BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Ignatieff, who was Isaiah Berlin?
Mr. MICHAEL IGNATIEFF (Author, "Isaiah Berlin: A Life"): Possibly
the greatest liberal philosopher of the 20th century, or certainly the
greatest liberal philosopher since John Stuart Mill; a historian as
well, friend of the famous. But h--what he will be remembered for is
as a philosopher of liberty.
LAMB: Who decides that he's the greatest liberal philosopher of the
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Good question. I do, I guess. It's personal--a--a
personal call. But I think you could get a lot of philosophers and
historians lined up saying the same thing. He wrote a thing called
"Two Concepts of Liberty" in 1958 which is the kind of starting point
for the philosophy of liberty ever--ever since. It's a kind of--one
of those essays that you just have to read if you're gonna play the
game of arguing about liberty in the late 20th century.
LAMB: I remember reading the front-page bio--or, obituary in The New
York Times, and I was, remember at the time, struck by, why is it on
the front page? And then I went back and got on Lexis/Nexis--died on
November the 7th, 1997. Was that the day he died, the 7th or the 6th?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He died two years--two days before.
LAMB: OK. Four thousand, two hundred and thirty-three words in The
New York Times on the front page. Why did this man, in your opinion,
end up in The New York Times? It was...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Very good question. Very good question. He had an
obituary that you usually give to a former president or royalty or
something like that. I think the reason that he's on the front page
of The New York Times is that he has an extraordinary career in
Washington and New York that begins in kind of 1949, when he comes to
Harvard to give some lectures, and he spends 25 years on American
campuses. So he's known to a whole couple of generations of American
students and teachers. But that's, I think, not the real reason.
Part of it has to do with the fact that he's in Washington during the
war as a young academic but working for the British Embassy. And he
writes extremely important dispatches for Winston Churchill on the
state of American political opinion in Roosevelt's Washington, right?
These dispatches come to the notice of Churchill, and while he's in
Washington during the war, he meets a lot of people who turn out to be
key players in American post-war history. One of his closest friends,
for example, is Chip Bohlen.
Well, flash forward 20 years. It's 1962. Isaiah Berlin's invited to
have dinner with President Kennedy. He and Kenned--he is with Kennedy
the night that the Cuban missile crisis breaks. This is Isaiah
Berlin. He's in the--having dinner and he's with Chip Bohlen. He's
the--he's the kind of philosopher who had that kind of access, to
people very close to power. The people who made the American century
were his close friends.
So he's a liberal philosopher who has some very important American
friends, and I think that's why, at the end of the day, he ends up
getting that kind of coverage in The New York Times.
LAMB: What does it mean to be a liberal philosopher?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Hmm. You have to define liberalism here. It means,
I think--let's put it together. Because he was in Washington during
the war, it means that he loves Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He
believes in big government, or at least government big enough to
create the conditions of liberty for everybody. What does that mean?
It means good roads, good schools, public welfare, Social Security,
health care. He--you know, Isaiah believed and I think a liberal
believed that you can't have individual private freedom unless you
create the common conditions for all on which that individual liberty
Having said that, then a liberal says one other thing, which is, if
you create the state that protects i--e--everybody, sooner or later,
you have to--you have to protect the individual against the state. So
it's two things. A liberal thinks you've got to have big government,
and then he thinks you've got to have institutions like the rule of
law and the courts and division of powers to protect the individual
from the state. And that's what being a liberal is from Isaiah's
point of view.
LAMB: You wrote, `He thought of himself as impossibly ugly, white,
oily, fat, white skinned and deformed.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It's funny when you quote that stuff back to me.
Yeah. He did, I think. He was, in fact, not very prepossessing,
about 5'6", 7". At birth, he had a--he had a forceps delivery, and
the--the doctor pulled his arm out, and so his arm was always slightly
kind of twisted close to his hand. He never thought he was a
good-looking man. My view was, at the end of his life, he was a very
good-looking man. He's one of these men for whom age did a lot of
favors. It--you know, his--the bones in his face began to show. He
had good--he looked like an old Jewish patriarch towards the end of
his life, as you can see in those pictures. Then I think he began to
have a kind of nobility to his face. But earlier on, he was very,
very convinced he was an ugly man, and I think he--it took him a long
time, maybe a lifetime, to be at home with himself.
LAMB: Where did he live in his life?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, when it was then a
province of the czarist empire. He then witnesses the Russian
Revolution in Petersburg in Russia. He sees the 1917 revolution
happen with his own eyes. He's then in London and in Oxford through
most of the middle part of his life. And then, as I said earlier, he
spends five of some of the most happy and productive years of his life
in Washington, DC, working for the British Embassy. After the war, he
goes to Moscow and visits some famous poets and writers, comes back
and then spends the next 40, 50 years either in Washington, Jerusalem,
New York or London.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I met him in 1987. I was on a television program,
and--and I was asked to make a comment on some issue relating to
Jewish questions. And I was--Isaiah happened to be at home ha--taking
dinner on a tray. He saw me on television, approved of what I said on
this program and wrote me a note--needless to say, the nicest note I
ever got. He said, `Come to lunch.' I came to lunch in 1987, and
pretty soon, we were talking. We started a conversation that lasted
for 10 years, until his death. And the book is the result of that 10
years of talking and arguing and walking on the beach and going to
concerts together. So it's more than a biography. It's a kind of
record of a friendship.
LAMB: What were you doing before you met him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I was a--kind of hard to place in American terms.
I'm a Canadian who went to England to be an academic at King's
College, Cambridge. I then climbed over the monastery wall. I
decided I didn't want to be a professor; went to work with the BBC,
and that's where Isaiah picked me up. I was working for the BBC doing
stuff on television. So I'm a kind of academic/writer/journalist.
LAMB: Where were you from in Canada?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Toronto.
LAMB: Where'd you go to college?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: University of Toronto, history, English, and then
went to Harvard Graduate School for a hard-won PhD.
LAMB: In your book, you quote Clementine Churchill as saying, `"He
was an intellectual acrobat in the society circus."'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Well, this was a--the thing about Isaiah was
that he had enormous social success. If you sat with him and talked,
he would say, `Well, I want to tell you about the time I had dinner
with Igor Stravinsky and the other time we had dinner with Sigmund
Freud.' And he s--he knew literally everybody. And one of the
things--one of the problems that that gave him was a sense that he was
a kind of acrobat. People would invite him to his--parties because he
was so famously clever, so famously quick. And he was worried that,
you know, that wasn't quite respectable for an intellectual just to be
a kind of--well, to put it cruelly, a court Jew--you know, invited to
Gentile society because you're so clever, because you're so smart,
because you're so verbal. And he was often very anxious about that
role. But there's no doubt that he was a court Jew to English
aristocratic society, and it bugged him. And it was one of the things
I think that drove him to think, `Conversation isn't good enough.
I've got to put some words down on paper.' And there are nine volumes
of his essays as a result. But I think he was driven to write and
write with passion and conviction partly because he wanted to escape
this reputation of being a--a court Jew.
LAMB: You quote Harold Ross, former editor of The New Yorker, as
saying, `"Young man, I can't understand a word you say, but if you
write anything, I'll print it." This became a pattern in America. He
became famous by being misunderstood.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He had this extraordinary voice which I won't
begin to imitate, but it was a kind of--What do you call
it?--palimpsest of three or four layers. There was Jewish, Russian
and this very clipped Oxford diction, very tight-lipped--you know,
bup, bup, bup, bup--very, very tight, precise vowel sounds. And when
he came to America, you know, people just simply couldn't understand
what the hell he was talking about. Katharine Ga--Graham, the
publisher of The Washington Post, who became a lifelong friend, you
know, said, `Isaiah, you know, if you're gonna be understood in
America, you've--you've just got to slow down and talk more sensibly.'
And he said, `I know, I know, but if I did, I'd be quite another
person, quite another person.' So he--that kind of conversational
rapidity, this kind of Gatling gun style of talk, became his kind of
signature tune in America. And it's part of his success.
People--people--what they remember about him was not quite
understanding what he said. And I think he, in a way, kind of
cultivated being at the edges of comprehensibility.
LAMB: The obit in The New York Times was written by Marilyn Berger
and, as I said, it's 4,3--233 words long. What kind of attention did
his death get in Great Britain?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Huge attention. Huge attention. Front-page news in
most of the quality and standard newspapers. He didn't have one
memorial service; he had three. Before he died, Roy Jenkins, the
chancellor of the University of Oxford, said to Isaiah, `Well, you're
gonna have to have your memorial service in Westminster Abbey, which
is where the great and good in England have their memorial services.'
He said, `Hell, no. I'm gonna have it in Hampstead Synagogue.' So
when he had his memorial service at Hampstead Synagogue, I'm telling
you, every single grandee of English life turned out and they all put
on their yarmulkahs and the women sat on the left side of the
synagogue and they all sat down and had an Orthodox Jewish memorial
So it was a funny kind of event. It was a kind of high Mass, to
change the religious metaphor, of the whole English elite when he
died, but it was in Hampstead Synagogue.
LAMB: Died November of 1997.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Correct.
LAMB: When did you finish your book?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, boy. Not probably until Labor Day of this year.
That is to say, I wrote a--a version of this manuscript while he was
still alive, because as anybody who's written a biography knows,
you've gotta write it before you know what questions to ask, curiously
enough. So I wrote a draft, and it threw up all kinds of questions.
And I had the enormous good fortune for a biographer of being able to
go to him and say, `Isaiah, now can we work out this little detail
here? You know, what--what did you say to Churchill on this
particular day?' That kind of stuff. So I had that draft, and the
draft had allowed me to kind of complete the project. But when he
died, I looked at the manuscript again and I thought, `Boy, we need to
do some work here.' So the last year, 1998, January till September,
was a very, very intense rewriting exercise.
LAMB: The name--the correct way to pronounce this name is...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Isaiah (pronounced ISIAH), and it was a family name.
He came from a family of Riga timber merchants, and his adopted
grandfather was called Isaiah. He was known in America through the
'40s right through--through his time in Washington as Shiah. It was
his nickname. So there are a lot of people in Washington and in
America maybe even watching this program who know him as Shiah Berlin,
but he was--the proper way to do it is Isaiah. A lot of Americans say
Isaiah--Isaiah (pronounced ISAYAH). Yeah.
LAMB: And his parents.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: His parents--his father is a Riga timber merchant, an
assimilated Jew from the p--from the Jewish community in Riga. His
mother is a very small, diminutive, passionate, emotional Jewish woman
who'd wanted to be an opera singer. And Isaiah remembered her--she
wasn't allowed to be an opera singer, so his chief memory of her was
her walking around the house warbling arias from "Bellini." He was an
only child. He was the kind of apple of their eye.
LAMB: Here he is with his father.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Absolutely. And they--they lived through him. He
was their great success story. He got--they got him safely to Britain
in 1921, and then they watched this young Russian Jewish kid just take
off and--and rise up through the British establishment, rather leaving
them behind. But he's a good son and a faithful son. And I think
that one of the keys to his biography is the intensity and
single-mindedness of their love for him.
LAMB: He started a college at Oxford. By the way, do you happen to
know how many colleges there are?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, boy, good one. F--15? I hope there are no
Oxford alumni who ring in.
LAMB: Well, we did a--we did a f--we asked that question--we did a
30-hour special on it. There are 30-some.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Really? I didn't realize.
LAMB: Yeah. We kept asking, and no one--no one had the right answer
as we went around the colleges.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yeah.
LAMB: But anyway, he started one with Ford Foundation money. How did
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. At the end of his life, to everybody's
astonishment, after he'd been a very successful professor of political
theory, in 1965, he w--was asked, `Would you take over a college' that
was in a bunch of ramshackled buildings all scattered all over Oxford,
`for scientists?' It's a complicated story, but the scientists didn't
have a college of their own in Oxford. And he suddenly thought it was
a very interesting decision that, `I have been a member of this Oxford
community for 50 years. It has given me everything. It's time to put
something back.' So he went to the Ford Foundation and he went to
McGeorge Bundy, who was a good friend, and he said, `McGeorge, I
need'--I don't know what it was--`$3.5 million.' He went to McGeorge
Bundy; got that money from the Ford Foundation. Then went to a great
Jewish philanthropist, Isaac Wolfson, got a matching fund, and created
this college out of nothing--Wolfson College--and was the first
LAMB: You--you talk a lot in--in the middle about his relationship to
women. Did he marry?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He married late in his life, at 45. He has a very
interesting emotional life because from his first time in Oxford, he
becomes a kind of blameless and slightly sexless confidante of some of
the most beautiful women in Oxford in the '30s, and they all troop
through his rooms and they tell him about their love lives and
sometimes they park their dogs and sometimes they park their
boyfriends and return for their boyfriends. And he's kind of this
blameless, as I say, sexless character whom everybody makes
confessions to. But he himself stands back from emotional and sexual
involvements until astonishingly late in his life. He's--he's in his
40s when he has his first kind of tumultuous affairs. And I devote
quite a lot of attention in the book to his kind of sexual coming of
age in his 40s because I think that it played a tremendously important
part in kind of making him a full human being. Up to that point, he
was--he was just a brain. By his mid- to late 40s, he'd become a
complete human being. He then--he married in 1956, a divorced woman
with three children. It was a fantastically happy and close marriage,
and I think it gave him a kind of grounding and a kind of belonging
that he'd never had before.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: That picture's taken onboard the Queen Mary in the
mid '50s, when they were crossing, I th--made one of their many
crossings from Southampton in England to New York.
LAMB: And who is his wife? What's her name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Her name is Aline Degansbourg. H--she is from an
extremely distinguished Jewish--aristocratic Jewish family that has
both a r--a French connection and a Russian connection. The
Degansbourgs were born in Russia and came out to France. And that was
part of the connection between Isaiah and his wife, that she had this
kind of deep Russian culture that he could--he could identify with.
LAMB: Correct this if I am overstating. You say he went after two
women--this--his eventual wife--and he wanted them while they were
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. It's a--it's an eccentric erotic pattern, to
say the least. This is a man who has no sexual life at all that he
would tell me about, and he did tell me everything. I am--and I asked
him point blank, you know, `When did you first have sexual relations?'
And he said, `I was, I think, 43 years old,' right? Now this is
unusual. He then proceeds, in 1950, to have two relationships, one
after another, with the wives of very close colleagues and risks, you
know, catastrophe--I mean, professional catastrophe and personal
catastrophe pursuing these women, winning these women. But somehow,
it works out. That is to say, these women initiate him into the life
of the body as well as the life of the mind. These--some of these
women are still alive, have a tremendous sense of affection and
gratitude and love for him still. But it's an eccentric pattern. I
mean, he--he went--he--he chose a sexual initiation that was full of
danger that is...
LAMB: What was the name of the first woman he went after?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, I don't disclose her name in the--in the
biography and feel I shouldn't just because it would violate a
confidence. It's not her identity that matters as the fact that
he--he began his sexual life very late. She was a more experienced
woman. I think that she initiated him into the--you know, into the
fully adult world.
LAMB: And she was married with children at the time?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: She was married with children and, you know, her
husband was a close personal friend of Isaiah's. He respected the man
deeply. And somehow--these things are very complicated, very
ambiguous--it all worked out. That is, he...
LAMB: Did they ever know? Did her husband ever know?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I th--well, there were some kind of funny things that
happened. The husband was a very other worldly--unworldly academic
who--and Isaiah felt he should make a full and frank confession to his
best friend that he was in love with his wife. And he said to the
man, `I'm in love with your wife.' And he shot back, `That is
impossible.' And so Isaiah tried again to get him to believe, and he
thought this time, `Well, if you tell a man three times that you're
having an affair with his wife and he doesn't seem to believe you,
then you have met your obligations to full disclosure.'
LAMB: But the woman he married, though, was a little more complicated
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. The woman he married was married at the time to
a very distinguished theoretical physicist who'd played a big part in
the making of the atom bomb and the Manhattan project.
LAMB: What was his name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: His name was Hans Halban.
LAMB: Still alive?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No. He died. French, Austrian extraction, a tough,
commanding man. He and Aline had had thr--two children, and it was
not a happy marriage. And Isaiah became a kind of family friend and,
slowly, Aline's affections began to transfer towards Isaiah. And
then--but I think it's possible that nothing would have happened
between them except for the fact that in 1953, suddenly, without
warning, Isaiah's father died suddenly. And that kind of--you know
the way it is in a m--man's life, a woman's life. It just pulled the
pins right out from under him, pulled the blocks, pulled the ground
right out from under him. And in his state of great emotional
distress, I think he turned to Aline, and they fell in love. It was a
very, very tormenting courtship because the husband put private
detectives on their trail. He followed them around. It--you know, it
nearly came to blows. It was a very tempestuous situation. And
finally--and this is a very important moment in his life--Isaiah--you
know, the philosopher of liberty finally came to this guy and said,
`Listen, I want to tell you something. Your wife is a prisoner. Now
you've got--you haven't got many options here. If you keep her locked
up, that's no way to run a marriage. You're gonna have to give her
her freedom or she's not gonna be able to live with you at all.' So
the husband gave his wife her freedom, but it ended up destroying the
LAMB: But--but, at one point, the husband asks for--you--as you
describe it, says to Isaiah, `How about just one night a week with
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Did that work out?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It didn't work out for long. These things rarely do.
And at the end of the day, in 1955, Hans Halban was offered a big job
in France, and he said to Aline, `Let's go back to France.' And she
looked at him and said, `I can't do it.' And at that point,
h--she--Isaiah and Aline got together.
LAMB: What's this photo, top photo there with the...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Top photo on the right there is Isai--Isaiah Berlin,
Aline Berlin, Helena Bonner and the very--a m--a man who, for Isaiah,
was a real hero, Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet nuclear physicist
and dissident. And that's in the driveway of a--Isaiah's house just
after Andrei Sakharov got an honorary degree from Oxford.
LAMB: What's the house called?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: The house is called Heddington House. It was a
great, big 18th century mansion--very, very splendid place where
Isaiah s--you know, it was his home for 40 years.
LAMB: His home or her home?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Her home. I'm--good correction, yes. It was
originally her home. It was the home that she had shared with Hans
Halban, her former husband, and it became his home.
LAMB: He had a relationship when he was 21 and the woman was 26, or
is it the reverse of that?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes, that's correct.
LAMB: And--and here's--is this the photo of the...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, that's a--that's another woman. That's...
LAMB: Well, tell this story, then. This was...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, that--that's a--that's a picture of Isaiah Berlin
in 1947 in an Oxford punt, one of these little rowing craft that
you--you--you--you'd punt on the river. And--and he's with a very,
very beautiful woman called Shirley Morgan, and he's hiding behind a
Hershey chocolate bar that he got in a care package sent from the
States. And what they're supposed to be doing, although they're just
goofing off, is working on a translation of Ivan Turgenev's "First
Love," which is, for anybody who's read it, an absolutely marvelous
story of how a young man falls in love with a woman only to discover
that his own father has fallen in love with the woman as well. And
it's a kind of very tortured but very beautiful study of the
psychology of love, which Isaiah translated with this beautiful
Shirley Morgan at a period, I think, in which he was working out some
of his own emotional and erotic conflicts.
LAMB: I started to ask about the relationship he had with the younger
woman that ended up having a lobotomy.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. That's a very painful story in Isaiah's life.
In the '30s, Isaiah became friendly with a young, very beautiful, very
troubled Oxford undergraduate called Tipps Walker. Her nickname was
Tipps. She became infatuated with him. I think he was--she was
younger, he was older; they were in their 20s. I think she
desperately wanted to marry him. He turned her down. He--he went to
Paris to see her in 1935. They went to the zoo, and he walked through
the animal house with her and said, you know, while they stood in
front of the python, `I'm sorry, Tipps, but I can't. You know, this
is not gonna work. I can't marry you.' And it took a catastrophic
turn f--that is to say, she ran off, she went to Vienna. She came
back to England. She became increasingly unstable, went out of
her--went out of her mind, had to be hospitalized and
spent--tragically, spent the whole rest of her life
hospit--hospitalized and ended up, as you say, with a lobotomy. And
that was, in a sense, his first semi-erotic encounter, or one of his
first. And I think it--I think it scarred him in a way. I don't
think anybody who was close to the situation ever blamed him for
tipping her over into madness, but he certainly felt scolded by that
LAMB: You wrote that when he was working for the British Press
Service in the United States, quote, "His job was to get America into
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, you have to remember, this is 1940. Isaiah
gets a job in New York working for this--basically a propaganda
outfit. A lot of Americans didn't want to get into the war in Europe
at all. Hitler had, by that time, conquered France. A lot of
Americans--Mr. Lindbergh would be one example--a lot of American
union leaders who were anti-British didn't want to get into the war.
People forget, for example, that the American leader of the coal
miners, John L. Lewis, one of the most famous union leaders of his
day, was a Welshman by origin and he had a--had a very bitter feeling
towards the English aristocracy. And he wanted to keep his people,
the American mine workers, out of the war.
So Isaiah was sent to go to these union meetings and talk to American
workers and persuade them to, you know, support the British war
effort. And I don't think he had a h--and--and also to work with
Jewish groups, who were much more sympathetic to the Allied cause.
But he spent about 1940, '41, in union halls, in Jewish group
meetings, meeting Americans, pressing the flesh, becoming a kind of
lobbyist and propagandist for the British war effort. And he loved
it. I mean, this is the thing about this guy. He is a--we think of
him as a kind of ivory tower, armchair philosopher. But when he was
pitched into the business of lobbying, schmoozing, sitting in
smoke-filled rooms with union leaders and Jewish leaders, he loved it
and he learned a tremendous amount about it.
One of the key elements in his philosophy, or in his view of life,
was, you had to have a good sense of reality. He always used that
phrase `sense of reality.' And one of the places he learned a sense of
reality was in these union halls and with Jewish leaders and coming to
meet political leaders, like Chaim Weizmann, the future first
president of Israel who he m--whom he met around this time. And the
great Jewish figures of--of American history, like Judge Louis
Brandeis of the Supreme Court. He met these great figures, and--and
from them, the thing that he liked--that he respected most about them
was when they had a strong sense of reality. That is, a strong sense
of what's practical and what's impractical, what's possible
politically and what's not possible. And for a philosopher, that's a
very rare--rare quality, to have any sense of reality at all. And it
was in America that that sense of reality was honed as a fine skill.
LAMB: Any idea how many days you spent with him in your life?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh...
LAMB: Ten years you were with him.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Ten years. I'd see him every two weeks. We could do
the math on that, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours
LAMB: How did you collect what he said to you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, I'd--I put a tape recorder down, turn it on and
then he would start eating--you know, he would start eating nuts or
biscuits. He was a tremendous nibbler. So my tapes are full of kind
of a sound of wrappers and nibbles. He was like a little squirrel.
We'd sit there, he'd talk by the hour and he'd eat chocolate and
nibble and tell me stories. And it was--I tried to be a good
interviewer--systematic interviewer, take him over the ground,
year-by-year and step-by-step. But it wasn't terribly successful.
You'd say, `Now, Isaiah, I want you to tell me this story clearly
about what--what Winston Churchill said to you.' And he'd say, `Well,
yes, but then before we get to that, we gotta double back. We gotta
talk about Sigmund Freud.' And then we'd do that.
And then we'd--it was like a mar--magic carpet ride and you'd start a
question at the beginning of the hour and sometimes he'd still be
talking at the end. And it--but I--I--the quality I want to get
across to you is that it wasn't just wild, free association. And it
wasn't a kind of s--semi-senile old man just reminiscing all over the
place. What I came to see was that he was engaged in a kind of
Homeric struggle--you know, he's in his 80s when he meets me--a kind
of Homeric struggle of an old man to take the whole compass of his
life and pull it together and--and so that every single strand of it
would come together into a story. And I was going to be the
storyteller, but he wanted to pull it all together for me and just
hand it to me and say, `Now you take it.'
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: How old was he when he died? He was just coming up
LAMB: And where were you when he died?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I was--he was in an Oxford hospital. He went in for
a--a medical procedure 'cause he had trouble swallowing. It often
happens in old folks--the esophagus makes it difficult for them to
swallow. Doctors were worried he was going to choke to death. So he
was having a procedure to make it easier for him to eat. And he died
just like that. And I wasn't--I wasn't there. I was rather--regret
that I wasn't. You gotta understand I wasn't a son, I wasn't a
disciple, but I felt tremendous emotional connection to him as a
friend. He died--there--there wasn't anybody there, except nurses and
doctors. His wife wasn't able to be there. We all feel kind of bad
about that, that he had to die alone.
LAMB: Where is his wife today?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: She's in Oxford, in England and still in the
house--80--in her 80s, frail but resolute, and I think--I think
enjoying some of the posthumous glow that has--has come to surround
LAMB: You write `He rejoiced in worldliness and having some grasp of
inner work--of the inner workings of the world of power and influence,
in knowing the gossip and understanding what low motives actually did
make the world run.'
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. I--that's what I was talking about earlier,
about a sense of reality. I mean, when he then--we talked about the
phase when he was working to get America into the war. When America
entered the war, he went to Washington. And his job in Washington was
to go out and see all the columnists--all the columnists of that
period: Arthur Krock and Marquis Childs and Lippman and all these
famous guys, and then talk to all the famous insiders in the New Deal.
He met all the kind of chief players around Roosevelt.
And then once a week, sit down and do a dispatch that would be sent to
the British Cabinet, saying, `This is what they're talking about in
Washington.' Now he discovered--and it's very rare talent for a
philosopher--that he had a fantastic journalist's ear for the buzz,
for the story, for the gossip. And he discovered--I think that also
affected his philosophical output--his philosophical outlook. It made
him see that having a sense of reality was often a quality that was
very much missing in academics and intellectuals. And it was in that
training of three, four years--writing these weekly reports that
Winston Churchill read that gave him a sense of--of the low motives
that make the world turn, how the business of life is actually done.
And most intellectuals don't have a clue how the business of life is
LAMB: By the way, what did you do with all your tapes?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, I gave them to--I gave them to--there's a Wolfson
College Archive--the college that Isaiah founded is called Wolfson
College and they've set up an archive of all of his stuff. I'm not a
very good sound engineer, though. I hope--I hope posterity doesn't
blame me for all the sound of those almonds and paper wrappers that
clutter up our conversation.
LAMB: But if you--if the average person wants to hear what he sounded
like or wants to hear your tapes, is it available to them?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. There's a very large archive of Isaiah Berlin's
lectures. A particularly famous set of lectures that he gave at
the--at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1965 was taped by
the BBC and the BB...
LAMB: Audio or video?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Audio, not video. And the BBC recurrently runs them.
I mean, I think you have--to--to--to account for his extraordinary
impact, you have to remember what these lectures were like. Here is a
man who chose to lecture this Washington audience six hours on the
origins of romantic thought. He thought the transition from classical
to romantic thought was one of the biggest changes in the history of
human consciousness. It occurs at the end of the 18th century.
He tried to do the story of that transition in six lectures. He
didn't read a text. There is no text of that lecture. He didn't even
have note cards. He would write a text out and then he'd boil it down
to headings and then he'd squeeze it down to a note card and then he'd
throw the damn note card away. And he would stand up in front of--in
the case of the National Gallery, 600 people and for 50 minutes he
would just fly. It was one of the most extraordinary kind of feats of
semi-extemporaneous, though highly prepared, lecturing that anybody'd
When he gave lectures on the radio, people'd think again that he
worked from a text. What he would do is boil the thing down, get it
down to note cards. Then throw the note cards away and in front of
the tape recorder--this is in 1953 when he gave a very famous series
called Freedom and It's Betrayal--he would lecture 53 minutes without
a note to a--to a radio audience that numbered in the hundreds of
thousands. And that was what made him famous. People had never seen
that kind of feat of--of lecturing before.
LAMB: There was a quote here and I'll g--I want to get it because I
want to ask you how this--you write this and how this tracks with what
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yeah.
LAMB: ...about spending all this time with him. He thought
self-absorption was a bore. And you allowed him to be self-absorbed
for hundreds of hours.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: If it was so boring, why did he let you do it?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. Yes. Well, it's a kind of strategy of
self-deprecation to say self-absorption is a bore. But there was some
truth to it. You see, he was a--he didn't spend a lot of time
thinking about how interesting he was. He didn't think about his
internal states of mind a great deal. I've met a lot of intellectuals
in my life and writers in my life who--who are
really--their--their--the chief interest of their life is--is the
inside--the inside of themselves, every state and fluctuation of their
He wasn't like that. He was very outwardly turned. You know, if you
came into the room, the first question he wanted to know was what
it--what you'd been doing. And because I was from a younger
generation, he kind of--he--he soaked up my life like a blotter. You
know, he--he wanted to know what I was doing. So when he said
self-absorption was a bore, he meant it in a sense. He would tell you
the stories and he wanted--I think he--at the end of his life, while
he said he didn't care, really, `whether my biography was any good or
not,' by the end he cared a lot.
LAMB: Had he read any of what you'd written?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No. No. That was the rule. The deal was I would
write what I wanted, he would have no control over it whatsoever.
LAMB: Anything off the record.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Nothing was off the record.
LAMB: Could you have published that woman's name--or did he ever give
it to you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I could have. I could have. I felt--I felt a--a
moral obligation that--I thought `Why cause distress and--and
embarrassment to a woman in her 80s?'
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I live in London, England.
LAMB: What do you do now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: I'm a writer. I'm a broadcaster. I'm slightly
unplaceable. That is, I'm an academic who went over the monastery
wall. I go back over the monastery wall from time to time and lecture
at universities. But I've put together a life that's broadcasting,
books and lecturing.
LAMB: What's the correct way to pronounce your last name?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Ignatieff. Russian name.
LAMB: And where does your family come from originally?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, it connects to the Isaiah Berlin story. My
family were Russian aristocrats. My grandfather was the last minister
of education for Czar Nicholas II, and held office as minister of
education from 1915 till the Russian Revolution. Isaiah knew that.
He knew that I came from what can only be described as the historical
enemy of his people. Because let's be clear about this, there are a
lot of sentimentality about Czar Nicholas and the Romanovs and all
that stuff, but it was very anti-Semitic tradition. My family is not
free of anti-Semitism.
My great-grandfather, jumping back a generation, signed the most
radical and restrictive tightening of the legislation against the Jews
in the 19th century, right? So Isaiah--the family name Ignatieff
meant nothing but trouble to Isaiah Berlin. To any--to any Russian
Jew, my family name is trouble. So one of the things that had to
happen--one of the dramas in writing the biography was getting him to
trust someone from my tradition. And he had to learn that, you know,
the sins of the fathers are not visited upon the sons.
LAMB: I th--and correct me if I'm wrong, but I found at least three
different languages that you use in your book and I've always wanted
to ask an author this: Why do you use the German, the Spanish and the
French without telling people like me what that translates to?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, I'm surprised. I thought I'd tr--I--I wanted to
translate most stuff.
LAMB: But I--but it happens--I mean, authors have done--do that a
lot. I mean...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yeah.
LAMB: ...th--they just throw you a--a one-liner in another language
and don't tell you what it is.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, yeah. Well, I think sometimes--we--he would say
(French spoken), after me the deluge. There are a few cases where he
quotes German--I quote German. There's a wonderful story where a
German ambassador is sitting in an old soul's common room--in an
Oxford common room, saying--this is in 1935. He's saying, `I think
some of Germany's territorial demands in Europe are justified.' And
out of the corner of the room, a wonderful old Jewish historian got up
and said--in German--`We Jews and other colored people think
different.' And I think I quote the way he says that in German. I
think that's true. But I thought I provided a translation.
LAMB: Who is this woman in this picture?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: That is Ana Akmotiva. Ana Akmotiva was the greatest
Russian poet of the 20th century, some people say. Certainly the
greatest love poet, certainly the greatest lyric poet. And Isaiah
Berlin met her in a famous meeting in Leningrad where she lived in
LAMB: How did they meet?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, what happened was that Isaiah went to Leningrad
as part of a visit to Russia. After he was in Washington, he went to
Russia and he was supposed to write a dispatch--a--a report on Soviet
foreign policy. But what he actually did with his time is go and meet
the famous--most famous Russian writers. He met Boris Pasternak and
then he went to Leningrad. He goes into a book shop and he says,
`Does anybody know where--whether Ana Akmotiva is still alive? I've
heard--you know, I've read some of her books--I hear'--and the man in
the bookstore said, `She lives about a half a mile away.' So he said,
`Can I go and see her?' And this man sali--said, `I'd arrange it.'
So in November 1945, this 30-odd-year-old British diplomat walks to
what was called the Sheramatyeff Palace. And there in an apartment in
the Sheramatyeff Palace--very denuded, bare apartment, very poor--sat
this famous Russian poet. And they talked for 11 hours non-stop
together. And I think it's fair to say--and I try and argue in my
biography, that it was the most important moment--the most important
meeting--most emotional meeting in Isaiah's life.
LAMB: But it was even more important--she--she thought it was even
more important than that, didn't she...
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes.
LAMB: ...that it had something to do with the war?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, it's hard, I think, for an American audience to
grasp just how important poetry is in Russia and in the Soviet Union.
Here's a poet who's not allowed to publish a line of her poetry from
about 1919 to 1940, on Stalin's direct orders. And yet is regarded as
such a national treasure that when the Nazis surround Leningrad, the
Communist Party airlifts her out. When she meets Berlin, news of that
meeting reaches Stalin's desk the next day. And Stalin says to his
cultural boss, `I hear our nun is consorting with British spies,'
right? So here is the master of an empire of, you know, 450 million
people learning that a poet in a Russian city is meeting with a
British diplomat. And Stalin began to increase the surveillance and
repression of Soviet writers from that moment, believing that they
were being infiltrated by British spies like Isaiah Berlin.
And Ana Akmotiva always believed and said quite seriously that the
Cold War began because of this meeting between Isaiah and her in
November of 1945. Now it's an exaggeration, a poetic exaggeration,
but it has a kernel of truth. That is to say, after that meeting, her
life was subjected to tremendous repression. Her son was rearrested.
She was--they--they screwed microphones into the ceiling of her house,
put her under total surveillance. Everybody clamped down the Russian
intelligence after that visit. Isaiah went there very naively. He
just wanted to meet the greatest poet of the Russian language. He
didn't realize that he would be regarded as a British spy and that
would put her and every other Russian writer under pressure.
LAMB: You say he was a dipper.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He--somebody once joked when they sa--they came
into his room and saw--his room in Oxford and they saw all the books
around his walls. They wondered whether he actually read them or
whether he just sat in the middle and kind of absorbed them by
osmosis. He was a dipper in the sense that--it was uncanny, he would
pick up a book, look at the title page, look at the table of contents,
flip through to the back, kind of dip into a page. And he very, very
quickly could--could get a sense whether this book was serious or not.
He was not a methodical, plotting, you know, start at A and go through
to Z kind of guy. He was a dipper in that sense. He leapt about, I
think simply 'cause he had a c--he--you know, the--the--the computer
processor upstairs was just a hell of a lot faster than most people's.
He could dip in quickly, get the nugget, the--the kernel of something
and move on.
LAMB: The Berlin-Churchill meeting.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well...
LAMB: There are two of them.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. I--the first one--the one that doesn't happen
is the most famous story about Isaiah. And it happens because--as I
was saying to you, Berlin writes dispatches on what's happening in
Roosevelt's Washington. Churchill, in 1944, says, `Hey, these are
good dispatches. I'm enjoying reading these. Now who's writing
them?' And they go out and find out that it's some obscure
intellectual in the basement of the British Embassy and he then--about
two months later, Clementine Churchill comes to him and says, `Irving
Berlin's in town, Mr. Prime Minister. I'd be really grateful if you
could shake his hand.' And Winston says, `No, I can't shake his hand.
I gotta meet him. I've gotta talk to him. It's very important.
Bring him to lunch.'
Irving Berlin comes to lunch, is sat beside the prime minister.
Churchill asked Berlin for an hour deep and close questions about
American public opinion of Roosevelt's Washington. Berlin answers as
best he can in a Brooklyn voice and gets more and more confused about
why the prime minister is asking him all these technical questions.
Finally, Churchill's beginning to think, `Maybe this isn't who I think
it is.' Says to Irving Berlin, `What's your most important
contribution to the war effort?' And Irving says "White Christmas." At
which point Churchill says, `Who am I talking to?' And the meeting
breaks up. Churchill's secretary comes up to him, says, `Mr. Prime
Minister, you made a bit of a mistake. It's not Irving Berlin
that--you know, it's Isaiah Berlin that you wanted to see.'
Churchill likes that, is amused, tells his Cabinet. The story then
leaks into the press, gets into Time magazine in April 1944 and
suddenly a very obscure intellectual laboring in the basement of the
British Embassy in Washington finds himself famous for having been the
man who didn't meet the prime minister.
LAMB: But he did meet him?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He did then meet him later because he was asked to
advise--after the war--on Winston Churchill's famous war memoirs.
Isaiah gave him technical advice about some of the historical
sections. He then--Isaiah then wrote one of the most famous essays
ever written about Churchill called Mr. Churchill in 1940, which he
wrote in 1949. And his part--and he wrote it for the Atlantic Monthly
in the United States, so it's part of--that essay belongs--as one of
the--the--the essays that created the modern Churchill myth.
And the essay was eventually placed on Churchill's desk and somebody
asked him what he thought about this great paean of praise to him.
And the old man growled, `Too good to be true.' So he liked Churchill,
but he had very ambivalent relations to him. I think he thought that
Churchill was an undeniably massive historical force. But he was also
a brutal man. And, curiously, he didn't--the brutality of Churchill
is something that people don't quite focus on. Isaiah vividly
remembered Churchill saying at one point that he was terribly keen to
get back in power because he was sure he was gonna have a duel with
Stalin. And in that duel with Stalin, they would probably have to
sacrifice Rome and Paris. Isaiah vividly remembered the old prime
minister saying this and thinking, `This man is great, but he's also
LAMB: What would he think about this country right now?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Oh, he--he--he loved America. It's a very important
part of his biography. If you asked Isaiah to list--and he loved
lists--of the things that used to make him--bring tears to his eyes,
one of them--two of them were American: The Gettysburg Address and
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He could not hear "The Battle Hymn
of the Republic" without tears coming into his eyes. He had a deep
affection and respect for the Republican institutions of this--this
country. What would he think about it now? I think he felt that he
had been in America during its heroic heyday. To have been in
Roosevelt's Washington was to see a nation mobilized for war, led by
an unquestionably great leader, just, you know, commanding the world.
I think he would think this is a society that has somewhat fallen off
from that level of greatness, candidly. But he still loved the place.
LAMB: You're saying, conviction. He was a liberal social Democrat,
but he was more comfortable, socially, among conservatives.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Yes. He's a paradoxical figure. He believed in big,
generous, open-hearted government. He voted center left most of his
ri--most of his life. But mo--hi--his closest friends were, you know,
the--the gentry, the--the aristocrats, pretty grand people. And he
was more comfortable with them. But he was also--he had a Democratic
spirit. I've--I've sat on buses with that guy and watched him talk to
the bus conductor and the bus collector and the people beside him. I
don't want to give the impression that--the key thing about him was a
kind of omnivorous, insatiable curiosity. He had some pretty tony
high-class friends, but some of the moments with him that I remember
with most affection are sitting, as I say, with him on a London bus
talking about the world as it goes by.
LAMB: Who's in this picture right here?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: The picture on the right there is on his--in the
center is Isaiah Berlin, himself, in a kind of mock solemn pose. On
the left is probably his oldest friend, Stuart Hampshires--or Stuart
Hampshire, who was a philosopher, who played an absolutely key role in
decoding German signals traffic during the war. And on the right is
Nicholas Nibokov, who was a relative of the great Vladimir Nibokov,
the novelist, who was a musician and impresario. And they're
in--they're on the--they're on the lawn of Heddington House sometime
in the '60s and there's some private joke going on that I never could
quite figure out what it was.
LAMB: Was Isaiah Berlin a hedgehog or a fox and what does that mean?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: It's a distinction that he made famous, but it comes
out of a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who said, `The world is
divided into hedgehogs and foxes. A fox knows many things. A
hedgehog knows one big thing.' Isaiah thought this was a fantastic way
to distinguish people and he lined up all his friends and said,
`You're a fo--fox, you're a hedgehog.' And then he began to think
seriously about it. And he thought it was a way of understanding a
division inside the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was a fox in his ability to imagine what it was like to be
`Natasha'; in his ability to imagine what it would like to be a
soldier in the middle of, you know, th--the--the War of 1812. But he
was a hedgehog in his desire to have one overriding theory of human
existence at the center of his thought. And--and Tolstoy was torn
apart by those tendencies within him. Was Isaiah a hedgehog or a fox?
My answer is that he was a fox who longed to be a hedgehog. He longed
to know one big thing. And the claim I make in the book is that
he--the thing that holds his life together is a consistent, determined
defense of human liberty.
LAMB: Let me read the--the epilogue part of it. You say, `He gave
more and more thought to dying, discussing it with close friends in a
bemused way as if admiring a distant view or a perplexing painting.
He did admit to being afraid of dying, but he thought it was
incoherent to fear death itself. It was at the age of 86 that he
quoted Epicurus to a journalist.' Is that you?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, it was someone else.
LAMB: `Why are you afraid of death? Where you are, death is not.
Where death is, you are not. What is it that you fear?' And then you
write--or the rest of this paragraph, `Death,' he insisted, often
quoting a remark of Whittenstein's, quote, `"is not an event in
life."' What's that all about?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He did think quite a lot about death towards the end
of his life. But he thought--he didn't believe in an afterlife. He
believed death was the end of everything.
LAMB: Was he an atheist?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: No, he was an agnostic. He just wasn't sure. He
thought God was a kind of question that no human being could sensibly
LAMB: You could say a verificationist atheist.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Well, that's kind of com--fancy philosophical way of
saying that God was a proposition that simply could not be proved or
disproved by human reason. That was the position. The thing that was
good about him was that he kept death from creeping into his life.
When--when men and women get older, th--it's often as if you feel that
death is with them in the room. What was very good about Isaiah is he
kept insisting death is not an event in life. Keep it at bay. Keep
it out there. Life is for the living. Life is--is to be lived. I
don't think I--I've ever met an 85-year-old who was f--so full of a
kind of desire to keep going. I once asked him whether he wanted to
live forever, 'cause I think the idea of living forever would be
terrible. He said, `Why not?' He thought it was a great idea.
LAMB: What did his wife think of your book?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Good question. She was very generous about it. It's
not easy to be the widow--the grieving widow of a great man and it's
not easy to see your life put between the covers of a book. One of
the difficulties of writing a biography--if--of a living--a person
recently alive, is everybody had their Isaiah, you know. All of his
friends had their Isaiah. She had her Isaiah. I've tried to put as
many Isaiahs, 'cause this was a protean, multifaceted character,
within the pages of this book. Some of those Isaiahs are missing, but
I hope the--I hope the core or the spine of this man is there and I
also hope that it--it'll--it'll serve as a record of the most
valuable, important friendship of my life.
LAMB: How old is he in this picture?
Mr. IGNATIEFF: He is in his early 80s.
LAMB: Our guest has been Michael Ignatieff. And it's the book "A
Life: Isaiah Berlin." Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. IGNATIEFF: Pleasure.
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