Fiction Remembers Dorothea Straus

Last summer, one of the staunchest admirers of Fiction, Dorothea Straus, passed away. Several years before that, sensing how fragile she was in the wake of her distinguished husband, the publisher Roger Straus's death, I went out to their historic mansion in Westchester to film her reading one of her stories. Roger had rebuilt the house after a fire. The grounds, which spread with the largesse of a great baronial estate, were the home of a family whose public contributions to the United States was writ large. I felt this personally, since Roger's grandfather, Oscar Straus, a German immigrant who served as an American ambassador to the Ottoman Court, was a protector of the Eastern European Jews at the Versailles Conference. A massacre in my father's city, Pinsk, was involved in that historical moment. Sadly, that house (which Roger, with whimsical amusement, referred to as "Jewish Tudor") and its grounds have now been sold. While Roger was well known to the literary world as the publisher of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, it was Dorothea who was the writer. She came from another distinguished German-Jewish family, who owned the Rheingold brewery. Her fiction was steeped in the memories of her childhood.

I first heard of her during the late 1960's when, at a literary gathering in Manhattan, Roger complained that his wife was experiencing difficulty in finding a publisher, a remark that echoed with some irony in the room, since Roger was in charge of one of the pre-eminent book firms in the world. Through her daughter-in-law, Nina, and the photographer, Mariana Cook, I met Dorothea and we immediately realized that strange symbiosis despite the difference in our ages that exists between passionate readers. We often argued, quarreled, but with such relish that it was a joy to renew the argument. I insisted that Proust was not just a "Jewish" writer, but the most Jewish of writers, really a Biblical commentator. Dorothea, one of my few friends to have actually read the French masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, from its first volume to the last, objected vociferously, with a cocked eye of outrage. Her ruffled exterior drove me to go on past the first volumes myself, dedicating the better half of a year to not just finishing but weighing the whole and to write her a forty page, single spaced letter, arguing the details of my case. (I won at least the admission that I was not being ridiculous.)

Dorothea was a figure from that world of Grand Tours and European experience--one scanned the photographs on her dresser where bundled in furs she followed her mother on such trips. She seemed only a step away from the Jewish business clans who press into the French aristocracy in Proust's world. She also felt the condescension that breathed toward Jews even in educated circles of society, the quiet undercurrent of social anti-Semitism that I encountered as well when entering Harvard College in 1957. The contrast between the rough, proletarian streets of a Russian-Polish Jewish Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan where I grew up and Dorothea's rarified German-Jewish Manhattan fascinated me. She described her childhood inUnder the Canopy with her characteristic touch of irony: "I have lived in New York City as in a village... The property is entered through gateposts, two piles of ornamental masonry: at the south, the Plaza Hotel; to the north, the Metropolitan Museum. On the east it is bounded by Third Avenue and Central Park, a manmade strip of wilderness divides me from the west. Beyond these confines I have largely been a visitor." Like Virginia Woolf's essay on snobbery, it is quite the opposite of its subject, parochialism. There was a childlike endearment in Dorothea's appreciation of her world, and never a breath of condescension toward mine; rather the opposite, a consuming curiosity.

Roger was always gracious to me when he visited our home, or my wife and I came to supper, but I don't ever recall that sort of engagement over books. Dorothea's put-downs of some of the stars of her husband's publishing company often had my wife and I in stitches, though wisely she shared them only when Roger was not in attendance. I often urged her to write down these observations, which sparkled with vitriolic wit, but she was far too polite, and, finally, protective of Roger, who was ferocious in defense of his stable of writers.

We read each other's work, and I felt the privilege of publishing her and of having my own work appreciated by her, though my ears often burned when she began to praise it, as she was generous in a world that is rarely so. Together we read the work of others as well, comparing notes, and I was often surprised at just how acute she was. She valued writers quite apart from their attachment to her husband's firm, despite her deep loyalty to him. (Fred Tuten, my colleague at City College, who published one book with Roger, remarked to me that the quickest way to be rejected by Roger was to submit a book through Dorothea.) When my co-editor at Fiction, Donald Barthelme left Farrar Straus, she remarked at how much she missed his conversation and company. Donald felt that Roger was saying unflattering things about him in the wake of Donald's going to another publishing house, but Dorothea's will to continue her friendship with him helped heal the breach.

Dorothea was characteristically modest about her role as a translator for Isaac Bashevis Singer, but whatever the truth of her contribution, she was searching both as a writer, and a person, for the roots of the Jewish experience, dissatisfied with the assimilated religion she had grown up with in her parents' house. Her eager curiosity met mine and it was a strong bond between us. We would lure Roger and Dorothea to our house for several Chanukah celebrations. My daughter was wide eyed with awe as Dorothea would sweep into our house in her elegant costumes and flamboyant hats, climbing the four flights of steep stairway from the grim sidewalk of the Bowery, dispelling through our rooms the aura of a world that is best recovered in her own books.

We loved her. She was, in every sense, a member of our own family and of the magazine. I hope to enlarge my own words on our Web site with contributions from others who admired her.