We were already in the middle of a cultural skirmish over Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography—the key issue being, Was Roth a misogynist?—when both book and biographer spilled over from the review pages to Page One. “Sexual Assault Allegations Against Biographer Halt Shipping of his Book,” the New York Times announced in April. Several women accused Bailey of predatory behavior. At a Louisiana private school where he had once taught English, he was said to have “groomed” eighth-graders for later of-age seductions to rape. And a woman said that Bailey had raped her at the home of a mutual friend who—in one of the scandal’s myriad ironies—was a book reviewer for the New York Times. In no time, W.W. Norton yanked the book out of print. An 861-page tome proudly displayed in the window of my local independent bookstore just days earlier had been abruptly cancelled. “The Roth bio goes meta,” the novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld posted on Facebook.
The knock on the biography, as expressed in the New Republic among other legacy organs striving for wokeness, is that Bailey went soft on Roth’s sexual history. The magazine’s reviewer, Laura Marsh, echoed the prevailing view that Roth regarded women as necessary evils to service his outsize ego/libido, and he was a philanderer who stretched the limits of May–December romances to… whatever you call it when he’s 73 and she’s 29. Then dropped the manna from Roth-hater heaven: Of course Bailey was okay with Roth’s “misogyny”—he’s a perv himself! Which somehow “proved” Roth’s guilt as well. As if he chose Bailey as his authorized biographer because he saw him as a kindred spirit.
Plenty to unpack here. Starting with the old lit-crit canard, Can you separate the artist from his art? It’s been a longstanding question about Roth, but now must also include Bailey, his benighted Boswell. Before all this, Bailey had written acclaimed biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson (author of The Lost Weekend). Do his transgressions—which, if true, are inarguably disgusting—negate those books, too? No one has said that. Perhaps because while Bailey’s previous subjects shared a common masculine pre-1960s malaise, none of them polarized readers like Roth did for the entirety of his 31-book, 55-year career. Posing a second question: Can we separate the biographer from his subject, when it comes to women?
If Roth was a misogynist, as so many reviews of this biography would have us believe, how to explain his first literary mentor at Bucknell: a spinster taskmistress named Mildred Martin? Or his favorite editor, the New Yorker’s Veronica Geng? Or his first two choices for a biographer: Judith Thurman and Hermione Lee? Or the fact that his lawyers were always women? Not to mention the many devoted female friends who never shared his bed, as well as the ex-lovers who remained in his life until its end? Just because Roth hated his two wives—and the novelist Francine du Plessix Gray—doesn’t mean he hated all women.
ROTH HAD a favorite teacher at Newark’s Weequahic High, an Air Force vet with a Ph.D. in French literature from Johns Hopkins and a role model of braininess and masculinity that Roth would forever aspire to. He would soon add to that template a third element: sex. The three created what he would call his “Byronic dream” of “bibliography by day, women by night.”
The first in his lifelong mash-up of belles lettres and belles femmes was Maxine Groffsky, the model for Brenda Patimkin, the object of desire and class longing in the 1959 novella that made his name, Goodbye, Columbus. Maxine, like Brenda, lived in a fancy New Jersey suburb and played tennis. The highest commendation of Roth’s father, Herman, was “He’s loaded.” And the Groffskys were, at least by Roth standards, loaded. Maxine also had sexual riches to offer that young Philip’s first affair at Bucknell had not. They would “tear each other’s clothes off,” and unlike Brenda, Maxine had no qualms about getting a diaphragm. It was from her he stole Brenda’s come-hither invitation, “I’m wearing it”—the first of countless lines lifted from the women in his life to be inserted directly into his fiction.
Groffsky was far more highbrow than Brenda; she became Paris editor of the Paris Review for many years, then a successful literary agent. But Goodbye, Columbus made her notorious, and she never forgave Roth for it. Her younger sister certainly didn’t. A quarter-century later, Roth ran into Irene Groffsky in Israel at a talk by Abba Eban, and she accused him of ruining her family’s life. Surmising that she, like Eban, supported negotiations with the Palestinians, Roth countered, “Irene, if you can find it in your heart to forgive Yasir Arafat, surely you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
In 1969, he published the book that would both define and haunt him—not unlike how Goodbye, Columbus haunted the Groffskys—for the rest of his life. Portnoy’s Complaint was a long, explicit, hilarious psychoanalytic monologue of onanism and sexual mania. It was the year’s bestselling book, and it followed Roth around New York, with fans heckling him on the street and in restaurants, where he’d be asked if he was ordering the liver. He said this reference to Alexander Portnoy’s sexual abuse of organ meat was funny “the first 15 times.”
Portnoy’s female obsession is a character nicknamed “The Monkey,” a conspicuously gentile plaything for the narrator’s insatiable id—one he shared with his inventor. (A former Playboy Playmate who had dalliances with Norman Mailer, William Styron, Joseph Heller, and many more described Roth in particular as a “sex fiend.”) So if Portnoy was Roth, who was The Monkey? By Bailey’s account, her short-legged physique was inspired by the woman who in 1959 became his first wife, Maggie Martinson. Maggie’s hardscrabble past appealed to the Henry Higgins in Roth, always in search of a new Pygmalion. The historian Paul Fussell, their friend at the University of Chicago, where Roth was teaching at the time, saw her with “a backlight of trouble.” Eliza Doolittle she wasn’t.
After several stormy years of screaming and door-slamming, the woman whom New York Review of Books editor Bob Silvers flatly described as “crazy” duped Roth into marriage by swapping her urine for that of a pregnant woman in New York’s Tompkins Square Park. But revenge, for Roth, was always a dish best served in semi-autobiographical fiction, and he repurposed the urine ruse in My Life as a Man (1974). Maggie ultimately died in a car crash. Her ex-husband’s epitaph to their disastrous union was unsparingly bitter: “You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.”
Roth’s love life was a litany of betrayals and affairs, most of which would end up in his fiction. The stunning Lucy Warner told him, “I can’t save you Philip, I’m only 22 years old,” a line that also made it into My Life as a Man. Maggie may have been his first mentally unbalanced partner in relationship crime, but not his last—and at some point, with repeat offenders like Roth, the blame falls on the man who considers himself the victim. Ann Mudge was a Pittsburgh socialite whose shrink was a tropical-diseases specialist unable to stave off her suicidal urges—one of the things (as with Maggie) that kept Roth from breaking up with her. She ended up happily married to someone else, and Roth enjoyed a pleasant, platonic reunion with her in their dotage.
BAILEY’S BIOGRAPHY is amply illustrated with photos of Roth with one gorgeous, brilliant piece of arm candy after the next. He had no taste for bimbos, but he did for youth. One quip Roth has been excoriated for is “I was 40 and she was 19. Perfect. As God intended it to be.” This dates from his time teaching at Penn, in the early 1970s, “back in the days”—as he later put it—“when you weren’t hauled off in chains to feminist prison if you struck up a tender friendship with the smartest, most beautiful girl in your class.” One graduate of that class, Lisa Scottoline (who went on to write bestselling thrillers) recalled that in Roth’s English 275 seminar, aka “The Literature of Desire,” her classmates were mostly young women so smitten with their instructor that they “arrived early, freshly showered and perfumed, already having read every book on the syllabus.”
This is where a false Venn diagram has been drawn between Roth and Bailey. The accusers say Bailey was, to quote the ’70s rock band Jethro Tull, “Eyeing little girls with bad intent.” He is alleged to have cultivated middle-school girls for sexual encounters once they hit 18. Roth, by contrast, found himself in a classroom full of young women who were soliciting his attentions during Peak Sexual Revolution.
Roth’s celebrity/notoriety only enhanced his already considerable allure. He took Jackie Kennedy home after a party at the Podhoretzes. The New York Post dished that “Barbara Streisand has no complaints about her dates with Philip Roth.” But the apotheosis, eventually the nadir, of his fame landing him the girl of his dreams was his relationship with the English actress Claire Bloom. “Roth liked to say he’d fallen in love with her at age nineteen, in 1952, when she starred with Chaplin in her first major movie, Limelight,” Bailey writes. They met 15 years later in East Hampton, when she was married to Rod Steiger, who appeared for a tennis date wearing a black Speedo. “What’re you staring at?” Steiger barked at Roth. Suffice it to say Bloom’s taste in men was iffy at best. After a couple of glancing encounters, Roth and Bloom bumped into each other in New York, on Madison Avenue in 1975, and on their fourth date, slept together. “To have such a mind as Philip Roth’s fixed on your every word and gesture is both daunting and extremely flattering,” Bloom would later write in Leaving a Doll’s House, her scorched-earth tell-all about their 23 years together, five of them as husband and wife.
When Bloom was setting off to shoot Islands in the Stream, with George C. Scott, she told Roth, “I’m sure he’s a monster.” To which Roth replied, “Not all men are monsters.” But that is generally how Roth has come to be seen in their long, embattled he said/she said—largely because of the claim that he forced her to choose him over her daughter, Anna Steiger. Now, not even Bloom denies that her relationship with her then-teenage daughter was deeply dysfunctional. Bloom craved her daughter’s approval and shrank at her rages. Anna hurled scorn and abuse at her mother. Their fights, Roth claims, escalated to kicks and blows, with Anna memorably calling her mother a “Kike bitch.”
Roth found life with Bloom and Anna in their London house intolerable and suggested Anna try living in the dormitory at the Guildhall School of Music, where she was studying opera. After all, he reasoned, Bloom had thought nothing of leaving her daughter alone when she was flying off to romance Roth in New York. But in retrospect, Bloom came to view Roth’s request as, well, monstrous. “Anna was asked to move out,” she wrote in Doll’s House. “She was eighteen.” Roth’s withering reaction? “So somber, so tragic, so tellingly concise, as if she were writing, ‘Anna was asked to move out. She was two.’” Then, in what Roth called “the anticlimax of anticlimaxes,” Anna moved back home five months, later and it was back to the old madhouse. Roth told his friends, “Maggie sent Anna to me.”
And yet, for a literary narcissist who wore out the “I” on his IBM Selectric, Roth was a surprisingly nurturing mate. He willingly funded Anna’s opera career. Bloom was an actress of a certain age, and he did everything in his power to keep her working—writing scripts, plays, and all but ghost-writing her first memoir. His friend David Rieff went so far as to describe him as “uxorious.” He respected Bloom’s mind enough to exalt her as his “first reader” and was in awe of her gift as the greatest interpreter of Ibsen of her generation. But a close reading of her own work and details from this biography do not suggest she was a wildly stable person at the time.
When Bloom’s mother died, a man from the funeral home came to collect the body. Bloom struck him in the doorway and he fled. The next day, Roth found her chatting with her mother’s corpse while working on her needlepoint. Finally, the mortician came back and said they’d have to embalm if Bloom planned to keep her mother around any longer. Roth had to wrangle the body into position for the injection. When Bloom finally permitted removal of the body to the funeral home, Roth found her there “laughing and chatting as ever.” After which she’d come home and, without bothering to wash her hands, start preparing dinner.
Things didn’t improve when Bloom moved into Roth’s country house in Connecticut. His monkish existence chafed at Bloom’s need to be in, or at least near, the, uh, limelight. Friends witnessed her, set off by something or other, running and screaming through the fields that surrounded the house with her hands in the air “like a lunatic in a cartoon.” In 1993, when Roth had a breakdown and spent time at the Silver Hill psychiatric hospital, Bloom came to visit. Roth, who regarded Bloom as largely responsible for driving him to the loony bin, proposed a six-month separation. Her reaction was so hysterical she was given pajamas and taken to her own room in the locked ward. She was, Bailey claims “the first visitor in Silver Hill history—or so Roth claimed—to be retained as a patient overnight.”
Roth wrote a word-by-word rebuttal to Leaving a Doll’s House, but friends prevailed upon him not to publish it lest he look like a “bully.” As with Maggie, though, Roth would eventually have his revenge, casting the hateful character of Eve Frame as Bloom in his 1998 “Zuckerman” novel I Married a Communist. Few of the women in his life escaped being “Rothed.” His longtime mistress Inga, originally his masseuse, became the unapologetically sex-positive Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater. Another mistress, Sylvia, became Faunia in The Human Stain, a book he conceived as his Scarlet Letter, inspired by the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair. Bailey writes that Roth “felt vaguely implicated in the president’s humiliations.”
TOWARD THE END of his life, Roth’s goatishness starts to seem less a lightning rod for controversy than merely sad. Nicole Kidman starred in the 2003 movie version of The Human Stain. The now-70-year-old author made himself very available to the 35-year-old actress to discuss lines, the book, whatever. He coaxed her into a dinner date, but when Roth showed up at her hotel in his limo—his usual MO—she’d forgotten, or she had the night wrong. Or she just didn’t want to go out with a man twice her age, so she came down to the lobby in her jeans. She offered to sit for a drink in the bar, but Roth declined and left in a huff. Told he’d been offended by her obliviousness, Kidman was unmoved: “Tell him to grow up.”
Still, he kept chasing younger—much younger—women. There was always some willing acolyte. One looking to get a novel published. Another who naively asked, “What’s fascism?” When he needed a date for “Philip Roth Day” in Newark, he took his latest nubile amanuensis, Brigit (the 29 to his 73), on a shopping spree in SoHo. After picking out a little black dress, Roth went to wait in the car. The salesgirl gave her a knowing look: “You got the black dress too?” Another of his exes saw the two of them walking down the street and thought, “Oh, Philip, I hope that’s your niece.” Brigit was what Roth called his “last great outburst of everything.” After that, Bailey attests, Roth was “too old to seriously consider attracting the woman who attracted him.” In the end, the hottest gossip about him was that he was watching Sharknado with the age-appropriate Mia Farrow—and even then, they were just friends.
Before his death, in 2018, Roth caught the beginnings of the #MeToo movement. He wrote to his Israeli friend Bernard Avishai: “I heed the cry of the women insulted and injured. I have nothing but sympathy for their pain and their need for justice. But I am also made anxious by the nature of the tribunal that is adjudicating these charges…publicized accusations followed by peremptory judgment.” The novelist Nell Freudenberger said of Roth, “I don’t like the way he writes about women, and I don’t like the way I sound complaining about it.” Fair enough. Don’t use his disgraced biographer to dance on Roth’s grave. Roth himself said, “I’ve chosen to make art out of my vices rather than what I take to be my virtues.” And his vices were not Blake Bailey’s.
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