full court press

"Good Deeds, and Good Works"

In memoriam: Eden Ross Lipson
May 13, 2009

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.

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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.”

Ellen Chesler, the author Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, and another of Lipson’s closest friends, said, “Eden will be remembered for an astonishing number of good deeds, and good works–and her four beautiful children.”

Lipson was the pre-eminent teacher of the art of the book review, and her first rule was to incorporate as many of the author’s words as possible into your analysis, to make sure your reader would get the flavor of the author’s work. To wit, this memorable passage–from a blistering critique Lipson wrote in 1975 of Sally Quinn’s volume about her disastrous year as co-anchor of the CBS Morning News:

And that’s why the book doesn’t work. Poor Sally is just not believable as the innocent Abused. Poor Sally is a general’s daughter, and don’t you ever forget it, because she never has. She is used to Playing Her Way and Getting Her Way. Being an army brat meant learning to be adaptable, “to psych out what people wanted and giving it to them,” to “move right into the situation, size it up, make friends with the people you need to talk to and move right out.”

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, offered the best description of the breadth of Lipson’s interests and judgment. He first met her when she came to speak at Alex Garvin’s city planning seminar at Yale:

She was presenting a study she had done about the gargantuan rocket assembly building at Cape Kennedy, the largest enclosed space in the world. I remember that Eden called the paper ‘How High Is the Sky?’ and that I was struck by the whimsy of that, whimsy being a trait that visiting scholars did not tend to have. It did not take long to discover that Eden had a deep and passionate connection to the spirit of place, to the notion of a kind of poetics of place. She understood instinctively that places, like people, play a critical role in emotional life, and at that stage of her life she was spending a lot of her time trying to make sense of that idea.

We had a drink after the class to talk about it, and that was the beginning of a discussion–and a deep friendship–that lasted for forty years. From Eden I learned to understand Olmsted, and Central Park, and Long Island Sound, and Sea Cliff and the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, and Los Angeles and London and a thousand other places. Our last extended time together was a long walk around the Lower East Side, which she had helped guide through the last generation of its growth; she saw everything, from the madness of the glass condos and hotels to the joys of the street and the markets, and she saw the bad stuff with a rueful irony, and the good stuff with unbridled joy.

What she never expressed was an outright anger, even at things she obviously despised, not because her standards weren’t high–they were very high–but because she knew how they were part of a larger, organic process, and she knew that we are better off trying to influence that process for the better rather than denying it outright. It was not so different from the attitude she took toward her illness. She was never in denial, but neither was she visibly angry. She wanted her efforts to go to making life better, not to pretending that this world is not what it is. Eden’s love of place did not take precedence over her other loves–for journalism, for children’s literature, for justice and politics and art and theater and music and dance and food and for the people in her life. All of these things coexisted, and they were always framed by realism, by insight, and by laughter, in one of the most sublime balances I have ever seen in a human being.

Two of Lipson’s closest friends were Molly Ivins and John Leonard, and together they formed a triumvirate who devoted their lives to the promotion of great books and progressive ideas. Ivins and Leonard had both been diagnosed with cancer before Lipson was, and they provided one another with extraordinary support.

Two Septembers ago, Lipson spoke at the memorial for Ivins in Manhattan. And what she said about the great Texas journalist applied equally to herself: “Molly was the one who saw America large and clear, who out-reported the mainstream media from Austin, who had a balanced and ultimately optimistic view of the world. Molly’s generosity was legendary, but in addition, she was brave. She went on book tours two and half times while on chemotherapy.”

Then Lipson recalled Ivins’s final counsel to her–and everyone listening recognized that Lipson was modeling her final days on her dear friend’s advice.

“Understanding mortality is entirely personal and you won’t know it until you face it,” Lipson recalled Ivins had said to her. “The cancer will probably kill you in the end, but moving ahead, do as much as you can…until you can’t.”

“And then it’s okay to let go.”

Update: To listen to Neal Conan’s fine tribute to Eden on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, click here.

Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.