American writer Renata Adler (born 1938) began her career at the venerable New Yorker in 1962, and kept a berth there for nearly 40 years. She also spent time as the chief movie critic for the New York Times, worked on the impeachment inquiry of former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, and wrote several books. Along the way, she acquired a reputation for sharp insight and a fearless style. And no-where did those professional hallmarks culminate in more controversy than with Adler's 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, a critique of the current state of the publication that had given her her start. But the firestorm caused by the book did not mellow Adler one bit.
Birth and Education
Adler was born on October 19, 1938, in Milan, Italy. Her parents were German Jews who had left Frankfurt in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. A year after Adler's birth, the family, which included her two older brothers, immigrated to the United States. They settled first in New York and then in Danbury, Connecticut, where Adler was primarily reared. Her father had been a lawyer in Germany and studied law in his adopted country, but it is unclear how he supported his family in Connecticut. Arthur Lubow of the New York Times reported that Adler's mother's family, the Strausses, had made a fortune in the wool business in Germany and eventually set her father up with his own wool factory in Danbury. Adler, however, has vehemently denied this. She told Dennis Loy Johnson of Salon that her father "never had anything to do with wool in his life," and added, "No. There is no wool in our family at all." A puzzling bit of contentiousness over such a small point, to be sure, but the level of acrimony between Adler and Lubow's newspaper had reached such a pitch by 2000 (the year of both the above interviews) that the "wool argument" may have been beside the point entirely.
Whatever business her father may have been engaged in, it was sufficiently prosperous to send Adler off to boarding school when she was just seven. While not a pleasant memory for Adler, her parents reportedly justified the decision by their goal of Americanizing the young girl. Paradoxically, they also required that only German be spoken at home. Despite such familial idiosyncrasies, however, Adler did well enough in her studies to progress to Bryn Mawr, where she earned a B.A. degree in 1959. Next, it was off to the Sorbonne (Paris) to earn a D.E.S. degree in 1961, and then to Harvard University for her M.A. degree in 1962. After Harvard, Adler began her career at what many would consider the pinnacle by signing on with the New Yorker.
Accolades and Controversy
Adler was hired to write for the New Yorker by its legendary editor William Shawn in 1962. Mentored by her boss and excellent at her job, she settled in with the magazine for the long haul. Her notable reporting included covering Selma, Alabama, when civil rights strife was rampant, and she was one of the first female journalists to report from Vietnam. Despite such achievements, though, Adler's distinctive voice became best known outside her primary place of business.
Adler's first big plunge into tumult occurred when she took a position as the chief film critic for the New York Times in 1968. The sedate "Gray Lady" of newspapers was stunned and invigorated by Adler's incisive, no-nonsense style, as she calmly and caustically reviewed movies exactly as she saw fit. Unimpressed by a film's pedigree, Adler was just as apt to skewer a big budget production that she found lacking as that of an independent effort, much to Hollywood's dismay. Indeed, she once so incensed executives at Universal Artists that the studio took out a full-page ad in the paper calling for her head. Far from chastising Adler for generating such turmoil, her editor, Arthur Gelb, applauded it, and her successor in the job, Vincent Canby, credited her with changing the face of movie criticism itself. "She looked at movies so cleanly and with such a fresh eye," Canby told Lubow. "She cleared the air for me and everyone who came afterward." Nonetheless, Adler left the position after just over a year and headed back to the New Yorker.
In 1969 Adler's first book, Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism, was published. She followed that up the next year with a reflection on her time at the New York Times, called A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic. The year 1972 saw her moonlighting as a professor of theater and film at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and in 1973 she received a John Simon Guggenheim Award. The Watergate scandal of the Nixon years broke in 1973, and Adler was hired to write for Peter Rodino, the committee chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. That experience prompted her to study law, and she went on to earn a degree from the Yale University Law School.
Adler's debut novel, Speedboat, was published in 1976 and won the Hemingway Prize for Best First Novel. But in 1980 the fat was in the fire once again when she acidly assessed a collection of movie reviews written by New Yorker colleague Pauline Kael. Adler's critique appeared in the New York Review of Books, and included what would soon be an infamous summing up of Kael's work: "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." (As quoted by Nan Goldberg of the Newark Star-Ledger.) Adler's review was a matter of opinion, of course, but her scathing words were hugely controversial, especially at the New Yorker. But it was neither the first, nor the last, time Adler would create such a stir.
Adler continued to work for the New Yorker, although perhaps a bit less, after the Kael incident. She also kept busy writing for such publications as the New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Vanity Fair. In 1983 her second novel, Pitch Dark, was published, and Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al.; Sharon v. Time followed in 1986. The latter was an exploration of the libel suits of General William C. Westmoreland and Ariel Sharon against CBS and Time, respectively, and while it generally received stellar reviews, its sympathy for the plaintiffs did little to revive Adler's flagging popularity among journalists. Indeed, she pointed to the book in 2001 as the impetus behind her ensuing battles with the established press. "The press got really cross with me," she told James Reginato of W, "and they don't forget."
Adler continued blithely on her way for quite some time. She adopted a son in 1986, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987, wrote Politics and Media: Essays (1988), and contributed to numerous publications on an ongoing basis. Her image and lifestyle remained a source of fascination for many, as her arresting face was a frequent subject for famed photographer Richard Avedon, and she maintained an active and broad social calendar that included some of New York's most elite names. But Adler was to become the center of a maelstrom yet again in 2000.
Adler vs. The Press
Adler's most venomous tempest began with the 2000 publication of Adler's book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, in which she expressed her views on what she saw as the complete decline of the magazine with which she had been so long affiliated. A kind of obituary for the publication, the book pulled no punches when it came to attributing blame. But what Adler saw as an honest assessment of the state of the New Yorker, others saw as a mean-spirited betrayal of her colleagues. And although the book was generally well-received in the rest of the United States, the New York press generally vilified both it and its author. The situation escalated a month later, when the late Watergate Judge John Sirica's son, a reporter for New York's Newsday, took issue with a one-sentence characterization of his father as corrupt and incompetent. The resulting melee was a merry chase, and the New York Times was largely at the helm.
Briefly put, the New York Times began by printing four unfavorable articles about the book, some written by New Yorker personnel, shortly after its release. After Sirica's son drew attention to the previously unnoticed offending sentence by demanding a retraction or proof, the newspaper took up his cause with no fewer than four more negative pieces within the space of one week in April of 2000. The charge was that Adler had made her claims with no evidence to back them up. Adler's view was that she would offer such validation in her own time, and alleged that the newspaper was using its might and credibility to tarnish her reputation. Accusations of ethics violations flew back and forth. Adler did publish her case against Sirica, along with her views on the New York Times, in the August 2000 issue of Harper's. The newspaper was not mollified, and the feud played on.
In 2001 Adler published a new collection of essays called Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media. The book included such well-known efforts as Decoding the Starr Report and her famous criticism of Kael, as well as the 2000 article from Harper's. That piece took direct aim at the journalistic practices of the New York Times and those of the press in general. She viewed journalism as having become too bureaucratic, lazy, and smug and the scrutiny could hardly have further endeared her to her journalistic colleagues, but Adler remained unbowed and resolute.
Adler released Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision That Made George W. Bush President in 2004, in which she examined the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Still deemed a heretic by many, the book at least shifted her relentless gaze from the press (and from her) for the time being. But it was unlikely that this was the author's motivation. Instead, it was more likely that Adler's fierce curiosity and intelligence had simply alighted on another subject. As her editor, Michael Denneny, told Reginato in 2001, "Renata is one of the last totally freestanding intellectuals, like Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. She represents nobody but herself." Love her or hate her, it was difficult to argue with that.
Austin American-Statesman, February 20, 2000.
New York Observer, January 17, 2000.
New York Times, April 3, 2000; July 17, 2000.
New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2000.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 21, 2001.
W, December 2001.
"Birnbaum v. Renata Adler," Morning News, September 16, 2004, http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/personalities/birnbaum_v_renata_adler.php (January 7, 2006).
"Fellows Whose Last Names Begin with A," John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, http://www.gf.org/afellow.html (January 3, 2006).
"Interview with the Heretic," Salon, August 21, 2000, http://www.salon.com/books/int/2000/08/21/adler/print.html (January 3, 2006).
"Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision That Made George W. Bush President," Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/097960950/102-1912689-8153747?=vglance&n;=283155 (January 7, 2006).
"Renata Adler," Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/uni/faculty/bios/adler.html (January 3, 2006).
"Renata Adler," NNDB, http://www.nndb.com/people/799/000048655/ (January 3, 2006).
"Renata Adler," Reports and Writers, http://www.reportingcivilrights.org/authors/bio.jsp?authorId=86 (January 3, 2006).