The Critic’s Daughter: A Memoir by Priscilla Gilman

The bright, particular star of Priscilla Gilman’s very first memory was her father, the theater and literary critic Richard Gilman. It was a summer night in the early 1970s, and three-year-old Priscilla was jolted awake by terrifying claps of thunder. Cue Daddy.

“Framed by the window, the scene before us is like a little theater,” Gilman writes in her affecting if often cheerless memoir-biography The Critic’s Daughter. “With one arm wrapped around me, the other gesturing skyward, my father narrates what we’re seeing and hearing. ‘Look at the trees!’ he exclaims as the wind whips its branches. ‘And … thunder!’”

There were no explicit parental reassurances that the weather would soon settle and all would be well. There were no hugs or kisses, and they weren’t really missed. Richard, Gilman felt, offered some things of greater, more durable value.

“In the face of the unexpected, the frightening, the disorienting,” Gilman, 52, recalls, her father “was a madcap sportscaster, a wise sage, an ebullient enthusiast. As one arm embraced me, the other helped me face a world beyond him, a world of challenge and intensity and wonder.”

The madcap sportscaster gets his due with deficiencies noted in The Critic’s Daughter: loving, hands-on parent; imperfect husband; respected professor at the Yale School of Drama; elegant, contentious writer; complicated man.

Richard Gilman’s voice ricocheted through four decades in American letters, earning him admirers and adversaries in equal measure. A teacher, journalist, memoirist, and critic, he was best known for his tough-minded views about what theater should and shouldn’t be—and who should be making theater in the first place. He championed the directors Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski and the playwright Harold Pinter. He gave the back of his hand to much of what Broadway had to offer.

Richard, who died in 2006 at the age of 83 after many years of ill health, couldn’t have had a more protective daughter, or a more diligent keeper of his flame.

(The author is not nearly as protective of her mother, the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, who was the family’s breadwinner. Gilman blames Nesbit for her parents’ divorce, and views her mother as needlessly cruel and indifferent to her older, needier husband.)

The urgency of Gilman’s mission is palpable. As her father’s colleagues, friends, enemies, and students shuffle off the mortal coil, “as many of his books go out of print, as his life recedes into the distance, I wonder not how he will be remembered but, increasingly, if he will be remembered.”

A Literary Upbringing

Little Priscilla spent many a childhood evening passing hors d’oeuvres to the literati. Her curly-haired, bespectacled father, clad in denim shirts or turtleneck sweaters and bell-bottom jeans or corduroys, and her elegantly attired mother, entertained frequently at their apartment, on Manhattan’s Central Park West. Naturally, the guest list was heavy with mom’s clients, and Gilman, also the author of the 2011 memoir The Anti-Romantic Child, recalls those times with flair.

She and her younger sister, Claire, were afraid of the “dark, intense, forbidding” novelist Harold Brodkey, often hiding in a closet when they saw him coming. But, amusingly, they had nothing to fear from supposed critical meanies Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag, who lavishly praised the girls’ song stylings, poems, and artwork.

Jerzy Kosiński, meanwhile, was happy to make the acquaintance of their stuffed animals, Michael Crichton was game to color with them, and Uncle Bern (Bernard Malamud), Aunt Ann (Beattie), and Aunt Toni (Morrison) told them bedtime stories.

“I saw the humanity, the frailty of these powerful intellectuals, these imposing authors, these towering cultural figures,” Gilman writes. “I saw them hurt, frightened, rejected … I saw them lauded; I saw them leveled.... I saw acclaimed authors devastated by savage reviews, groveling for praise.”

Uncle Bern (Bernard Malamud), Aunt Ann (Beattie), and Aunt Toni (Morrison) told Priscilla Gilman and her sister bedtime stories.

Day-to-day, the intense, Lynn tended to her authors and Richard tended to their daughters, whom he nicknamed “Sidda” and “Swanee.” He was, Gilman writes, the swim instructor; circus ringmaster; finder of lost objects; staunch believer in make-believe; unbeatable companion at the library, the pizzeria, and the ice-cream parlor; and the comforter in chief. The man who revered Ibsen, Chekhov, and Büchner also loved Sesame Street and could do a dead-on imitation of Grover.

The division of labor seemed to work. “My father gave my mother both intellectual credibility and the ability to be a powerfully ambitious career woman,” Gilman writes. Meanwhile, in marrying Richard, who was 13 years her senior, Jewish, liberal, and divorced, Lynn had an effective way to show that she had traveled far from her conventional Republican midwestern roots.×

Gilman had an idyllic early childhood, markedly different from that of her father. He grew up in Brooklyn to conservative parents who were baffled by his artistic leanings and his decision to become Catholic. For the record, the conversion didn’t take.

Richard Gilman revered Ibsen, Chekhov, and Büchner. He also loved Sesame Street and could do a dead-on imitation of Grover.

Gilman was 10 when her parents separated. She wasn’t spared much in the split. Richard, shattered by the breakup of the family, didn’t hide his neediness. “Sometimes, I think I’d kill myself if it weren’t for you girls,” he told Priscilla, who never forgot those words. “My father’s survival,” she writes, “was my responsibility.” Let’s just say this was not a responsibility she took lightly.

It is painful to watch Gilman take up the burden, poignant to read her account of sitting in a movie theater with her father during a showing of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She makes common cause with the film’s valiant protagonist, Francie Nolan, who tried desperately, futilely, to save her adored, alcoholic father, Johnny.

“Daddy and I are gulping, sniffling, weeping. I reach out to hold his hand. Are we crying for Francie and Johnny or for ourselves?” Now, there’s a question.

In fairness, Gilman got as good as she gave. During her time at Yale (she graduated summa cum laude with exceptional distinction), her father was there at every turn to discuss books and assignments, to shore her up in the face of a difficult paper.

The author is not nearly as protective of her mother, the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, who was the family’s breadwinner, and whom Gilman blames for her parents’ divorce.

Lynn does not cut an attractive figure in the book. When she and Richard divorced, she let her daughter know that Daddy had been unfaithful and impotent and was an avid consumer of pornography, and she offered up this coup de grâce: “I was never in love with your father.” (In fact, the marriage was on the rebound from Lynn’s affair with her great love Donald Barthelme.)

On the very rare occasions that the family got together post-divorce, Lynn did nothing to hide her scorn for her former husband. When, after his death, she spoke warmly about him to old friends, “her ability to move, at last, beyond criticism to kindness pierced me almost as much as my grief at losing him,” writes Gilman, who, for the record, worked as an agent at her mother’s firm from 2006 to 2011, something she only alludes to in the book’s acknowledgments. “Why couldn’t she have shown this empathy—for him and for me and for Claire, who loved him—while he was alive?”

“As Priscilla knows, I’m not going to read the book,” Lynn wrote to me in an e-mail. “And it may be that her portrayal of me can be somewhat negative since the divorce … took a great toll on her. I’m sorry for that, but I don’t expect this to impact our close relationship in any way.”

The Critic’s Daughter, which is laced with quotes from Richard’s articles and books, hits its terminus a good bit before the last page. Gilman can’t let go. “I am haunted by my father,” she writes at one point. “He has made me the thinker, writer, parent, human that I am, brought me to my knees … buoyed me during times of crisis, informed my reading and writing and parenting in ways I am only now realizing.”

Readers will be sympathetic but weary.

Joanne Kaufman is a New York–based journalist and critic