Philip Roth Was His Own Favorite Subject. What’s Left for a Biographer?

One of the great chroniclers of America’s literary lives takes on the author who fought to control his own story.

Blake Bailey, biographer.

Credit…Phyllis B. Dooney for The New York Times

One of the great chroniclers of America’s literary lives takes on the author who fought to control his own story.

Blake Bailey, biographer.Credit…Phyllis B. Dooney for The New York Times

  • Published March 30, 2021Updated April 2, 2021

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Philip Roth, who stopped writing in 2010 and died eight years later at age 85, was not sure if he wanted to be the subject of a biography. He was the narrator of his story. King of sitzfleisch, Roth sat at his desk banging out his legacy 340 days a year, starting in his early 20s, returning in over 30 books to protagonists who resembled him: a son of Newark, secular Jew, younger brother and childless bachelor free to indulge his ego and appetites in a country without pogroms. In two senses, his legacy would be the writing: He never had children, so books would be all that would survive him; and his life was there, between all those covers.

He insisted that his work not be read as autobiography, but Roth made a career out of doppelgängers and authorial stand-ins, an ongoing game of hide-and-seek with readers. In the 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” a character named Philip Roth travels to Israel to confront a look-alike, named Philip Roth, who peddles Middle East peace plans while pretending to be the real Roth. He brackets his 1988 memoirs, “The Facts” — one of his few works of ostensible nonfiction — with letters to and from Nathan Zuckerman, his fictional alter ego. When embarking on “The Facts,” he wrote that he was trying memoir because he was tired of the “makeup and the false whiskers and the wig” of fiction — an implicit confession that he was always lurking just beneath his characters.

In the end, Roth decided on a biography because he wanted to be known. His fiction courted misunderstanding, but he was wounded when misunderstood. Though living in rural Connecticut got him tagged as a recluse, Roth was a compulsive connector, always pressing himself on people, seducing them. After his death, the novelist Nicole Krauss wrote of “the sincerity and absorption with which he listened,” calling him, “the most generous audience one could hope to have.” In a group, he was a cutup, a mimic, a gentle teaser, a raconteur, the embodiment of what Zadie Smith, another friend in his old age, called literature’s “Rothian spirit” — “so full of people and stories and laughter and history and sex and fury.” Here was a famous controversialist who needed to be liked or, failing that, to be right: He had scores to settle with ex-wives and, not incidentally, an ex-biographer.

By 2012, when Roth gave Blake Bailey access to his papers, friends, little black book and innermost thoughts, Roth had parted ways with two previous biographers, courted another and threatened to sue a third. But Bailey, who had appealed to Roth with a sympathetic ear and a brazen request for the job, persuaded the aging author. On April 6, W.W. Norton is publishing “Philip Roth: The Biography.” It is the fourth biography of an American writer by Bailey, a former public-school teacher who has become one of the great chroniclers of this country’s literary lives. In 2003, he published “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates,” which helped earn the author of “Revolutionary Road” the fame that eluded him during a long, poor, drunken life. Six years later, Bailey returned with a biography of another midcentury drunk of gargantuan talent, John Cheever. When Bailey met Roth, he had just finished work on his biography of the “Lost Weekend” author Charles Jackson, whose aptly titled 1944 novel drew on his personal knowledge of blackout alcoholism. Early in their courtship, Roth asked Bailey, “Do you ever write about people who aren’t constantly drunk, or dead?” Bailey replied, “You would be my first.”

In the literary world, “authorized” and “unauthorized” are both terms of opprobrium: an “authorized biography,” written with the cooperation of the subject or her estate, is presumed to be cozy and flattering; an “unauthorized biography,” gossipy and salacious. Bailey’s books are authorized. “People use ‘authorized’ as a disparaging label, meaning that you’re under the thumb of the subject or the estate,” Bailey told me. “That was not my agreement.” Bailey insisted on the same terms he gave the Yates and Cheever families: He would need free and complete access to Roth, his papers, all of Roth’s friends and family and anyone else — even potentially unsympathetic people.

Roth agreed. His cooperation had the last-gasp urgency of one who had the end in sight — but it was not without an air of seduction. When wooing lovers, friends and colleagues, his strategy was to alternate between cruelty and abundant kindness. With Bailey, Roth flashed his gentle side, becoming as forthcoming with Bailey as he’d been withholding with other would-be biographers. For the last six years of his life, he answered all questions, often with multipage letters, constantly called Bailey and handed over documents that his literary executors may never permit anybody else to see. Roth knew what kind of biography he wanted, and after fighting other collaborators for years, he smothered Bailey with attention, charmed him and offered the warmth reserved for intimates. He played easy to get, hoping to get something in return: his version of the truth.

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Philip Roth in January 2018, a few months before he died. Early in their courtship, Roth asked his biographer, ‘‘Do you ever write about people who aren’t constantly drunk, or dead?’’ Blake Bailey replied, ‘‘You would be my first.”

Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

In February, I visited Bailey at his house in the historic district of Portsmouth, Va., a quick walk from the banks of the Elizabeth River, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. We sat in his living room, eating pizza and talking at a Covid-safe distance. “The Wes Anderson Collection,” Matt Zoller Seitz’s richly illustrated book about the movie director’s work, sat on the coffee table. Bailey’s house had an Anderson-esque dishevelment and analog feel. There were books everywhere and no TV in sight. In the room behind me sat a baby grand piano, which Bailey plays after many a hard day of writing. Bailey, his wife and their 16-year-old daughter share their house with a beagle and a cat that was nowhere to be seen.

After dinner I swiveled around in one of Roth’s old Eames chairs, which Bailey had inherited; the chair’s ottoman was known as “Nicole’s seat,” as in Kidman, a close friend who sat there when she visited Roth. When I asked to see the Roth papers, Bailey took me to the third floor, where he opened the cabinets lining the wall outside his study. I saw hundreds of manila folders stuffed with archival material. Bailey must turn the papers over to Roth’s literary executors — Andrew Wylie, his agent, and Julia Golier, a lover and then a close friend — who may or may not destroy them. Bailey also had copies of documents held at Princeton University, where they were open to the public until, in 2019, the archive was closed and the description of its contents taken off the web at Wylie’s behest.

Beholding six years of accumulated research into one man’s life is like coming upon a finished jigsaw puzzle covering a ballroom floor: awesome, but it hurts to imagine the effort. Researching a writer’s life is slow work, a mix of shoe-leather reporting and endless archival research. Bailey read most of Roth’s books multiple times — hundreds of hours’ labor. “You have to be able to cold-call people, as if you were trying to sell insurance,” Bailey said. “I can do the social persona, and I can enjoy it, but I am just as happy not talking to another living soul for weeks at a time. That is a good combination for a biographer.”

Bailey’s archivist tendencies have resulted in a book that is exhaustive in its attention to the details of Roth’s life: everything from the drudgery of his Army service in the mid-1950s to his disastrous marriages to his struggle with mental illness. The book is often sympathetic, presenting Roth as a figure who lived a life of equal parts discipline (the famed work routine that treated writing as a miracle hewed out of monkish labor) and exuberance (he enjoys one tryst with Ava Gardner and rejects another with Jackie Kennedy). We are thrust into the minutiae of the writer’s finances, feuds and psychoanalysis. The figure that emerges is a man capable of great kindness, irrational grudges and casual cruelty.

There aren’t many writers like Bailey in American culture, where literary biography is an anemic tradition. “To the best of anyone’s knowledge,” Rachel Donadio wrote in The Times Book Review, in 2007, no biography was “underway for Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie or John Updike.” Since then, only Updike has been the subject of a major biography. Besides Bailey and a handful of others — like Roth’s friend Judith Thurman, biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette — few Americans do great work in this genre. In Britain, by contrast, writers like Claire Tomalin, biographer of Dickens; Michael Holroyd, biographer of Shaw; and Hermione Lee, biographer of Woolf, are widely praised. Britons care about their writers in a blessedly prurient way, and they want to read about their lives. When in 1994 Martin Amis left his agent for a newer, flashier one (Andrew Wylie, incidentally), the British tabloids swarmed. The sex life, or lack thereof, of the poet Philip Larkin was of national concern. In the United States, by contrast, Roth is one of few writers whose lives have excited a high level of gossip. (What do you know of Jonathan Franzen’s private life? Lorrie Moore’s?) We take our writers seriously, which means elevating their work above their lives.

It is not surprising, then, that it would fall to a failed novelist to tell our national literary-​biographical story. Born in Oklahoma in 1963, Bailey aspired to an acting career until, as a 16-year-old on his way to audition for the Matt Dillon movie “Tex,” he read “The Great Gatsby.” By the time he arrived, he had decided that “acting seemed a pretty silly ambition.” (He flubbed the audition.) After graduating from Tulane, Bailey eventually landed a job teaching middle school in New Orleans, tried his hand at fiction and discovered an admiration for Frederick Exley. “I was feeling,” Bailey writes in his 2014 memoirs, “The Splendid Things We Planned,” “a keen affinity” for Exley, with “his alcoholism, his morbid interest in sports, his contempt for the workaday world — the whole narcissistic juvenile whirl.”

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“He wanted to be Richard Yates, not write about Richard Yates,” his first agent, Elizabeth Kaplan, told me. But his only success had been with nonfiction — most notably, a Spy magazine article about how the Revlon tycoon Ron Perelman’s wife at the time terrorized her home contractors. “ ‘Write me a proposal,’” he recalled Kaplan telling him, “ ‘about something that interests you intensely.’ What really interested me at that moment in time was Richard Yates.”

In 1999, Bailey found Yates’s middle daughter, Monica, who liked that Bailey wasn’t an academic — she held professors responsible for her father’s ignominy. She cooperated with Bailey, and he got a book deal. As it happened, “Revolutionary Road” was already scheduled to be reissued in April 2000, and Bailey’s publisher wanted his biography to benefit from what it hoped would be a Yates resurgence. “I signed the contract in late January 2001, and I was given until March 15, 2002, to research and write the book,” Bailey said. “For the next 14 months, I spent every waking hour, except when I was eating or defecating, doing Yates.” “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” was published in July 2003; as Yates climbed out of the grave and into the literary canon, Bailey’s biography was lauded for finding the narrative tension in the writing life — which in Yates’s case involved living alone in poverty, smoking and typing all day then knocking off for the bar. The book became a finalist for that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. Bailey was a schoolteacher no more.

After the critic Janet Maslin raved about the Yates biography in The Times, her husband, the writer Benjamin Cheever, took Bailey to dinner and asked if he might want to write about his father, John. Bailey said yes, and the Cheever biography was published in 2009. Roth, who was about to publish his final novel and despairing of finding yet another biographer, read it admiringly.

“I think Philip chose Blake because he had read Blake’s life of Cheever and thought it was superb,” said Benjamin Taylor, Roth’s close friend, one of his medical proxies and the author of “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth.”“I remember his saying to me, after reading the [Cheever] book: ‘He doesn’t judge his protagonist — he just lets him perform. Behave, misbehave, whatever he chooses to do. But there is no moralistic overlay.’ And he said, ‘That is the kind of moral latitude I need in a biography.’” Or, as Bailey put it, “Cheever is laid out on his ass in my book, but Cheever remains essentially a sympathetic character.” Roth hoped for a similar alchemy. “If you tell the whole truth about a person, their humanity comes through,” Bailey said. “Philip believed that would be true for him.”

In 1996, Roth’s ex-wife, the English actress Claire Bloom, published “Leaving a Doll’s House.” The memoir includes a fairly nuanced account of a romance gone bad, with enough blame to go around, but critics and readers concluded that Roth was a gaslighting, emotionally abusive partner. His first response was to write “Notes for My Biographer,” a book-length reply that he sold to the publisher Houghton Mifflin. His next move was to find a biographer. “I thought: Someone’s got to correct this story, or this is going to be the story,” he later told Bailey.

Roth first asked Ross Miller, an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a close friend who had read drafts of his books in progress and edited the Library of America edition of his collected works (poorly, in Roth’s estimation — Roth tried to ghostwrite material for which Miller was responsible). Roth wanted a flattering book, and he hoped Miller would make up in loyalty what he lacked in brilliance. But according to Roth, Miller was only intermittently engaged, and by the time Roth took him off the case for good, in 2009, he had apparently interviewed only 11 of Roth’s acquaintances. When Roth listened to tapes of the interviews, he was so horrified by what he considered Miller’s inept technique that he wrote another defensive manuscript, a never-published attack on Miller he called “Notes on a Slander-Monger.” Their friendship ended bitterly, and Roth railed against Miller to his last day.

Miller declined to comment. When I asked Wylie if the estate would sue Miller for talking to me, he said, “I really don’t want to go into that.” But it is not an unreasonable fear. In 2011, Roth paid over $60,000 in lawyers’ fees to force Ira Nadel, an American academic who now teaches in Canada, to delete one sentence — which said that Roth had “anxieties about being emotionally engulfed by a woman,” referring to the longtime girlfriend who was the basis for Drenka, the sexually liberated mistress in “Sabbath’s Theater” — from his “Critical Companion to Philip Roth.” Nadel was planning a biography, and Wylie informed him that he could not quote from Roth’s work, and that nobody close to Roth would ever cooperate with him.

Sick of Miller and contemptuous of Nadel — whose own Roth biography paints him as terrified of intimacy and was published last month — Roth kept up the hunt. He talked with a Stanford professor, Steven Zipperstein, who says he decided against writing an authorized biography (though he is now writing his own Roth biography). In 2010, he engaged Hermione Lee, the biographer of Woolf and Wharton. But he soon regretted that choice. It grated on him that she could not start until finishing her book on Penelope Fitzgerald, though she had been upfront about that obligation. And there was something else. “He did not want to be remembered throughout posterity as a person who didn’t like women,” a writer close to Roth told me. “And he thought that that was going to happen if he had a feminist biographer.”

In 2012, while Lee thought she and Roth were still betrothed, Bailey emailed Roth after learning from the writer James Atlas, another of Roth’s ex-friends, that Roth and Miller were kaput (Atlas seems not to have known about the arrangement with Lee, who would not speak with me, saying that her head “is full of Tom Stoppard now”). From the time he heard Roth might be looking for a biographer, Bailey wanted the job. “It was the ideal confluence,” he said, of Roth’s availability and his admiring Roth’s work “enormously and from a very young age.” Roth invited Bailey to his New York apartment, then for a second meeting at his Connecticut house. On the Upper West Side, Roth asked Bailey why a Gentile from Oklahoma should write his biography. Bailey had a swift rejoinder: “I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage, but I managed to write a biography of John Cheever.”

Roth was pleased with his new man. He had already canceled publication of “Notes for My Biographer” and asked friends to return their copies. Bailey got a copy of that manuscript, along with “Notes on a Slander-Monger” and much more. Eighteen months after the biography is published, Bailey must return everything to the Roth estate, according to their agreement. Julia Golier, the co-executor, told me that when the papers come back, she and Wylie will decide, based on their understanding of Roth’s wishes, what to destroy and what to add to the Roth archives at the Library of Congress. When I asked about “Notes for My Biographer” and “Notes on a Slander-Monger” — in effect, Roth’s two unpublished books — she said: “There is a good chance we will destroy them. Andrew and I will decide when the time comes.”

Forty-eight passages in Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography” are sourced to “Notes for My Biographer.” They tend to deal with criticisms from Claire Bloom. Many of the passages are anodyne, and some are complimentary (Roth believed his ex-wife was “a natural writer,” for example). Only 18 passages are sourced to “Notes on a Slander-Monger.” The unseen manuscripts may not be explosive, but they are surely of interest, dealing as they do with what might be seen as the two great divorces of Roth’s life (after the end of his early, first marriage): his splits from Bloom and Miller. And it’s unclear what other copies of these manuscripts exist. When I asked Roth’s friend Claudia Roth Pierpont, author of “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” (2013), if she had one, she seemed to squirm: “There are copies around. I do not.”

Copies of these documents live in Bailey’s cabinet, for now, and a copy of “Slander-​Monger” is locked up at Princeton, part of Benjamin Taylor’s collection of Roth papers, which he sold to the university in 2018. The following year, Wylie got the university to close the papers, and Taylor himself was unsure when, or if, Princeton would reopen the archive. A Princeton spokesman said the university was “in ongoing discussions with Roth representatives.” Neither Wylie nor the Roth estate’s lawyer, Perley H. Grimes Jr., would comment. It seems Roth’s life force has outlived his life, cajoling and coercing from the grave. He molders, but those in his orbit keep respecting his wishes, or maintaining respectful silences.

For Roth scholars, there will always be the nagging frustration that one man alone got to see the full Roth oeuvre, the unpublished writings as well as what lives on in bookstores. “It’s access biography!” raged Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown professor whose book “The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race, and Autobiography” will be published in September. “Full access to the papers, and then they’d be burned!” That would be a shame. Miller was an important early reader on Roth’s novels of the 1980s and ’90s, and given how much of the public perception of Roth as a misogynist turned on Bloom’s book, it feels as if that jury will be hung forever. Bailey is also the only man to have read a 101-page remembrance, written for Bailey, by the woman on whom Roth based Drenka. Bailey was only permitted to read the remembrance in her presence. “She wouldn’t let me even take it to the bathroom,” Bailey said. He has no idea what the woman, who was Roth’s partner longer than anyone else, including his wives, will do with her manuscript, which describes a somewhat darker figure than Drenka’s lover Mickey Sabbath. “The sex in ‘Sabbath’ was larky fun” Bailey wrote to me, whereas her retelling “was all about Philip (say) expecting her to listen while he jerked off on the phone, in London, and she sat there in Connecticut,” with patients waiting outside the door of her physical-therapy office.

For Roth scholars, there will always be the nagging frustration that one man alone got to see the full Roth oeuvre.

The Roth who emerges from Bailey’s research could be callous to friends, enemies and lovers alike. He blithely used other people’s lives as material for his books. When they objected, as the novelist and devoted mentee Alan Lelchuk did, Roth was unrepentant. He was a maestro of fallings-out: with Lelchuk, Atlas and of course Miller. He could be emotionally demanding, and his sense of entitlement overwhelmed his compassion for others. He acted as a needy man-child: he often demanded that Bloom spend time with him at the expense of her teenage daughter, Anna. Rather than face his shortcomings, he clung to a myopic perspective on the friction he helped cause, referring to Anna in correspondence as a “great pain in the ass” without acknowledging his role in the family conflict.

This version of Roth — a man of robust sexual appetite, a searing sense of victimhood, unrelenting fury and a limited capacity for empathy — does seem reminiscent of his most insatiable characters: Portnoy, Zuckerman and Sabbath come to mind. While Roth was not writing autobiography, it seems true that he mined his own shortcomings for, and processed his turbulent life through, fiction, intent on unfurling his own limitations in the only way he knew how, in the only language he possessed.

Knowing that Bailey would write about all of this, Roth hardly resisted. One of the few rows he and Bailey had was over the granting of a pseudonym to the model for Drenka. Roth felt that she had maligned him in conversations with Bloom and Bailey, and he did not want her to hide behind anonymity in the biography. “I reminded Philip that he was not in a position to make such demands,” Bailey said, “and we put it behind us.”

Could it have been that, as a writer, he knew what was needed? That if his great fear was being forgotten — and that is the great fear of all writers — he had to be interesting, rather than simply admirable? He got to be remembered as a man: hilarious, mercurial, genuinely kind but fickle and meanspirited too. A man, rather than an inert legacy. “Parts of it would have mortified him — of course,” Bailey told me, “But, finally, he would have recognized that his ideal could only be realized if he wrote the biography himself — which, of course, in a better world, was exactly what he wanted.”

Mark Oppenheimer is a senior editor for Tablet magazine and the author of “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” to be published in October.

A version of this article appears in print on April 4, 2021, Page 42 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Ghost Writer. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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