Lunching on Olympus

My meals with W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin, and William Empson


The British writers W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin, and William Empson paid respectful attention to each other: Larkin wrote “English Auden was a superb and magnetic wide-angled poet, but the poetry was in the blaming and the warning.” Empson thought Auden a “wonderful poet” and put Larkin among the “very good poets.” Auden wrote a sonnet for Forster, and Empson wrote a poem called “Just a Smack at Auden.” Forster’s novels were touchstones for Auden, who cabled “Morgan” Forster on his 80th birthday these good wishes: “May you long continue what you already are stop old famous loved yet not yet a sacred cow.” Empson thought Forster’s Aspects of the Novel—lectures he had heard as a student at Cambridge—“a model.”

For me the four have another thing in common, the unlikely and unexpected occasions of my having met each of them for lunch. Those visits are always with me, and while I kept no diary and so remember fewer of their words than I wish, the memories I do have are testimony to their humanity and kindness.


W. H. Auden:
“Oh, don’t bother much about that.”

It all began with Auden in New York in 1962. I had recently graduated from Berkeley and started to work at McGraw-Hill as a reader of manuscripts that senior editors wanted cleared out. Unauthorized and unanticipated by my boss, I looked Auden up in the phone book and called him at home. I said I was in McGraw-Hill’s trade editorial department and had recently been a student of and reader for Mark Schorer, the head of the English Department at Berkeley. I wondered if we could meet to discuss whether he might write a biography. I’d come up with this because Auden was not our author, and I had been told that exclusivity clauses in publishing contracts sometimes omit a genre in which the author had never written.

Auden said he didn’t write biographies, but was curious about whom I had in mind as a potential subject. E. M. Forster, I said, or Thomas Mann, or—the third is fuzzy in my memory, but it was either Carl Jung or Hermann Hesse. “Forster is alive,” he said. “Well, perhaps, that one might wait,” I replied, and somehow I got from there to setting a date for lunch. I chose the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel because I had looked in there once and it seemed old-world, serious, and comfortable.

A few days later my boss, Ed Kuhn, the head of the trade editorial department, summoned me to his office. “I have just had a call,” he said, “from Bennett Cerf [I knew who he was from the television panel show What’s My Line?], the head of Random House, asking who the hell you were. I couldn’t imagine why he had heard of you and why he sounded so damn put out. Cerf asked, ‘What does he do for you? He is poaching on one of our authors.’ I asked Cerf who that was. ‘W. H. Auden. He is trying to get him to write a biography.’ I told Cerf you were just a kid out of college, and I had no idea about this, and Cerf said, ‘Well, Auden is having lunch with him.’”

For McGraw-Hill to publish W. H. Auden was virtually unthinkable. We had brought out Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis, but our biggest-selling authors were Eugene Burdick with Fail Safe and Robert Ruark with Uhuru. So it was on a few counts that Kuhn was astonished. I could tell Cerf and Kuhn had enjoyed a laugh at my expense. Nevertheless, the whole matter pricked Kuhn’s pride. Why shouldn’t his house be a place for the likes of Auden?

Kuhn asked what biographies I had suggested. I told him. He was even more stunned after I got out one name. “How much Auden have you read?” he asked. “Not much,” I admitted. He told me to take afternoons off for the next several days to read Auden so the lunch would have less danger of being embarrassing. I asked him if he would like to come with us. “No,” he said, “that wasn’t what Auden had in mind”—and if he went, Cerf would be on the phone again, and this time it wouldn’t be so amusing.

The day before the lunch, though, Kuhn appeared in my office and suggested I include John Starr, a senior editor who had taken a shine to me. Starr was a friend and editor of Richard Condon, the author of The Manchurian Candidate, and that was as much as I knew about his literary taste. He was a seasoned hand at picking up a check on the lunch circuit and had been especially kind to me, so I was happy to ask him. It wouldn’t hurt to bring along someone with the bona fides of adulthood and the publishing business.

We waited for Auden in the leathery den of the Oak Room. Neither of us had ever seen him in person. He came in carrying a pile of newspapers, which seemed to include lots of cut-out crossword-puzzle pages from the Times of London. He wore a tweedy sports coat and pants, his shirt and tie were dominated by academic brown and allied shades. His face was like a plowed field.

We never spoke of biographies at all. Or of his writing anything for us. Auden and Starr began talking about good food and wine. The substance of it was beyond me, but they were at ease and familiar with one another’s distinctions and discriminations. They didn’t show off; they were just appreciative critics. They then spoke of World War II. Starr had served as an Army officer in Europe, while Auden had famously emigrated from England to New York in 1939. In 1940 he wrote “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” set amidst the backdrop of war:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate

Again, I was separated from the talk by age and experience, having been born in 1940, but they made me feel included. I had a front-row seat; I had made the lunch happen, and they were both happy to be together talking.

Then Auden asked me about Berkeley. I had just done my senior paper on Yeats and said something about his mysticism. “Oh,” he said, “don’t bother much about that. Just a contrivance, a device, a stage, more than anything else.” I gathered from the familiar tone that he knew Yeats, about whom “In Memory” says:

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

As the lunch drew to its close, we asked Auden what he liked best about New York, and he said Jewish jokes. He asked if we knew any. I said I was from Los Angeles and couldn’t really do a good accent, but my aunt from Brooklyn and my father told some good jokes. He laughed at the couple I told him, and then he told one of his favorites. A man from the Upper West Side goes to his psychiatrist. The doctor listens and tells him he is depressed and hostile. The doctor suggests a hobby or a pet, something to bring him out of it. The man says he lives in a small apartment; it would be difficult. The doctor says even a small pet would do. After several weeks, the doctor noted improvement, and asked if the man had bought a pet. “Yes,” the man said. “What kind?” “Bees,” he replied. “Bees?” the doctor said, puzzled. “I thought you said you had a small apartment. Where do you keep them?” “In a cigar box,” said the patient. “But how do they breathe?” the doctor asked.

“How do they breathe?” said the patient.

“Fuck ’em.”


E. M. Forster:
“I will tell you when it’s time to go.”

In 1965, while I was a student at Oxford, NBC was trying to make a television show about the Genizah Scrolls from Cairo (an archaeological find second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls). But NBC wasn’t having any luck in getting access to the Genizah archives in the Cambridge University library. Fortunately for me, someone at a dinner party in New York said he knew a student at Oxford who might help. So, I got the job of producing the show.

In the course of visiting Cambridge, I arranged an introduction to the professor of Near Eastern languages and literature, and through him to the curator of the scrolls. Once the curator had gotten used to both the astounding news that television existed and the bemusing fact that I was American, he granted me some kind of honorary Oxbridge status and so the scrolls—actually scraps of parchment journals—were seen on television for the first time.

Because the show’s sponsor was the Jewish Theological Seminary, the professor asked me if I was religious. I said I’d had a bar mitzvah and been confirmed, but after that I had gone to services rarely—so, no, I wasn’t religious. He probed a bit further, laughed, and said, “You are a pagan. Would you like to meet another one?” I had no idea whom he had in mind, but said “Yes.” He knew I was reading English at Oxford and perhaps that explained his next words: “Write me when you have read all of E. M. Forster, and I will ask him to see you.”

Some months later I did, and I received a short note from Forster proposing a day and time when I might visit him and saying he hoped I had other business as it seemed a long trip to make only to see him. One gray, chilly March day in 1966, I planned to take the train down to London and then up to Cambridge. As I was leaving the college, I ran into my tutor, Christopher Ricks. “Remember you are meeting an old man,” he said, “so you should leave after about 20 minutes.”

At 10 the next morning, I walked into King’s College, one of the grandest Oxbridge colleges, whose cathedral-sized chapel is one of the most famous buildings in Europe. The porter gave me the staircase and room numbers and directions. I walked up the wooden stairs—five flights (a lot, I thought for an old man—Forster was then 86)—and knocked on the door.


It opened to reveal a small, slightly stooped, demure man, smartly but modestly dressed, who welcomed me in and offered me a chair. It felt straight away as if I were a visitor, rather than a student having come for a tutorial. He asked my plans for the day, as once again he said it was an awfully long way to come just to see him. I said I had no other plans and that compared to my travel from California, this trip was short. The visit with him more than justified it.

He seemed to want me to ask questions, but first he talked about living in college and how generous King’s had been to him and how much enjoyment he reaped from it and how convenient it was. He asked after my college at Oxford, Worcester—where were my rooms and did I enjoy it?

He asked what I had been reading lately. I said Dickens and George Eliot and that I was going to do the special paper on the novel in my exams. This to the man who wrote Aspects of the Novel. I asked Forster if we could talk about Lawrence and he responded “David or T. E.?” He told me that in his bedroom he had several letters from D. H. Law­rence. I told him my mother had picked Lawrence as my middle name after Lawrence of Arabia, and he laughed happily at that. But I found that I didn’t have much more to ask him. It was one of those moments, as in all these meetings, when my self-doubt was playing as hard inside me as my excitement.

I was hoping he would get out the D. H. Lawrence letters, but suddenly it occurred to me that it was getting to be around the 20-minute marker. I said he had been kind to see me and I ought to be going and leave him to his work and reading.

“Someone told you that you are going to see an old man and you ought to leave after a short time,” he said, and my expression told him that that was just what had happened.

“Anyone who says that should also remember when you go to see someone old, it may be the last time. Please stay, if you can, and I will tell you when it’s time to go.”

That exchange stays with me because of its simple kindness. I remember the moment better than anything else that was said, other than his asking me “Did you ever know Gide?”

“I know who he was,” I replied.

“No,” Forster said, “did you ever have lunch with him?”

I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity, but I just said “No,” and no more was said of André Gide.

Forster asked me to open the mail piled on a nearby table and to go through it, setting aside anything personal or seemingly important for him to look at. And then, as it was nearing 11, he suggested that we go to the Senior Combination Room for coffee. He put on his overcoat, as I did mine, and slowly but surely he descended the staircase. We walked through the college—it was out of term, so not many students were around—and went into the SCR lounge. It was populated only by a few extraordinary-looking old men, bent under the weight of age and the burdens of study. No one spoke, and everyone sat so as to have no need to converse.

We were served our coffee and biscuits, and after a short time, Forster got up and led me outside. It was cold and clear. He suggested a walk along the River Cam. “Would that suit you?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. As we began to walk, he laced his arm through mine. Can you imagine how I felt—a boy from my circumstances, so American, so unfinished—walking along the backs of the Cambridge colleges with the man who wrote A Passage to India and Howards End on my arm as a silent companion?

At some point Forster began to remark on things he loved about particular colleges—their gardens and parts of the river. I followed his lead, and we wound up walking down the main street of the town; soon we were in front of Heffer’s, the university’s bookstore. Only then did I realize I hadn’t brought a book for him to sign. I asked him if I could run in and buy one. He said, “Yes,” and that he would wait outside.

I ran in, totally unfamiliar with the store and suddenly worried about leaving Forster in the street alone. I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I imagined headlines reporting an accident: “Forster Accompanied and Then Abandoned by a Visiting American Student.” I couldn’t find the novels section, but I caught sight of a hardbound edition of Lionel Trilling’s book on Forster and bought it in a desperate rush.

We then walked back to King’s and up to his room. “Now it is time for me to go,” I said, and I told him how grateful I was for his kindness. He asked where I would go, and I said back to Oxford. He said, “Let me sign your book,” and without explanation, I showed him the Trilling. He smiled and drew a line through the title—his name—and signed his name.


Philip Larkin:
“I never like to be more than five miles from home.”

Fifteen years later, when my family paid a summer visit to Christopher Ricks in England, Ricks had the idea that I ought to try to see Philip Larkin and offered to write Larkin and ask if he would see me. The year before in New York I had set up a lecture that Ricks had given about the poet. I asked Ricks if he would come with me. Absolutely not, he said. He wanted to ask for me—that would make him happy.

I do not have a copy of Ricks’s letter to Larkin, but I do have a copy of Larkin’s answer:

28 June 1982

Dear Christopher,

Thanks for your letter—this is the fourth week of having the painters in, which is why I haven’t replied.
It’s true I generally decline, with such gentleness as I can muster, self-proposed visits by chaps like yours, but I suppose I can break my own rules. On condition that

i. You name your man, & he isn’t someone I detest;
ii. It’s understood that this isn’t a precedent but a single exception;
iii. This is a private meeting and not an interview—very important this—
iv. He realizes I am seriously deaf & hard to talk to;
v. The meeting doesn’t last more than an hour or two; then I should be willing to oblige you.
Venue doubtful: I shall be in London in July. Here less trouble, but makes [rule] v. harder to observe. However, I leave this rather doubtful ball in your court.
Your life sounds exciting. If it isn’t the Faculty, it’s the College! Must be wearing.

Kind regards,
Yours, Philip

A day was set, and with every Larkin rule in mind, I drove to Hull, where Larkin was university librarian. On campus, I was directed to the library and asked for the librarian’s office. Larkin’s secretary promptly announced my arrival, and I was summoned into a large office. From behind his desk, a taller, balder, more affable Larkin than I had imagined came to shake my hand.

“Good morning, Professor Isenberg.”

“Good morning. Thank you for letting me come to see you. But first, I am not a professor.”

“Well, I see you are young, but surely you must be at least an associate professor.”

“No, I’m not an academic.”

Larkin’s smile widened with open delight. “Good. But somehow I got the impression of Ricks giving a lecture you helped arrange.”

“I will tell you about the setting—I think you would like it.”

“Please do. But what is your job now?”

“I have just begun working in newspapers.”

His face showed less of a smile.

“What do you do?”

“I’m assistant to the publisher of Newsday, a large newspaper in Long Island, New York, where I’m learning the business and hope one day to run one.”

“Good,” he said, his face brightening again. “You’re neither a reporter nor an academic.” “Come,” he said, “I propose we go for a pub lunch in the country. I will be happy to drive.”

We walked out to his car, which was some sort of mini–station wagon. Larkin had large thick glasses, and I was apprehensive about his driving skills, but he wouldn’t hear of me driving. “That would make me an awful host, and anyway I would have to keep giving you directions, and as a publisher, you are a direction giver.”

His tone and manner were anything but that of the Larkin of despair and loneliness; he was fast, funny, and friendly. I laughed often and was struck by the precise and fresh turns of phrase in his conversation.

At the pub, we had beer. I am a slight drinker; Larkin went at a seasoned Englishman’s lunchtime pace. I told him about the evening of the Ricks lecture and he was pleased.

He was, by his own admission, wary of Americans; they wanted either to ask academic questions about his poems or to try to get him to visit America. He said he was the sort of Englishman who did not want to go anywhere else. He told me of going to Germany to get an award. When he went to the hotel’s front desk in the morning to ask for a newspaper, he discovered that “although they tell you the people in those places speak English, they don’t.”

At some point, I asked him about contemporary poets. He was jokey and dismissive, refusing to be caught up in “Ted Hughes worship” as he put it, “or anything like that.”

He told me he had a friend who visited New York and was mugged outside the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. I told him that when he came, I would get my younger brother, who was a strong guy, a criminologist, and knew a lot of policemen, to see that he was protected. “You see,” he laughed, “you are working on trying to get me there.”

He seemed in no rush to begin lunch, and I started to fear the rule about an hour or two. I didn’t want to drink too much without eating, but I had another beer with him.

When we did sit down, I remember two things I said. I misquoted a word in a snatch of a John Betjeman poem, and he corrected me, gently. (At the end of our visit, he gave me an edition of Betjeman’s poems and signed it: “For Stephen (or even Steven), commemorating a delightful day, Kindest regards, Philip.” Second, I said that the way he wrote about death and growing old, staring them in the face, summoning unshopworn, unexhausted everyday words, all newly woven and unflinching, ironically, gave me a certain comfort against my own fears. He listened quietly.

He then raised the matter of going to see well-known people and asked had I done it before. I told him of going to see Forster.

He told me that when he was young he had gone to see Forster, too. Forster had entertained a circle—literally—of young men. Every 10 minutes or so, he made them change chairs so someone new sat on his right. Larkin said he had taken the manuscript of his first novel, Jill, and tried to press it on Forster to read, but he wouldn’t take it. Larkin laughed at himself. It was an embarrassing and amusing memory—not painful, though I got the clear impression he would have been happier if Forster had taken and read his manuscript. I think he told me this story to put me at greater ease—we both knew it takes nerve to arrange one of these meetings, and there is a certain nervousness once you are there.

He had another tale of meeting the famous. When he was librarian of Belfast University, the Queen visited, and he was introduced to her. He told her an Irish joke, which he said was sort of a triple faux pas—telling the Queen a joke, an Irish one, and doing it in Northern Ireland.

At some point, the chemistry felt right, and so I did take up the question of a visit to America. What stops you? I asked. He said, “I don’t like to be in hotels, and I really don’t know anyone.” I said, “Here’s a proposition. You know Ricks—he always stays at my home. Get him to vouch for us. Why don’t you stay with us at our apartment? It overlooks Central Park. There’s my wife and our son, who’s nine. You don’t have to talk to us. You can come and go as you please, invite anyone over you like.”


He said, “The idea sounds appealing,” and I thought that if I could get him on a plane that day, he would do it. Then he said, “I never like to be more than five miles from home.”

Well, here’s another idea, I said. Why don’t you fly to New York? We’ll get a helicopter to take you to Manhattan, take you to see whatever you want, and then take you back to the airport, and you can fly home.

“Oh,” he said, “I like that very much. But you can’t do that.”

“Oh yes I can,” I said. I told him of a friend who was the head of the Port Authority. “They run the airports, and my newspaper will find a way to get it done.”

He roared. “That’s the best offer I have ever had.” Years later I read that Larkin said he would like to go to China—if he could come back the same day.

It is faces we remember, and his was big, enlarged by his baldness and the glasses and the animated intensity of his speech. For all his poems, which often showed a glum, lonely, and struggling self, the man I met was strong, confident, terrifically alive, welcoming, relaxed, engaged, engaging. He had another beer, finished his lunch, and insisted we have something sweet. I tried to pay; he wouldn’t allow it.

As he drove back, I was thinking how much he had drunk and how narrow the country roads were. I must have given off some whiff of apprehension, because he turned to me and said, “I hope we don’t have an accident or the headline in your paper will be ‘Our Beloved Assistant Publisher Dies with Unknown English Poet.’”

William Empson:
“My boy, it is just like a symphony.”

A year later, Ricks asked me if I would like to join him on a visit to William Empson in London. I was staying with a friend in Hampstead Heath, quite near Empson’s home, so Ricks and I met late on a Saturday morning, planning to take Empson out to lunch, somewhere close by and informal.

The eccentricity of Empson’s genius was almost as well known as his important critical works: Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral, and Milton’s God. Robert Lowell, then the American poet of highest standing, had once written to Empson that he was “the most intelligent poet writing in our language and perhaps the best. I put you with Hardy and Graves and Auden and Philip Larkin.” A prized possession of mine is a recording of Empson reading his poems in a tone of voice that I believe no other human being can match, even if that person also combined Wykehamist, Cantabrigian, and Chinese accents.

Ricks is said by Empson’s biographer, John Haffenden, to be Empson’s “greatest fan and friend,” and Empson himself once said gruffly to Ricks’s mother, “Your son saved me.” This invitation was a great privilege for me.

We were met at the door by Empson himself, unkempt white hair and beard prominent. His shirt and pants were a faded gray and looked to have been worn unwashed for several days. The sitting room itself was strewn with newspapers and was visibly dusty; it looked as unkempt as Empson. Almost at once I could tell I was going to have a very hard time understanding him. I had to listen for key words. He said his wife was away, so we would have to put up with him. In honor of “our American guest,” he would make bloody marys. He was a skinny man whose clothes hung on him, and as he walked about he continually hooked his thumbs in the front of his pants, and stretched them forward. Ricks and I had to avoid one another’s eyes.

Empson picked out of the kitchen sink three large glasses that may have been washed within the week. On the counter was a large open can of tomato juice with a rusted top. He poured juice into each glass and, after that, generous amounts of something that could have been either gin or vodka—I couldn’t see. Then he sprinkled on something that might have been Worcestershire sauce and from a bin dredged up browned celery stalks. And then he stood back to admire his work and repeatedly stretched and fanned his pants.

He bade us to keep our seats and served his magic drink, which I knew I was meant to praise as thoroughly authentic, if not hygienic. The real challenge was to drink some of this warm slop—no ice cube ever was evident—without spluttering. We toasted Empson and set to work. It had to be done in slow sips; every chance for him to offer a second one had to be eliminated.

Ricks and Empson had a few things to talk about, and they laughed together. I was concentrating on getting enough of the drink down to be neither insulting nor sick. By now, Ricks and I were having a harder time with the drinks and pants stretching—it was just so outrageously funny, but we contained ourselves. I tell my classes that I believe America has weird and idiosyncratic people, but only England has naturally, fully formed eccentrics. Empson is the paradigm. (Recently Ricks remarked of Auden, Forster, Empson, and Larkin that because they were centric in so many ways, their eccentricities were all the more interesting.)

I told him about meeting Auden and being astonished by his wrinkled face. “It was all those sailors,” said Empson, who had written of Auden and Dylan Thomas that they were the only contemporaries “you could call poets of genius.”

After a time, Empson said he wanted to make us lunch, and we would eat in the garden as it was such a fine day. Glancing again at the kitchen, I almost pleaded that he let us take him out to the closest place he enjoyed. Ricks added his solicitation. Empson wouldn’t hear of it.

He went into the kitchen. I asked if I could help. He said I could set the table outside. I began a search for silverware, plates, and glasses. We were to switch to beer, warm of course. He provided no direction, so I had to look in cabinets and drawers. It gave me the chance to rinse and towel everything as unobtrusively as possible. He said we needed soup bowls and spoons and knives for cheese. I found three rolls, butter, and cheese. The rolls had seen a better day, but I hoped they could be buttered into edibility.

Ricks was ordered to stay seated, and then the soup making began. First, Empson produced a large, dirty pot, which I had no chance to rinse. He ran water into it and set it to boil. From strange corners he found an onion, leeks, parsley, and some of the browned celery. He threw in some other things, but by then I couldn’t look. At least it was all floating in hot water.

After a time Empson told me to bring the bowls to him, and he ladled out full portions for each of us, stopping between scoops to make pants adjustments. We sat outside in the lovely air and quiet garden, which did not have much beyond grass and some shrubbery. We were at a wooden table, with Empson at its head. He was obviously proud of his culinary work. There was no choice but to get it all down.

I tasted it and was shocked to find it was good. I didn’t know what it was, but I was so relieved that I would be able to eat it at all that I blurted out my compliments.

“My boy,” Empson said, “it is just like a symphony. You get the right instruments together—here, the ingredients—and the conductor then blends it all together.” We laughed at his delight.

He told us that when he had taught for a semester in America at a small college, he was assigned to teach Shakespeare to a class full of engineers (perhaps because he had taken the first part of his Cambridge degree in Maths). Without slighting them, he said they knew nothing, not even what the Avon was. But what he liked best about them was that they were so well disciplined by their engineering training that they looked up every word they didn’t know—so they met the first test of close reading.

I left with his voice even clearer in my head than on my old Caedmon recording of him reading his poems, my favorite being a Gertrude Stein pastiche, “Poem About a Ball in the Nineteenth Century”:

Feather, feather, if it was a feather, feathers for fair, or to be fair, aroused. Round to be airy, feather, if it was airy, very, aviary, fairy, peacock to be well surrounded. Well-aired, amoving, to peacock, cared for, share dancing inner to be among aware.

There then: visits to four men who lived and died by, with, and for the English language. What most remains for me, beyond their words and genius, is their generosity. Today Christopher Ricks is the Oxford Professor of Poetry, just as Auden was over a half century ago, finishing his five-year appointment in 1961, the year before our luncheon.

As I have grown older, read more, and now teach, becoming what J. D. Salinger called a “lifetime English major,” how many times I’ve wished for another meeting with each of them, because I have so much more to ask. And to hear again how each was so indelibly himself, to say some thanks to them for their part in making my teaching years full, to show them how much these meetings meant to me.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Steven L. Isenberg is a former chief of staff to New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay and a former publisher of New York Newsday.


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