Entry dated :: January 13, 1966
Ithaca, New York

Hannah Arendt :


When I stopped my car on an icy night in Ithaca, in January 1966, to give an elderly woman a ride up the hill to the Telluride House, I could not have known that a subsequent misconception about this brief encounter with a stranger would result three months later in the publication of my first book, “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.”
The chain of odd events began earlier that afternoon when I received a phone call from Felker, who was then working as a consulting editor at the Viking Press at New York. Only a week earlier, he had told me the good news that Viking wanted to publish my book on the basis of the 90-page draft that I had sent him.
Now it was bad news he relayed. He said that since my book was very short, Viking was, as he put it, “toying with the idea” of combining my draft with two other essays, one by Leo Sauvage, a French correspondent for Le Figaro, the other by Fred Cook, an investigative reporter for The Nation, and entitling the anthology “New Doubts About The Kennedy Assassination.” When I responded that such a combination might confuse the issue, Clay said that he personally agreed with me but that Tom Guinzburg was concerned that, as an undergraduate at Cornell, I lacked sufficient credentials to take on alone such a sensitive matter as the Warren Report.
“I see,” I said, ending the dispiriting conversation. I stopped working on Chapter X, the last chapter, and, despite the freezing weather, headed downtown to see a new movie, “Mickey One.” Alas, Arthur Penn’s film about a comic who becomes gradually involved with merciless killers failed to cheer me up.
It was on the drive back home that I encountered the elderly woman. She was bundled up in a heavy shawl, vainly attempting to hail a taxi at the bottom of the State Street hill. Realizing she had little chance of finding one, I asked whether she would like a ride up to the Cornell campus. When she got in the car I recognized her as Hannah Arendt. She had been featured in a profile the week before in the Cornell Sun, and had long before established herself as one of the leading intellectuals in America. Her reporting in The New Yorker on the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1961, also had made her the center of a controversy over the role of Jewish leaders in the Holocaust, and now she was a visiting professor at Cornell, giving a course called "From Machiavelli to Marx."
Just a few days earlier, I had audited her lecture on the accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss. Although she retained her German accent, her English was precise. I told her how impressed I was by her critique of the FBI’s identification of Hiss’s typewriter, but, still half-frozen, she remained silent. Then, halfway up the mile-long hill, as the car skidded dangerously on the ice, perhaps terrified by my driving she asked me whether I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I answered affirmatively, then added that I was also a hopeful author, and that Viking was interested in publishing my thesis on the Kennedy assassination. She then told me that Viking was her publisher, too, and asked me when my book would be published.
I told her that although Viking had agreed to publish it as a book, it was now considering publishing it merely as part of a three-author anthology. She said, in her heavy German-inflected voice, “That is reprehensible. They can’t do that,” and offered to ask her editor there, Denver Lindley, to intervene. I then dropped her off at the Telluride House, where she was staying.
The next morning, January 14th, I went to Arendt’s office in Boardman Hall. She looked confused, asking, “Who are you?” I reminded her of my problem with Viking and her kind offer to call her editor there. She shrugged, dialed a number in New York, and asked for Denver Lindley. When her editor came on the line, she said, “I have a student here,” then, holding her hand over the receiver, asked me my name, which she relayed to Lindley. She then told him I had received conflicting versions of how Viking planned to publish my book. After hanging up, she told me that Lindley knew nothing about my book. That was the last time I saw Hannah Arendt.
The next week Aaron Asher, a senior editor at Viking, called to tell me he was editing my book and that I faced a tight production schedule since Viking planned to publish it in three months. When I asked him about the anthology, he answered that there had never been a thought given to an anthology. He explained that Felker worked there only one day a week and had mixed up my book with an agent’s proposal for another book, which Viking had turned down. So ended my concerns. I left Cornell for Harvard, where I was enrolled in the Government PhD program, and, true to its word, Viking published my book in April 1966.

More than nine years later, on December 5, 1975, still in Cambridge, I received a call from Aaron Asher, who told me in a hushed voice that Hannah Arendt had died and that he expected her “protege” would surely want to fly to New York for her funeral service. I told him that not only was I not her protege, but that I had met her only twice in my life. Taken aback, Aaron then told me what had actually happened at Viking a decade earlier. Clay Felker had been correct: Tom Guinzburg had not wanted to publish my book because I was an unknown commodity. But in the middle of an editorial meeting Lindley had been called to the phone, and when he came back, his face beet-red, he’d shouted at Guinzburg, “You can’t do that to Epstein. He is Hannah Arendt’s student. Her protege.”
Guinzburg replied, “If she vouches for him, there is no reason not to go ahead with publishing the book.” A fortunate misunderstanding– at least for me.

Questions? Email me at edepstein@worldnet.att.net
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