Remembering Ted Solotaroff
When Ted and I became friends in the early nineties, we would try to see each other whenever I was back east. Sam, his grandson, and Michael, my boy, were the same age, and we tried several times to get the boys together, but it never worked out. Over the years, though, Michael made the drive to East Quogue with me three times. The first he must have been nine, maybe ten. He was respectful, if humming with boredom. I pointed out the amazing array of first editions in Ted and Virginia’s bookcases, many, of course, edited by Ted, but since Matt Groening wasn’t among them, Michael was unawed. Mostly he enjoyed being chased by Yiskra, the white lab Ted had brought home from a teaching stint in Alabama, around the yard, and I bribed his compliance for a couple of hours with a promise of ice cream, three scoops, for the long ride back to Queens.
The second time Michael was applying to colleges, thinking of Chicago, where Ted had done his graduate work. Ted was skeptical, mentioned the place had changed since his time, the not-too-Neo-anymore-Cons—why there? Michael (now a junior at Chicago) told him—the urban setting, equally distant from both parents; the core curriculum; finally being at a school where sports didn’t, however subtly, dominate, in a city of his own. Most telling, and something he’d never mentioned to me, he wanted to be in a place where the pressure to be cool wasn’t constant, the unspoken center of everyone’s aspirations.
As always, I was struck with the quality of Ted’s listening. When we first met, I was struck by it. Ted was visiting the University of Oregon for a week of teaching, reading, meeting with students, and anyone who was around then still remembers his visit as one of the highlights of the program’s history. Yes, Ted was a celebrity, yes, he was smart and unbelievably well-read. Yes, he had the cachet of the New York Publishing World behind him, and was there any important writer in the last half-century he hadn’t worked with? But what students mentioned most about the week was how Ted listened. Really listened. Really wanted to hear what you had to say. When he spoke about Flannery O’Connor or Saul Bellow it was not with the insider’s gossipy foreknowledge or the expert’s quotable proclamations. He spoke about literature as if of course everyone loved it, cared about it, and he listened to these young writers barely beginning, as if entry into this world, this Community, as he later called it, was open, available to anyone who worked hard, cared enough.
Our friendship began this way, hours of walking around campus and downtown Eugene (yes, there is a downtown Eugene), and I found I could talk to this man in a way I had never talked to an older man in my life, about everything: writers, writing, growing up Jewish with complicated fathers, sports, anything at all. This never changed in all the years of our friendship.
The last time Michael and I drove to East Quogue was the summer before last. Ted had been in the hospital, was tethered to a fifty-foot plastic tube attached to an oxygen tank in another room, which he had to drag and untangle and use every few minutes and which he roundly hated. Michael had finished his first year at school and this time they talked about who he was reading—Plato, Marx, Mary Shelley—what he hoped to study, what did he think of Hyde Park, was Richard Stern still around campus? They talked like old friends, which I guess, in a way, they were, and again Ted spoke with Michael as an equal, as someone whose opinions (at nineteen, wildly declamatory, embracing or dismissing entire sectors of cultural history) truly mattered, truly interested him. I barely got a word in, and couldn’t have been happier. Next day on the phone Ted told me Michael was a terrific kid, I should bring him around every chance I got. I promised I would. When we left that day he gave Michael a signed copy of his new Kazin anthology and of the second volume of his memoirs. I told him we’d see him again soon.
Backing out of the driveway Michael said to me, I think I get it about Ted. I think he did, too.