My first contact with Leon Wieseltier was by letter. The year was 1977. Written on Balliol College, Oxford, letterhead stationery, the letter informed me that I was a force for superior culture in America, one of the few contemporary intellectuals worthy of respect, and through my writing the all but single-handed savior of Commentary magazine. The author of the letter, he went on to report, was 25, had gone to Columbia, thence on a fellowship to Oxford, and would be spending the next few years as a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He ended by wondering if, were he to shore up one day in Chicago, we might meet for lunch.
As a scribbler for small-circulation magazines, my threshold for praise may be a touch or two higher than most people’s, but even I did not believe the extravagant praise in young Leon Wieseltier’s letter. Still, as one grows older, and I was then 40, one is pleased to have the praise of the young. Such praise leads to the doubtless delusionary hope that one’s own work will live on after one has departed the planet. I wrote to Leon Wieseltier, thanking him for his generous words and telling him that, yes, sure, should he ever find himself in Chicago, he was to let me know, so that we might meet.
Six or so months later, I received another letter from Wieseltier informing me that he planned to be in Chicago in six days and wondered if we might have that lunch. The letterhead was now that of the Harvard Society of Fellows. I wrote back to say yes, of course, and gave him the address of a Chinese restaurant where I thought we might meet. When he entered the restaurant, he turned out to be tall, slender, with close-cropped dark hair. Conversation flowed easily enough. He told me that, like me, he wished to write for the intellectual magazines. He filled me in on his own background. His parents were immigrants, survivors of the Holocaust. His early education was at the Flatbush Yeshiva, where Talmud study had made all subsequent classroom learning seem a pushover. We told each other Jewish jokes. We searched for the French word for “a light,” as in to light a cigarette ( allumer). I was editing a magazine myself in those days, and he said he would like, if I didn’t mind, to send me an essay he was thinking of writing about his Oxford days.
Toward the close of the meal, he took out a scrap of paper and read out an address on Sheridan Road in Chicago and asked how far it was from the hotel in the Loop where he was staying.
“It’s roughly a 20-dollar cab ride,” I told him. “Who lives on Sheridan Road?”
“Oh,” he said, “Saul Bellow. I’m having dinner tonight with him and his wife.”
Just then I wondered how many letters of the kind he had written to me, with appropriate variations, he had written to others. I also thought, this kid is doing intellectual tourism, and I am merely Siena.
Three or so months later, he sent me his essay, which was passable but no great shakes. Still, wanting to encourage the young, I agreed to publish it, which, with a bit of editing, I did. Meanwhile, I noticed his name beginning to turn up over reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books. These reviews were of books on serious subjects—I remember a Gershom Scholem book at the center of one—and were not especially notable, not for distinction of style or for penetrating ideas, but good imitations of the kind of reviews that appeared in both places. His essay on Oxford that I published attracted no comment but for a letter from a reader pointing out that its author had made a factual mistake. I wrote to tell him, Leon, all that was required was his acknowledging his error and apologizing for it. He replied by asking if it were possible that I could attribute the mistake to “a printer’s error.” I replied absolutely not and printed the letter without a response. This was the second time in my brief acquaintance with him that I sensed Leon Wieseltier was a young man worth watching. And so I did, and continued to do. I never saw him again, but I found myself following his career with fascination and much amusement. Quite a career, close to fabled you might say, it turned out to be.
Around this time, while in New York, I had a meeting with the literary critic Irving Howe. He had been generous to me, running some of my early writing in his magazine Dissent and going out of his way to get me, a man with no advanced degrees, a job teaching in the English department in nearby (to me) Northwestern University. We met in Irving’s office. He sat behind his desk, upon which sat an ample manuscript. He told me it was for his book to be called World of Our Fathers and that its publisher thought it had a chance for a large sale.
“Must be nice to hear,” I said.
“I suppose so,” Irving answered, “but you know such accomplishments as I’ve recorded have always been dampened for me by a remark of Elizabeth Hardwick some years ago that got back to me.”
“What was it?”
“ ‘Irving Howe,’ ” she said, “ ‘another Jew-boy in a hurry.’ ”
I thought, of course, of Leon Wieseltier.
After his years at Harvard, a school useful above all for making connections, Leon had acquired a job at the New Republic, a liberal weekly that had not long before been bought by a man named Martin Peretz, a wealthy, part-time instructor at Harvard. During his early days on the magazine, Leon published a longish piece there on, of all things, nuclear war. Nothing very distinguished about it, either, the thought of taking him seriously on such a large subject was in fact slightly gigglesome, but it suggested to me that young Leon, with all the possibilities open to him, the good student with superior tuchus-lecking skills, was considering that of becoming our next Henry Kissinger. I subsequently learned he was aiming higher.
Before long Leon was given control over the back of the book, the literary and cultural sections of the New Republic. His byline would appear mostly over something like a column, not every week but fairly often, on the last page of the magazine. These columns increasingly became moral diatribes. Whatever the subject, one thing they all had in common was that he, Leon Wieseltier, not only had a clearer vision of the world and what was important in it than anyone he was writing about, but also a deeper moral imagination. Along the way, he had developed a style which entailed short-sentences that suggested the aphorism. This style worked nicely to elevate himself while dismissing anyone who happened to disagree as a moral idiot, scum really, who if he understood how wretched he was would go instanter into the intellectual equivalent of a witness protection program.
In this new style, on his single page containing 800 or so words, Leon took on the role of moral conscience of the intellectuals, the Jews, the nation at large. His self-emplacement as spokesmen for the Jews especially caused me to wince and shiver. Still a fairly young man, Leon Wieseltier was setting up shop as one of the leading moralists of our day, and with absolutely no legitimate claims to it that I could see, and a few, from personal experience, that I knew disqualified him. Yes, his was a career worth watching.
Meanwhile, the name Leon Wieseltier, sometimes accompanied by photographs, began to turn up in places like the New York Observer and those small photographs in the party pages at the front of Vanity Fair. His hair had turned prematurely white, he had put on weight, his complexion become pinker than I had remembered. Someone told me that on trips to Hollywood he had become not merely acquainted but friendly with those two queens of ditz, Barbra Streisand and Shirley MacLaine. In Washington, where the New Republic was located, he was often seen in the company of Al and Tipper Gore. He somehow managed to wangle a small part—two lines at a Jewish wedding—in an episode of The Sopranos.
He began turning up on television. I recall him pontificating about the Middle East and the fate of Israel on Charlie Rose. Charlie (if I may) asked him to explain the complexities of Middle Eastern politics; Leon obliged. Appearing on the occasional cable station panels, he could have been, if he so desired, among the punditi, but his intellectual allusions elevated him at least two stages higher. Leon was one of America’s leading experts in—in whatever you’ve got.
On television I noted that he put on weight, his hairline greatly receded, his skin grew pinker and he, somehow, grosser. (If Orwell was correct when he said that at 50 one has the face one deserves, then Leon was going to need cosmetic surgery at 60.) When I searched him out on YouTube, which I began to do in recent years, he wore a standard outfit, trousers, jacket, T-shirt, outershirt, long tallith-like scarf worn indoors, cowboy boots, all of them black; he was a kind of rumpled reversal of Tom Wolfe in his white suits. An Internet photo has him wearing a cowboy hat above his jowly face. His dominant feature, though, was his hair, two great white tufts of it, growing out of both sides of his head, framing his coarsening features and causing Gore Vidal to remark of him that he had “important hair,” with the clear if unspoken implication of “and nothing else.”
In 1995 an article appeared in Vanity Fair written by a man named Lloyd Grove, commenting on Leon’s social-climbing skills, his unbreakable connection with Martin Peretz and the power it gave him at the New Republic, his all-but-self-confessed cheating on his first wife (the Pakistani daughter of a man described in the article as a “merchant prince”). The article also remarked on how these various activities apparently got in the way of Leon, despite his rather extravagant intellectual pretensions, getting any serious intellectual work done: no books, few articles beyond those back-page moral diatribes. He was, he told Grove, contemplating a book on sighing, a fine Leon touch, in the realm of intellectual pretension. The unspoken charge was laziness.
Toward the close of the article what one might have thought a more serious matter arose: that of Leon’s reputed cocaine habit, which caused him to load up his Honda with the review copies of books sent by publishers to the magazine and sell them to support his expensive drug habit. I looked at future issues of Vanity Fair to see if Leon had written in, in his best moralizing tone, refuting such a story, but no letter appeared.
One might have thought this last item—drugging and petty thieving—might have taken the highfalutinness out of Leon’s moral tone, but, near as I could make out, not in the least. The heavy moralizing, the portentousness, the pomposity, all continued, business pretty much as usual. Evidently, he beat his cocaine habit.
Leon grew older, balder, fatter, his white locks longer (the Benjamin Franklin de nos jours someone called him). His speaking engagements, at shuls, universities, in Israel, if anything seemed to increase. The role and responsibility of the intellectual became one of his signature topics. But he had many. Watching him on YouTube being interviewed by earnest young rabbis, professors, editors, on one occasion appearing with the female president of Harvard, I sensed that, on the basis of no concrete intellectual achievements, Leon Wieseltier had taken upon himself the role of a tzaddik, for the hasidim one of the world’s righteous and all-wise leaders. He was a tzaddik, of course, without followers or even a belief in God, a freelance tzaddik, you might say, working for what I assume were substantial speaking fees.
On these various interviews, it was as if his interlocutors, looking over at him in his black get-up, slouching in his chair, thick fingers on his expansive pot belly, one cowboy-booted leg crossed over the other, were appealing, “Oh, tzaddik, give unto us your wisdom, what do you think of the Holocaust, the future of the university, the role of the humanities, the Netanyahu government, mobile phones, the role of technology in contemporary life . . . ” With neither flinch nor stammer, Leon told them, prattled away, gave them crumbs from the great tzaddik’s plate, and they seemed to slurp it all up. Did he believe all, or even any, of his moral pronunciamentos? Who knows? Even Leon may not have known. No one seemed to call him on them, or on his authority generally. He had a tight act.
I noted that in recent years Leon had added to his repertoire the notion that he was, as he put it, “the intellectual son” of distinguished men: of Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, Saul Bellow, and others. “I have many intellectual fathers,” I heard him say in more than one of his interviews. Since all these men were dead, I thought, what a pity they couldn’t, as all would doubtless have wished, deny paternity.
Still, Leon Wieseltier seemed to go from strength to strength. He turned setbacks into victories. When a young Internet millionaire, who had bought the New Republic two years earlier, announced plans in 2014 to transform the magazine for which he had worked for decades into a “digital media company,” Leon resigned in his by now well-practiced high moral dudgeon, accompanied by much favorable publicity, claiming the owner knew nothing of the higher purposes of intellectual journalism.
Upon his quitting the New Republic, a famous think tank quickly took Leon on as its Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow (Daddy would have been proud) and the Atlantic appointed him a contributing editor. The wealthy widow of Steve Jobs stepped up to fund a new magazine he planned to edit called Idea. In a well-known anecdote, the conductor Herbert von Karajan is said to have got into a cab, and when the driver asked him where he wished to go, von Karajan replied, “It doesn’t matter. They want me everywhere.” Leon Wielseltier seemed to be in the same condition.
And then— Pow! Crash! Crunch!—the roof fell in. Amid a clump of sexual harassment scandals, featuring movie moguls, right-wing television commentators and executives, big-money journalists, Leon Wieseltier’s name turned up. For nearly his entire tenure at the New Republic, the unrefuted accusation was, he was a regular offender, kissing young women full on the mouth against their wishes, describing their bodies to them, recounting his own sexual exploits, sputtering obscenities, bringing tears and shame to females under his power. Everyone on the New Republic apparently knew about it, but, owing to his close connection to the magazine’s owner, no one on the staff, man or woman, had the courage to call him out on the awfulness of his behavior.
Leon’s modest fame was just ample enough for a lengthy story about his atrocious behavior to appear in the New York Times. His villainous behavior was suddenly all over the Internet. Leon made his apology, thereby owning up to the truth of the accusations against him, but the apology, though it seemed little more than perfunctory, did include the nice Leonic moral touch near the end, where he assured everyone that he “will not waste this reckoning.” At least he had the decency not to claim that he was going into therapy.
What made it all so rich, of course, was the Tartuffian quality of its perpetrator, Leon Wieseltier, the earnest young man who wrote to me from Oxford some 40 years ago. The great humanist turned out to be inhumane, the tzaddik wore no tzitzit but all these years was mentally undressing and offending his female co-workers. Untoppable, such a story, as Molière recognized nearly four centuries ago.
Soon after the story of Leon Wieseltier’s years of sexual harassing broke, the wealthy widow canceled his new magazine, the Brookings Institution stripped him of his fellowship, the Atlantic dropped him from its masthead, other journals on whose boards he sat found him, to put it gently, an embarrassment.
I, for one, shall miss Leon in, as he might say, the public square, or rather I shall miss his act, which over the years has been a source of high amusement for me, who viewed it as a one-man intellectual sitcom at the spectacle of which I may have been the only one laughing. In his middle sixties, now that he has been publicly shamed and self-confessed as a creep, the Leon Wieseltier Show would seem to be over. No comeback for its star, surely, is possible, or so one might think. But I wouldn’t bet on it.