Author explores the life and many loves of Philip Roth

“Philip Roth: The Biography” by Blake Bailey, W. W. Norton & Company, 912 pages, $40. Published April 6, 2021

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

First, full disclosure:  I have been an unabashed admirer of the acclaimed novelist Philip Roth throughout my long career at the Jewish Light.  Roth, the tormented genius of American Jewish letters, who earned every major literary award except for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which many reviewers, including me, long felt he deserved, died at 85 in 2018, his passing forever precluding his trip to Stockholm, because the Prize is not given posthumously.

Throughout his half-century career, Philip Milton Roth (1933-2018) attracted both deep-seated scorn over what some critics thought was Jewish self-hatred as well as admiration for his biting humor, his sparkling Henry James-inspired prose and his unprecedented candor about sex. Some also took exception at his cat-and-mouse game of creating protagonists who are obviously based on himself, while insisting that they are only strictly figments of his fertile imagination.

Roth stopped writing with his last novel, “Nemesis,” in 2011, and turned his attention to recruiting a writer of his “authorized” biography.  After rejecting a number of candidates, Roth selected Blake Bailey, a non-Jewish author of acclaimed biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson. Roth had rejected longtime friend Ross Miller — a nephew of playwright Arthur Miller — after a dispute over another project. 

This week, Bailey’s hefty 912-page volume “Philip Roth:  The Biography” was published by Norton. The book is both comprehensive and compelling, exhaustive and occasionally exhausting in telling the full story of Roth’s many lives, loves, gratitude and grudges. Bailey’s tome deserves to be called definitive and belongs on the shelves of anyone seriously interested in any aspect of Roth’s complicated and complex life.

The Bailey book comes out shortly after the release of another worthy Roth biography, “Philip Roth: A Counterlife” by Ira Nadel ( Oxford University Press, March 2021).

Both Bailey and Nadel go into painstaking detail, gleaned from interviews of Roth, his admirers and detractors and a breathtaking inventory of his hundreds of lovers, his two failed marriages and his decades of contending with fellow authors and the Jewish literary establishment.

We learn from both authors that Roth indeed based many of the characters in his novels on himself, his ex-wives, lovers, friends and adversaries Roth names in interviews with both biographers. 

For example, the inspiration for Brenda Patimkin in Roth’s 1959 debut novella, “Goodbye, Columbus” is Maxine Groffsky, who is described as unhappy with her character in the novel and was portrayed by Ali MacGraw in the 1969 film opposite Richard Benjamin as the Roth-based Neil Klugman.

Also in 1969, Roth’s most popular novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” was released. Its protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, was a “nice Jewish Boy” who worked on the New York mayor’s Human Rights Commission. His yetzer ha Tov or the inclination to be good which was at war with his yetzer hara, or “evil inclination” led him to engage in illicit sexual adventures. The novel’s flagrant celebration of Portnoy’s insatiable masturbation fixation prompted intense controversy. Like the real Roth, Portnoy complains that he is “trapped in a Jewish joke.”

Portnoy’s psychiatrist, the famous Dr. Otto Spielvogel, says that his divided self results from “the narcissism of the artist.”  After the hapless Portnoy pours out his soul for the entire length of the novel, Spielvogel famously says, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Bailey is unsparing in his carefully documented descriptions of every aspect of Roth’s life and work, with the exact addresses of every one of his homes, the real people who inspired the protagonists and every character in his fictional work, his unquenchable need for relationships with scores of women, which suggest that he was as addicted to sex as Ernest Hemingway was to booze.

We learn from Bailey that Roth could be cold and cruel, but also extremely kind to his lovers and friends.  Indeed, Bailey documents, Roth continued to be a friend to many of his former girlfriends and lovers, several of whom were at his bedside when he died and others who spoke at his funeral at the Bard College Cemetery, where he was buried.

It is interesting to note that Roth had his worst relationships with the two women he married:  Margaret (Maggie) Martinson Williams, whom he met while teaching at the University of Chicago, a blonde non-Jewish woman, with features that attracted Roth, who tricked him into marriage with a fake pregnancy test—and the British actress Claire Bloom, who was of Jewish parentage. She also was the ex-wife of film star Rod Steiger with whom she had a child, Anna Steiger, whose presence vexed Roth. 

As for Martinson Williams, she had two children by her first marriage, David Williams and Helen (Holly) Williams. Back in 1975,  after I reviewed Roth’s book “Reading Myself and Others,” a Jewish Light reader informed me that David Williams was living in Soulard. Williams agreed to be interviewed on his relationship with Roth, who mentored him and taught him English literature. He said that Roth helped transform him from being a “pretty wild kid” into an intellectually curious young man who was admitted to the Morgan Park Academy, a private school similar to the John Burroughs School in St. Louis. 

The interview was headlined “Papa Portnoy:  Philip Roth as a Stepfather,” in which Williams said, “If it weren’t for Philip I would probably be in jail right now.”  The piece was noted and cited in the Bailey and Nadel books, and was mentioned by Roth himself  in his non-fiction autobiography, “The Facts.”  Roth also had a close relationship with Helen Williams, who rose from her forlorn waif-like status to become a happily married mother of two, who still keeps a photo of herself with Roth on her nightstand, according to Nadel.

Roth and Martinson Williams were in the midst of a bitter divorce in 1968 when she was killed in a car accident in Central Park. In keeping with her wishes, she had a Jewish funeral officiated by Rabbi David Seligson, who ironically was among the Jewish establishment figures who had denounced Roth’s work as a “bane on the Jews,” according to Bailey.  

The descriptions of the divorce wars in both of Roth’s doomed marriages are among the most harrowing chapters in the Bailey book. 

Roth’s marriage to Martinson Williams is retold in Roth’s novel “My Life as a Man,” which depicts her as Maureen Johnson Tarnopol, whose husband Peter is one of several Roth-based characters along with David Kepesh, Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman.

Most of Roth’s fictional stand-ins were born in Newark and grew up in suburban Weequahic, where he went to high school and lived in a loving middle-class household.

Roth’s real-life parents, Herman and Bess Finkel Roth, were nothing like the suffocating parents of Alexander Portnoy. Roth’s older brother, Sandy, was a stabilizing constant in Roth’s life, and when he died Roth was overwhelmed that he was the lone survivor of his “little family.”

When Roth’s friends and adversaries began to grow old and die, when he saw that one of his countless lovers had become “a little white-haired woman,” and he knew for sure he was finished writing, he secured the dedicated services of Bailey to tell his story.  

Bailey has done a truly masterful job.

“Philip Roth: The Biography” by Blake Bailey, W. W. Norton & Company, 912 pages, $40. Published April 6, 2021