André Schiffrin memorial, Great Hall, Cooper Union, October 29, 2014
by Jesse Lemsich
An extraordinary event, which will be put up on the New Press website, where it will be worth watching. Random memories of this event:
I sat with Todd Gitlin, and I guess we had mutually decided to put aside our differences and resume being old friends. Todd laughed heartily when Bud Trillin described the Yale 1950s’ ideal of being “shoe” – that is, cool, with André the very reverse of that. I concluded from Todd’s reaction that the same term had been current at Harvard. He remembered “Jack Tar” and said that at one point he had thought of writing about the role of Isaac Sears in the NY Stamp Act riots. We got along fine, which I guess is one of the things that happen at memorial services.
The Great Hall was entirely filled, mainly with publishing people. André is clearly a hero in the industry, and deservedly so (though towards the end I thought he was blind to the democratic potential of e-books). They ran a video of the picket line outside Random House when André was fired, and I spotted myself along with Vonnegut, Terkel, Ehrenreich et. al. It was on this occasion that Tom Engelhardt (who was there tonight) had invented the term “Newhoused.”
It was good seeing Anya and Natalya, now grown up. I talked a little with Natalya’s son Leo Schifrin Sands, who is studying history at Cambridge. She is a human rights lawyer. Anya has a book coming out with New Press. One of them talked about a game that their parents had invented upon seeing couples on Broadway: “Date or Daughter?” I still play this game, but of course there is no definitive evidence without questioning, which I can’t bring myself to do. Leina introduced me to a Parisian friend as “cantankerous,” which led to our discussing whether the term ”feisty” is honorific or pejorative, with me thinking the latter.
Rick Macarthur conveyed dramatically the contrast between André becoming a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, as opposed to 9 (?)year old André and his father Jacques being maneuvered out of Vichy France by Varian Fry.
André’s administrative assistant recalled taking a call from someone who wanted to write him and asked, is there an accent? To which she replied, no, but he mumbles. Others also mentioned his mumbling.
After close friendship in the Yale years, André and I had had differences. He was in no way at home with radical feminism and had been furious with Naomi when she refused to wear a wedding ring. Some people thought that André had founded SDS, which was the reverse of the truth. On the other hand. Navasky recalled that André had invited Alan Ginsberg to participate in a John Dewey Society program, which made me think better of my time in that tepid organization. But really there was nothing else that was left at Yale in those years, and it was extraordinary that André, a self-proclaimed socialist (albeit mildly so) had been popular, chosen as class orator. I recalled that having retreated from the Nazis with the shirt on his back, he had two suits when at Yale, one of them being the linen summer suit described by Roy Jackson as his “Trotsky-at-the-seashore” suit.
It was good to visit with Joel Kovel, who I see on picket lines these days. I was grateful to Paul and Bell Chevigny for schlepping me both ways in their van. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, the NY subways are inaccessible, and Cooper Union is on a long diagonal from the Upper West Side.
I came out of it all feeling warmly about André, glad that I had participated in what some thought of as a 94th Street salon, and glad that Leina has continued to invite me. People on Facebook and in the AHA may not think so, but I think there is some evidence that I am mellowing. This happens as you see your cohort diminishing and value the time that you had with them, despite differences.