Clifton Fadiman was a brilliant man, a top student at Columbia who became a man of letters, famous in his time for the radio quiz show “Information Please” and for “This Is Show Business” on television, along with the many anthologies he put together detailing his extensive reading. He worked for Simon & Schuster, rising to be editor in chief and was the book critic of The New Yorker. He had a column in Holiday magazine and served on the board of the Book of the Month Club for many years. He also collected wine and worked so industriously — seven days a week, often doing two or more jobs at once — that he became wealthy. He lived to be 95. He had three children: two sons and a daughter.
Now that daughter, Anne Fadiman, who is also his literary executor, has written “The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a funny and charming book about her father. It takes wine as an entry point into his story. Her first book, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” won the 1997 New York Book Critics Circle Award.
For Clifton Fadiman, collecting wine was partly a symbol of everything he wanted to achieve as a lower-middle-class Jewish boy who grew up in Brooklyn. He ended up living a cultivated life in a beautiful house full of antiques and dining out regularly at top restaurants, a bon vivant who took great pleasure in the life he created for himself.
“Oh, my God, he was so charming,” his daughter recalls. “He was absolutely delightful and fun to be with, and he was a very involved father.” Part of the key to his success on radio and television was his extraordinary voice and ultra-plummy accent. “Walter Cronkite is an excellent model of good speech, but Cronkite sounded like a street kid next to my father,” Anne notes. “Where did this guy come from? Was it some part of England? He sounded like a trained Shakespearean actor.” In fact, the only people who sound like him are people who’ve created themselves…and their voices.
Her favorite quality, she adds, was “his wit,” noting, “Many people don’t like puns, but he could make puns in several languages. His wit wasn’t the cold, bitter wit that’s more show-offy; he was just really funny. He had a marvelous ‘audience sense.’ Some people don’t have audience sense. He was a very good listener himself. It was not just that you were listening to a brilliant talker. You became a brilliant talker when you were talking with him.”
Here are some of his aphorisms: “When you re-read a classic, you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in yourself than there was before.” “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable. “ “Experience teaches you that the man who looks you straight in the eye, particularly if he adds a firm handshake, is hiding something.” “Gertrude Stein was masterly in making nothing happen very slowly.”
Asked how she is similar to her father, Anne Fadiman, who attended Harvard and teaches at Yale, says, “The obvious way I’m most like him is I’m bookish. I started as a reporter and spent a lot of my life writing essays. But I didn’t feel ready to try his genre [the essay] until I was established as a writer. We both loved food, loved restaurants, loved sitting at a dinner table with family and friends. We both liked Eurocentric travel. Vermeer was a favorite artist for both of us. And we both loved the same cheeses.” One major difference between them: She doesn’t particularly like wine.
“My least favorite part of him was his insecurity,” she notes. “He was always unnecessarily putting himself down. We heard him put himself down thousands of times and knew that it was real, that he truly didn’t believe he’d made it, didn’t really believe that he he’d left his past behind. He felt that his good education, his knowledge of literature and of wine masked his real self. It could get really wearisome. [The cultivated part of him] didn’t seem artificial to us at all, nor to anybody else.”
Clifton Fadiman was also quite uncomfortable about being Jewish. His daughter was a staff writer at Life magazine the year he turned 80, and her editor suggested that Anne write a story about him for the magazine. So she did a long series of interviews with him. One request he made was that she not mention that he was Jewish.
She writes, “His parents had been freethinkers, mildly socialist and strongly secular. I asked him once if his family had celebrated Hannukah, and he looked at me as if I had asked him whether they had eaten raccoons.”
Clifton Fadiman’s original career aspiration was to be an academic in the Columbia English department, but the head of his department told him that they only “had room for” one Jew, and they had already chosen his friend Lionel Trilling for that role. According to “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” when Fadiman was an undergraduate at Columbia, the school was 40 percent Jewish. Nicholas Murray Butler, the head of the college, was trying to lower that percentage and he did so by adding pointed personal questions about the applicants’ religion and the birthplaces of their fathers to the standard application.
While Clifton and Annalee Jacoby Fadiman weren’t particularly known for entertaining, unlike some in their circle, they knew many celebrated people. Jacques Barzun and Whittaker Chambers were among Clifton’s contemporaries at Columbia, and Barzun, like Trilling, became a lifelong friend. When he was first at Simon & Schuster, Fadiman asked Chambers to translate “Bambi” from the original German. Bennett Cerf asked Fadiman to translate Nietzche. In “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” Anne Fadiman recalls opening the door at a party to find that the arriving guest was Groucho Marx.
Anne Fadiman’s mother, Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, nee Whitmore, who came from generations of Mormons in Utah, had a remarkable early career. She had attended Stanford, where she was the first woman managing editor of The Stanford Daily. She began as a member of the steno pool at MGM and graduated to being a scriptwriter there. She later became the only woman war correspondent in China for Time-Life and wrote “Thunder Out of China” with Theodore H. White, who also proposed to her. She had no shortage of suitors but chose Fadiman because of his wit and brains. As she once put it, “He made the other ones look like palookas.”
Her daughter describes her as “a classic example of the brilliant woman who, in the Fifties, was relegated to housewifery, secretarial work and dinner parties. She was at his service. She was too smart to be concerned with editing the PTA newsletter. My father also had serious illnesses throughout his life. I think it was a complicated and nuanced marriage, but they stayed together. I do know that neither of them was ever bored by the other for one minute.”
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