When my mother, the writer Lady Caroline Blackwood, was left a widow following my stepfather Robert Lowell’s death, from a heart attack in the back of a New York taxicab, she decided to move us from our house in Ireland to the States. She had spent many summers in the Hamptons, moving between the exclusive beach villages of Southampton, East Hampton, and Bridgehampton, but it was a visit to a friend’s boat in Sag Harbor that persuaded her to buy a house there.
At the time, Sag Harbor was considered very much the un-Hampton, a poor relation to its swankier neighbors. However, Sag also had a long history of being a home to writers, including John Steinbeck, E. L. Doctorow, Betty Friedan, and Thomas Harris. It was also rumored that Melville had written part of Moby Dick in the village. Originally the main seaport of entry into the U.S., Sag had become a whaling town with a large, affluent Black population.
My mother fell in love with Sag’s old-fashioned charm and soon found a perfect house in the middle of the village. It had originally been the town’s funeral parlor, a fact that appealed to her rather dark sense of humor. While she was closing on the house, the real-estate agent, who knew my mother was a writer, enthusiastically told her that her new neighbor was “also a literary type.” The man she was going to share a fence with was Jason Epstein.
At this news my mother half grimaced and half laughed. She told me, “Jason is rather wonderful, but he ruined Europe for me.” I asked her what she meant. “Oh, Robert and I were on our honeymoon in Amsterdam,” she said, “wandering through the Rijksmuseum, looking at the Vermeers, when we suddenly heard a loud voice: ‘Caroline! Cal! What are you doing here?’ We turned around to see a very excitable Jason. We ended up leaving the museum and spending the rest of the afternoon and evening with him.
“A few months later we went for a romantic weekend to Venice. We were strolling through St. Mark’s Square when suddenly came the same loud voice: ‘Caroline! Cal! This is incredible, how fantastic to run into you. Let’s go and have Bellinis!’ And then, in Prague, we were having a rather somber moment looking around the beautiful Old Jewish Cemetery. We couldn’t believe our eyes when Jason popped out from behind a tombstone. ‘Cal! Caroline! What the hell are you doing here?’ It seemed everywhere we went, he was there.”
Back in London, she and Robert were having dinner with the author, playwright, and opera director Sir Jonathan Miller when the conversation turned to Jason. Jonathan said, “You know I adore Jason, but he has ruined the world for me! I was once in an obscure village in the Himalayas when I suddenly heard someone shouting, ‘Jonathan? Jonathan? Is that you? This is unbelievable!’”
This went on all over the world. India, Japan, even China—everywhere you went, Jason was somehow there. And within five minutes, you were listening to a fascinating and erudite lecture on politics, religion, or the cuisine of whatever exotic locale you both found yourselves in. My mother shook her head in disbelief: “And now he is going to be my next-door neighbor!”
Jason, who died last week, was a semi-fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. He was an editor and rising star at Random House when, in December 1962, the newspaper union in New York declared a strike. Without newspapers, there could be no book reviews—a disaster for young writers and their publishers.
“In Prague, we were having a rather somber moment looking around the beautiful Old Jewish Cemetery. We couldn’t believe our eyes when Jason popped out from behind a tombstone.”
One night over a long and, by all accounts, rather boozy dinner, Jason, Robert, and their respective wives, Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Zimmerman, came up with the idea for a journal dedicated exclusively to book reviews and topical essays. Robert borrowed $4,000 from the bank, using his own trust fund as collateral, to jump-start the project. Barbara and Bob Silvers, my mother’s then boyfriend, were named co-editors.
On February 1, 1963, the first issue of The New York Review of Books was published. From the start, its contents were packed with starry names, including Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and W. H. Auden. An invitation to write for the magazine quickly became as coveted by the literary world as an invitation to Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball was by New York society.
When my mother died, I inherited the house in Sag Harbor. Having Jason and his lovely wife, the journalist Judith Miller, whom he had married a few years earlier, as our neighbors turned out to be a wonderful gift. I would pop over all the time for Jason’s excellent meals, and there was always an eclectic mix of writers, editors, artists, and even the odd billionaire. Jason would invariably declare that the local soft-shell crabs or whatever he happened to be cooking was going to be the best damn whatever it was you will ever have in your life.
He would intensely work away in his small but perfectly equipped kitchen, seasoning and flouring to perfection, and then, as though he were Escoffier himself, Jason would present the meal with a flourish. Even if it tasted very much the same as any soft-shell crab, one had to ooh and aah with gusto.
Judy was a reporter for The New York Times who became embroiled in a bitter legal dispute, known as the Plame affair, over revealing her sources. She was adamant that she would never do so even if it meant serving prison time. Judy didn’t seem nearly as worried about going to jail as she was about Jason’s being desperately lonely while she was away. They decided the best thing would be to get him a dog to keep him company. Thus, two weeks after a judge found her in contempt of court, a dark black cockapoo puppy joined their family. Jason named him Hamlet. “To pee, or not to pee?” he liked to say.
Hamlet was the sweetest but most disobedient dog I have ever met. He chewed, peed on, and ate everything he could possibly get his snout into. Judy tried everything: dog trainers, dog whisperers, even a spell with a dog psychiatrist. None of it had any effect, because Jason secretly was thrilled and encouraged Hamlet’s bad behavior. For some reason, it brought him tremendous pleasure.
Jason would insist on bringing Hamlet to dinner parties, and on letting him roam free. Inevitably the apoplectic host would come running out from the kitchen, steam coming out of her ears, because Hamlet had stolen the chicken, the ham, the pie, or the steaks from the countertop. Jason would just smile gleefully, pretending not to understand as he fiddled with his hearing aid.
My daughter, Daisy, and I got our own dog not long after Hamlet’s arrival. Banjo and Hamlet immediately became running buddies. Jason was thrilled at the high jinks they got up to. There was no fence sturdy enough or wire strong enough to contain these master escape artists. Several times a week they would break free, sending Jason, Daisy, and me frantically running down Sag Harbor’s Main Street, crying, “Hamlet? Banjo?” Miraculously, they somehow always made it home.
Eventually, Judy spent 85 days in jail, and Hamlet proved to be a great, if disruptive, companion in her absence. Daisy was only about six at the time, and she used to love taking Hamlet for walks into the village. Inevitably, some sweet old lady or nice man would stop to pat Hamlet. “Oh, what a cute dog. What is his name, sweetheart?” Daisy would innocently widen her big eyes and say sadly, “Oh, this is Hamlet, but he isn’t my dog. He belongs to Judy, but poor Judy’s gone to jail!” That would put a rather awkward end to the encounter.
Jason had the most wonderful and varied garden, a little oasis in the middle of Sag Harbor with every herb known to man. Daisy and I would trot down to his garden path, picking whatever we might need for the evening. Inside, Jason would be sitting snugly by the fire in his kitchen, surrounded by half-read books and manuscripts. The kitchen always smelled of something delicious: kielbasa from Cromer’s, or clams from the Seafood Shop in Wainscott.
We would sit around his table, chuckling at the photo of Saddam Hussein next to one of Hamlet on his fridge door; Jason insisted they were twins, and to be fair there was a striking resemblance. He would encourage me to keep writing and Daisy to keep studying, and the evening would pleasantly ebb away.
Now his chair is empty, and his books are left half read, but what I regret most is never telling him his clams casino were the best I ever had.
Ivana Lowell is the author of Why Not Say What Happened?: A Memoir