I perked up when reading Claire Messud's tribute to Bob Silvers on the Paris Review Daily last week (I was already pretty perky, since Claire Messud writing about Bob Silvers is fairly high on my list of best possible blog posts, somewhere alongside Mark Ibold on Lebanon bologna--both of which probably tell you more about me than you need to know), when she mentioned starting work in the ad department at the New York Review of Books in the summer of 1988, because that same summer, perhaps my favorite of my forty-five so far, I worked down the hall at 250 W. 57th St. on The Reader's Catalog, an NYRB spinoff that might have been big if it wasn't for, well, the Internet.
I came down to the NYRB offices to make copies and just soak up the general heaped-up, anachronistic braininess (they still used typewriters, while we used floppy discs!), though I wish I had been unintimidated enough to soak up more. Like Messud that year, I never met Silvers (I didn't even hear his "sonorous and elegant voice"), though unlike her I did meet his co-editor, the great Barbara Epstein, in a short conversation I vividly remember flubbing. But the detail in her account that made me perk up further was the parenthetical but affectionate mention of the one editor at the Review I did get to know a little:
(I had, on the other hand, many mad and wonderful conversations with the late Bob Tashman, who roved the office with apparently much time on his hands and who, although balding, had an impressive corona of hair emerging from his shirt collar. His long-worked-upon American Decameron, alas, we will never now see.)
Bob Tashman made a wonderfully similar impression on me at the same time (right down to the hair coming out of the collar). He was friends with my boss at the Catalog, and he did have enough time on his hands, and enough friendly generosity, to have a few somewhat mad conversations with a clueless, goofball undergraduate like me. His voice, as I recall it in my ear now, had a sort of impish snarl to it, and though he was funny pretty much all the time, I remember a couple of his lines in particular. One, involving George Bush Sr. also choosing Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, would probably not survive the retelling but was very funny at the time. The other was a sly imitation of the founder of the Catalog, Jason Epstein, describing a homemade mayonnaise.
He wasn't like anyone I'd ever met, and I think I idly felt that a window had opened up on an adulthood in which you could be serious and smart and still have a great, subversive time. "Idly" is the operative word there: I didn't really do anything to seek that world out--I was, typically, content just to observe and enjoy--but I remembered him well enough in the decades that followed, and was curious enough about what he was doing (and who he really was in the first place, since of course I didn't ask!) to Google his name from time to time once that became possible. Surprisingly little came up, until a couple of years ago I came across the last search result you want to find: notice of his death at 53 from pancreatic cancer.
Messud's is the first mention of him I've come across by chance, and it thrilled me to hear that someone remembered him as I did. I hadn't just made him up! And of course it made me wonder: what was this "American Decameron"? A grand, mad plan he liked to talk about, or something he was actually working on? Part of what always made me curious about him was the mystery of these brainy, literary people who publish so little under their own names. I know there are scores of them scattered around New York at magazines and publishing houses--I've met a few since--but I'm always amazed they can go through their lives so immersed in shepherding words and ideas into print with, apparently, so little drive to publish them under their own byline. (It's a modest stance that I imagine is becoming as anachronistic as the NYRB's typewriters.)
I searched, of course, on "bob tashman american decameron" and found nothing more, but did come across what as far as I can tell is nearly the only other real mention of him out there,* but one that confirms his mad charisma. It's an aside again, in a post on an entirely different subject, this time by a colleague from his later stint at Granta, where Bob apparently moved after the NYRB:
In those days, the magazine had something of a surplus of testosterone, mostly in the formidable shape of the bearded Buford and the extraordinary Bob Tashman, (now sadly departed) an inspired, and slightly crazed import from the New York Review of Books. Tensions around deadline time ran high, particularly among would-be alpha males in the spring, and release was sought in curious ways. Often our editorial meetings were preceded by impromptu push-up challenges or ferocious arm wrestling bouts. After these sessions, with the blood pumping, Bob and Bill would bond over a raucous a capella duet of the Sam the Sham hit. It reminded them, I guessed, of happier days in collegiate America, when men were men, and they weren’t surrounded by uptight Brits, reading proofs.
I feel a little sad we never got down to arm-wrestling or howling "Wooly Bully" in the Fisk Building, but maybe Buford was the necessary catalyst to push Bob into manly hysteria.
With stories like these out there, I'm sure he is well-remembered by many, and I post this in part so there will be one more entry when people search "Bob Tashman," and perhaps in the hope of hearing from someone who knew Bob better than I did, and who would know more about who he was. I'm curious to know more.
* I've since found a few pieces under the "Robert Tashman" byline: two of them defenses of cultural productions others have found indefensible: Altman's Pret-a-Porter and, amazingly, O.J. Simpson's I Want to Tell You, and the other an appreciation of Salman Rushdie's little BFI book on The Wizard of Oz, which includes, oddly enough, a knock against Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories--odd, since based on other Web evidence, Bob was the editor of that book. It takes a bit of a leap to hear his spoken voice in the more formal and even a little stiff style of those written pieces--they are not overtly madcap--but his contrarian learnedness is clear.