Yale University, 1960, B.A., Scholar of the House in English
University of Oxford, 1962, Dipl., Anthropology
University of California-Los Angeles, 1963, M.A., Theater Arts
Yale Drama School, 1967, D.F.A., Playwriting
Leslie Epstein spent his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California. He was part of a Hollywood screenwriting family. His father and uncle, Philip and Julius, wrote classics like Arsenic and Old Lace and won an Academy Award for Casablanca. He is the author of seven novels and three short story collections. His most controversial work was the novel, King of the Jews, in which he examines European Jews who betrayed their own people to the Nazis. He also wrote an autobiographical novel called San Remo Drive in 2003. For over 20 years, he has been the director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.
Below is an hour-long talk we had while he ate lunch and cleared the dishwasher at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Let’s talk a little about your childhood. Your father died when you were thirteen, so was he was more of a memory than an influence?
That’s correct, except that memory has been superimposed by the image of my uncle, who was my father’s identical twin. We were dear to each other until he died some years ago.
And who was the biggest influence growing up? Your mother?
Did you read San Remo Drive? [Yes.] Well, there you have it. [Laughs.] I would say the constellation of a brother like Bartie [an emotionally charged character in the novel modeled after his younger brother], a death of a father, and a difficult mother who was all too close and all too far at the same time. That’s a tough push-pull.
Did you have any outside influences besides people in your family?
I think I was one of these kids probably because my father died young, but it goes back even before that. I always wanted to excel in school. My main motivation was not to please my mother, or anything like that. It was to not disappoint my teachers. I was always liked my teachers and I like authority figures. But I’m rebelling against them all the time.
What scared you the most growing up?
Because of the sudden death of my father, I always thought the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. I lost a good friend in a famous airplane crash over New York in 1960 and I have always not liked flying. I also lost a young lady friend I was just getting to know at Yale in a private plane crash.
If you’re asking about early things that scared me, maybe I was fearless. [Laughs.]
Atom bombs. In the 1950s, my teacher would suddenly say, “Drop!” and we’d have to jump beneath our desk and put our hands over our heads, as if that would protect us from an atom bomb. On some level, that scared me, because I had dreams about explosions.
Republicans always scare me.
Nazis. I grew up seeing those [war] films, though I had a German girlfriend for years.
My fears must have been largely psychic, not based on anything actually real, but the general sense was that life is unstable…unpredictable. Don’t count on anything too much. The rug can always be pulled out, the way my father’s life was pulled out from him and therefore, from all of us.
Do you still feel that way?
I think I do. I remember that first time I saw New York and it was so fabulous. The first time was when I went east to college. Before I went to Yale, I spent some time with a family on Long Island, who’d come into New York, and I remember thinking just then, “Oh, this all going to disappear,” because it connected to my fears of the atom bomb. It seemed like a toy city that could be so easily destroyed. Now, maybe that connects some way to experiencing earthquakes as a kid in California. I can remember the bed shaking. Anyone from California, or with a Los Angeles childhood has probably sensed that the rug could be pulled out when the ground itself is not very stable. Now, it turns out those dreams, or fears I had about New York became all too true 40 years later.
You’ve had antagonistic relationships with all the learning institutions you were a part of.
I got thrown out of the Webb School [of California for boys] for one remark. At Oxford, I just threw myself out. They wouldn’t let me do the research, or write the thesis I wanted to do. Yale of that period and maybe still was the best literary education you could have. Oxford was nowhere in their league. I was learning Anglo-Saxon poems about how to get your cow out of a bog and how to persuade bees to make honey. I was just bored out of my mind. I thought Oxford was fundamentally an unserious place. No one studied for three years. They just sort of punted on the Isis, or Cam. So I said I quit, then the Berlin Wall crisis happened. I came running back [to Oxford]. The first degree in the Bodleian handbook was Agriculture. And I said, better Berlin than Agriculture. The second [program listed] was Anthropology and I thought that might be interesting. And it was. They had a very, very good department there.
At Yale, he got thrown out for making a remark. In an autobiographical essay in Contemporary Authors, he described what happened:
I was standing on High Street when the mayor came out of Fenn-Feinstein and stepped into the barber shop next door. “What’s the mayor doing?” asked my current straight man, as His Honor emerged from the doorway and moved toward the entrance to Barrie Shoes.
“Wednesday. 2:00 p.m.,” I replied, not quite sotto voce. “Collection time.”
There were tense town-gown relationships through that period and I guess the mayor was fed up and in a bad mood. But he literally shoved me up against the car. I told him my name. He said, “I don’t believe you. Show me your ID.” Nowadays, he would grovel on the ground and say, “Don’t sue me. Don’t sue me.” He said, “See you tomorrow at 10 at the dean’s office.” He ran the place and he was a very great mayor of New Haven.
How did you get back into Yale?
It became a kind of scandal. Signs, which I had nothing to do with, began to appear in the lobbies and bulletin boards of each college. Then the New Haven Register called me. They thought I was rusticated to California.
Jim Hayden, a professor at Yale, knew of an apartment that was empty in Hamden, Connecticut. So I went to live there. Evidently, he himself must have had some inkling that the decision was going to be rescinded. It was during tap week, which is when you’re interviewed by all the senior societies. This happened my junior year, so I can remember strolling into town smoking a cigar, basically something I’ve never done since then, going to talk to the people from Scroll and Key.
You know Yale had spied on me and there were reports freshman year that I complained about the food. They just said you’re not Yale material you know. It was like a Gestapo with these files.
Then one day, Dean William DeVane called me and said, “Leslie Epstein?” I said, “Yeesss.” And he said, “We understand that you didn’t go to California.” I said, “That’s right.” And he said, “This has been a difficult period for all of us, would you consider returning?” [Laughs.] So I said, “Yes, I would.” And I did.
To get the Rhodes, I assume you had to get your school’s endorsement and have several letters of recommendation from professors. So could you explain how you received a Rhodes Scholarship, despite being a thorn to the Yale administration? Also, how did you excel at Yale, academically, athletically, and in extra-curriculum activities, to be considered for the scholarship?
I don’t think Yale had anything to do with it. Perhaps in those days universities were more aloof from the process. Indeed, I think Yale would have been horrified if they knew I’d applied. Did I tell you the story, perhaps apocryphal, though perhaps not, that when the news of Yale’s Rhodes Scholars [Note: Jonathan Blake was the other Rhodes recipient from Yale that year] arrived, President Griswold was skating at the Hockey Rink, the wonderful one designed by Eero Saarinen and that Harry Truman called a dead turtle. They say that upon hearing my name he fell flat on his ass and cried out, “What? That rude young man?!”
As for me, I did well academically (I would become a summa), was the feature editor (or maybe just drama critic) for the Yale Daily (first in world to review Sound of Music, which I said was mit Schlag, and featured such numbers as “Getting into the Habit with you,” and “Oh, Sister”), worked on the Yale Literary Magazine, and was a general wise guy on campus.
As for the Rhodes interview, I know when I got the award. It wasn’t that I’d finished eighth in the National Public Parks tennis rankings, doubles (though I choked in the quarterfinals and we lost to a bad team), it was when they asked me, “Imagine that there is a strike in London and all the theaters and movies and museums are closed, how would you spend a free afternoon?”
“I don’t know, because I’d already be on the ferry to Paris.”
That’s what did it, I’m convinced.
And as you know I spent the next two years ferrying around the Mediterranean to escape England as much as I could. Once a wise guy, always…
Were you ever kicked out at Queens? [He began teaching at Queens College of the City University of New York in 1965.]
No, I did pretty well. I liked Queens, but Queens was so unlike all these other places. Those other places are bastions of Christendom. Queens was a public college under a lot of pressure with open admissions just beginning. It was an interesting place.
Let’s talk about your writing. What made you start writing? Because you heard your father and uncle typing away in their study in your house?
I’m sure there was both a genetic and environmental inheritance.
Was there any point where you said, yes, this is what I’m sticking with? This will be my art.
That hasn’t happened yet. I still think I’ll become a doctor someday. [The first line he can remember writing was in a Cub Scout play, “I got ice cream! Every flavor! Chocolate! Coffee! Vanilla! Strawberry! Lamb chop!”] It’s interesting now, while I began as a playwright in the cub scouts with the lamb chop thing and through college I did write a few short stories, but mainly I turned towards theater. My graduate degrees are in theater; then, I dropped it for all these years. Now we just did a play of mine in Boston very successfully. And I have another play, so maybe I’m taking this long detour back to theater. When people ask me what I am? I say I teach. I’m a college professor. I almost never say writer. When pressed, like on the IRS forms, I’ll put “prof/writer”, but when people ask me, I just say I teach at BU.
So what are the three things you like about teaching at BU, or being a professor?
I’m liking it more now than I ever have, even though I said I liked it at Queens. What I liked about Queens was some of the students. In fact, one of those students I had at Queens is helping me place my play (King of Jews) in Tel Aviv.
What I like about it now is my sense of my own competence, which I always wondered about a bit. I just got my teaching reports from this last year. They’re really good now, even though I am more extemporaneous. I throw coffee candies around when they get the right answer. And there is no right answer, but I pretend there is in fiction writing.
I found a way, at last, to tell the truth, but not be bitterly resented. I can’t not tell the truth. It’s an affliction. And believe me, writers don’t want to hear the truth. They say they do, but they don’t. What they want is praise. A lot of times you just can’t give it. Nor should you give it. I now found a way it seems to say what I think and not be increasingly resented for it. Because the students write these anonymous evaluations and if they resented it they would say so. There’s always one. I can usually figure out who it is, like the one who got the D. But really, they’ve been kind of remarkable. I like that I’m in a feedback loop with my students. I like it when they get published. I’m not resentful when my students have more success than I do if they deserve it. There’s no question that Jhumpa Lahiri [who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies] and Ha Jin [who won the National Book Award for Waiting] deserve it. I’m just thrilled for them. That’s a very rewarding part of it, too. I enjoy the success of my students when deserved and it’s often deserved, more often than the other way.
I have always enjoyed the fact that I can close a door and for the next two hours, they’re mine. No one can interfere and no one can come in through that door. And no one can tell me what to do and I can figure out on my own what works best. There have been enough of those two-hour sessions over 43 years.
I like the autonomy of teaching. There are very few professions where in a way you never have a boss. There is no boss if you have tenure. Even without it, there shouldn’t be a sense you have a boss.
Did you make a conscious decision to teach, or did you fall into it, because it seemed a good framework for how you could incorporate writing?
More the latter. I came out of graduate school in 1965, though I had yet to do my thesis. The mid-sixties were a great time to be a graduate student, because there were jobs everywhere. I immediately got a job at Queens College. I didn’t have to leave New York, or the Northeast, which I’d come to like. I fell into that job. I thrived in it and I quickly got tenure. The only disillusioning thing has been those professors whom I never wanted to disappoint. They have proved disappointing themselves.
In what manner?
Read the book called Hitler’s Professors by Max Weinreich. It is kind of true about the profession everywhere. They were weakest willed. They were the greediest to take over the jobs of the displaced Jews. Because there were a lot of Jews in that profession, they seemed particularly greedy. They would denounce their colleagues and then take their jobs. And while I don’t have the opportunity to see that here, I do know that in the McCarthy period the professors behaved very badly by allowing their colleagues to be blacklisted. In general, I didn’t want to disappoint these people, but they ended up in some ways disappointing me.
As I’ve grown a little bit wiser, or at least I’ve had enough experience to be (even if I’m not), I’ve discovered there is absolutely no correlation between political opinions and kindness. In fact, there may be a slight inverse proportion between being a liberal and being a good guy, which is very surprising to me. And I may be wrong about that. I feel more secure saying there is simply no correlation. People who are kind of in the abstract like liberals probably give less money to charity. Massachusetts is down on the bottom. Guess what state is at the highest? Mississippi*. I think one of the reasons is they give a lot at church. It’s just accepted that you will tithe, or give money. They are the poorest state I think. When you look a little closely, life is always surprising; it’s not what you think it is.
Do you still love movies?
Yes, I’m a movie snob. The three greatest movies for me are French. Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné and two films by Jean Renoir–The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion. Les Enfants du Paradis was done under German occupation. Someone should really write a book about how great work is done under restraints. Like the greatest fiction ever written was written under Czarist censorship. There can’t be absolute censorship of course, but it should be there; there should be difficulties (not as done now, when talking about censorship) in the way of doing your art. That’s when you do your best work. We do such crappy work now, because anything goes. And when anything goes, nothing of interest occurs.
One of the problems with education now is it’s impossible to have a conversation across generations. That’s what education is meant to be. It’s a wiser, older, more experienced generation imparting wisdom to a younger one. We don’t know the same language anymore. Every time they say something they are thrilled about, it is a rock group I never heard of. I’ll mention these films that I’ve mentioned to you and no one’s ever heard of them. No one’s ever heard of Renoir. I once had a class at Queens College, where no one heard of the word, “Oedipus”. They didn’t know it as a myth, a complex, or a drama. So I said this class will not meet again until you know all three. We let a couple of weeks go by and they knew all three.
Do you still do that with your current classes?
For example, in my creative writing class last semester I brought in a CD player and I put on a Brahms sextet. I said, “If you get nothing else from this year with us, you’re going to hear a great piece of music.” And they said, “Huh? Brahms? Huh?” I think I’m going to play more music, maybe bring in a painting. I also tell everybody, go to Columbia University, because it’s one of the few schools in which they still insist that everybody in the first couple of years learn the greatest thoughts, the greatest things ever painted, and the greatest philosophers. Then, you can go off and study what you wish, but you can continue the conversation.
Since you’ve been teaching for so many years, how have you seen the generations change?
You know I really haven’t. They are just as courteous. My students are courteous, which I appreciate. Remember, I’m seeing mostly graduate students, though I do have one undergraduate class still. Plus, BU has been improving every year. Our graduate program is very hard to get into. We’re seeing cream of the crop. But there is a lack of a historical sense…lack of culture. When I was at Yale, the dumb jocks would say, “Oh boy, he’s in the library all night.” But they would think that’s great. There was clear respect for those [studious] people. Now there’s not. That’s unfortunate.
You seem to think art is very important to have in one’s life.
Nothing is more important if you take the broadest definition of art as a manifestation of the imagination. That can take place in writing history, in philosophy, in science, and what have you. The most dangerous things happen in the world when imagination gets curtailed, or dies. Hannah Arendt called thoughtlessness a kind of evil. Imagination also relates to empathy, feeling what other people feel. Imagining the lives of others, which is a very hard thing to do, is what artists are paid to do and presumably can do.
Why do I bring the Brahms in? It just seems crazy to be in a university and be studying marketing, or managing a hotel—to have any vocation attached to it. I completely believe in the old-fashioned liberal arts education, where you are simply exposed to the best the human race has done. Beyond that, I just have no interest. No one else should have any interest either, hence, my saying go to Columbia University, or St. John’s College—those few places where that occurs.
Besides telling a young person to go to Columbia, what else would you recommend to them about developing their lives, or at least getting a start on the right path?
Don’t use a cell phone. Try not to use a computer too much. The “bookish boy” used to be a phrase and of course it applies even more to girls, because they tend to be more bookish. The trouble is they’ve disappeared. One would never use that quaint phrase now. I was a bookish boy. I can still remember the first adult book I ever read—The Grapes of Wrath. Each of my kids read it when they turned 13. They read the book and they each loved it. Now kids are playing computer games. So I would say, don’t do anything that plugs in. It’s a huge waste of time and a mistake. It destroys the imagination. That’s the one nice thing about books. They really invite you to imagine what the people looked like and what their inner lives are. A book makes you make connections.
On the other hand, the twentieth century, which is the worst century ever, was before things were plugged in too much. There is a school of thought that all these things are good for us. I’m not an expert. Maybe hand-eye coordination will create a kind of mental stimulus that will be good. I doubt it, but it’s not impossible. The record of the last century—well, it’s nothing to be proud of, in fact, it’s the worst mankind ever went through. So I do not believe in progress.
Oh, how can you? Are any of us thinking better than the Greeks did? I don’t think so. Do we have a better society than they did? I don’t think so. And if art is important, then the art we’re producing is pretty bad now. Pretty bad. As Larry David would say in Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Pretty, pretty bad.” That show is one of the real signs of progress, but now it is off the air. I just thought it was marvelous, absolutely marvelous.
What was your philosophy in raising your children?
Leave it to the wife. [Laughs.] I think that unconsciously I married a woman who I knew would be the opposite of my mother. It’s not a plan. You don’t think it out, or any such thing. In retrospect, that was the case and so my children had a person of tremendous moral strength and completely selfless. Not having a selfish bone in her body was the example that our kids, I hope, picked up from their mother. They didn’t pick it up from me.
[One of his twin sons, Theo, became the youngest General Manager in the history of Major League Baseball when the Boston Red Sox hired him in 2002.] So you don’t think you had a hand in your son’s Theo’s success?
I like sports and I tried not to miss any of my kids’ events, or games. That’s still the case. But Theo’s achievement was on his own. The only hand I had was I wrote a letter to the owner of the Orioles, who was someone I vaguely knew. [Note: Theo had summer internships with the Orioles from 1992 to 1994.] Those were the Yale connections that everybody uses.
Theo got into Yale writing an essay on the Negro Leagues. He wrote it himself. I didn’t rewrite it, or anything else. Now, why was he interested in the Negro Leagues? Many kids reflect the atmosphere and the politics of their parents, especially at that early age. We’re Roosevelt Democrats and I did teach at a black college the Civil Right summer of 1964. In that way, by osmosis, I suppose he got some of those values. But many kids rebel against whatever values their parents had.
But you haven’t seen that tide turn in your children?
No, I haven’t, except that they’re not religious at all. I’m not formally religious, but I have a self of myself as a Jew, which comes out in all my writing, for example. My daughter is a little different, but the boys are both self-proclaimed proud atheists. But they’re still young. They don’t know history in the same way. I really steeped myself into the Holocaust. They haven’t. They refused to be bar mitzvahed. I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, so I couldn’t be so much of a hypocrite to say they had to be. Nor did they go to temple. I got thrown out of temple for rollerskating in the aisles. So I said look, you don’t have to go, but you have to read these five books. I don’t think it took. You never know.
What books were they?
One of them was The Last of the Just by Andrew Schwarz-Bart. I think another was a book called Journal of David Taback, which is about a Jewish boy in Europe.
Do you have a favorite modern day author? You’ve said your favorite writer was Dostoevsky.
A living writer? J.D. Salinger is still alive, though not writing. Norman Mailer’s non-fiction like Executioner’s Song, or Armies of the Night are wonderful books. I like Michael Chabon. He’s not quite in their league, but I like his writing. I liked Vladimir Nabokov, but he’s no longer alive.
Do you consider yourself a happy person, a successful person?
I consider myself on nice days a content person. Then I get very discontented, because I think a content person is not going to do much writing. When I wrote San Remo Drive, I put my finger on all the things that were making me a writer and now that I’ve expressed them. I think all writing comes out of childhood, as is repeatedly and explicitly said in that book. Now that I’ve opened up my childhood, maybe that will be the end. We’ll find out. Why am I turning to theater? Is it, because I feel I’m tapped out with my fiction? I know that I’m not, because there’s one other major book of some importance to me that I want to write. It’s the last of the Lieb Goldkorn [a charismatic flautist featured in Epstein’s three short story collections] books. He’s 104, but he’s not done yet.