Interview'Roth did not fancy himself as a Jewish writer'

The story behind Philip Roth’s final days

Literary giant’s anointed biographer Blake Bailey shares the details of Roth’s long struggle with coronary artery disease, and of his prolific — and profound — writing life

Philip Roth (Douglas Healey/AP)
Philip Roth (Douglas Healey/AP)

WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, Philip Roth was struck with an attack of arrhythmia, or improper beating of the heart, and he dialed 911.

Paramedics arrived to his apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and took him to New York Presbyterian Hospital. Doctors soon discovered that he had several blocked stents from a previous angioplasty, a procedure to repair obstructed arteries. They did another angioplasty to unblock those stents and thought he would recover and go home in a few weeks.

Roth had suffered with heart problems for almost the entire second half of his life. In 1989, he had a quintuple bypass operation, and was diagnosed with coronary artery disease when he was 49 years old. His condition, however, deteriorated two weeks ago when his kidneys began to fail.

On May 20, he decided that was it, he was done fighting. He went into palliative care. Two days later, he died.

This account was provided by someone who’s gotten to know Roth more intimately than almost anyone else over the last six years. In 2012, Roth hired the respected literary biographer Blake Bailey to direct his focus on him. They brokered a collaborative agreement and have since spent hours upon hours in interviews, while Roth has provided him unfettered access to his archival materials.

In a wide-ranging interview on Thursday morning, Bailey told The Times of Israel details of Roth’s death that have not yet been made public, such as who was at his bedside in his final hours, or the history of his heart ailments.

Roth memorably depicted his quintuple bypass in “Patrimony” (1991), a searing memoir of his father’s dying, but was circumspect in publicizing his health condition.

‘American Pastoral’ author Philip Roth. (courtesy of Film Forum/File)

When Bailey first started interviewing him in 2012 for the biography, which is slated for a 2021 release, Roth told him he was dying of congestive heart failure and would likely only survive for another year.

“I’m going to help you for about a year and then I’m going to get out of your way,” Roth said. But the writer made it another six, and reportedly took good care of himself, exercising in a nearby pool daily and hiring a private chef to cook him healthy meals.

He spent most of his time in his New York apartment, only going to his famously secluded  property in Warren, Connecticut, in the summer, when the weather was more accommodating and someone could be there with him. “He couldn’t be out there alone,” Bailey said. “He had too many health problems.”

Once Roth decided to forego any further treatments earlier this month, he was visited by roughly 30 of his friends, surrounded in those last 48 hours by those who “loved him dearly,” Blake said, including The New Yorker writer Judith Thurman, the historian Sean Wilentz and a number of old girlfriends.

“It’s funny, people think that Philip was misogynistic, that he hates women,” Bailey quipped. “Well, there were all these old girlfriends from practically every point on the generational spectrum. Now, if you can get five or six or seven of your old girlfriends to come to your deathbed, you must be doing something right, don’t you think?”

Bailey’s presence in Roth’s life was, in its own Rothian way, enigmatic. Bailey’s previously written biographies of Charles Jackson, Richard Yates and John Cheever made him well qualified for the task, but his own background was far removed from Roth’s ethnic Newark milieu.

In one of their first conversations, Roth asked him flatly: “Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?”

Author John Cheever is shown in 1958 at an unknown location. Cheever is the winner of the National Book Award for his first novel ‘The Wapshot Chronicle.’ (AP Photo)

Bailey’s answer probably held sway with a man who notoriously loathed bullshit. “Well, I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage but I wrote about John Cheever,” Bailey said.

Roth’s Jewishness was, of course, a major theme of his work, though he would always dismiss the label of being a Jewish-American author. That was somewhat disingenuous. Much of his work doesn’t make emotional sense without the specificity of its Jewish context, particularly the struggle his characters perennially felt to sort out the conflicting demands of American individuality and Jewish collectivity.

But Roth would insist that he was not duty-bound in any sense. He operated under no obligations to his minority group, to the “tribe.”

His early fiction — the novella “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959), the short stories “The Conversion of the Jews” (1958) and “Defender of the Faith” (1959) and his smash hit “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969) — was denounced by leaders of the mainstream US Jewish community.

The prominent New York rabbi, Emmanuel Rackman, famously wrote the Anti-Defamation League in 1963 to ask, “What is being done to silence this man?” The complaint was that Roth’s unflattering depictions of American Jews were giving ammunition to anti-Semites.

Roth thought that was ridiculous. In March 1962,  he told an adversarial audience at Yeshiva University that to censor himself from depicting flawed Jewish characters because others might generalize those depictions into stereotypes would be to surrender to anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, his life would be forever changed by the tsunami of controversy his stories created.

“Roth’s career began,” as David Remnick wrote in a 2000 profile of Roth, “writing about Jews. And as a result of his fearlessness and bravado, of his aversion to a pious literature of victimhood and virtue, his public reputation began with scandal, distortion and a wound.”

Philip Roth receives an honorary doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s commencement in New York, May 22, 2014. (JTA/Ellen Dubin Photography)

Roth’s career ended in 2012, when he announced his retirement from writing. It ended with him having won just about every major literary prize that can be bestowed on a writer. The major exception, of course, was the Nobel Prize. (He was also given an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2014.)

When he died on May 22, he was hailed as one of the last remaining literary giants — the author of 31 books, and the only living writer, up to that point at least, to have his or her work anthologized in the Library of America. He died after spending 85 years of life anything but silent.

Below is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Bailey, in which he talks about Roth’s final days and writing life, and working with him on his biography.

How did you get started on this project?

Almost six years ago, I was finishing my previous biography of Charles Jackson, and I was at loose ends. I had lunch with James Atlas, who wrote the biography of Saul Bellow. We were engaging in shop talk, and he told me that Philip Roth and Ross Miller had parted ways. He was his nominal biographer and, as I would learn, Philip’s best friend. You really don’t want your best friend to be your biographer.

So I sent Philip a letter, telling him that I wrote the John Cheever biography; Philip and him were friends. I told him, “I would love to be your biographer, can we talk?”

Literary biographer Blake Bailey. Bailey was hired in 2012 to write Philip Roth’s biography. (Courtesy)

About three days later, I was driving on a weekend trip with my family and got a call that said “blocked.” Well, that was during the election year, 2012. I had volunteered on the Obama campaign in 2008 and whenever they called, it said “unknown.” So now we have “blocked,” which is different, but my wife said she wouldn’t answer it. I missed the call. When we got to the bed and breakfast, I heard a voicemail from Philip Roth. I tried to call him back and it was one of those wacky Verizon things where it said his inbox was full. So I told my wife, “Thanks a lot.”

But he did call back again and was very jolly. We were chatting and there was suddenly a pause and he asked me, “Do you ever write about people who are not drunk all the time?” All of my three previous biographies — Charles Jackson, Richard Yates, John Cheever — were all ruinous alcoholics. So I told him, “You would be my first.”

He said come to town and we’ll talk. I went to the Upper West Side to visit Philip and we had a very pleasant chat. It went on for a couple of hours. He never once mentioned the prospect of my writing his biography.

He said, “Well, this was fun. Are you going to be in town a little bit longer?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be here through the weekend.” He said, “Well come back on Saturday.”

So I came back on Saturday. He always suffered with a bad back, so I solicitously inquired about his back and he said, “You didn’t come here to talk about my back, sit down.” His manner was absolutely, diametrically opposite to what it had been two days before.

He put on this big pair of glasses and grabbed this legal pad on which he had written something like 30 questions and he read the first question, which was, “Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?” And I said, “Well, I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage but I wrote about John Cheever.” And we took it from there. Three hours later, he strongly suggested he was going to give me the job.

What was your working relationship like with him once you got started? 

It was as pleasant as I could have possibly expected. What I sensed about Philip from the very beginning was that, despite his occasional austerity, he was a thoroughly decent person. If you did your work competently and seriously and comported yourself with intelligence and decency, then he would be the equivalent of that and more. What Philip couldn’t stand were people who were sloppy, incompetent, pretentious. If you could skirt those pitfalls, then you always did well with Philip.

Can you tell me about his death? What happened in the days and weeks leading up to it? 

Philip had a quintuple bypass operation in 1989. He was diagnosed with coronary artery disease when he was 49, and then got the quintuple bypass. When I came on board in 2012, he told me he was dying from congestive heart failure. “I’m going to help you for about a year and then I’m going to get out of your way,” i.e. die.

In this September 8, 2008, file photo, author Philip Roth poses for a photo in the offices of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, in New York, US. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Because Philip enjoyed his life so thoroughly, especially after he stopped writing, and was so gleefully happy with his freedom, he did everything he could to prolong his life with the same iron discipline that he always brought to his work and every other endeavor.

Every morning, he went to this pool and did this aqua-jogging routine, and he had a professional private cook who made hard, healthy meals, so he lasted six years, rather than one year.

As far as what led immediately to his death — are you interested in that?

Very much so.

About three weeks ago, Philip had an attack of arrhythmia and called an ambulance, and the ambulance took him to the hospital. He had a lot of stents, you know from angioplasty, and they found a couple of blocked stents. They did another angioplasty and they cleared that out. They thought that Philip would be able to go home. I think everyone thought that at about the two-week point, but then his kidneys started to fail, and that’s end-stage congestive heart failure. And that’s very uncomfortable. That’s when he decided that he didn’t want to fight it anymore.

And he was no longer living in Connecticut, right? 

No. Philip only went to Connecticut in later years during the summer, when the weather was fine and he could get someone out there with him, because he couldn’t be out there alone. He had too many health problems. Most of the year, he was in the Upper West Side.

So this was at which New York hospital?

This was at New York Presbyterian. He died in the cardiac care unit.

I think that’s the same hospital where his father died.

That could be. I was at Philip’s bedside when he was dying, and it reminded me of that scene in “Patrimony,” where he sits and watches Herman die, because it was the same sort of struggle and raspy breathing and so forth. It was interesting.

I’ll never forget that passage. He says watching him struggle to breath was like watching “an awesome eruption” that reflected his “obstinate tenacity” toward life.

Dying is hard work, and he was a worker.

In this March 22, 1993 file photo, American author Philip Roth is seen during an interview promoting his book ‘Operation Shylock: A Confession,’ in New York (AP Photo, File)

You tweeted that he was surrounded by friends who loved him dearly. Are you able to share who some of those friends were?

Yeah, some of them. Judith Thurman was there; they were very, very old friends. Ben Taylor, that was probably Philip’s best friend. Sean Wilentz, the great historian, was sitting by Philip’s bedside almost till the end. They were very important to each other.

A lot of old girlfriends. It’s funny, people think that Philip was misogynistic, that he hates women. Well there were all these old girlfriends from practically every point on the generational spectrum. Now, if you can get five or six or seven of your old girlfriends to come to your deathbed, you must be doing something right, don’t you think?

It’s interesting that he told you he was dying in 2012, which is the same year he made public his retirement from writing. 

He finished “Nemesis” by August or September of 2009, and he struggled and struggled and struggled to get something else started. He sort of got tired of that. By 2010, he decided he wasn’t going to do this anymore, it was too hard and he was too tired.

When he announced his retirement, he sort of blurted it out during an interview with a French magazine in November 2012. He had actually been retired for two years, but he blurted out in the interview that he was done writing, and then, of course, Charles McGrath wrote the front-page New York Times piece.

What did you make of his decision to call it quits at that stage?

After he hired me, I went out to Connecticut; this was in early July 2012. We spent a week together, six hours a day in interview sessions in his studio. In either the first or second day of interview sessions, he let it very casually slip that he wasn’t writing anymore. That was the first I’d heard about it. That was four months before it became public. My response to that was: Good for you. Enjoy life. Let this burden fall. You’ve done enough. You’ve done everything.

Which of his books do you like the most and which do you think are most revealing about who he was as a man? 

That’s a tall order. The ones I particularly liked: I love “Goodbye, Columbus.” Philip hated it. If it were left up to Philip, he would burn every copy in existence. He thinks its juvenile and finds it embarrassing. I disagree. It’s a charming book.

The three winners of the National Book Award are seen as they pose at the Astor Hotel in New York City, March 24, 1960. Robert Lowell, left, was awarded for the most distinguished book of poetry, Richard Ellmann, center, won in the nonfiction category, and Philip Roth received the award in the fiction category for his book ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’ (AP Photo)

I like “Portnoy’s Complaint,” or rather, I love these books. I’m very fond of “My Life as a Man.” Probably my favorite just in terms of architectural, craftsmen-like perfection is “The Ghost Writer.” It’s a wonderful book. “The Counterlife,” of course. I love “Patrimony.”

“Operation Shylock” has always been a slog for me.

Really? “Operation Shylock” (1993) is what turned me on to Roth. 

Philip was really fond of it. Oh yeah. “Sabbath’s Theater,” of course. “American Pastoral” is a masterpiece. That goes without saying. “The Human Stain.” I’m not particularly fond of “The Dying Animal.”

“The Plot Against America” is certainly interesting and prophetic in terms of American history, but I think it’s second-rate Roth.

I completely agree with you on that. I think it’s overrated. 

Yeah, and I love “Everyman.” Absolutely love it. And Philip was very fond of it, too. I think it’s the best of his later books. “Indignation” has a concision and wit to it that I like. Finally, “Nemesis” is okay. Thank God he didn’t end on “The Humbling.”

I always thought that because he chose to read that passage from “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) at his 80th birthday, the scene where Mickey Sabbath returns to his brother’s and parent’s graves —

Here I am.

Here I am, which is of course a biblical allusion. He’s said that was the book he was his most free when writing. I consider “Sabbath’s Theater” his ultimate masterpiece. Did he feel that way? 

His favorite book, as you point out, was “Sabbath’s Theater.” Touching on an earlier question, over which was the most revealing over who Philip was as a human being, by his own estimation, that was also “Sabbath’s Theater,” which should give you pause. [Laughs]

Philip was very proud of the fact that, as a young man, this crazy disastrous first wife Maggie just absolutely spun his world upside down and almost wrecked him as a human being and certainly as a writer.

Novelist Philip Roth sits inside a screened tent at his home on September 5, 2005, in Warren, Connecticut (AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

Chekhov said, “I had to squeeze the slave out of me drop by drop.” Philip said, “I had to squeeze the nice Jewish boy out of me drop by drop.”

He became a person who recognizes the existence of evil in other people and becomes a sort of grim, austere, aloof, stern public Philip Roth that people misconceive him as. My response to that was that Philip didn’t succeed as thoroughly of squeezing the nice Jewish boy out of him as he liked to think. There was a vast sweetness and even naiveté, which I can’t go into, to Philip to the very end. As I tweeted after his death, he was a darling man. He was devoted to people who were devoted to him. He had a kind of filial piety. No one took the death of Saul Bellow harder. He was wrecked by it. That sweetness and sense of obligation toward others was always very pronounced.

You really see that in “Patrimony,” which is the best thing I thing I’ve ever read about what it means to be a son.

Absolutely, yeah, I love that book.

The two scenes that come to mind: Obviously, when he cleans up his father’s accident — which is a passage burned into my brain like parts of Shakespeare; he uses a toothbrush to clean shit out of the crevices of the bathroom tile — and when he gets his father to sign the living trust. He doesn’t want him to panic over making such a decision, so he brings two living trusts, one for his father to sign, and one for him to sign. He was really much more sensitive and loving than his reputation would lead most people to think. 

Yes, absolutely. And he was protective of people. Of course, pre-eminently so in the case of his parents; he was always repenting for what he thought he had exposed them to in “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other works.

But of course, his parents were utterly loyal and utterly doting. There was none of [Nathan] Zuckerman’s [Roth’s fictive alter ego] father on his deathbed, calling him a bastard. Herman Roth was constantly handing out copies of “Portnoy’s Complaint” to total strangers. And he would sign it as, “Philip Roth’s father, Herman.” So that’s what those relationships were like. He was completely portraying them in an opposite light in his fiction.

He once said that he can’t think of himself as a son, an uncle, a brother when writing — he can’t let those demands impinge on his writing. Otherwise, the writing will become compromised. He once said, “A book about a good son might be interesting, but a book by a good son is slanted.”

And yet, “Patrimony” is nothing if not a book by a good son. [Laughs]

That’s the irony. 

Philip liked to quote Czesław Milosz: “When there’s a writer in the family, the family is finished.” When Philip was writing, nothing got in the way of where his imagination led him. He wouldn’t permit that to happen. He explored his freedom and whatever resulted, resulted. He would deal with the consequences afterwords. That was that.

He always resisted the tag of being a Jewish writer. But of course, Jewishness is a huge theme in his work. What did he say in his later years when discussing his writing about Jews?

The Jewish thing was really what informed Philip as a writer. From the beginning, he did not fancy himself as a Jewish writer. That was not his thing. His apprentice fiction was very derivative of Salinger and Capote, very sensitive, and had nothing to do with Jews in it. It was his first editor, the poet George Starbuck, at Houghton Mifflin, who discarded certain stories that didn’t have Jewish themes in them for “Goodbye, Columbus” [his first book], because he wanted that sort of coherency. He wanted this to be about Jewish life in America, which turned out to be very shrewd. Philip said that, “In many ways, George formed my career, because I didn’t know that I was a Jewish writer.”

Novelist Philip Roth powers up his computer in his home office where he did much of his writing, Monday Sept. 5, 2005 in Warren Conn. Roth died on May 22, 2018 of congestive heart failure. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey).

So “Defender of the Faith” runs in The New Yorker and this rabbi named Emmanuel Rackman — who was one of the most influential rabbis in New York at the time — said, “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would know what to do with him.”

Philip has discussed this in his public writings, but he wrote a letter to Emmanuel Rackman, saying that, “Your desire to silence people who say things that you don’t like smacks of McCarthyite tactics and is absolutely deplorable.” It ended: “You describe yourself as a leader of your people. You are not my leader. And I can only thank God for it.” Now that’s some pretty serious shade for a 26-year-old to throw at this eminent rabbi.

But Philip was never going to back down in public, and he confronted these charges with speeches that became essays. The cataclysm was his appearance at Yeshiva University in March 1962. He knew he was walking into a lion’s den. The theme of the panel was, “Conflict of Loyalties of Writers of Minority Fiction,” which has the invidious implication that writers should be loyal to their people.

Ralph Ellison was on the panel, and Philip pointed out in his speech: If you aren’t allowed to write about certain scenes because people with small minds will make stereotypical conclusions from it, that’s submitting to anti-Semitism. He pointed out that Ralph Ellison, in “Invisible Man,” infuriated blacks by writing about a black sharecropper who impregnated his daughter. But as Ellison said, he’s not a cog in the wheel of the Civil Rights Movement. He’s an artist.

Philip was a great subscriber to Mark Twain’s favorite remark: “The worst I can say about Jews is that they’re members of the human race.”

Philip wrote about human beings. It’s the same thing with this charge of misogyny. He wrote about Maggie as Maureen Tarnopol in “My Life as a Man,” and the great aesthetic breakthrough about that was he’d been trying to write about Maggie — and he was for years, thousands of pages — and he never got it right. The breakthrough was: Stop trying to make her sympathetic. She wasn’t. She was a monster. That’s how he portrayed her.

Well, you write about non-sympathetic Jews circa 1960, people are still smarting from the Holocaust, people are still trying to assimilate in a largely gentile American society, and there was little tolerance for that among mainstream middle-class Jews.

But Philip would write about human beings as they are, and that’s what he was doing. As they said at the Jewish Theological Seminary when he got his honorary degree in 2014, “Philip Roth won.”

He won. He was right, and eventually the world saw that he was right. And here he is, because nobody has explained the Jews’ place in American society and in the world at large more thoroughly and incisively than Philip Roth.

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