You know you’re getting old when graduate students—still in diapers when the Berlin Wall collapsed—lecture to you about Leonard Bernstein As Cold War Icon. Especially when they insist on saying “Bern-steen,” which no Australian in Lenny’s lifetime dreamed of doing.
Cold War historiography has become, of late, truly hip. The selfsame collegiate bloviators who at the time denied that the Cold War even existed are now falling over each other to hold conferences on the subject. Cold War historians can make megabucks. I have bills to pay. Some of those megabucks, I cannot help feeling, should be mine.
Obeying the vainglorious but understandable code of the brush-wielding dilettante who allegedly told Michelangelo, “I too am a painter,” I should like to assure the world that “I too was a Cold Warrior.” It is no more impudent an assertion than Al Gore’s boast of inventing the Internet, and within my youth’s largely tin-pot circles it has—unlike Gore’s swanking—the merit of accuracy. In particular, I can claim to have done my part to wreck Encounter.
If you’ve read this far you probably remember what Encounter was. But the name of its boss, Melvin J. (“Mel”) Lasky, will mean nothing to almost anyone under 35. For almost anyone over 35, though, he was as prominent once as A.C. Grayling is today. In British (and West German) high journalism from 1953 to 1990, Lasky mattered. He controlled Encounter while other editors came and went.
There is no equivalent to Encounter now, except the Times Literary Supplement, perhaps. Encounter seemed to publish all scribblers marginally less politically demented than Kim Il-Sung. Historians from Sir Arthur Bryant to the knighthood-hating A.J.P. Taylor, veteran Italian antifascists from Luigi Barzini to Ignazio Silone, the turgidity of Frank Kermode (“Old Toad, Frank Kermode,” in Philip Larkin’s snicker) alongside the repartee of Ken Tynan: Encounter catered for them all, and you can now look up every issue online, thanks to Unz.org.
Encounter even found room for Australians. It ran an early (1979) anti-Holocaust-denialism exposé, one carried out by Melbourne University’s Czech refugee Frank “Franta” Knopfelmacher. Franta must have been the greatest, and most vilified, political philosopher of modern times. After all, he would say so himself, usually in late-night telephone monologues of Toynbeean length, invariably with more F-words than Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor combined.
Another Australian had known about Encounter because since 1953 copies of it had been sent to his address: David Stove, Philosophy Department, The University of New South Wales. David Stove was a regular victim of Franta’s telephony until his wife Jessie Stove, goaded beyond endurance by same, ordered him to cease picking up the handset. He was also my father, and Jessie Stove my mother. Which is where I came in.
My mother always maintained that the first word I ever used in Scrabble was “Encounter” (Dad: “That’s my boy”) and that the second word I learned to use in Scrabble was “communism” (Dad: “That bloody boy!”). Yet I knew the second word only because of the first word. Our house had Encounter back issues the way dogs have fleas. There I learned about a mysterious term called “communism.” I learned much else too. To read Encounter was a liberal education. Years later I discovered from Michael Easson —a hard-as-nails, bookish social democrat and plausibly credited with having run New South Wales the way Richelieu ran France—that a similar abundance of ancient Encounter copies prevailed in his childhood home.
Passing in silence over school, Brezhnev, Vietnam, Nixon in China, and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”, we come to 1990. By this stage Dad had joined Encounter’s stable of authors. I wanted to join Encounter’s stable of authors. This did not seem inherently impossible. Already I had planned, or “planned,” a book on César Franck. My “plans” resembled those of Micawber, but let that pass.
Usually I avoided submitting articles to any periodical where Dad was published. (I had become all too conversant with editors who either eulogized me or denounced me purely because I was David Stove’s son. Call it “the Siegfried Wagner syndrome.”) This time, I vowed to make an exception.
I happened to be visiting London anyhow. We are speaking of 1990, when Britain’s notion of customer service and telephone answering was about on a par with Cuba’s. Especially when the caller had an Australian accent. Getting the cut-glass-voiced Brit lady receptionist (I’ll swear she was practicing for the Emily Blunt role in “The Devil Wears Prada”) to allow me to request an appointment—not to make an appointment, to request one—took three tries. Finally I heard back, somehow, at my hotel from Mr. Lasky himself. Yes, come and say hello. But it can’t be earlier than 6 p.m. on such-and-such a date.
The Encounter office. A dump. Sorry, but that’s how it was. November in London. Pitch darkness outside. The receptionist and all other staff save one had gone home, no doubt traumatized by my antipodean speech patterns. A concierge of some sort, with access to Mr. Lasky’s den; Mr. Lasky; and myself. “Come on in.”
I came in.
It was a standing joke that Lasky looked similar to Lenin. But my first thought was more definite: “[Expletive] me dead, there’s been a terrible mix-up, this guy is Lenin.” Same facial hair, similar size, similar garb. Most piercingly: the same hooded Tartar eyes, which never moved.
(Obviously Mr. Lasky had decided, through a kind of spiritual mischief, to emphasize the Lenin lookalike Gestalt. An anti-communist physically indistinguishable from the Bolshevik Messiah! Eat your heart out, Catskills comedians.)
His manner, once he dug out my clippings from the papers on his desk, cut my thinking short. Courteous but businesslike, he said: “So. What’s on your mind?”
Somehow I explained to him my hopes that Encounter might consider a César Franck-related article by me. Occasionally he interrupted, with flawless decorum but not a wasted syllable. “Why do you think that is?” “And then?” “We’ll see.” “That’s curious.” Finally—here I no longer recollect the exact words—he said the best thing that any honest editor can tell a literate supplicant: he asked me to submit something, and there’d be no guarantees but he’d give it serious consideration.
The only other thing I recall is that my clippings included a prize-winning example of mine, published in one of the Spectator poetry contests. The next contest’s announcement, as Lasky noticed, began with the hail-fellow-well-met words: “My old friend Bertrand Russell.” “Aha!” ejaculated Lasky. “Russell!”
He might also have said “Well, that’ll be all, I think” because I quickly realized I should leave. And so I did.
Approximately ten days later, when of course my Franck submission had been neither accepted nor rejected, Encounter had gone broke. Within weeks another valuable British magazine, The Listener, had also collapsed. I never saw, or heard from, Mr. Lasky again (why would I have?). He died in 2004.
Make of this vignette what you will. Several questions have nagged at me. Did Lasky actually know, when he met me, that Encounter had run out of funds? Did he merely suspect it? Did he willfully refuse to scrutinize the bookkeeping? Did he consciously string me along in the knowledge that he was playing me for a sucker?
In conversation years ago with me on the topic, Peter Coleman—erstwhile federal parliamentarian, author of The Liberal Conspiracy, and former editor of Sydney’s Quadrant— emphatically ruled out deceit on Lasky’s part. I am inclined to agree with Peter (whom I know so well that I must call him by his Christian name). Editors of highbrow periodicals are habitual optimists—whether or not they have, as Lasky had, a moneyed spouse suddenly fallen on hard times—about where the next million dollars will come from. Their optimism is either a déformation professionelle or a needed spiritual prophylactic against the funny farm, take your choice.
Lasky cannot have objected to deceit per se. For all his scholarship he was a Noo Yawk intellectual street-combatant with not an ounce of sugar in his blood. He had lived in London for decades, but his accent remained pure Brooklyn Heights. How much he ever knew about Encounter’s CIA funding, headline news from 1967, no expert can say. Michael Wreszin’s biography of Dwight Macdonald is reduced to conjecture on this point. So is Frances Stonor Saunders’s Congress for Cultural Freedom chronicle, The Cultural Cold War. You’re baffled, I’m baffled.
My guess, which anyone is free to mock, is that Lasky compartmentalized his thinking. On the basis of my encounter (oops) with him, I formed the impression of a man who lived simultaneously—as perhaps, all eminent Cold Warriors needed to do—in two worlds: the world of geopolitical intrigue and the world of literature. If push came to shove, and if the Soviet menace had become so appalling as to make the CIA decide that saving France from communism depended upon Sartre undergoing a fatal “accident,” I think Lasky would have assented to such a sub rosa execution without a single night’s subsequent insomnia. But I also think that Lasky would have moved heaven and earth to prevent Sartre’s books from being confiscated by the police. Does that make sense?
This revelation is not exactly a Venona decrypt. But maybe a retired spook in Maryland or a retired call girl in Georgetown will find the above sketch of interest and will know something even Robert Conquest doesn’t.
Examine the compleat Encounter for yourself, if you want. It’s online, unprotected by a paywall.
Do, at least, look up Raymond Aron’s obit there. Aron, after their terrible quarrel, always seeking a rapprochement while Sartre lived; Sartre always refusing; and the dying Sartre, it is said, suddenly remarking: “Aron est là.” Did either man ever read T.S. Eliot’s verse?
… These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded into a single party.
Sartre has passed on, and Aron has passed on, and Melvin Lasky has passed on, and Stephen Spender—with his tantrums over the CIA moneys—has passed on, and my parents have passed on, although Peter Coleman, thanks be to God, still goes gangbusters. Of a magazine, no less than of mankind, a version of the proverb is true: death is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.
R.J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.