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By Anne Bernays



Because I had been an editor of discovery [1953-55], a magazine of original writing by William Styron, Norman Mailer, Anatole Broyard, etc,, had then worked  for two publishers, and finally married a man who had actually published a book, I knew most  of the prominent writers of the latter half of the 20th. century. Most were men. And most were just like you and me, the difference being that they had been blessed with a creative spark which, in some cases, had lighted a spectacular fire. Some drank too much; others did not. Some talked compulsively about themselves; others did not. Some were kind, others mean- spirited.  Just like you and me.

In the years since we left frenzied New York for sleepy Cambridge, in 1959, I published several  mid-list novels, raised three daughters and  stayed gladly married to Justin Kaplan – known to his friends as Joe–who, it turned  out, was a master of the art and craft of biography. A collector of human trivia, I had stored in my memory a few backstage stories of the writers Joe and I were friends with for the fifty years we lived in a big old house on Francis Avenue.

Joe died of Parkinson’s in 2014; I miss him terribly. One thing I learned after he died is that it’s impossible to drown in grief.

My memory is more than ninety years old ; there’s a lot in there, rolling around in the uneasy seas of my past life. Maybe because I have always thought that writers were the best, most adorable people on earth — far surpassing actors , surgeons, and astrophysicists,  I remember clearly what it was like to sit next to them; and to listen to them—often saying things they had no time to think about beforehand.




Bernard Malamud [1914-1986].  A member of what John Updike insisted on calling the Jewish Mafia, Malamud started out publishing Eastern European–type folk tales set in American. They were fresh, energetic, wild, a sort of visible rendering of Marc Chagall’s dreamlike paintings. By the time we met, Malamud was the author of seven novels and had won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Then, unfortunately, he got serious. In the words of Harry Levin, a long-time Harvard Professor of English, “After Bern won the Pulitzer he began to think of himself as Dostoevsky.” Ouch. But it was true. His novels grew ever more serious and static and didn’t have the hint of wildness of his best narratives.

Physically he was, in Joe’s words, “nebbishy”, a Yiddish word meaning badly put together,   awkward and maybe his socks don’t  match.  Soon after we met, and in the middle of a talk Joe was giving about biography to an undergraduate audience at Hillel House, Bern leaned towards me and whispered, “You have great legs.”  Over the next few years he made it perfectly clear that he would have enjoyed having sex with me. Not even tempted but willing to flirt, I was flattered. Along the way he told me “My wife [also Anne] says you’re a serious novelist” and I didn’t even blink, barely registering in those long-ago days, that this a brutal thing for one author to say to another. What about you, dingbat, what do you think?

Nevertheless — and because I was used to being a second-class citizen (The Harvard Club in NYC maintained a separate entrance for women) — we became friends. We went to their house, they came to ours. Once, while we were at the Malamud dinner table  in Cambridge, along with the V . S Pritchett, British author of — among many other books — one of the best autobiographies in English, “A Cab at the Door,” the phone rang. Bern got up from the table and went into the living room to answer. “It’s for you,” he said, nodding at me. “Your sitter.” When I picked up the receiver “It’s nothing,” the sitter said, “I just wanted to hear Bernard Malamud’s voice.” One night when the Kaplans and the Malamuds were having dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club, Anne and Bern got into a loud, steaming argument about whether or not the characters in his latest (and in my estimation, his best novel, “A New Life,” were based on real people at Oregon State. Anne insisted they were. Bern insisted they were not. “Then why,” she asked him “Do you think you weren’t asked back?”

We visited Bern and Anne a couple of times in Bennington Vermont, where he taught writing. Bern invited Joe on long walks with him (I was never asked along). After one such outing Joe told me that Bern had been taking notes in a little notebook as they plodded across cow-filled pastures and farms. When I asked Joe —somewhat guileless — why Bern had been doing this he admitted that he hadn’t asked and couldn’t guess. A couples of years later when we read Bern’s lumpy last novel, “Dubin’s Lives,” whose main character is a troubled biographer, Joe found himself quoted verbatim without either permission or attribution. Straight from Joe’s mouth to Bern’s notebook to the published page.




Philip Roth [1933-2018]. We met him at the 1959 National Book Award ceremony where he had just won the blue ribbon for an astonishing book of short stories, “Goodbye Columbus.” He liked us, we liked him. He told me that he had always wanted to write a scene in which one character gives another an enema.  When I asked him why he’d never done it, he said he hadn’t gotten around to it. “I’ll do it,” I said and wrote it into one of my novels, “The First to Know,” a paperback only four people have read, thank god. One evening as we sat at a bar in New York, eating dinner, Philip (no one called him “Phil”) stuck out his hands, palms up, and staring at them anxiously,  told us that one of his hands was always warmer than the other and did we think that meant he had a heart problem? This was as weird as the enema thing. There was something of the adolescent about Philip then and maybe it never developed into true adulthood.

Philip married a young woman, a shicksa who struck me as a blank slate. Sweet, passive, maybe destined to be a muse but probably not. I don’t remember her name. After Roth and she divorced, he wrote a novel in which he had transformed this luckless girl into a monster. Roth went on to become famous as a semi-reclusive genius and circumstances in both our lives kept us from getting together. Over the years tales about him and his much younger girlfriends, his marriage to Clare Bloom and her ending up like his first wife, a fictional character no one wants to talk to.




Kurt Vonnnegut [1922-2007]. Kurt looked like someone had invented him, with sharply etched features and penetrating eyes. Kurt had just published his first novel, “Player Piano,” and had recently left his full-time job as a Volvo  salesman. He was married to Jane, a slightly frantic woman. They had a couple of children and were also bringing up the two orphaned children of his brother and sister-in-law, one dead of cancer the other in a train wreck.  A large gangly man, Kurt was almost manically welcoming, talked fast and spiced up with off-center humor, obviously enjoying the attention we gave him as he told us about how he and Jane often  rolled  around naked in the mud in the dead of night. In his breezy satirical novels Kurt managed to touch a nerve very like the one Salinger had, a few years earlier, with “Catcher in the Rye.” His tone and stance were socially and politically radical. These novels were short, beautifully constructed and controlled and completely original. On the other hand, he had a tendency to slide away from the ultimate truth in a dicey situation by using tag lines like “and so it goes.” Kurt was extremely fond of Joe and sent him several cartoons he had drawn himself. Like Malamud before him, Kurt had come to Harvard to teach in the Freshman Seminar program, an enlightened series of seminars taught by well-known writers without the proper credentials (MAs, PhDs) One night Kurt came over after class and sat with us in our living room entertaining us while chain-smoking. Afraid of cigarette smoke and unable to stay silent, I begged him to stop.  This went on for quite a while until Kurt turned to Joe and said, “Will you please tell your wife to shut up!”




John Updike [1932-2009]. In the immortal words of my husband, John was “a hard man to shave.” He was the most visible writer in the neighborhood (he and his family lived on the North Shore, but he showed up frequently at parties and events in Cambridge.) He was slightly self-mocking, but you knew he knew where he stood with rest of us. This gave him a slightly smug air. His wife Mary was smart, sharp and seemed content. Everyone loved her. I had founded PEN New England and because no one else wanted to run it, I took on the job.  With the help of a “board” we put on monthly panels, moving from one venue to another as we had no permanent home. I thought it would be instructive, if not fun, to ask a few writers to talk about rejection. When I asked John to be on the panel he surprised me by saying yes. There were three others whose names my memory refuses to relinquish. When it was John’s turn to give his little speech he told us about the times, apparently more than once or twice, that a short story had been rejected by magazines. No sound could be heard in the room. John Updike rejected?  Afterwards, several people from the audience said how hopeful his admission had made them. What I could have said was, “How nice for you to learn that even the best are turned away. But don’t for a second believe that just because Updike was rejected, that means you’re as good as he is.” When John and Mary divorced, John rented an apartment on Beacon Hill. Apparently, he had never experienced the usual mishigas that most women can handle blind- folded because one day he phoned me to ask if, when bread gets moldy, it’s poisonous (echo of mismatched hands?).  I told him that if he wasn’t up to going out to buy another loaf he should just scrape off the mold. Everyone knew that John—and I’m putting this with as much sympathy as I can summon– was not exactly monogamous. What they didn’t know was that he was ignorant about domesticity. And so it goes.




A novelist, journalist and educator, ANNE BERNAYS has been writing for over 40 years.

Born and raised on the east side of New York City, Bernays would read everything that she could get her hands on. She attended Barnard College in 1950, later working for the now-defunct literary magazine Discovery and as an assistant editor for Houghton Mifflin.

She published her first 10 short stories as her personal life grew busier; she married writer Justin Kaplan in 1954 and gave birth to her first daughter Susanna soon after. Bernays hasn’t stopped writing since, with a career spanning 10 novels, two non-fiction books co-authored by her husband, and a handbook for fiction writers co-authored with short story writer Pamela Painter.

In 1980, Bernays also began her journey as a writing professor at Harvard University, and became a professor of creative writing at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.


Watch our ArtSpeak video conversation with Anne Bernays.