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City Journal’s Leonardo

eye on the news

City Journal’s Leonardo

Remembering Stefan Kanfer June 22, 2018

With all that he accomplished over his long life, Stefan Kanfer could have treated the younger and less knowledgeable with the attitude exemplified by Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman: “How would you know? You’ve been watching MTV all your life.” But Steve was not like that; he was as easygoing and approachable as a literary lion could possibly be. I first met him at a City Journal lunch in 2007, not long after I’d joined the magazine. I’d just read my first Kanfer feature, “Love and Glory in East Aurory,” about Elbert Hubbard, and when I saw him standing unaccompanied for a moment, I introduced myself and told him how much I’d liked it. He thanked me as if my praise mattered—it actually seemed to matter—and told me about the genesis of the story, which, as I recall, had something to do with boxes in his attic, and I knew even then that the Kanfer archive was probably more interesting than many midsize museums.

In 2012, I asked him to lunch, wanting to get his opinion on an idea I had for a book, a history of the heavyweight championship in America. He was more encouraging than I could ever have hoped for, reading excerpts, offering advice about agents and publishers, urging me not to lose sight of the story—“a big story,” he called it, “about America, and money, and race, and sex, and crime, and politics”—and never to get discouraged. When I’d report good news by email—I’d finished a chapter; I’d found a publisher—he’d write back, “Mazel, and I might add, Tov.” I knew that I could never repay him for his support, but I liked to imagine how I might, someday.

Before long, ours was a quarterly lunch, always at Café Centro, in the MetLife Building. I’d get observations on a decadent culture punctuated with Cole Porter lyrics: “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking,/But now, God knows,/Anything goes.” I wasn’t nearly so steeped in the Great American Songbook, but Steve would rattle off verses verbatim, always by way of continuing the conversation. I’d get anecdotes, some unrepeatable, about the office culture at Time long ago. I’d get insights into some of what he had written about and covered so well—the Hollywood blacklist, Bogart and Brando and Lucille Ball, American novels that stood up over time and those that didn’t. He always asked me about my plans and next steps, sometimes with more interest than I felt myself.

At one lunch, a few years ago, Steve arrived carrying something in a shopping bag: one of his hand-carved, hand-painted wooden birds, a gift for my young daughter, then eight. I delivered the prize, a cardinal, to her and then set her to writing a thank-you note, and when she labored through it, I made her start over.

Look at this bird! I said. You don’t get things like this every day.

But what do I say to him? She asked. I don’t know him.

Talk to him about birds, I said, and she did, filling a space with exclamations and questions for “Mr. Kanfer.” The next time I saw Steve, he said, “I almost wrote her a thank-you note for that thank-you note.” He made her another one, a bluebird.

Crafting birds was a sidelight for Steve, along with playing music, which he also did; he was first, last, and always a writer. You could go through his massive oeuvre and get a tutorial in American culture: musical theater, vaudeville, comic artists, standup comedians, balladeers and crooners, literary giants, painters, film stars, tycoons, politicos. Reading him, you learned as you were entertained. (His 2007 book about the New York stage, The Voodoo That They Did So Well, should be much better known.) Steve never condescended, and his judgments, whether aesthetic or personal, mixed sharpness with compassion. He was politically opinionated, not doctrinaire, except, rightly, when it came to the Holocaust. He had served on the President’s Holocaust Commission; he knew well the darkness of the human heart. (His World War II novel, Fear Itself, combines a pulsating suspense plot with agonizing scenes from the Nazi death camps.) But he also knew that laughter, along with music, was the universal language, and through that lens he could tolerate much foolishness. The problem with today’s liberal comics, he said, wasn’t that they were liberal; it was that they weren’t funny.

Of all Steve’s achievements, the one that impressed me most was his happiness. He was married for more than 60 years, a devoted husband and father, and the most cheerful, stable creative person I’ve ever known. And though it seems like a theft to lose him without warning, he died the way a happy man should: he closed his eyes one night and took his leave.

The bluebird and cardinal are safe on my shelves, along with my copies of Kanfer books, some with his cherished signature inside. So goodnight, Steve, you’ve earned the rest. And even I know the right Cole Porter couplet for saying goodbye: “Why do the gods above me, who must be in the know/Think so little of me, they allow you to go?”

Photo by Emma Highland

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