Begley, Louis 1933-

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Begley, Louis 1933-


Born Ludwik Begleiter, October 6, 1933, in Stryj, Poland; immigrated to United States, 1948; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1953; son of Edward David (a physician) and Frances Begley; married Sally Higginson, February 11, 1956 (divorced, May, 1970); married Anne Muhlstein Dujarric de la Riviere (a writer), March 30, 1974; children: (first marriage) Peter, Amey B., Adam C.; (stepchildren) Robert and Stéphane Dujarric. Education: Harvard University, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1954; LL.B. (magna cum laude), 1959. Politics: Democrat.


Home—New York, NY. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected].


Lawyer, educator, and writer. Admitted to the Bar of New York State, 1961; Debevoise & Plimpton (law firm), New York, NY, associate, 1959-67, partner, 1968-2004 (retired); writer; lecturer. Military service: U.S. Army, 1954-56.


Association Bar of City of New York, Council on Foreign Relations, Century Association, American Phi.


Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, 1991; National Book Award nomination, 1991; National Book Critics' Circle Award nomination, 1991; Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination, 1991; PEN/Ernest Hemingway First Fiction Award, 1992; Prix Medicis Etranger, 1992, for Wartime Lies; Harold U. Ribalow Prize, 1992; Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995; Jeanette Literatur Preis, 2000; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres.



Wartime Lies, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

The Man Who Was Late, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.

As Max Saw It, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.

About Schmidt, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

Mistler's Exit, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

Schmidt Delivered, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.

Shipwreck, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

(With wife, Anka Muhlstein) Venice for Lovers, Haus (London, England), 2005.

Matters of Honor, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review and New York Review of Books. Novels have been translated into fifteen languages.


About Schmidt was adapted for a film written and directed by Alexander Payne. The film starred Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates and was released by New Line Cinema in 2002. Wartime Lies is being adapted for film.


Louis Begley, a prominent attorney specializing in international corporate law, won substantial acclaim with his literary debut, Wartime Lies. Since then Begley has become well known for his novels that feature "the emotional landscape of the detached, aging businessman-aesthete," to quote Vanessa V. Friedman in Entertainment Weekly. In the tradition of the novel of manners, Begley writes domestic dramas about the wealthy—"an unblinking bird's-eye view of a tiny world plagued by excess leisure and the demanding upkeep of luxury," as Daphne Merkin put it in the New York Times Book Review. Merkin added: "Armed with insider information about the controlling familial maneuvers and byzantine financial stratagems of the wealthy, Begley imparts a bracingly sour wisdom to his descriptions of the conclaves where the moneyed and powerful meet and share their avarice, need and obsessive anxiety about gift versus estate taxes."

Himself a refugee from Nazi atrocities in Poland, Begley creates characters with identity problems and grim cynicism about the vagaries of fate. According to Victoria N. Alexander in the Antioch Review, one of the author's recurring themes is "the idea of divine capriciousness which can reward the undeserving and punish the good." The critic further noted that Begley "also examines the implications of divine justice's secular analogue, poetic justice." In the New York Times Book Review, Jack Miles stated that "the falsification of the self" is a prevailing interest of Begley's, most notably in his first two novels but also present throughout his oeuvre. Miles explained: "Self-deception at any point in a lifetime is like a dream in that the playwright and the audience are one, and the action can only be carried out under a certain anesthesia. That anesthesia, that strange numbness, has been the haunted and haunting mood around all of Begley's … work." Denver Post online correspondent Paul Kafka-Gibbons likewise found Begley to be adept at revealing "men struggling, in midlife, to take possession of their own experience." Many critics have praised Begley's work for its precise, even understated, prose. As Phyllis Rose noted in the New York Times Book Review, the author's "exceptional literary intelligence is always in control, making me wonder if more novelists shouldn't develop the virtues of lawyers as writers: accuracy, economy, abjuring the language of emotion."

Begley's debut novel, Wartime Lies, was published when the author was in his late fifties. Having never written fiction before, Begley has said that this award-winning work took only three months to complete. The novel recounts the experiences of a six-year-old orphan, Maciek, and his hearty aunt, Tania, as they struggle to survive in war-torn Poland during World War II. Maciek and Tania adopt false identities, using these "wartime lies" to avoid persecution as Jews. Recalling his childhood decades later, Maciek likens his memories to the very lies he promoted to survive during that time. Judith Grossman observed in the New York Times Book Review: "The final perspective on little Maciek is given to the man in mid-life, who … speaks an epitaph consigning his childhood self to the realm of vanitas—the emptiness of lies." She added that this resolution remains "faithful to the dark ironies of Maciek's fate, which it is Louis Begley's great achievement to have confronted and sustained."

Wartime Lies won praise as an incisive, compelling account of suffering and survival. Grossman wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Begley's novel is "masterly." Newsweek reviewer James N. Baker described the book as "melancholy" and added that it "shows us that survival can have too high a price." And Times Literary Supplement reviewer Bryan Cheyette, who perceived Wartime Lies as Begley's "bid to recapture his lost childhood," noted that the novel "is as much about the psychological consequences of this loss as anything else."

Victoria Alexander wrote: "Where exactly Wartime Lies stands between life and art, truth and lies, no one, not even Begley, I am sure, can say. If the novel had more obvious artistic designs than it has, extraordinary designs that could not be explained in terms of probable natural, social, or psychological factors, then these might be the parts of the novel that we could easily identify as its ‘lies.’" However, Alexander noted that "in this instance … I find myself agreeing with [other reviewers] that Maciek of Wartime Lies is strongly grounded in biographical fact."

Begley's 1993 novel, The Man Who Was Late, is the story of Ben, a fiercely self-made man, as told by his closest friend, Jack. Jack pieces the facts of Ben's life together from his own memory and from the personal papers that come into his possession as executor of Ben's will. One prominent element of the narrative is the revealing of Ben's tumultuous love affair with Jack's cousin Veronique, a woman whose dazzling beauty masks darkness and disquiet. In recounting the story, Jack comes to understand why Ben believed himself to be "late in the major matters of existence." Once again, some critics found close parallels between the suicidal Ben and his creator. Antioch Review contributor Alexander wrote: "Like his author, Ben, a Central European Jew who has somehow missed the train to Auschwitz, redefines himself, somewhat guiltily among the leisured rich in America." Alexander went on to write: "The narrator's vivid familiarity with Ben's anguish is authoritative."

R.Z. Sheppard, in his Time assessment of The Man Who Was Late, called Begley "a fine technician," praising the author's ability to "reveal the hidden flaws in an outwardly flawless character." Washington Post Book World contributor Paul Buttenwieser lauded the narrative's "urbanity and wit and filigree elegance." "With The Man Who Was Late the organization is as sophisticated as the content," declared Gabriele Annan in New York Review of Books. The reviewer also noted: "It is a very elegant, and readable novel, and very serious as well." In her New York Times Book Review piece on the novel, Eva Hoffman noted: "The damage wrought upon the survivor's and refugee's psyche—the alienation of carrying unshareable memories, the obscure shame often felt by those who have been exposed to cruelty, the anesthesia of denial and forgetting—this, I believe, is the thematic substratum of The Man Who Was Late."

As Max Saw It introduces another curiously detached narrator who ultimately must come to terms with his humanity. Max, a Harvard law professor, finds emotional engagement as well as heightened anxiety in his friendship with Charlie Swan and Charlie's lover, Toby. When Toby falls ill, presumably with AIDS, Max is torn between his desire to remain distant from the reality of the sickness and his sense of responsibility to his friends and family. In his New York Times Book Review essay on the novel, Bruce Bawer contended that the work underscores "the perennial failure of human beings to recognize their connection to and responsibility for one another." The critic added that As Max Saw It "points up the brutal consequences of dishonesty and self-deception in supposedly private matters. It is a consummately beautiful—and major—work of literary art."

About Schmidt has been called "a novel of bad manners" by R.Z. Sheppard in Time magazine. The protagonist, Albert Schmidt, is a wealthy, retired WASP attorney who has recently lost his wife and who, to his dismay, is about to gain an unprincipled—and Jewish—son-in-law. From his home in the Hamptons, Schmidt contemplates his future and quarrels with his daughter, who accuses him of anti-Semitism. According to New York Times Book Review contributor Phyllis Rose, Begley "is too fastidious to make Schmidt likable, as though to elicit sympathy for him would then be too easy. How much greater the literary accomplishment to make us pity, understand, even identify with someone we have permission to write off." Indeed, as the novel progresses, Schmidt is seen to have been an indifferent father and constant womanizer, someone who makes decisions based on tax consequences rather than emotional ties. A transformation begins, however, when Schmidt commences an affair with a Puerto Rican waitress who is younger than his daughter. Rose declared: "This book exists at a point where the dry probity of a certain high-WASP temperament and the dry secular spirit in Judaism meet. It resolutely refuses transcendence. The temperature never goes up. The pitch never varies. You never feel you are being manipulated into a falsely emotional response." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called About Schmidt "an elegant, precise, droll novel," adding: "It's one of the pleasures of Begley's … narrative that he both reveals Schmidt's … shortcomings and makes him nonetheless a fascinating character." Likewise, in his BookPage Web site review, Charles Flowers wrote that the work is "a grimly witty, credible examination of a flawed, disappointed prince of privilege." Flowers further commended Begley for "finding moral weight within the vanities of the well-to-do."

Another wealthy and successful WASP faces a reckoning in Mistler's Exit. Thomas Mistler is in the process of selling his New York advertising firm for a huge profit when he discovers that he has inoperable liver cancer. Faced with the knowledge that he has only months to live, he travels to Venice, "the one place on earth where nothing irritated him." There he has a short, bitter sexual encounter with one woman and a reunion with another, an old flame from college. As with Schmidt before him, Mistler is hardly a sympathetic protagonist. If he eventually comes to see that his life has been "bought and sold on the auction block of success," as Vern Wiessner put it in a review, he nevertheless meets his destiny with few regrets. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote of Begley: "Once again he has created a sinister, highly ambiguous protagonist in a haunting, ambivalent work of art."

Schmidt Delivered continues Begley's examination of the moral flaws of the wealthy in modern America. "Schmidtie" returns in this novel, and although he seems to have been vindicated in his opinion of his son-in-law, he cannot emerge completely triumphant. Charlotte, his daughter, continues to demand money and dole out criticism, and Carrie, the Puerto Rican mistress, refuses his offer of marriage, seeking new relationships instead. A new neighbor named Michael Mansour injects an aura of disquiet into the proceedings when he brings his nouveau riche manners into the stuffy confines of the Hamptons. Schmidt continues to nurse his prejudices and delusions but, as New York Times Book Review contributor Daphne Merkin observed, "in Begley's adroitly conceived variation on the novel of manners, it's left purposely ambiguous whether all's well that doesn't end quite well—or whether, in fact, the thinness of the ice Schmidt walks on will crack under future pressures." Merkin added that Begley has written "a richly nuanced concoction, cut by a lethally dry wit." The reviewer went on to write: "The book's singular achievement … is to quietly nudge the novel of manners in a more provocative direction." In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin noted: "Mr. Begley places his hero at a fine vantage point to see how few of the black-and-white distinctions he once valued make sense anymore and where his own place in this changing social cosmos lies. Schmidt is delivered by discovering shades of gray."

In his novel Shipwreck, Begley tells the story of John North, a novelist who undergoes moral disintegration because of lust. The narrative is presented secondhand by a man who hears the story from North when the two meet in a Paris bar. Claire Messud, writing in the Nation, noted this literary device and commented: "The quandary and the challenge are evident: If North is inadequate as a novelist, and yet fiction is man's great- est hope for truth-telling, then will he redeem himself through oral memoir, or quite the opposite? Are we to believe that he is telling the truth, or inventing a fiction, the better to serve truth?" The novel ultimately is about betrayal. Happily married though not madly in love with his wife, North has an affair with a Vogue writer named Lea Morini. North, who does not like himself and is losing faith in his writing abilities, is determined to hide his affair from his wife, but Lea proves predatory in nature, leading to a surprising climax. Mary Whipple, writing on the Mostly Fiction Book Reviews Web site, called Shipwreck an "elegantly written novel." Rocky Mountain News Web site contributor Eric J. Blommel noted: "Descriptions of his character and actions, which sometimes seem pointless during the middle of the book, form a cascade of understanding and provide new insights into human nature."

Matters of Honor focuses on two friends who attend Harvard together in the early 1950s and set out to remake themselves. Sam Standish is from a wealthy New England family, and Henry White is the child of Polish refugees. The former seeks to escape his stodgy upper-class background while the latter his Jewish heritage as he gravitates toward the life of upper-class WASPs. "Begley's analysis of class and anti-Semitism in America is often brilliant," wrote Ron Charles in the Washington Post. In a review in the New York Times, Michael Gorra wrote: "Begley has, as always, interesting things to say about class and sex and friendship."



Begley, Louis, Mistler's Exit, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.


Antioch Review, summer, 1997, Victoria N. Alexander, "Louis Begley: Trying to Make Sense of It."

Book, November-December, 2003, Sean McCann, review of Shipwreck, p. 79.

Booklist, April 1, 2000, Karen Harris, review of Wartime Lies, p. 1481; September 15, 2003, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Shipwreck, p. 180; December 1, 2006, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Matters of Honor, p. 20.

Economist (US), October 7, 2000, review of Schmidt Delivered, p. 101.

Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 1998, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Mistler's Exit, p. 82.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, review of As Max Saw It; July 1, 1996, review of About Schmidt; August 15, 2003, review of Shipwreck, p. 1030; November 15, 2006, review of Matters of Honor, p. 1140.

Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Barbara Hoffert, review of Shipwreck, p. 89; December 1, 2006, Kevin Greczek, review of Matters of Honor, p. 105.

Nation, November 17, 2003, Claire Messud, "About Begley," review of Shipwreck, p. 36.

Newsweek, July 29, 1991, James N. Baker, review of Wartime Lies, p. 51.

New York Review of Books, January 28, 1993, Gabriele Annan, review of The Man Who Was Late, p. 16; November 5, 1998, Gabriele Annan, review of Mistler's Exit, p. 44.

New York Times, January 15, 1993, Michiko Kakutani, "Closing Gates, to the Past and Others," p. 25; December 14, 2000, Janet Maslin, "The Geezer Has a Kitten (a Young Girlfriend, Too)"; January 11, 2007, Michiko Kakutani, review of Matters of Honor; February 4, 2007, Michael Gorra, "A Jew at Harvard," review of Matters of Honor.

New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1991, Judith Grossman, review of Wartime Lies, pp. 1, 27; January 31, 1993, Eva Hoffman, "The Soul He Threw Away"; April 24, 1994, Bruce Bawer, "Henry James in the Age of AIDS"; September 22, 1996, Phyllis Rose, "An Ordinary Bigot," p. 13; September 20, 1998, Jack Miles, "Death in Venice," p. 10; December 17, 2000, Daphne Merkin, "Retirement Benefits."

People, October 6, 2003, Joyce Cohen, review of Shipwreck, p. 62.

Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1998, review of Mistler's Exit, p. 49; September 11, 2000, review of Schmidt Delivered, p. 66; August 11, 2003, review of Shipwreck, p. 257; November 20, 2006, review of Matters of Honor, p. 36.

Time, February 1, 1993, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Man Who Was Late, p. 70; September 16, 1996, R.Z. Sheppard, "Comedy of Bad Manners: Lawyers, Anti-Semitism, the Hamptons—Yikes!"

Times Literary Supplement, August 16, 1991, Bryan Cheyette, review of Wartime Lies, p. 23.

Washington Post, January 28, 2007, Ron Charles, review of Matters of Honor, p. BW07.

Washington Post Book World, January 10, 1993, Paul Buttenwieser, review of The Man Who Was Late, p. 1.


02138 Magazine, (July 31, 2007), Porter Fox, "On the Scene with … Louis Begley."

BookPage, (August 22, 2007), Charles Flowers, reviews of About Schmidt and Mistler's Exit., (November 6, 2000), Vern Wiessner, review of Mistler's Exit., (November 3, 1996), Heather Mallick, "In Praise of Older Men: Louis Begley's Startling New Novel Shows Us the Humanity beneath the Pinstriped Suit."

Denver Post, (September 13, 1998), Paul Kafka-Gibbons, review of Mistler's Exit.

Identity Theory, (July 31, 2007), Robert Birnbaum, "Author of Shipwreck and About Schmidt talks with Robert Birnbaum."

Internet Movie Database, (July 31, 2007), information on author's film work.

Louis Begley Home Page, (July 31, 2007).

Mostly Fiction Book Reviews, (January 25, 2004), Mary Whipple, review of Shipwreck; (June 5, 2007), Mary Whipple, review of Matters of Honor.

Rocky Mountain News (September 12, 2003), Eric J. Blommel, review of Shipwreck.