Eden Ross Lipson, an author-editor-activist-journalist who had a huge, mostly-unseen impact on American literature and American life, died early yesterday morning at a hospice in Manhattan. Her death at 66 came thirty months after she was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—and twenty-nine months after she nearly succumbed to septic shock during one of the first hospital visits she made in her fight against the disease.
For most of her life, Lipson’s character was a combination of boundless generosity and occasional spikiness. But from the moment she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she exuded nothing but kindness and selflessness—a luminous model of grace under pressure unlike any other I have ever seen.
The modest obituary in this morning’s New York Times accurately acknowledged Lipson’s role in “bringing children’s literature to wide public awareness”—she was the children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review for twenty-one years, and the author of the definitive New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children, which ranked 1,001 titles—but the Times article did not begin to hint at the influence she had on dozens of other journalists of her generation. Those ranged from ABC’s Cokie Roberts, an intimate friend for almost five decades, who was still with her at the moment of her death, to the New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger, who first befriended her when he was a Yale undergraduate in the early 1970s.
Lipson’s passions included food, friendship, literature, politics, urban planning, Passover, musical comedies, and New York City. But her husband, Neal Johnston, and her four children—Delari, Tara, Margo, and Garth—always came first.
Her influence on books extended far beyond the Book Review which employed her, because she routinely recruited reviewers for other outlets to promote whatever she thought was worthy and important.
She was that rare editor who could function just as well as a listener as she did as a reader. As a result, scores of writers, including myself, depended upon her whenever they had written anything that needed a little tweaking, or just didn’t sound quite right.
These conversations always began the same way: “Is the doctor in?”—and she always was. After you had read her your lead over the telephone, she would either fix it, reject it, or—blessed moment—speak the words that obliterated all writerly doubts: “Just keep right on.”
The friendship between our families spanned nine decades, beginning when our fathers were classmates at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn in the 1920s. When her father, Mitch Lipson, was part of the Secret Service detail in Harry Truman’s White House, my father was Truman’s Assistant Secretary of Labor. Mitch Lipson was later vice president for security for American Express, and then a prominent lawyer on Long Island. Together, her father and I delighted in leading didactic and delicious Passover Seders inside her elegant townhouse on East Second Street.
“She and John Leonard were responsible for my entire career in life,” said Steven R. Weisman, who spent almost forty years covering New York’s City Hall, New York state’s capital, India, Japan, the White House, and the State Department for The New York Times. Very early on, Weisman’s career was languishing when he was briefly assigned to night-rewrite on the Metropolitan Desk. Charlotte Curtis, who was then the paper’s op-ed editor, alerted John Leonard, who was then running the Book Review, that a major talent was being shamefully underused in the third-floor newsroom. Leonard then commissioned Weisman to review Breach of Faith, Theodore H. White’s book about Watergate. After Weisman’s review ran on the front page of the Review, the young reporter’s career was reborn. Dozens of other book assignments flowed from Lipson afterwards.
“Although she was a towering figure in the literary world,” Weisman recalled to me yesterday, “she also became a major influence on my own daughter, by always asking her what children’s books she was reading, and then telling her what other books to read—including major books from the 1920s and 1930s which nobody has ever heard of, and my daughter fell in love with. Books are what bound her to children.”
Cokie Roberts first met Lipson through the National Students Association in 1962. Lipson was a bridesmaid at Roberts’s wedding to Steve Roberts, and Cokie is the godmother of Lipson’s son Garth. “She had the most remarkable circle of friends of anyone you ever met,” Roberts told me. “Tons of authors and journalists—tons of our crowd. Her genius for friendship was really something that very few people have. We all heard about each other from her over the decades. Everyone was referred to, assuming we all knew who each other was. It was wonderful.
“She just lived the most happy and engaged, other-oriented life,” Roberts continued. “Especially the last two and half years—when a lot of other people would have been focused entirely on themselves. She was magnificent, I’ll certainly say that.”