The first time I met Ben Sonnenberg, he handed me a check with his teeth. He was in a wheelchair, so this did not reflect the refinement of the man; in fact, the gesture somehow accentuated it.
The year was 1981, when I was studying fiction at Columbia University and sending out my stories to magazines. A friend recommended I try a new journal called Grand Street, and I went to a bookstore and looked at the first issues with their thick creamy paper and old-fashioned layout. The journal was beautiful, the work inside intimidating. Only because I was told to, I sent my story off.
A square card with the Grand Street logo of a mangy goat arrived in the mail, signed by Sonnenberg, the magazine’s editor. It was my first acceptance letter and it vibrated in my fingers. Later, he invited me to meet him. At the time, I was in graduate school, waitressing, living with my aunt on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. On that fall day, I jogged across Central Park in my sneakers and sweatpants to 50 Riverside Drive to meet Ben. What was I thinking? Trying for a casual note, I suppose, to make up for my shock at even being invited at all. (Six months later, I would never have dreamed of arriving without considering my outfit, which Ben would assess as appraisingly as he did manuscripts. “Okay,” he’d say, when I walked in, “Let’s see the shoes.”)
That first day, Ben opened the door and greeted me. He was low down, in his wheelchair. I entered an apartment full of books and art and an atmosphere of artistic and literary magic. There were wooden spool bookshelves to the ceiling, oil paintings, Lord Byron’s framed signature, Brassai photographs, and someone’s mounted suspenders (Disraeli’s, it turned out). This place was created by Ben and his wife, the writer Dorothy Gallagher, and would turn out to be more of a home to me over the next 30 years—constant, welcoming, stimulating—than any other I had.
Ben gave me tea and asked me about my circumstances. I think I had a date once with your aunt, he observed, unsurprised. Then he asked me about writing. Who were my favorite writers, who were my influences? I was astonished. No one had spoken to me in that way, as if I were, in fact, a writer. I felt it was my christening. Ben told me he was glad to be publishing my story, then excused himself and rolled into the other room. He returned with a piece of paper between his teeth. “Here,” he said. “So you will show me more stories.” It was a check for $1,000. I was then working evenings at a creepy restaurant on the Upper East Side, dividing quarters with the other waitresses. Did he think I had somewhere else I might show my stories?
Ben’s kindness began then and never stopped.
Not long after, I started working part-time at Grand Street as an assistant editor alongside the only other employee, the designer Deborah Thomas. The “offices” were in Ben’s dining room, where Manila envelopes slid off wooden chairs and I received an artistic education more trenchant and various than the one I got up the street at Columbia. I combed through the slush pile and also showed Ben almost everything I wrote.
Ben was a connoisseur and a great enthusiast. I can think of few people who took as much joy as he in the accomplishments and creations of others. His eyes would glitter and he’d lift his chin, smiling without showing his teeth. To give Ben a piece of gossip, a sip of champagne, or simply to walk in the door was most gratifying; appreciation beamed from him. And he had a flip side: his dismissal could be withering.
Writers, I am not the first to note, cannot get enough encouragement. Ben’s meant more because it came from a taskmaster. I can still feel the shock he could give while editing my stories. A flinching frown was ominous. His disdain was delivered unfiltered. He was a painstaking editor, working through my stories line by line as I sat at his elbow, noting every comment. On more than one occasion, he said, “This is some of the worst writing you’ve ever done.” I learned to match his disdain for the indulgent and the obvious. “We all know grief is disorienting,” he would say. No need to point it out. Clichés were a horror. He showed me the grace of understatement and clarity. I also learned not always to listen. He had no patience for nature descriptions and found weather references tedious. Despite his disapproval, I kept writing both.
His encouragement when it came was like armor. “Sue,” he’d say, “you’re better than this.” “This whining doesn’t become you.” Or, “Show more of your bitchy side.” When I was working on my first book and worrying what they might think, he said simply, “If you’re going to worry about that, you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.”
Ten years after I met him, his multiple sclerosis forced him to stop publishing Grand Street. When he lost movement in his arms, he acquired a bigger motorized wheelchair he would steer with a sort of plastic hookah tube in his mouth. Mention of his paralysis was rare. Though he said about his beloved dog, Harry: “You can’t know how much a dog means to a cripple.”
He loved photography and music, literature and movies, but what interested him most was people. In his rooms, I met Edward Said, Anne Carson, James Salter, Saul Steinberg, Amy Wilentz, Dan Menaker, Christopher Hitchens, Vincent Canby, Penelope Gilliatt, Jean Strouse, Alexander Cockburn, Michael Train, Richard Howard, Javier Marías. I should have kept more notes—the witticisms and conversation were dizzying. Ben’s knowledge was vast and traveled down many obscure tributaries. It was always surprising to me—not to him—when someone else knew the obscure French actress or had read the Greek memoir.
He was a critic and a poet, a grandfather and a rebellious son who wrote a memoir, Lost Property, about it all. He loved Doris Day and C. P. Cavafy, Luis Buñuel and Murray Kempton. And Dorothy.
Ben and Dorothy had a great love between them. They showed me that a beautiful marriage is full of humor, and it is a treasure of my life that they took me in as family. Whenever I would return from being away from New York, I went to Ben and Dorothy’s. I brought a red-and-black Maasai blanket from Kenya to spread on Ben’s bed. I lay my week-old daughter on it, between his legs. We would eat dinner from trays in Ben’s room. Dorothy fed him, sitting on a stool, tipping an etched glass of wine to his mouth. They bantered and flirted with each other. “Remember when we had Harry?” Ben would say, looking at the scruffy black-and-white dog they adored. “And then we had to get married?”
When Ben caught his last cold in June 2010, Dorothy said she hadn’t been worried. “I had forgotten he was ill,” she said. Then she laughed. “I just thought he was being lazy.”
For 20 years, Ben lived paralyzed from the neck down. I remain amazed by the courage and endurance he always exhibited. To the end, Ben did not let us think very much about his illness. Always the great editor, he took out what he would rather we not see.
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