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SFE 57, Anne Fadiman, The Wine Lover's Daughter (holding image)

A Vintage Life

Anne Fadiman’s memoir of her father originated as one of several ideas for an article that she pitched to an editor at Harper’s magazine. ‘I think I could tell the story of my father’s life and character through wine,’ she proposed.

‘The Oenophile’s Daughter!’ he exclaimed.

His suggested title was jettisoned when they discovered that hardly anyone else knew what ‘oenophile’ meant, or how to spell or pro­nounce it. And soon afterwards the editor parted ways with Harper’s. But the idea took root; and Anne Fadiman realized that she wanted to write a book on the subject, not an article. In many ways her eventual title, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, is a misnomer; The Wine Loving Father is a more obvious description – though of course, in telling us about her father, she also tells us about herself.

First published in 2017, her delightful book has not until now been available outside America. And it should be, because this is a minor classic. Though a distinctively American story, it is one which will resonate with fathers and daughters everywhere – which, come to think of it, includes most of us. A friend recommended the book to me; I confess that I had not heard of Anne Fadiman before, but now that I have been introduced to her writing, I shall certainly seek out more.

Clifton Fadiman took his first sip of wine, a white Graves, in 1927, in the Bon Marché department store in Paris. Then in his early twen­ties, he had travelled across the Atlantic in pursuit of his errant first wife, an expedition he would later recount to his family as a mock-heroic epic, ‘The Retrieval of Polly’. The marriage did not last; but his new love, for wine, would be passionate and lifelong. He studied wine and bought the best vintages he could afford.

Fadiman never became a wine snob, in the sense of speaking or writing pretentiously about it. He loved wine for a number of rea­sons, some of which he enunciated in an essay published thirty years after that first sip, entitled ‘A Brief History of a Love Affair’: because drinking it was companionable, and because it provided sensory pleasure; because wine was complex, and because it was hierarchical, in the sense that some wines were ‘first-rate’ and some were not; because it was an intelligible field of study; and because it was not vulgar. And also (though he would never have admitted this) because it wasn’t Jewish.

When Anne Fadiman wrote a piece for Life magazine to mark her father’s eightieth birthday, he told her that he would prefer her not to mention the fact that he was a Jew. ‘If I had no legs and you wrote a piece about me,’ he said, ‘I would prefer you write about me as a man.’ For him, being Jewish was like having a handicap.

Worldly and amusing, and a gifted mimic, ‘Kip’ Fadiman was a successful author, critic, translator, columnist, publisher and broad­caster, valued both for his erudite charm and his good-natured wordplay (‘between a wok and a hot plate’). Several of these jobs he held simultaneously; in fact he filled so many roles that he was once described as a ‘celebrated multihyphenate’. With the air of having read everything ever written, he was a prime example of the witty and educated raconteurs and pundits chosen to host American radio and television shows in the mid-twentieth century.

His break in publishing had come when he secured an interview with Max Schuster, co-founder of the then new and dynamic pub­lishing house Simon & Schuster. On being asked ‘What makes you think you might be helpful to us?’, Fadiman had presented Schuster with a folder containing a typed list of no fewer than one hundred ideas for books. He was made editor-in-chief, at the age of only 28. The next year he was appointed to run the book pages for The New Yorker. He became famous as host of the popular radio show Information Please, which at its wartime peak attracted 15 million listeners across America. For many years he was on the board of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and in old age received a National Book Award for his Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Yet despite all his accomplishments, Fadiman continued to see himself as an outsider. He contemplated writing an autobiographical book-length essay, addressed to his children, to be read after his death, called ‘Outside, Looking In’. His children were aware of his sense of insecurity. ‘We all knew he felt like a man who has been admitted by mistake to a gentlemen’s club and, as soon as he is discovered, will be booted out the service entrance.’ He joked about his humble beginnings – but beneath the self-deprecatory persona ‘some ugly things were laid bare: anxiety, humiliation, shame’. Anne Fadiman depicts her father as one of a generation of self-alienated Jews: secular intellectuals whose denial of their Jewish identity was so absolute as to seem in retrospect almost farcical.

Fadiman was a self-invented man, whose talent and industriousness had enabled him to shake off his modest origins. The son of a nurse and a druggist, he had grown up in Brooklyn, ‘a century before it became fashionable . . . crowded with immigrants and smelling of garbage and noisy with street fights’. In an attempt to make them­selves American, his parents spoke English at home, rather than Russian or Yiddish, but it was accented and ungrammatical. With the help of his older brother, who took elocution lessons, he learned to speak ‘correct’ English ‘as if it were Latin or Sanskrit’, eventually acquiring an accent ‘so impeccable that no one actually spoke that way except other people from Brooklyn who wished to sound as if they weren’t’.

At Columbia University, he was one of the ‘meatballs’, the Jewish, Irish or Italian kids who could not afford to live on campus. While the more privileged students enjoyed their leisure time, he washed dishes, waited tables, sorted mail, tutored classmates and undertook umpteen other types of menial work. Yet his cohort at Columbia became legendary for producing a stream of public intellectuals, most of them Jewish – among them Mortimer Adler, Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling. One of the few gentiles among them, Whittaker Chambers, dubbed the circle ernste Menschen (‘serious men’), whose ardour for learning he attributed to ‘a struggle with a warping pov­erty impossible for those who have not glimpsed it to imagine’. Fadiman had ambitions to become an academic, and was clever enough to have succeeded, but prejudice stood in his way. At his graduation, the chairman of the English Department told him, ‘We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr Trilling.’

One response to such unfairness was anger, to rail against injustice, and maybe to turn to communism, as several of the group (including Chambers) did. Another was to try to join the club, which is the route Fadiman took. He strove to imitate his WASP peers, becoming like them in speech, dress, habit and tastes. He worked ferociously hard to conceal the fact that he needed to work so hard. Wine was linked to this process of reinvention; to learn about wine was, as he often said, both civilized and civilizing. He preferred not to look back. ‘It was better to lay down a dozen cases of first-growth Bordeaux, because each bottle brought him closer to something he could never reach, but in whose direction, like a plant bending toward the sun, he could still turn.’

Anne Fadiman writes tenderly and movingly about her father, yet her memoir never cloys; she remains clear-sighted about his failings even while she arouses our sympathy for him. And in her portrait of him, she evokes an entire era of American life, and draws out the differences between then and now.

She was the daughter of his second marriage, born when he was already 49. As a child she was self-conscious about her father, who was ‘too smart, too square, too odd, and too old’. To her friends he seemed genial but fuddy-duddy. When she was 8 the family moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles. Her friends’ fathers radiated West Coast informality; her own father preferred not just ‘East Coast decorum’ but what he called ‘English good manners’. When the school’s annual Father-Daughter picnic rolled around, she contrived to leave him at home, and tagged along instead with her cousin, whose father was ‘younger, taller, more likely to acquit himself cred­itably in a volleyball game, and generally less embarrassing’. Only later did she realize how much she must have hurt him.

From about the age of 10 Anne and her brother were offered watered-down wine at mealtimes. ‘I hated it but assumed that puberty would grant me a taste for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a taste for French kissing and all the other things that ten-year-olds found disgusting but adults reportedly enjoyed.’ It was not until she was in her late 40s that she finally admitted to herself that she would never love wine as her father had done.

Yet for all that, her father’s love of wine was genuine. After his death she found among his effects a folder entitled ‘Wine Memorabilia’, including a list of wines from his own cellar served at a small private dinner to celebrate his forty-ninth birthday on 15 May 1953 (one of his guests was Alistair Cooke); an article he had written called ‘Remembrance of Drinks Past’; and his cellar book, ‘the most serious book he ever wrote, the most heartfelt, the most honest’. Browsing through this folder, she remembered her father more vividly than at any moment since his death. ‘The folder seemed to glow with joy, as if the memory of my father’s pleasure was so strong as to render it faintly radioactive.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Anne Fadiman 2021
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 57: The Wine Lover’s Daughter

About the contributor

Adam Sisman is a writer, specializing in biography. His most recent book is The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking (2019). You can also hear him discussing the art of biography on our podcast, Episode 6, ‘Well-Written Lives’.

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