Because he was the most vividly alive person I knew—crackling electrically with energy, ideas, passions, and talents—it’s hard to believe that longtime City Journal contributing editor Stefan Kanfer died quietly in his sleep last night. He could, and did, do everything, from playing the musical saw in Greenwich Village nightclubs, to writing plays, painting model birds, writing a shelf of novels (one published only last month) and bestselling biographies, narrating an Academy Award-nominated documentary, and for 30 years being by a long measure the best book and movie critic that Time magazine could boast, excepting only James Agee.
I met him at the end of Time’s glory days, when, as the editor of the magazine’s book review section, he spoke at Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry Grunewald’s retirement party. Oh, was he brilliant, lauding Henry’s much-deserved rise from copyboy to superb and transformational editor, while gently mocking the Viennese accent Henry never quite lost by comparing it, with his gift for deadly accurate mimicry, to that of another highly successful New York-bred refugee from the Nazis, Henry Kissinger. I went up to praise his virtuoso performance, which he accepted with the most sincere gratitude and modesty, and we became friends.
In 1995, my first full year running City Journal, I asked him to write about Time’s decline since he resigned his staff position in 1987 and quit freelancing there five years later. I just reread the story. It is as fresh, witty, intelligent, and perfectly crafted an account as can be imagined of the dissolution of the culture of excellence and professionalism that long prevailed at what had been America’s premier midcult magazine. Thereafter, a sparkling torrent of City Journal articles poured from his computer, on everything from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Horatio Alger, and Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, to Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers, to the Yiddish theater, the Holocaust Museum, and Elie Wiesel, who became his good friend when they served together on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
Steve became my dear friend, too, and in recent years we would lunch together once a month or more, often up near Columbia, where we both had lived in Gotham’s bad old days, where he knew the alternate-side parking schedule by heart, and where he never failed to visit the venerable neighborhood chocolate shop to bring home a box of candy to May, his beloved wife of more than 60 years, for he was as devoted a family man as could be. He would speak of his father, a New York City schoolteacher in the Great Depression, doubtless as vehement in his judgments as Steve, who liked to recount admiringly his father’s contemptuous dismissal of an acquaintance for his incurable Stalintosis. And vehement Steve was, in his loves—for America, for Israel, for virtue, for good culture (whether high or popular)—and his hates—for fraud, for political correctness, for anti-Semitism, for self-righteous Leftism, for the U.N., and for knee-jerk Trump-haters. He told me stories of his and May’s few years as bohemians in Paris, of his time in advertising, of his experience as a military interrogator, a writer of cartoon captions, a TV gag-writer. Talk about living life to the fullest!
We had to postpone our lunch on his birthday, May 17. When we met a few days later, he said, “You know, I just turned 85. I never thought I’d be so old.” The number surprised but did not faze me, since I assumed that such a dynamo was literally immortal. But to my sorrow, it turns out that he is only figuratively so.
Photo: Riverrun Bookshop