BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Norman Podhoretz, author of "Ex-Friends," you tell a story in your
book about the time that Norman Mailer almost killed his wife.
Mr. NORMAN PODHORETZ (Author, "Ex-Friends"): Yeah.
LAMB: Where was that?
Mr. PODHORETZ: Well, that was at a big party at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and--which several hundred people attended. As I recall, it was in connection with some fantasy he had about running for mayor. And about 3:00 in the morning--I had already left--things were getting ugly, and he had a fight with his wife, a very beautiful woman she was, by the way, one of whom--I think six wives he's had by now. And she was taunting him all evening, and at a certain point, when it got really nasty, he stabbed her with a pen knife. And I don't think he meant to kill her. I mean, I know he didn't mean to kill her, but he, luckily--he almost did. I mean, if--if the knife had been a sort of a quarter of an inch to the left or right or something, probably she--she would have died.
And he then left quickly. There weren't many people around at the party. I think it was 4:00 in the morning. I lived nearby, just a few blocks away, on the Upper West Side, and he came--we were very close friends, and he came to the front of the building-apartment building which we lived and called out below my window. But I was fast asleep and probably drunk and--in fact, certainly drunk. I don't drink anymore, but I did then. And I never--I never--he--he never woke me, but I did--he then was hiding from the police for a few days. And I--he called me, and I met with him clandestinely, and we went to the hospital to visit his wife, who, characteristically of-of Mailer's wives, was willing to forgive him and not press charges.
But in his p--in his presence with him, cops were all over the place, and they arrested him. And I went with him to the police station, where he was booked. In those days I was a radical, and it struck me forcibly that the cops were treating him with great deference because he was a famous writer. I'm not sure how much they knew about him, but they knew he was an important guy. And it ha--it occurred to me that he would not have been treated with the kind of--well, I would say almost respect and--you know, and humilia--and--and humility that they showed if he had not been so important a person or if he'd been black.
LAMB: What year was this?
Mr. PODHORETZ: This was early '60s. I--I don't remember exac--I've reached a point where--where I--I don't remember days. You know, I wrote "Ex-Friends" out of--out of my own head and I--memory because I wanted to get a conversational tone, and I wanted it to be spontaneous, and I didn't want to interrupt myself by doing research. So when it was finished--when the draft was finished, I--I then looked things up. I was appalled to discover how much I got wrong: dates, places, characters in stories. On the other hand, I was--I was quite happy to discover how much I got right. So although I--I'm 69 years old now, and my memory is certainly not what it used to be, it-it hasn't quite gone dead on me.
LAMB: The Norman Mailer chapter also goes on to say that you'd had a falling out and that there's one case where you didn't see him for 15 years.
Mr. PODHORETZ: Yeah. Well, that's true of all the people--Mailer's the only major character in this book who is still alive. There's--there--there are, as you know, five or six major characters, and then there are bit players who make cameo appearances, strut and fret their hour upon the stage. Mailer is the only one of the major ones still alive, and--b--and I--I didn't see him for many years. And, in fact, many of the others who are still alive, the minor characters, to this day are not on speaking terms with me and vice versa.
I--I have a house in East Hampton, Long Island, where a lot of people--literary people, people in the arts also have houses, and if we happen to bump into one another on the beach or in the supermarket or in a restaurant, we pretend not to see each other and that's after 30 years.
LAMB: What's the real reason for the split?
Mr. PODHORETZ: Well, it w--the real reason was politics. I--in the late '60s--you know, I had been, in the late '50s--and I have a complicated political history, but if I can sum up the-the immediately relevant answer to your question, in the--in the late '50s I moved from what you would, in those days, have called a liberal position to a radical position, and I was one of the early--there's no other way to say it, except the immodest way--one of the early intellectual leaders of the--of the new radical movement that was just developing in the late '50s. Didn't even have a name; later people called it the new left or the movement or the counterculture.
And, I mean, I used to go to meetings at which there were sort of six people, you know, and I--I would never have dreamed that within five or six years, the ideas that I was helping to--to disseminate and develop, both through my own writings and through Commentary magazine, of which I became the editor in 1960 at the age of 30--I would never have dreamed that by 1965 these ideas would have swept the country, especially the young people, and become--almost assume the status of conventional wisdom. So th--this was an enormous surprise to me, and I--and I was--so I was one of the leaders of the movement intellectually. I was never much of an activist. I don't like marching and I don't like demonstrations particularly.
Most of the work I did was either through writing or through the things I published and edited in Commentary, though I would make a speech occasionally here and there. But I--I--as the '60s wore on, I grew more and more disillusioned with the way the movement I had helped to create was--was developing. And--and as my disillusionment grew more intense, it reached a critical point sort of in the late'60s, about 10 years after I had started my radical period, my radical phase, and I began breaking ranks with it, as I called it. I wrote a book called "Breaking Ranks," which I described how that happened.
And I--and when I broke ranks with the left, I had a lot of arguments in private with--with my friends, all of whom were in one--to one degree or another associated with that movement, a--which erupted into the public arena. I mean, they attacked me, I attacked them. And they considered me an apostate, you know, because--I use the religious term, apostate, as a--as a--you know, as someone who--who--who leaves a church, converts to some other religion. And what a lot of people don't understand today and can hardly remember, even if they were alive then, is that the idea--it's not just the political ideas, but ideas about the arts, literature, painting and so on were held with a--with a--a veritably religious intensity by this world in which I lived, the world of so-called New York intellectuals or the family, as I--as I've called it.
And so it was no small matter to break. It was like it was considered an act of treason from a political point of view. I was a traitor to my class, as they say about Franklin Roosevelt, but I was also an apostate and a--and a heretic with respect to the true faith. And apostates are always hated much more than--than people who are there the whole time. I mean--so, you know, I was hated much more than people who were then to the right of me, say like Bill Buckley, since he had always been a--an enemy. I was--I was a new enemy. And--and I regarded my--all my old friends as a continuing threat to what-much of what I now believed and held dear.
And so it was a kind of non-negotiable difference, not just of opinion about small matters or p--particularities, but of the whole sense of life, the whole sense of the world, you know. And--and--but it mainly focused on the nature and character of American society.
LAMB: Let me ask you about each of the other people in here, just briefly, so that the audience watching can know what's in the book. And I'll just ask you, when you broke with each one of them, just give us a little idea. When did you break with Allen Ginsberg, and who was he, first of all?
Mr. PODHORETZ: Well, Allen Ginsberg, who just died--What was it?--last year, I think, at the age of 70--I met him when I was in college. I was a freshman, and he was a senior. And he was the editor of the--or the poetry editor of the Columbia College literary magazine, and I was a kid out of Brooklyn. And like all aspiring literary writers, I wrote poetry. And I--and he published a couple of my poems, and that's how our association began.
But our roads diverged after college, and he became the--within 10 years of leaving Columbia, I was a young and upcoming literary critic, fairly well-established because I was quite precocious. And he, by then, was the leading figure of--of the beat generation school of writers. And his most-famous poem, of course, was called "Howl," which began, `I've seen the best minds in my generation go mad. America drove all the best people crazy.' That was basically the position. That ca--that came out in the late '50s.
And I wrote a number--even though I was politically moving to the left and he was way to the left--he was, in fact, what we later called a red diaper baby. You know what that is? That is the son of a Communist, and his mother had been a member of the Communist Party. And he was not himself a Communist, but he was a far left--he--he-he remained on the far left in a--in a kind of non-sectarian way.
So we--we broke. We--we had already sort of drifted apart, but when I wrote a series of articles attacking the--the beat generation and its--and its work, not so much his own poems because I thought he was very talented, but the--especially the novels of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was his best friend and was the--was the novelist of the beatgeneration, as Allen Ginsberg was the poet of the beat generation.
So th--they--I tell a story in this book in which they--they summon me. Kerouac's girlfriend called me up and said, `Come down and have tea with us,' which was a euphemism in Greenwich Village. And I got all dressed up in a suit and tie because I didn't want to seem to be going down to enemy territory in their uniform, as you might say, down in Greenwich Village. And I got there, and we spent--the--first they wanted me to smoke marijuana with them. That's what they meant by tea. And--and I--I had no moral compunctions, but I--I refused, and I was not gonna play the game by their rules. And we had this long andvery intense argument, both about literature--you know, they accusing me of being Philistine about their--their work--and, also, about the--the d--the doctrines that they were preaching through their literary works.
And we got nowhere. I didn't convince them; they didn't convince me. And at a certain point in the evening I left, with Kerouac, to go to see somebody else, and as I left, Ginsberg yelled at me, `We'll get you through your children.' I already had children, by the way. And he was an early out-of-the-closet homosexual and a--and a--and a preacher of the superiority of homosexuality to heterosexuality. So there was a double meaning in that.
What happened was that we hardly saw e--I mean, we'd see each other from time to time. Unlike the other characters in this book, with whom I was intimately friendly, I wasn't with Allen. But what happened, as I discovered from his writings and interviews and especially toward the end of his life, he continued throughout his entire life to have this fantasy about me. He was constantly arguing with me in his own head, as he himself said, and in his dreams. And he finally s--he became a kind of Buddhist in--late in life and, of course, born Jewish. But he finally said that I had become a sacred object to him because who else would he have to bang his head against if I hadn't been in the world.
So the fact that we went back so far together--it was 50 years by the time he died--and the fact that he had this obsession with me--and I never had an obsession with him, although I fought very hard against some of the things that he stood for--qualified him as a c--as a-a main character in this book.
LAMB: Diana and Lionel Trilling.
Mr. PODHORETZ: Well, L--Lionel Trilling was one of the great literary critics o--of our age. He also wrote fiction, a very famous in his time novel called "The Middle of The Journey," in which Whittaker Chambers, you know, of the Alger Hiss case was a character under--under this guy's name. They had been classmates themselves as students at Columbia. I--I was Trilling's, as he later said, best student or favorite student a--at Columbia. And then la--in later years we became personal friends.
And Diana was his wife, and she was a critic in her own right, nothing near as distinguished or eminent. But for a long time, for example, she was the--she reviewed novels for The Nation, a weekly magazine that still exists, and she wrote some other stuff. And I--I became a kind of surrogate son, really. They--they had a--they had a son quite late in life, and I was very close to both of them in--in my 20s, especially after I got out of the Army, which was in just about the very end of the year 1955.
And the chapter on the Trillings is called: Going Too Far To The Trillings. And I always went too far for the Trillings. I--at first, I went too far left, and then I went too far right. I was never sort of--except for about five minutes in the '50s, I was never exactly where they thought I ought to be. And so I was always--I was always getting into trouble with them, and somehow they felt betrayed because I was supposed to be carrying Lionel's legacy, basically, forward, you see, both as a literary critic and--and in my political views.
But the point about the Trillings, both of them, they were what we used to call hard anti-Communists, but they also regarded themselves as liberals and members of the--in the general sense, the--the-the community of the left. And Diana, particularly, was always terrified at being associated with the right because she was so strong an anti-Communist. And, of course, as you know, some of the strongest anti-Communists were--were people on the left. Ex-Communists who remained on the left became Trotskyists or social Democrats of one kind or another and who hated communism because they thought it had betrayed the hopes--the idealistic hopes of the Russian Revolution. But they--they never moved to what they considered the right. For them, that would have been an act of apostasy, which is indeed what they accused me of committing when I moved to the right.
So--a--and it was Diana who outlived Lionel by 20-odd years. Lionel died in 1975 at the age of 70. Diana lived into her 90s and only died a few years ago. After Lionel died--he and I never broke. We just slightly drifted apart, and I'm--I thank God that we never broke because I still have very strong feelings about him. Even-but there--no question, a coolness developed between us. Diana and I really did break definitively because she thought I had gone too far to the right and, also, because she--she considered that--that I was--that I had been untruthful about what Lionel had said to me and represented f--for me. That--that goes into too much detail.
But--but even there, the--the break was fundamentally political, not in the narrow sense, Brian. You know, not Republicans vs. Democrats. I quote Dwight Macdonald, one of the members of this New York intellectual group, members of the family, who once said about Republicans and Democrats, `They were Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dummer.' And he, of course, was speaking out of a glass house because he had once been a Trotskyist, a follower of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was still alive, living in exile in Mexico. He'd been driven out of the-of Russia by Stalin when he lost the competition with Stalin to succeed Lenin after Lenin's death in 1924, I guess it was.
Anyway, he lived in exile in Mexico, and eventually Stalin sent an assassin to murder him. But while he was still alive, Dwight Macdonald and a small group of people put their faith in him and called themselves Trotskyists and--and wrote stuff in the name of Trotsky, which--some of which Trotsky didn't like. And Trotsky once said, `Everyone has a right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.' And Dwight Macdonald, who was a man with a great sense of humor and very s--somewhat frivolous, edited a magazine called Politics. And he was so proud of this insult that Trotsky had hurled on him, he considered it an honor and an accolade, that he printed it on the top right-hand corner on the front page of every issue of Politics, you know.
So--anyhow, so when I say political disagreements, I mean something broader than what people mean when they talk about politics in Washington. I really mean something like a philosophy of life. And the people I talk about in the world that I try to evoke in this book were, I mean, passionately interested in politics, but they were just as passionately and perhaps more passionately interested in--in the arts, especially literature and painting. You know, they--it was out of this world that--that the abstract expressionists were discovered and made much of when people thought, say, someone like Jackson Pollock, who recently, you know, was the hottest ticket in town at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was dismissed as a fraud.
Well, Clement Greenberg, who was the art critic of the family, said that Pollock was the most important artist of the 20th century, and--and he came to be vindicated, at least by critical opinion, at a time when, as they say, n--nobody paid any attention to Pollock. And similarly with--with literature, the family, the New York intellectuals, who incidentally did most of their writing in magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary, which I, as I say, later became the editor of in 1960--but in Partisan Review which--about which maybe 100 books have been written by now. It's become a legendary American institution. At the very height of its power and influence, had a circulation of maybe 8,000.
So you're talking about a very tiny group of people who--who did, indeed, have a lot of--eventually certainly a lot of--of influence, but who--who were a very small group and who mainly wrote for each other because most Americans didn't much care about the kinds of issues that agitated them and which were matters of life and death to them. Again, I tell stories--it's hard to imagine. There's a controversy going on now about Tom Wolfe's latest novel, "A Man in Full." And it's been attacked by John Updike and Norman Mailer as not being really literature, and other people like it and so on.
But there's no real, you know, sense of any real sort of bloodthirsty passion behind this argument, whereas in--in--in the early '50s, people got, I mean, literally into fistfights, I'm talking about grown men, over whether a particular novel or poem was good or bad. And I, again, tell another story. When I was 23 years old, I wrote a critical review, a negative review of a novel called the "Adventures of Augie March," which was by Saul Bellow, who was the leading novelist of this group, although he came from Chicago. He was born in Montreal, came from Chicago; still alive. Later, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. "Augie March" was his third novel, and to everybody's utter astonishment, it became a best-seller.
Well, why was everybody astonished? Because nobody in that world ever dreamed that--the expectations were low. I mean, nobody ever dreamed that there would be a large audience for their writings. On the other hand, I should stress that in Partisan Review and in Commentary, all the leading literary figures of Europe published their stuff here, and they were introduced to America through those magazines. I'm talking about, you know, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior and--and-and Albert Camus. The very first issue of Commentary magazine came out in--in November 1945, and in that issue was A Letter From London-that was the title of the article--by a very obscure British journalist named George Orwell.
I mean, hardly anybody here had ever heard of him. This is before "Animal Farm" or "1984." But they knew about him because they kept up with developments in Europe, and they knew that he was a rising-I mean, that he had written some books, of course, but they were not at all known here, probably not even published here. And the same thing was true of Partisan Review. So although it was a tiny group located in New York, you know, you might think provincial. On the other hand, it was very cosmopolitan in its interests and tastes in--in the arts.
Well, anyway, I wrote--so although they dreamed of being, you know, read by and valued by posterity, let's say, it never occurred to anybody that they could be commercially successful or even make a living, you know? So here comes "Augie March," this not very-quite difficult book, and it appears on The New York Times Best Seller List. And everybody was utterly amazed and delighted, really, although also very envious. And I was a kid. I was just starting out as a critic, and I was given this book to review by the editors of Commentary. This is long before I myself became the editor. And I--I didn't think it was a s--really successful novel, and I said so. And a lot of people got mad at me for this. And all of Bellow's friends were very mad at me.
And I went to a--I went to a party. We had a lot of parties. Everybody was always either giving parties or going to parties at which you would argue and gossip and drink a lot. In those days everybody--nobody drinks anymore, but everybody drank a lot in those days and was proud of drinking a lot, incidentally. And a--a very drunken character, I mean, me--staggered up to me. I mean, he could hardly walk he was so drunk. I didn't know who he was. I'd never met him. And he said to me, `We'll get you for that review if it takes 10 years.' And I said, `Who are you?' And he said, `John Berryman.'
Now John Berryman was an American poet. He's since died--was a-was an eminent American poet. He later won the Pulitzer Prize. He was very good, by the way. He--and he was also an alcoholic, but he was one of the best American poets of the century. Now I knew his work, even though he was not yet as famous as he would later become, and I was quite flattered to--you know, that John Berryman even knew who I was. But on the--on the one hand, it's a terrible story. I mean, somebody comes up to some 23-year-old kid and says, you know, `We're gonna get you,' for a book review that you wrote 'cause he was a close friend and admirer of Bellow's.
On the other hand, there's something quite wonderful about the passion behind this. I mean, the--the value that--that he attributed to a novel and--and--and the anger that--what he considered a mistake in critical judgment inspired in him. And, of course, I'm nostalgic. Even though I--I came to disagree with almost everything most of those people believed in and--and tried very hard to argue against it, I--I--I find myself nostalgic for a world in which ideas and--and the arts were taken as seriously as they were. That's why the last chapter of this book is called Requiem For A Lost World. Even though the world at--was lost in the world that I think did a lot of harm in many ways, and harm that I've spent the last 30 years--I-I participated in doing some of that harm, and I've spent the last 30 years trying to undo it.
LAMB: Lillian Hellman.
Mr. PODHORETZ: Well, Lillian Hellman--now the chapter on Lillian is called Another Part of the Forest, which I'm very proud of, 'cause Another Part of the Forest was the name of one of her own plays. And I--I used it as a chapter title because she was not, strictly speaking, a member of the family, she became one. Lillian Hellman was, in the 1930s, a very, very famous and very, very successful playwright. I--I don't know, I guess she's still remembered as that. I mean, she--her most famous play was "The Little Foxes." And her first big hit was called "The Children's Hour." But--and most of her plays were made into films and very successful films. She went to Hollywood and wrote a lot of screenplays. Anyway, she was--she was very big in the 1930s and she was a Communist. Now there was a big dispute as to whether she quit the party or when she quit the party or--and I go into a lot of that history. I think we now know that not only wa--had she, in fact, been a member of the party, which she lied about in her own lifetime, but may never even have quit, according to some of her posthumous biographers.
Anyhow, she was considered--when I first met her--or before I met her, by the family, these New York intellectuals, as a middlebrow. What was a middlebrow? A middlebrow was regarded as a writer who borrowed from the best work and sort of watered it down for popular consumption in order to make it commercially appealing. Little bit like real jazz musicians think about swing, you remember; you know, they-the vulgarization and popularization of a difficult art. And the middlebrows were regarded with great contempt by the highbrows of the family, much--with much greater contempt, incidentally, than lowbrows. I mean, lowbrows were what they were and you--you know, you could enjoy it or not, lowbrow meaning, I don't know, comic strips or mystery novels or, you know, movies--certain kinds of movies.
So Lillian was guilty not only of being a middlebrow, but--but of being what they--they didn't used to use the word Communist so much--of being a Stalinist. Stalin was obviously still alive. And--and as such, she was anathema to most members of the family, who--again, I stress, they were all on the left, but they were anti-Communists and they were great believers in the avant-garde in the arts, in the--and--and supporters of and--and propagators of the doctrines, explicators of--of--of the difficult works of modern literature--I mean, poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and painters--I mentioned Jackson Pollock or--or Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, you know, composers like--like Stravinsky or Schoenberg and so on, these very--the--who represented the vanguard of the-of the arts in the 20th century. So Lillian was a sinner in--in two respects. Politically, she was a sinner because she was a Stalinist, and--and as a writer, she was a sinner because she was a commercially successful and, therefore, middlebrow author.
So I walked into the Trillings one evening to a party, one of those many parties that were always being thrown, and there--it was not a very big party. They lived up on Morningside Heights in an apartment near Columbia, where--by this time, Lionel Trilling was the sort of star professor. This was also in the late '50s. I was just out of the Army. I was working as an assistant editor at Commentary and I was also reviewing books for The New Yorker, which ha--had a-an ambiguous status among the family. It wasn't quite middlebrow, but they didn't quite approve of me for writing for The New Yorker. It was too successful. Anyhow, I walked in and--and there were, I don't know, 20 people in the room. I was a little late, and I knew 19 of them and there was this woman who I did not know, but I had a very good memory in those days, including even for ph--photographs and I said, `I mean, that woman looks like Lillian Hellman, but how could Lillian Hellman possibly be at a party at the Trillings?' I mean, it just made no sense. But f--about five minutes later, we were introduced and I discovered it was, indeed, Lillian Hellman. And they had--they had made up.
This is a period of what they used to call the thaw, when--it was after Khrushchev's de-Stalinazation speech. I mean, one has to go on and on to describe this back--and it's all in the book. And things had loosened up a bit and Lillian, who was very eager and was a-sort of a--had had a rough time, she claimed it was because she was being persecuted politically, but, in fact, her wor--her work was not doing well. She had not had a big hit in a long time. She was very eager to be accepted by this world, which she respected, I mean, from a literary point of view. And she often claimed that she was not really a political person. She told me that, she told other people that. Now she was--had a lifelong--I don't--not a lifelong, but, you know, from the time she was in her 20s to--to his death, a love affair with Dashiell Hammett, the famous author of "The Maltese Falcon." They never married, but he was, in effect, her husband and he lived in her house. He--he was a very serious alcoholic and became ill and was a blocked writer. And after--he was unable to write anything for the last 20 years of his life and he was an intransigent Communist, I mean, and it was from him, I think, that she--it was under his influence that she became a Communist. And she was very loyal to Dash, as she called him.
So in any event, that's just an--a piquant detail. So when I met Lillian at the Trillings' living room, I was amazed that she was there, but it was a period at which these political--the bitternesses of the '30s between Communists and anti-Communists had f-slightly faded, partly because Stalin was dead and Khrushchev looked like he might be liberalizing the Soviet Union. It was a false dawn, really, but--so it was possible for people who hadn't spoken to each other over political differences in the past to begin having a rapprochement. And the Trillings and--and Lillian Hellman had known each other when they were fundamentally kids in the 1920s and she made an overture. She said, `Let's be friends again.' And they said, `Oh, what the hell? OK.'
And I--I say in the book and I--in retrospect also her presence in--i--at that party signified a whole new attitude toward what--the--the middlebrow-highbrow split. I mean, we don't even think in those terms anymore and I think this was the beginning of the end of that divide, you know, and--between high culture and middlebrow culture. In any event, sh--Lillian was--who--when she wanted to be, she was a very--some people thought homely, I would say plain-looking woman. But she was enormously charming when she wanted to be and a lot of fun and very earthy and very bitchy. And--and she-she flattered me by--by saying how she recognized my name instantly, which is the quickest way to the heart of a young writer, I mean, to meet a famous older writer and have one's name recognized.
And I had just written an--an--an essay in The New Yorker on the novels of Nathaniel West and one is g--dang--in danger of infinite regress in this interview. I have to tell you who Nathaniel West was. Nathaniel West was a novelist of the 1930s who was killed in an automobile accident at a very young age. And it turned out, as I later discovered, he had been a lover of--of Lillian's. His nickname was Pep--Pep West they called him. And he was--there was an effort being made to revive his work and a volume of--he only wrote four very slim novels, the most famous one being "Miss Lonely Hearts." And I wrote a piece about this in The New Yorker, a fa--very favorable piece. And Lillian said how grateful she was because--that Pep-that I had appreciated Pep and was doing so much to--you know, doing my bit to--to bring him back to attention, and it went from there.
And she had then invited me to one of her parties, which is, incidentally, where I first met Norman Mailer, a very fateful encounter for me. And it was a world of glamour and glitz beyond anything I had ever seen, and I was very attracted to it and was seduced by it, really. She, on the other hand, as I said, was very w--I think was trying to use me as a--as a fairly well-established young critic to achieve literary respectability. But what began as a mutually exploitive relation actually developed into a real friendship because we liked each other, it turned out, and we saw a great deal of each other and had a lot of fun together, enormous fun. And she was a great cook, among other things, having been born and bred in New Orleans, where--everybody from New Orleans is interested in food, and--and she just--and she was one of the great hostesses. So for something like 10 years, we avoided talking about politics altogether and we just saw it--a lot of each other and had a lot of fun together.
And I did what I consider the most corrupt thing in my life as a literary intellectual. I pretended to her that I liked her writings, which I did not. Again, as I say, in "Ex-Friends," you know, y--it is impossible to be friendly with a writer whose work you do not like. I mean, he will sense it or she will sense it and that'll be the end of it. I mean, writers are very fragile creatures--rightly so, by the way, understandably so. I am, too. And so it's--it's almost impossible to be friendly with a writer whose work you don't like. And I've--Lillian is the only writer who I ever pretended--whose work I ever pretended to like when I didn't. And I got away with it in my own conscience. Matter of fact, I never wrote about her. If I'd had to write about her, it would have been impossible. I would not have lied in print. But I did let--let her believe that I--I liked some of her stuff. And the stuff I'm talking about w--not her plays, which I really couldn't stand, but the memoirs she started to write which gave her a whole new literary life and a whole new literary audience. "An Unfinished Woman" was the title of one of them and "Pentimento" was another. And I read all of these in manuscript.
She would--once she--she summoned me up to Martha's Vineyard, where she had a very beautiful house on the harbor. There were four houses along that harbor, which four writers lived and I call that place Murderer's Row, you know, like after the old New York Yankees lineup, 'cause they all were such tough characters, including Lillian. And she made me read this stuff in manuscript and I pretended to like it much more than I did. But we, too, then, in the end, had a falling-out. There was never a big fight. But what happened was when I broke--when I started breaking with the left in the--in the late '60s, I used the term anti-American to describe the--the-the left-wing movement. And wha--what I meant by anti-American was a political position--that is, the way I was anti-Soviet, there were these people who were anti-American, and what--and it meant they-they thought America was evil in itself, you know, guilty of crimes of racism and the oppression of the poor and so on, and also, as--as The New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis once put it, the greatest single cause of evil in the world outside. That was the anti-American posi--and a lot of these people would spell the c--name of the country with a K, A-M-E-R-I-K-A, to suggest an association with Nazi Germany, you know. So that's what I meant by it.
And--and I have to s--say, Brian, that even at my most radical, and I was pretty radical in the mid-'60s, I always loved this country. I loved America. I still love America. I loved it for what it had done for me, personally, as a kid growing up--a poor kid growing up in Brooklyn, the son of--of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Sent me to Columbia, sent me to Cambridge University, you know, gave me a magazine to--to run. I love this country for--for what it had done for me. But I also loved it because I thought it had a--it was built on--on the most precious political institutions that the world had ever seen, institutions that were also much more vulnerable than people thought and that needed to be defended and protected. Now I was a bit of a utopian, like all the members of the left, so I thought these ins--of course, they were a lot of things wrong with America, but I thought everything could be perfected, as we used to say, within the going system. And that was one of the arguments that wi--I had with my fellow leftists. They thought this country was so rotten that nothing but a revolution could save it. And--and I fe--and--and, you know, some people actually threw bombs. I mean, they took that idea of revolution--revolutionism seriously. Those who didn't throw bombs were apologized for by--you know, by some of my fellow intellectuals--I mean, the--the--the fellow intellectuals who didn't throw bombs.
So Lillian said to me--Lillian, who had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, you know, never forgot it and never forgave it, said to me, `You know, people suffered by the use of the term "un-American."' And I said to her, `But un-American is not the same thing as anti-American.' Un-American meant--you know, if you were called un-American, it meant that if you didn't have certain ideas that you were a bad American or you weren't enti--anti-American means--signifies a political position, such as I've just described. Well, it didn't to any good. I mean, I didn't convince her, and although we--we--we hugged and kissed as I left, I knew in my heart that that was the end, and it was. I mean--so that's how--there was no knock-down, drag-out fight, but I hardly ever saw her again, except by accident. And I--we--I know we don't have time to go into my subsequent encounters with her on the street, but it was very sad and--on the other hand, I think she dishonored herself and-and her--and left a dishonorable legacy. And I say so in the book even though I still feel tremendous affection for her as a person.
LAMB: Hannah Arendt.
Mr. PODHORETZ: Hannah Arendt was the refugee from Nazi Germany who came to this country. Now I can't remember the exact date, quite late. She had a very thick accent. She was Jewish. And she-the most important thing about her is that she wrote a book published in 1949 or '50 called "The Origins of Totalitarianism," which I considered then and still consider a great work. "The Origins of Totalitarianism," to put it in a nutshell, argued that Nazi Germany and So--and Stalin's--Russia's Soviet--the Soviet Union were morally and politically two faces of the same coin and were morally and poli--wa--and that--and that Soviet communism was as--as great a threat to--not only to the--to the world militarily, but also politically and morally as Nazi Germany had been. She made, in other words, a--a--a direct equivalence between the two by linking them through the concept of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is not a concept that she invented, but she did the most with it.
And what it meant was it was a new form of despotism that had arisen in the 20th century. All former despotisms, as she pu--d--explained, were content with controlling the political dimension of life. And they pretty much left you alone, left religion alone, left economic life alone, whereas totalitarianism was a system that aspired to control every single aspect of life and society. And that this was a new phenomenon and--and that--that the Soviet Union had been the first serious example of it and--and Nazi Germany was the second mutation of it. And that these--and--so "The Origins of Totalitarianism" supplied what I would call the theoretical or philosophical foundation for America's fight against the Soviet Union that came to be known as the Cold War or containment, and I--that book had an enormous influence on me when I was--read it at the age of 21.
I later met Hannah Arendt. Again, we became very close friends. We're talking about people, by the way, all of whom were about 25 years older than I was, but nevertheless, we became intimate friends. And--and that went on for--again, all of this lasted about 10 years. And something very peculiar happened to Hannah Arendt as time went on. First of all, we got into a big fight over the Eichmann trial, when Adolph Eichmann was captured by Israel and actually kidnapped in Argentina, brought to Israel and put on trial for his role in the-in the murder of the six million Jews 'cause he had been in charge of that program. Hannah was sent by The New Yorker--you see, again, another sign of the change in the culture. The New Yorker would never have published a writer as abstruse as Hannah Arendt in--in the old days. They sent her to cover the trial and she wrote a series of articles which were later collected into a book called "Eichmann in Jerusalem," which I thought was just terrible, I mean, becau--it was very brilliant, and what it argued was th--basically, that the Jews of Europe had collaborated in their own destruction, and if they hadn't collaborated in their obstruction, not so many of them would have been killed.
So I knew how to get--I was by then editor of Commentary, and I published articles by Hannah Arendt in Commentary and she was a great fan of the magazine, and we were personal friends. But I knew, of course, I had to get this book reviewed, and I decided I'd better write about it myself because she'd blame me for anything that-bad anybody else wrote anyway, so I might as well do it myself. And I wrote an article called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance. And Hannah, who had a wonderful sense of humor and was very warm and so--called me up and said, `Well, I may be perv--brilliant, but I am not perverse. And you must come over and we're gonna discuss this.' This was on the basis of advanced galleys I had sent her.
So I went up to her apartment on Riverside Drive, which I describe in "Ex-Friends" as--it was sort of dark, even though it was on Riverside Drive, and, you know, it was filled with books in 18 languages, you know, every wall lined with these books. And we sat there with the light--I got there sort of the midafternoon, and we sat there for four or five hours, and she had the galleys of my article, the way you've got copies of that book, and every word was sort of underlined and exclamation points in the margin. And we had a big argument about--about my article, and I was amazed at how weak her defense was against the criticisms I had made because I had adopted a tactic that was very hard for her to deal with, which is I criticized this book on the basis of ideas that I had taken from "The Origins of Totalitarianism." In other words, I--I refuted her out of her own mouth. And th--you know, that's a--you know, that's dirty pool in some sense. It's very hard. You know, how do you--how do you deal with that? 'Cause she hadn't repudiated "The Origins of Totalitarianism."
So I won that argument, I mean--and, you know, winning an argument against wh--a person that I considered one of the most formidable minds on the face of the Earth--not I alone, by the way--was a very heady experience. On the other hand, it was very depressing because I knew, again, that we were heading into very, very stormy waters, our friendship would be.
And later, we had a debate. Do we have time to talk about this debate? Well, the University of Maryland--this book was a big best-seller and it was a hugely controversial work. I mean, people were attacking it and they were calling meetings against it and so on. There was a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland who was a close friend of Hannah's and who said she wanted to stage a debate, and Hannah said the only person she would agree to debate with was me. And when I first heard that, I was very flattered, and then on second thought, I wasn't so flattered because I thought maybe she thought she could take me easily in this debate. But there I went, down there to the University of Maryland, and Dwight McDonald, whom I've already mentioned, who was a--a--a besotted admirer of hers. I mean, he--he and another famous writer named Mary McCarthy formed a kind of c--clack around Hannah to--who regarded her--they regarded her as--as a--I mean, you know, Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Heidegger, ..with whom she once had a love affair, wrapped into one.
And so Dwight McDonald and I and Hannah Arendt and this professor, whose name I don't remember, got together at the University of Maryland in a big gymnasium, or maybe it had been a hockey rink. I don't remember. Anyway, it was a big place and the place was absolutely packed and the only time in my life I've ever seen people literally hanging from the rafters. I mean, there were rafters up there, and people were sitting on them and they were way up--you know, way up at the ceiling. I mean, there must have been 1,000 people there, you know, to debate the issues raised by this book.
And--and, you know, the--the audience was about split--well, it was 3-to-1 because the so-called moderator was on Hannah's side, so it was Hannah and Dwight McDonald and--and the moderator against me. And I did my best to hold my own and I also, as I describe in-in "Ex-Friends," bit my tongue once or twice because I knew if I said certain things that were on my mind, that would be the end of it. So we had this debate and it--the audience was sort of evenly split and, you know, you would--if you'd had an applause meter, you would have been very confused because every point and its opposite got an equally loud ovation from the audience. And it came down to the fact, really, you know, of whether there was s--whether Jewish complicity in the Holocaust was a factor--a serious factor, which I denied. And it also came down to the--to an argument between us as to whether this country wa--was subject to the same forces that had created Nazism in Germany, which I did not believe it was and she did, you see. So--and we got into some pretty arcane and abstruse issues, but they all applauded and yelled and cheered, you know. I don't know if they knew what we were even talking about, a lot of them.
And we ca--continued to see each other and my papers are in the Library of Congress, and I discovered when I had to check up on-on the book, I had to get papers that were sequestered there, and I discovered to my surprise how many letters we had exchanged, even after this debate. So our friendship went on for a while. But again, it petered out and she, too, became, not in the '60s but in the mid-'70s, quite anti-American, to my amazement, because as a German refugee--German-Jewish refugee, many of them were very grateful to this country for very good reason. And she got more and more sour and to--to the point even of writing a piece during Watergate in which she compared Haldeman, who just died recently, and Ehrlichman to Goebbels, you know, n--Hitler's henchman, which I just considered bl-nothing short of blasphemous. I mean, I don't care how much--how bad you thought those guys were. I mean, to compare this to the situation in Nazi Germany was just disgusting. So we--and I ran a piece, not by me but by somebody else in Commentary--well, attacking--attacking her point of view. And that pretty well tore it between us. And so I lost her presence in my life, and by that time, she was telling people that I had become a right-wing nut or words to that effect, though she never said that to my face.
LAMB: Just a couple minutes left. What's the lesson of your life in this book?
Mr. PODHORETZ: The lesson that I--I--you know, I--I tell these stories and I talk about these friendships as a way of trying to relate in more vivid terms the political and cultural history of the era through which we have all lived, and--and--and try to elucidate the issues that were important, that were, in fact, as I say, matters of life and death. So that's one thing. And--and my lesson in the end was that--I've said it before and I'll say it again, and I--I--maybe I sound like a fatuous American patriot. I think this country is a precious asset of human civilization, a--and politically speaking--not culturally, but politically speaking, it compares to fifth century Athens as a culture. And--and I think that it is a society that we must cherish and defend with--with all our hearts and all our souls. And the lesson I learned being a radical and turning against radicalism was that it was my duty as an intellectual to defend this country and its institutions, which intellectuals have not done for the most part for the most 100--150 years. Mostly they've been sour about this country from one angle or another. So that's one lesson.
And the--the second thing I--I come away with is that it's very, very important to have an intellectual--a literary intellectual community such as I grew up in, in which the assumptions behind the conventional wisdom are constantly being scrutinized and argued about. As I say in the last chapter of that book, we have policy wonks by the thousands, but we have very few intellectuals who talk about the assumptions that lie behind the policies that the wonks are arguing about, who see these questions in a larger polo--political, philosophical, cultural context. So we need that and it's a shame that we've lost it.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book called "Ex-Friends." Our guest has been Norman Podhoretz. Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. PODHORETZ: Thank you, Brian.
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