing his walking for him.

But the alumnus of Savile Row and Wilton’s, of the Boulevard Haussmann, of Malaga back in the day, was no whimsical dabbler. He was that best mix – serious and radical about politics and art in a fashion that never forfeited lightness of touch (though, to my chagrin, he had no feeling for Wodehouse). He was in at the ground floor with CounterPunch, giving money to former co-editor Ken Silverstein to help get the newsletter going and then agreeing to become our counselor, listed as such on the masthead on page 2. It meant a lot to us to have him displayed there. To him also, I hope. Jeffrey St. Clair had the pleasure of watching in Ben’s sitting room the spectacle of Al Gore stalking George Bush in that fatal debate, and had an enjoyable long-term phone connection to Ben. Later, for our website, he began to write his brilliant little reviews of movies newly released on DVDs – often of the great directors of his youth, Antonioni, Rosellini, Bresson.

This spring I felt I hadn’t seen him for too long. We seemed to be talking less. I feared for his health and jumped on a plane and spent a long weekend in New York. I entered that bedroom in which I had spent so many delightful hours, its paintings and prints in their familiar spots, and here was Ben, not sinking at all but in good voice, his eyes agleam. A dinner with him and Dorothy, Mariam Said and JoAnn Wypijewski was a tumult of laughter and political sallies and disputes. And then, three months later, he was gone – taken off by an infection he was too weak to battle. His hundreds of friends were unprepared when he slipped away, sur- rounded by Dorothy and his daughters. Of course, I comfort myself with the thought of that last trip. I look fondly and sadly at his suits, the books he gave me along the autograph letter from Zola on my wall.

Privileged is the person who has had such a friend. He was so loyal, and when he was being loyal about people I didn’t care for, I comforted myself with the thought that when someone was confiding to Ben some reservations, animosities even, concerning your’s truly, Ben would be reliably loyal about me too, though he never shirked his exacting critical standards. At the memorial James Salter recalled that when Ben was editing Grand Street, Harold Brodkey, a close friend, sent him a very long poem. Ben didn’t care for it. He wrote to Brodkey say that at best he might publish a few pages of it. Brodkey withdrew the poem. Then later Brodkey sent Ben a short story. Ben didn’t like that either, and declined to publish it. Brodkey severed their friendship. Then, sometime later, Brodkey wrote to Ben saying he would like to put the friendship back on its feet. Ben declined, writing to Brodkey that he didn’t relish the prospect of the “watchful cordiality”  that a resumption of relations would now require.

Ben always makes me think of Proust, because of his cultivation, because they both spent so much time in bed (in Proust’s case a surprisingly small one, now ensconced in the Carnavalet museum in Paris, not much wider than Ben’s), because so many chats sent us off down the boulevards of common memory. He was like Proust in cultivation, stylishness, humor and, as regards his physical afflictions, the way he bore them with such fortitude and grace.

More articles by:

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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