The Magazine

A Genius of Temperament

Joseph Epstein remembers Irving Kristol.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Irving's specialty was the insertion of common sense into places where one wasn't accustomed to find it. He advised the young not to bring along a novel when being interviewed for a job, because, however mistakenly, it creates the impression of dreaminess. When Michael Joyce became the head of the Olin Foundation, with responsibility for doling out large sums of money, Irving, while congratulating him, told him that in his new job he could promise him two things: First, he would never eat another bad lunch; and, second, no one would ever speak truthfully to him again. I once gave a lecture on friendship in which I made the argument that we mustn't expect our friends to share our opinions, but look instead for something beyond mere opinion to that more important entity, point of view. Irving, who was in the audience, told me afterwards that I had a good point, and he agreed with it, "except of course for Israel and Palestine."

The older one gets as a writer the fewer people are around whose approval means much. Irving was one of those remaining people for me. When I heard that he took pleasure in my short stories, I was genuinely delighted. He once introduced me at a talk I gave at the American Enterprise Institute, saying that I was in the tradition of the cosmopolitan wits. I was so pleased by this that before beginning my talk I couldn't refrain from saying that being introduced in this way by Irving I felt as if I were Andy Williams introduced by Frank Sinatra saying this guy can really sing, or Rodney Dangerfield introduced by Charlie Chaplin saying this guy has some wonderful moves.

Irving was an extraordinarily selfless husband--a feminist in action if decidedly not in ideology. By this I mean that in Irving's biography, in the early 1940s, there is a lacuna, during which he took time away from his own then youthful career so that his wife Bea (who is of course Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian of Victorian intellectual culture) could do her graduate studies at the University of Chicago and later research for her doctorate in London. How many men, of whatever political views, would have done that 60 years ago?

Irving and Bea were the Nick and Nora Charles of American intellectual life. They were always on the case together. They had a marriage in which the question of equality seemed simply never to have arisen. Congruent in their opinions, perfectly joined in what they valued, they were as united as any couple I have ever known.

One of my fondest memories is of a panel at Harvard on which sat Irving, Michael Walzer, Martin Peretz, and Norman Podhoretz. I don't recall the subject, but only that Irving, without being the least pushy about it, dominated, lighting up the room with his easy wit and charming good sense. I looked over at Bea, who was sitting a few rows in front of me and to my left, and could see how utterly enthralled she was by her husband's brilliance. After more than 50 years of life together, she still had a crush on him. I didn't have the least difficulty understanding why.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His third collection of short stories, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, will be published in 2010.