You can’t keep a bad man down. That’s what sprang to mind when I read on Twitter yesterday that Blake Bailey’s infamous biography of Philip Roth, unpublished by Norton, had been picked up by Skyhorse Publishing and will be rushed to print in June. Apparently, the cover image is going to be the same.
But it’s really Bailey who proved himself to be infamous, not Roth. This contorted scandal had the literary world in knots last month. Shortly after reviewing the Roth biography and then learning about the scandal with what seemed like lightning speed, I wrote a piece that didn’t get published. (It’s somewhat self-revealing, as well… I think we’ve all had to examine our motives about this.) Bailey was someone from my generation, older than me of course, but due to my close and appreciative reading of his work I felt I knew him. However, as it turns out, I didn’t.
So here is what I wrote:
The Blake Bailey scandal whirled up out of nowhere last month. For me, that is. To the girls who he’d cozied up to at Lusher, the New Orleans magnet school where he taught in the 1990s, and then later harmed, Bailey had apparently been a subject of agonized interest for many years, as they followed his career while the memories of what he had done to them swirled inside their heads. And then there was Valentina Rice, the sweet-faced publishing executive he allegedly raped in 2015 while staying at the home of Times book critic Dwight Garner. He was the golden boy by then, writing Philip Roth’s biography, secure in his role. He must have thought he’d get away with it all. What I didn’t know, and what he carefully doesn’t divulge in his revealing, horrifying memoir The Splendid Things We Planned—which I read and loved back in 2014—is that Bailey is married to a psychologist. Perfect, I thought when I discovered that, just perfect. The perfect irony!
I’m an outsider to the scandal, but in a way I was Bailey’s ideal reader. I loved his big, early biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, because they told stories of literary fame and fortune, sexuality, and human wreckage in such an interesting, empathetic way. I didn’t love Farther and Wilder (2013) quite so much, though I bought it in hardback. It’s the story of a melancholy character called Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend in 1944, and was a severe alcoholic and (married) closeted gay man all his life. Having just re-read The Splendid Things We Planned, supposedly the story of the downfall and death of Bailey’s alcoholic, mentally ill brother, Scott, I see with a shock that Bailey wrote his own youthful alcoholism into that story too. He just wasn’t crazy. He was clever, calculating, and sane.
In the memoir, his own father accuses him of being a serious alcoholic at one point, his stepmother turns away from him in disdain… Bailey covers all this with what seems like transparency. But he is the only “good son” that his mother has, and so he tries to protect her from Scott’s abuse—by the end of the book he’s become the rescuer, the protector, the survivor. The stable one, by default. He has played many roles, hasn’t he? Mentor, too. The 13-year-old girls he was writing loving mash notes to in the 1990s don’t appear in this memoir, though. He had moved on. He’d finished with the grooming part and he’d completed all the “seductions” (as I’m sure he thought of them) that he could. It still astonishes me to imagine Roth reading this wild family history toward the end of his life, as he must have, chuckling dryly.
The funny thing is, I always assumed that Bailey had a secret life, or rather it flitted in and out of my brain every time I read his work. But my assumption was that he was interested in men, since he tackled male bisexuality with such compulsive interest and seemed eager to analyze such relationships. But perhaps this was a cover, too. He grew up around gay men in 1970s Oklahoma, where his bored expatriate mother, Marlies, the daughter of a German psychiatrist (!), needed some cultured company and got it where she could. There’s nothing wrong with growing up around a group of gay men—it must have been nice—but it certainly might have given Bailey a skewed idea of what it was to be a man, particularly as his distant lawyer father wasn’t home much and seems to have had his own demons that he cleverly hid. I guess I always wondered if Bailey would “come out”—the irony! Well, it’s been an alarming outing, all right. Now we see the narcissist who plied his young female students with Lolita and flattery, and read their private journals. They loved him because he paid attention to them. And me? I loved his work because I thought his ironic sensibility and tolerance for damaged alcoholic literary figures was remarkable.
And then this obsessiveness on Bailey’s part collided with a man who was still very much alive and bent on shaping his own legacy—Philip Roth (Philip Roth: The Biography, W.W. Norton, 2021—copies no longer available from the publisher). And here we see Bailey making mistakes. Under cover of Roth’s strong personality, the real Bailey peeks out, the one who had been a frat boy at Tulane. He’s openly contemptuous of Roth’s first wife, Maggie Martinson, a divorced waitress, who died tragically; he’s quietly scathing about Roth’s famous second wife, actress Claire Bloom. He’s happy to narrate story after story of Roth’s womanizing. Could he have glossed over it? He could, but it seems to me that he wanted to chew over what Roth got away with—which was a lot!
There are tiny hints of Bailey’s trademark empathy even here. He treats Roth’s older brother Sandy rather tenderly: an anxious man who wanted to be an artist but never quite made it, and married a “plain” young woman he felt sorry for, who died later of ovarian cancer. He treats Maggie’s confused young daughter “Helen” gently too, at least giving her a pseudonym. He likes the underdog. Philip Roth claimed to, as well. Yet Roth’s angry sense of entitlement comes through all too clearly—as does Bailey’s, in the stories that his Lusher students tell about him. His neediness for their attention is all too clear. Later, when he taught writing at the college level in Virginia, his students and peers found him negative to a fault. Like many men, he went into teaching for the wrong reasons and should never have been one, but it’s easy to say this now.
I grew up among academics. This is probably why I fell for Bailey’s work. For the past couple weeks I’ve been conflicted over the negative stories, the alarming headlines, his two books with Norton being canceled and delisted from Amazon. For a writer, what a nightmare! It’s a horror when something like this happens to someone you like… and I’m not the kind of person who has many questionable male friends to whom I give the benefit of the doubt. I did think Blake Bailey was solid, for whatever reason. When I read Eve Crawford Peyton’s harrowing story, though, I realized that this is really the last word I need to read on the Bailey affair. (Note to Bailey: perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to rape your most brilliant former student a month before her wedding.) I’ve taken down my review of his Roth biography, which I wrote just before this scandal exploded, and I won’t buy any of his books again. I don’t know what his future holds: A divorce? A suicide? A stint in rehab? A long, drunken decline? In America, you fall fast and then bad things happen to you. I know from his memoir that he’s terribly concerned about his image, so this fall from grace must be absolute hell for him. And yet, here’s the kicker, the thought that he probably savors: he almost certainly won’t be brought to justice for the crimes he got away with, because in America in 2021, women’s lives and bodies still don’t matter that much.
When I was young, as a queer teen in conservative 1980s Ireland, I remember obsessively reading biographies of Oscar Wilde. After Wilde’s own career-destroying scandal broke in 1895, the Reverend John Mahaffy, the provost of Trinity College Dublin (both Wilde’s, and my own soon-to-be alma mater, as it happens) declared firmly, “We no longer speak, sir, of Mr. Oscar Wilde.” Chilling, I thought. That was the last straw, for him, a man who’d liked (indeed, mentored!) Wilde as a brilliant student and tried to help him, sending him on to Oxford to greater things. I thought it was awful, disgusting, that most of Wilde’s old friends and acquaintances distanced themselves from him, before and after prison. I was younger and more naive then. I understand now just a little bit of the horror they must have felt at this sudden glimpse into a sordid reality they did not want to contemplate.