Blake Bailey, Philip Roth, and the Biography That Blew Up

Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker:

Philip Roth has not had much luck with biographers. Late in his life, furiously aggrieved after the failure of his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom and the publication of Bloom’s incendiary memoir of their years together, he asked a close friend, Ross Miller, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, to take on the task. Roth sent Miller lists of family members and friends he wanted to be interviewed, along with the questions that he felt should be asked. (“Would you have expected him to achieve success on the scale he has?”) It didn’t work out, for various reasons. Roth had wanted Miller to refute a familiar charge, “this whole mad fucking misogynistic bullshit!” that he felt flattened his long erotic history into one false accusation. But Miller came to his own conclusion. “There is a predatory side to both Sandy and Philip,” he told a cousin of Roth’s. (Sandy was Roth’s older brother.) “They look at women—I’m not gonna write about this—but they are misogynist. They talk about women in that way.”

This anecdote is recounted by Miller’s successor, Blake Bailey, in “Philip Roth: The Biography,” his eight-hundred-page account of Roth’s eighty-five-year life, which was published earlier this month. Talking about women “in that way” didn’t seem to be a problem for Bailey. Roth had read and admired Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, but Bailey was offered the job, by his own account, after enthusing with Roth over the qualities of Ali MacGraw, who starred in the film adaptation of “Goodbye, Columbus.” Readers of Bailey’s book will encounter a lot of that sort of thing, to an often voyeuristic degree. (“Locker-room chummy sex talk,” a male writer friend texted me, of a passage in which the young Roth’s girlfriend Maxine Groffsky, the model for the “Goodbye, Columbus” character Brenda Patimkin, is described as “slipping into his cabana, say, and blowing him” while Roth changes into a bathing suit. “Who is he writing that sentence for? It sounds like he’s bantering with Roth.”) But the book’s readers are now limited in number. On Wednesday, after allegations surfaced that Bailey had groomed and harassed female students in the nineteen-nineties, when he was an eighth-grade English teacher at Lusher School, in New Orleans—and that he had raped two women, including a former student—his publisher, W. W. Norton, halted distribution of the biography. Bailey was dropped by his literary agency earlier in the week.

More here.