In a career spanning some 45 years, Norman Podhoretz has stood as an object lesson in how to make enemies and influence people. As the longtime editor of Commentary magazine and the author of such books as Why We Were in Vietnam (1982) and The Present Danger (1980), he has been one of the leading intellectual lights of the neo-conservative movement, building the case since the early '70s for a military buildup and a retreat from Great Society social policy that, according to some, helped pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan.
But perhaps Podhoretz owes his fame as much to his talent for feuding as to his skill as a polemicist. With Making It, his frank 1967 account of the lust for success that propelled him from an impoverished childhood in Brooklyn to the salons of Manhattan, he scandalized the literary establishment that once hailed him as something of a golden boy. His agent wouldn't represent it. His publisher refused to publish it. And just about everybody hated it. In 1972, Podhoretz's first high-profile personal squabble, with Random House's Jason Epstein, went public when the New York Times Magazine published an article called "Why Norman and Jason Aren't Talking." By 1979, when Podhoretz published Breaking Ranks, a memoir of his conversion from radicalism to militant conservatism, it seemed just about everybody wasn't talking to Norman.
FAMILY FEUDS: Falling out with the New York intelligentsia.
Next month, Podhoretz will add another chapter to his personal war chronicle with the publication of Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. In this short, sharp, unabashedly name-dropping book, Podhoretz revisits the old battles over communism and the counterculture, not to mention his bad reviews. But for all his talk of continued struggle against the "regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe," the book is a frankly nostalgic, even affectionate look back at the lost world of "the Family," the endlessly quarreling but close-knit group of left-leaning intellectuals that gathered in the 1940s and '50s around such magazines as the Partisan Review and Commentary.
Has Norman Podhoretz, nearing 69, mellowed in his old age? "Some people have said they find the book tender," Podhoretz told PW on a recent morning in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I wasn't aiming at tenderness, but with a title like Ex-Friends, I had to work hard to remember what it was I liked, even loved, about these people. I was successful enough that some who see me as a take-no-prisoners polemicist were surprised."
Given Podhoretz's reputation as a tireless feudist, his down-to-earth charm also comes as something of a surprise. A small man with neatly trimmed remnants of white hair and mild blue eyes, Podhoretz tries to offer PW the seat of authority behind the mission-style oak desk that dominates his impeccably tidy study. Covered with a bank of humming computer equipment and stacks of paper aligned down to the millimeter, the desk could be right out of the office of a successful corporate executive, but the Eames-style recliner in front of it is pure West Side shrink. "Some people still think of me as a West Sider," he says. "Culturally speaking, I'm still considered part of that crowd."
Not that Podhoretz, veteran of many a glamorous dinner party, confesses to seeing much of anyone these days. "I've become something of a recluse and a couch potato," he says. "I no longer have a secretary, but I have one of these" -- he pulls out an electronic organizer -- "and when I look at a week and see that it's all blank, I say whew! I have a house in East Hampton where I hole up sometimes. Which is also where most of the people I'm not speaking to have houses, of course."
Postscript to a Friendship
Podhoretz began the book that became Ex-Friends after stepping down from Commentary in 1995 to devote himself full time to writing. "I'm a big one for symmetries," he says. "It was 1995, I was 65, I had been editor for 35 years." While struggling with a third autobiographical volume, which he thought would discuss his evolving commitment to Judaism, inspiration suddenly struck from an unlikely source.
When Allen Ginsberg died in 1997, Podhoretz wrote a memoir, published in Commentary, of the peculiar relationship between the two that stretched back to 1946, when the future author of "Howl" accepted for publication in Columbia's literary magazine a long p m about the prophet Jeremiah by Podhoretz, then a 16-year-old freshman. The centerpiece of the essay was an evening in 1958 when Podhoretz, by then a well-established critic, was suddenly summoned to Greenwich Village to listen to Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac rebut "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," a scathing assault on the Beat writers that he had published in Partisan Review. When Podhoretz left four hours later, unpersuaded, Ginsberg shouted from the doorway, "We'll get you through your children!" Positive response to the memoir gave Podhoretz the idea of doing a series of sketches of his tempestuous relationships with his more famous ex-friends.
Over the years, he has collaborated with such renowned editors as Robert Giroux, Jim Silberman and the late Erwin Glickes. But he calls Chad Conway at the Free Press "as smart and as good as anyone I've ever worked with." He also switched from longtime agent Georges Borchardt to Glenn Hartley and Lynn Chu (who have represented, among others, Newt Gingrich and Starr Report co-author Stephen Bates) at Writers Representative. Not, he takes care to emphasize that Borchardt is now an ex-friend. "He's a wonderful man and a wonderful agent," he says. "But I was in a restless and anxious condition when I finished the book and I thought I needed someone younger and more aggressive."
Even at 69, aggressiveness is still a part of the Podhoretz image. In Ex-Friends, he defends himself against the charge that he once backed out of a fistfight with Allen Ginsberg. He also quotes with some delight a published interview in which Ginsberg recalls taking Ecstasy and thinking of his old adversary. Reflecting on the usefulness of having someone to hate, Ginsberg suddenly saw Podhoretz as "one of the sacred personae in the drama of my own transitory existence."
As Podhoretz puts it, Ginsberg and the other ex-friends have served a similar function for himself. "It has been invaluable to have them to contend with," he says. "It has given a special edge in my soul to the wars. And they were wars, make no mistake about it."
But in a book that seems bent on getting in the last word, did Podhoretz ever worry about the old prohibition against speaking ill of the dead? "As long as I felt I was being true to my affection, I wasn't speaking ill of them," he says. "Especially with Lillian Hellman, I worked hard to evoke how much fun she was. Besides, d sn't that rule have a statue of limitations?"
In the book, Podhoretz searches in his heart and decides he can't forgive Hellman for her refusal to renounce communism, or Ginsberg for damage done to the youth of America by the counterculture. And as for the man who tried (and failed) to turn him on to pot and group sex, Podhoretz d sn't think there's any chance of reconciling with Norman Mailer, the only one of the ex-friends still among the living. "I don't have the energy to have Mailer back in my life," he says. "He's old and deaf, but he's still Mailer and I'm still me. Sure as I'm sitting here we'd end up like two old punch-drunk boxers getting back in the ring."
Like the other Norman, Podhoretz was born "a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn," though he takes pains in Ex-Friends to point out that while Mailer was from the middle-class Crown Heights, he himself had a double-life as a "bad street kid" in the working-class, racially mixed neighborhood of Brownsville. He was also the archetypal A-plus student. As he describes it in Making It, this son of a $60 a week milkman was a juggernaut headed straight for the top: scholarships to Columbia (where he was a protégé of Lionel Trilling) and Cambridge (where he studied with F.R. Leavis); invitations to write for Commentary, Partisan Review and the New Yorker by age 24; the editorship at Commentary by age 30.
By the 1960s Podhoretz was a full-fledged junior member of the Family, publishing in Commentary such bellwethers of the emerging counterculture as Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd and turning out a steady stream of his own writing as well. (Doings and Undoings, a collection of his criticism, came out in 1964.) But all that changed with Making It. The first casualty was his relationship with agent Lynn Nesbit, whom Podhoretz says he "broke with" because she didn't support the book strongly enough when it met with a cool reception by Bob Giroux at Farrar Straus. Podhoretz returned the $25,000 advance, and his new agent, Candida Donadio, resold it to Random House for slightly more.
But for all the spontaneously combusting publicity, today Podhoretz considers the book "a miracle of mistiming." "It came out at the very height of the counterculture, of which it was very critical," he says. "It was bound to seem blasphemous."
As Podhoretz' politics continued drifting right, rumors began to circulate that he had literally lost his mind. Podhoretz prefers to think of it as coming to his senses. "A lot of people like living with contradiction. But there are logical implications of ideas that it is the duty of intellectuals to examine the follow-through on. They go beyond politics to one's entire sense of life -- morality, the relations between the sexes, between parents and children."
Podhoretz has been married to the conservative writer Midge Decter since 1956. As for their own four children, Podhoretz says, "We're very close. All of us are on the same side. A couple of them are even to the right of me." In the living room, he proudly points out a gift from his son John, associate editor at the New York Post and a founding member of the conservative Weekly Standard. It's a bronze plaque of Teddy Roosevelt bearing the inscription, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."
Now, this inveterate reviewer of reviews eagerly awaits the next round, as assessments of Ex-Friends start coming in. "I expect the worst," he says, "and I usually get it." He mentions being surprised at a somewhat favorable notice in Kirkus -- "Are they still on the left?" he asks -- and brings up more than once a piece by Nicholas Lemann in the Washington Monthly, which calls the sketches "brilliantly incisive about the weakness of its characters," not least the "thin-skinned" Norman Podhoretz.
"I'm always being accused of being thin-skinned," he says with a note of exasperation. "But if I were thin-skinned, I'd be dead! Besides, my philosophy is, you don't read your reviews. You measure them. Reading bad reviews is like a case of mild food poisoning. If you can avoid it, you're better off. But of course it's difficult to avert your eyes when your name is mentioned."
Thirty years ago, Podhoretz ended Making It with a declaration that the book was a "frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package." But has Norman Podhoretz really made it as far as he dreamed?
"No," he answers, with barely a pause. "I certainly haven't achieved the kind of fame or the widespread admiration I wanted. But I have no complaints. The turn I took in the '60s saved my life as an intellectual. I think I would've been crippled otherwise."
Still, Podhoretz wouldn't mind the admiration. "Wanting to be liked is a character trait you never get over," he says, "and I certainly haven't gotten over it. It's bred in the bone. I would almost define the struggle against that desire as the central motif behind my work, whatever it's subject. My desire to be ingratiating has always had to fight against my desire to tell the truth, and it loses out every time. If I'm trying to ingratiate myself with people, I'm certainly doing a lousy job."