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to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Monday, April 5, 2021


Poet, critic, biographer, and book publisher, Jim Atlas was also a classmate of mine and a lifelong friend. This account of our last meeting serves as a reminiscence and a personal tribute to a noble soul who will be missed by his many friends and admirers. 


March 4, 2019. Jim Atlas begged off our luncheon date at the Harvard Club, saying in an email that he was “REALLY sick.” He invited me to come to his apartment for a visit instead. As for future lunches, he said, “There will be other times—I hope.” That sounded ominous. I assumed something had happened since we made the lunch appointment a month earlier, perhaps a stroke? I had had lunch with him a year earlier and he seemed fine—aging but quite functional. I quickly emailed back that I would stop by in the afternoon.

            Atlas lived in a posh building on E. 77th, across from the Natural history museum. I had never been inside his apartment, but I knew where he lived because I had walked him back to his door after a lunch at a nearby restaurant some time in the 1980s. 

            There is a story behind that lunch. Two stories in fact. The original lunch date was a total bust. I had asked him to meet me at the Harvard Club. On the appointed day, I was working in my office at TIME when I got phone message from Atlas—this was in the pre-smartphone era. “Where are you? I’ve been here for half an hour. Forget about lunch. I’m leaving now.”       

             I called his home number to make amends. “Jim, it’s Tom. Are you still speaking to me?”

            “Just barely.” He sounded pissed. 

            “Jim, I’m so sorry. I was writing a story and it completely slipped my mind.”

            Silence on the other end. Jim was a susceptible soul and I had doubly offended him: first by missing the lunch, second by telling him it had “slipped my mind”—tantamount to saying he wasn’t important enough for me to remember our date. I invited him to lunch the next day. Same time same place.

            After some hesitation he said okay.

            I thought things were back on track, but I got a phone call from him a half hour later. “Look, I’ve thought it over and I’m not coming. I’m still too angry. I was really looking forward to it, I even put on a suit and tie, but I wouldn’t enjoy it now. Let’s just forget about it.”

            I apologized again, but there was no way to talk him into reconsidering. I had hurt his pride and that wound would take time to heal. 

            A few weeks later, I called him again and invited him to lunch. He reluctantly agreed and suggested a place close to his apartment. “Just don’t be late this time,” he grumbled before hanging up. An unnecessary proviso under the circumstances. 

            Except that stuff happens. I was off work that day, so I took my usual commuter train from Westchester County and caught a cab at Grand Central. The cab was a big mistake. Crosstown traffic, as usual, was bumper to bumper. When we finally got to Central Park West, there was road work going on and we advanced at a snail’s pace. My gut churned as I watched the minutes tick by. No cell phones in those days, so no way to call or text Jim. 

            I finally arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes late. No Atlas. The hostess told me he had drunk a white wine while he waited for me, then discovered he had let his wallet at home. He had gone back to get it. Fiasco!

            When he walked in the door five minutes later and spotted me at the bar, he nearly turned on his heels and walked out. “Jim,” I said, “so sorry, man. I was stuck in a cab. There was road work, unbelievable traffic. Let’s just have lunch and move on.”

            “Okay,” he said. “But you’re paying.”

            Once we were seated, he looked me in the eyes and said, “We both have to do something, Tom. I have to work on my thin skin, and you have to work on your punctuality.” 

            With that, the incident, the double incident, was behind us. We had a pleasant lunch, lubricated by a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and I walked him back to his apartment building a couple of blocks away. His son William dashed out of the door and Jim scooped him up in his arms with a big smile. He felt good. I felt good. Peace had descended upon us.

            We kept in touch off and on over the years. I would make a point to lunch with him when I was in New York—usually at the Harvard Club. We met at Oxford in 2002 at the centennial celebration of the Rhodes Scholarships. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there. Jim waylaid Clinton in the garden of Holywell Manor to introduce himself as the editor of the Penguin Lives series. Jim thought it would be his only chance to talk to the Big Guy, not realizing that when Bill Clinton gets to glad handing, he stays till the last dog dies. Bill and Hillary talked to everybody under the reception tent that day. Like all of us, Jim was charmed and proud to call him one of our own. 

            When I was teaching at Tulane in 2007-2008, I invited Jim down to New Orleans to give a talk on his Saul Bellow biography and meet with my creative writing class. Someone asked him what made for a good memoir. He said, “A good story and a voice you can trust.” That always stuck in my mind, and I think one thing that endeared me to Jim was that he was a voice, in fact, a person, I could trust. And I guess that was reciprocal, since he trusted me enough to invite me into his personal space at a time when he was, well, not at his best.

            I felt some trepidation as the doorman announced my arrival and sent me up to the 16thfloor. What kind of shape would I find Jim in? 

            Atlas greeted me at his door with a grin and a handshake that morphed into a bear hug. He looked so small and frail in his baggy blue jeans and loose white shirt. His thinning hair was gray, his body bent slightly to one side. He shuffled slowly but refrained from using the brand new walker—the fancy kind with hand brakes and a folding seat—that stood by the door. “I have a cane, too,” he said, “but I try not to rely on it too much.”

             I thought back to the first time I met Atlas in the fall of 1967—an astounding 52 years earlier. It was an organizational meeting of a new freshman magazine, the Harvard Yard Journal. The gathering was held at somebody’s dorm room in Thayer Hall, just across the Yard from Massachusetts Hall, where I had just taken up residence a few days earlier. In a group of giddy, overachieving freshmen eager to impress one another, Atlas stood out. He had a thick head of curly black hair, round horn-rimmed glasses, knee-high leather boots, and a silk kerchief wrapped around his neck Isadora Duncan-style. When I introduced myself to him, he gave me a lopsided snaggle-toothed grin (he later got his teeth straightened) and remarked, “You’re looking very literary tonight.” I didn’t look the least literary, except that my wooly hair was getting long and I was pathetically trying to grow a beard, though my sparse whiskers formed little more than a pale fuzz at that point. But it didn’t matter what I looked like. Atlas’s point was that it was important to look literary. And he did. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” 

            But Atlas was no mere poseur. At that early age, he had read an astounding number of books, was knowledgeable about poetry and literary criticism, and was already a hard-working, gifted writer. He was elected to the editorial board of the Advocate, Harvard’s prestigious poetry journal, went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship and launch an impressive career as an editor, critic, biographer, and book publisher. Now, at the cusp of 70, he could look back on his career with some satisfaction, in spite of the doubts, regrets, and disappointments that were also part of his baggage. 

            “Philip Roth liked to quote something Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with the talent I had.’ That’s all I can say.” The reference to Roth was not random. Atlas had just finished writing an account about his relationship with Roth, a work that would go directly into audiobook form. He was disappointed by the sales of his last published work, The Shadow in the Garden, a memoir about his career as a biographer. “People who read it thought well of it, but almost nobody reviewed it.” 

            “I know you want to know what happened to me,” he said suddenly. “A few years ago, I had a bad lung infection. Then they found out that I have congestive heart failure. Then it was one thing after another. Now I have the gout.”

            I tried to reassure him on that front. “I’ve had attacks of gout for years, but I just take medicine for it and it goes away. It’s not a huge deal. But it hurts like hell when it hits you.”

As a result of his various ailments, Jim was very frail, reluctant to go out of the house lest he fall, which he had done several times. He had a stationary bicycle and physical trainer who came several times a week to his apartment. 

            We did a lot of reminiscing about Harvard and Oxford days. I recalled that time he and I met for drinks at the Harvard Club of New York the night before we all sailed to England on the QE II. On that occasion we had discussed, among other things, the unsettling experience of watching our parents age. “It’s like we’re all on this great conveyor belt leading to the edge of a cliff,” I said, “and we are pushing them.” Jim took another sip of his Grey Goose martini—a favorite drink in those days, though he later gave up alcohol entirely. “When my time comes, nobody has to push me,” he said with a malicious grin—“I’ll go!” Of course, at that age—we were both 22—nobody really believes he will ever fall off the cliff.

            Neither of us had an orthodox Oxford experience. Because he arrived at Oxford with his then girlfriend, Atlas didn’t want to live in student digs at New College, preferring grander lodgings in the Randolph Hotel. The cost of that must have been considerable, so I assume he had family money behind him. Problem was his enormous steamer trunk was too big for the stairwell, so he had to unpack the contents piece by piece and shuttle them upstairs to his room. As for his studies, he worked with Richard Ellman on biography but seems to have done little else and left without taking a degree. 

            My own Oxford experience was, shall we say, skewed by my passion for jazz. Atlas remembered a raucous drive he took to London with me practicing the clarinet in the back seat. I was on the way to playing a gig with an English band in a pub on Drury Lane. The clarinet eventually took me to Paris to play an all-night concert with a French band. I fell in love with Paris, and was soon contriving to spend weekends, holidays, and even parts of the school term there, playing with local bands, learning to drink calvados, and enjoying female company. I eventually came to my senses, completed my thesis and took a history doctorate. 

            “Why did you apply for a Rhodes?” I asked Atlas at one point.

            “Why? Because that’s what you did. It was the next step up the ladder. In New York, there was a whole auditorium full of candidates. It was never about actually studying at Oxford. It was for the prestige.” Still, he considered his Oxford experience life changing because it launched his career as a biographer. His passion for biography inspired his own books on Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, and his tenure as editor of the Penguin Lives series. He later launched his own imprint, Atlas Books, specialized in short, readable biographies by a coterie of distinguished authors. His list was impressive, though he quipped that, from the financial point of view, “the term book business is an oxymoron.” 

            In addition to his editorial talents, Jim was a fine journalist and critic, serving as a staff writer for TIME(where he preceded me by several months) and the New Yorker, and an editor of the New York Times Magazine. He also found time to write a highly autobiographical novel, The Great Pretender (1986), that deals with his Harvard and Oxford years. 

          We talked about our kids. His daughter Molly is a literary agent, son William works in TV and film in L.A. I told him about my son Julian, who now works—as Jim and I had done—as a magazine editor in New York. 

         He showed me his office, a pleasant space with glass-fronted bookshelves, a couch, and a work desk topped by a computer. It is well lit by a tall window that looks out on 77thstreet.  Despite his health challenges, he still worked in his office every day. 

         “You wanna know what I’m working on now?” he said, leading me back to the living room.

        “Tell me.”

        “A book about suicide.”

        I hesitated.

        “Don’t worry, it’s not a how-to book. And I’m not going to do it.”

        “Well, it is a fascinating subject.”

        Indeed, there was much to say about taking control of the end of life. But Jim didn’t elaborate. Instead, he pointed out the window to 77thStreet.

        “That’s where they make up the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade,” he says, with some enthusiasm. “It’s amazing. The balloons come up as high as the 10thfloor. We used to have a party every year so friends could watch. We don’t do it any more. Too many security hassles, and too exhausting for us. My kids took it over and had their own party for a few years, but now they’re gone their separate ways.”

        “It’s a great apartment,” I said, gazing down at 77thStreet and the brown stones of Natural History Museum across the street.

        “It is,” Jim replied. “We wouldn’t dream of moving anyplace else now. We’ve been here 30 years. We’ll stay here till they carry us out.” He managed a sardonic chuckle.

        I sensed Jim was tiring. I got up to take my leave and he walked me to the door. He held out his hand, but I give him a parting hug instead. “Let’s stay in touch, Jim. Can I call you on the phone some times?”

        “Yes, I’d like that. Call me.”


        I didn’t call. I didn’t write. A few months after our last encounter I thought of sending him an email to find our how he was doing. Then I saw his obit in the New York Times. He died on September 5, 2019, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a result of the “escalation of a chronic lung condition.” 

        Jim, old friend, noble writer and thinker, delightful purveyor of wit and wisdom, I will never have lunch with you again. But I shall miss you. 




Reprinted from The American Oxonian, Spring 2021

©2021 by Thomas A. Sancton


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