Remembering Ben Sonnenberg

by Alexander Cockburn, September 24, 2010

Edward Said & Ben Sonnenberg in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Alexander Cockburn.

There was a memorial for Ben Sonnenberg last week. Ben died on June 26 at the age of 73 — and a substantial crowd of the people who knew and loved him were invited by his widow, Dorothy Gallagher, to muster at the Century Club, on West 43rd street in New York, on September 15 and honor his memory. Speakers included two of his daughters, Susannah and Saidee, Dan Menaker, Michael Train, Anne Carson, Rebecca Okrent, Susan Minot, James Salter and yours truly. My own brief remarks derived somewhat from this longer memorial piece I wrote shortly after his death for our CounterPunch newsletter.

With Ben’s passing CounterPunch has lost its longtime counselor. The world has lost a true humanist, in the Renaissance heft of that word, one in whom refinement of taste, wideness of culture mingled with political passion. I mourn a very close friend. His greatest literary achievement was Grand Street, the quarterly he founded in 1981 and edited till 1990, when multiple sclerosis was far advanced and his fortune somewhat depleted. His friend Jean Stein took the magazine over and it ran till 2004. As he put it laconically, “I printed only what I liked; never once did I publish an editorial statement; I offered no writers’ guidelines; and I stopped when I couldn’t turn the pages anymore.” As another great editor Bruce Anderson, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, wrote after Ben’s death, “Grand Street under Sonnenberg was the best literary magazine ever produced in this doomed country. His Grand Street was readable front-to-back. If you’ve never seen a Grand Street, the last literary quarterly we’re going to have, hustle out to the last bookstore and get yourself one and lament what is gone.”

When I first came to New York in 1973, I went to a couple of parties thrown by Ben’s father, Ben Sr., one of the trailblazers in public relations who gave elaborately staged parties to advance the interests of his various clients, at 19 Gramercy Park. He looked a bit like a comfortably retired Edwardian bookie in 1890s London, with enough knowingness in his glance to deliver “fair warning” to the unwary. Though he publicly prided himself on never have taken a dime from either Howard Hughes or the Kennedys, Ben Sr. certainly milked big clients like General Motors of plenty of moolah, a satisfactory chunk of which he left to Ben.

Ben Jr. detailed his somewhat raffish and caddish youth in his 1991 memoir, Lost Property, but I had already known for almost a decade the tastes that he listed on the first page and that endeared me to him: “My favorite autobiographers in this century are Vladimir Nabokov, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.” A paragraph later he cited “my friend Edward Said,” whose savage essay “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution’ — a Canaanite Reading” Ben had published in Grand Street in 1986.

There was no other cultural periodical at that time that would have given the finger so vigorously to polite New York intellectual opinion. The finger could be puckish. In January of 1989 he sent me a copy of his offer — which I published in The Nation — on behalf of himself, me and others, to Marty Peretz: “Dear Mr Peretz: Do you wish to sell the New Republic? May I know your terms? I am one of a small group whose members are eager to buy the New Republic and restore its credit as a liberal journal. We suspect you may be ready to sell from the vacancy and desperation of recent articles, which I at least associate with the moral and material bankruptcy of the state of Israel. I am the editor of Grand Street, but none of my associates is in the magazine publishing business.”

Ben’s decent obit in the New York Times by William Grimes mentioned many of the writers he published: Ted Hughes, Alice Munro, James Salter, Susan Minot, John Hollander, Northrop Frye, W. S. Merwin, Christopher Hitchens, Amy Wilentz, and the present writer. But not Edward Said. Their relationship was very close and among my warmest memories are dinners, with Ben and his wife, Dorothy Gallagher, in their apartment at 50 Riverside Drive, listening Edward’s thunders to the company about some fresh outrage of his enemies, some new libel lavished upon him, the Canaanite — “a mere black man” — and hearing Ben’s delighted laugh, raspy and soon spent because there was not much puff power in his body, imprisoned in the wheelchair or propped up in bed.

Ben was just such a physical captive for over a quarter of a century, ultimately unable to move anything but his head, but I never saw him dull of eye or wit, amid what a similarly spry and creatively indomitable Alexander Pope, crippled from the age of 12, half blind and afflicted with asthma, in the “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” ruefully called “this long Disease, my life.” Great though the editorial achievement of Grand Street was, the resilience that carried him onward through the two decades that followed his Grand Street was what seized me. Ben’s late style was a marvelously warm and inspiring achievement.

I first met him in 1982, when I conducted negotiations on behalf of my father Claud, whom Ben wanted to write a memoir about spies and the Spanish Civil War. I reported to my father the large sum Ben had agreed without much demur to pony up, and Claud duly turned in a very funny essay, full of astute observations about Guy Burgess and spy mania, but also with a wonderfully tragicomic memoir about the strange death of Basil Murray and his ape in Valencia. (It can be found on our CounterPunch site, in my piece on the centennial — April 12, 2004 — of Claud’s birth.)

Soon I was writing for Ben myself, and it was always agreeable. He was good at soft-edged editorial blackmail, designed to propel one past the finishing post. The substantial checks spurred creativity, too, and, by 1985, I managed a very long memoir about my childhood, “Heatherdown,” which was well received. I never would have written it, if it hadn’t been for Ben. When, to his irritation, I quit New York for Key West in the early 1980s and ultimately settled here, in northern California, he would refer to my location as though it was in Kamchatka, filled with metropolitan wonderment that we could even communicate past the barrier of the Rocky Mountains, the wastes of the Great Basin, the Sierra, even unto a northern Pacific shore on which he had never, would never, set eyes. But we spoke on the phone constantly, and I like to think these hundreds of parleys — interspersed with occasional visits — brought us far closer than if I had been trudging down the West Side from my old roost on Central Park West and 94th Street.

He had been a young flâneur in London in the 1960s and, no doubt, we passed each other unwittingly from time to time on the Kings Road: I in the long, dark navy velour overcoat, velvet trousers, borsalino hat, chiffon scarf I affected at that time, Ben in the tweed suits made for him by Huntsman on Savile Row and shoes handstitched by Cleverly, “bespoke shoemaker” in the Burlington Arcade.

Not long after I moved to Petrolia, probably worried I wasn’t warm enough, nor adequately shod, in this Kamchatka-in-the-Pacific-Northwest, he sent me two of his exquisite old tweed suits and brown walking shoes and, since we are the same build, I wear the herringbone Scotch tweeds and the brown brogues often amid the winter chills of Petrolia, sometimes wondering that if I keel over in the road and some stranger finds me and looks at the label on the inside pocket, he’ll see “Huntsman & Sons Ltd. B. Sonnenberg 5.6.69” and launch off into some surreal farce of confused identity of the sort Ben loved. Earlier this year he sent me no less than six pairs of black shoes, of minutely varied design, supplied by the diligent and extremely expensive Mr Cleverly. At least physically, I can stand in Ben’s shoes and when he was alive could feel that at least I was doing his walking for him.

But the alumnus of Savile Row and Wilton’s, of the Boulevard Haussmann, of Malaga back in the day, was no whimsical dabbler. He was that best mix — serious and radical about politics and art in a fashion that never forfeited lightness of touch (though, to my chagrin, he had no feeling for Wodehouse). He was in at the ground floor with CounterPunch, giving money to former co-editor Ken Silverstein to help get the newsletter going and then agreeing to become our counselor, listed as such on the masthead on page 2. It meant a lot to us to have him displayed there. To him also, I hope. Jeffrey St. Clair had the pleasure of watching in Ben’s sitting room the spectacle of Al Gore stalking George Bush in that fatal debate, and had an enjoyable long-term phone connection to Ben. Later, for our website, he began to write his brilliant little reviews of movies newly released on DVDs — often of the great directors of his youth, Antonioni, Rosellini, Bresson.

This spring I felt I hadn’t seen him for too long. We seemed to be talking less. I feared for his health and jumped on a plane and spent a long weekend in New York. I entered that bedroom in which I had spent so many delightful hours, its paintings and prints in their familiar spots, and here was Ben, not sinking at all but in good voice, his eyes agleam. A dinner with him and Dorothy, Mariam Said and JoAnn Wypijewski was a tumult of laughter and political sallies and disputes. And then, three months later, he was gone — taken off by an infection he was too weak to battle. His hundreds of friends were unprepared when he slipped away, surrounded by Dorothy and his daughters. Of course, I comfort myself with the thought of that last trip. I look fondly and sadly at his suits, the books he gave me along the autograph letter from Zola on my wall.

Privileged is the person who has had such a friend. He was so loyal, and when he was being loyal about people I didn’t care for, I comforted myself with the thought that when someone was confiding to Ben some reservations, animosities even, concerning your's truly, Ben would be reliably loyal about me too, though he never shirked his exacting critical standards.

At the memorial James Salter recalled that when Ben was editing Grand Street, Harold Brodkey, a close friend, sent him a very long poem. Ben didn’t care for it. He wrote to Brodkey to say that at best he might publish a few pages of it. Brodkey withdrew the poem. Then later Brodkey sent Ben a short story. Ben didn’t like that either, and declined to publish it. Brodkey severed their friendship. Then, sometime later, Brodkey wrote to Ben saying he would like to put the friendship back on its feet. Ben declined, writing to Brodkey that he didn’t relish the prospect of the “watchful cordiality” that a resumption of relations would now require.

Ben always makes me think of Proust, because of his cultivation, because they both spent so much time in bed (in Proust’s case a surprisingly small one, now ensconced in the Carnavalet museum in Paris, not much wider than Ben’s), because so many chats sent us off down the boulevards of common memory. He was like Proust in cultivation, stylishness, humor and, as regards his physical afflictions, the way he bore them with such fortitude and grace.

Autumn of the Driveler

Some world leaders mature as they head into the sunset: Jimmy Carter often makes more sense in his 80s than he did as president nearly four decades ago. Others spare the world their midnight thoughts, not always voluntarily. Ronald Reagan succumbed to Alzheimers; Ariel Sharon is still animate, albeit effectively dead to the world. Alas, Fidel Castro just broke an arm and a kneecap when he tripped on that fateful concrete step six years ago. Would that he had bitten off his tongue and thus spared his erstwhile admirers, myself included, the sound of this once great revolutionary plunging into kookdom.

If President Raúl Castro wants to defend Cuba’s record on human rights, all he needs to do point to the fact that his brother has not been deposed from his formal position as First Secretary of the Communist Party, and carted off to an isolation ward in the Casa de Dementes, Havana’s psychiatric hospital. Instead he has unstinted access to the state radio and the newspaper Granma.

In both of these media Castro, now 84, has spouted a steady stream of drivel.

Memorable among these forays into nutdom was his outburst of conspiracism on the sixth anniversary of the Trade Center/Pentagon attacks with the whole slab of nonsense read out by a Cuban television presenter.

Castro claimed that the Pentagon was hit by a rocket, not a plane, because no traces were found of its passengers. “Only a projectile could have created the geometrically round orifice created by the alleged airplane,” according to Fidel. “We were deceived as well as the rest of the planet's inhabitants.” All nonsense of course. There were remains of the passengers on the plane that hit the Pentagon, in the form of teeth and other bits traced through DNA. Hundreds of people saw the plane — people who know the difference between a plane and a cruise missile. The wreckage of the plane was hauled out from the site.

It’s logical that maximum leaders like Castro are conspiracists by disposition. Since they are control freaks, the random and the accidental are alien to their frame of reference. If it happened, it happened for a reason. And if a bad thing happened, it was very probably a conspiracy.

More recently, in early August of this year Castro touted to his audience in Cuba and across the world his sympathy with one of the standard mantras of nutdom, which is the belief that the world is run by the Bilderberg Club.

The 84-year-old former Cuban president published an article on August 18, spread across three of the eight pages of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, quoting in extenso from the Lithuanian-born writer Daniel Estulin’s 'The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club,' (2006) alleging the Bilderbergers control everything, which must mean that they pack a lot into the three-day session the Club holds each year as its sole public activity. Of course they probably skype each other a lot too and rot out their brains plotting and planning on their cellphones.

Followers of the Alex Jones (Radio) Show, a sanctuary of conspiracism, no doubt remember Estulin’s claim in 2007 that he had “received information from sources inside the US intelligence community which suggests that people from the highest levels of the US government are considering an assassination attempt against Congressman Ron Paul because they are threatened by his burgeoning popularity.” The bits of Estulin’s book reverently quoted by Castro, who called Estulin honest and well informed, retread some of the doctrines of Lyndon LaRouche, one of the most lurid conspiracists in political history (though I do have affectionate memories of LaRouche’s claim in 1984 in an ad running on the CBS network that former vice president Walter Mondale, then running against Ronald Reagan for the Oval Office, was an “agent of influence” of the Soviet Intelligence services. At the time LaRouchies were in close contact with the Reagan White House.)

On the evidence of his quotes from Estulin, Castro is much taken by Estulin’s view that members of the Marxist Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who fled to the US from the Nazis before World War Two, had been recruited by the Rockefellers to popularize rock music to “control the masses” by seducing them from the fight for civil rights and social justice. According to Estulin, reverently quoted by Castro, “The man charged with ensuring that the Americans liked the Beatles was Walter Lippmann himself.”

So Fidel Castro believes that the Beatles were invented by the Rockefellers, and that Walter Lippmann, the pundit who drafted President Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918, crowned his literary/political career in 1968 by sending John Lennon the lyrics for “Revolution,” with its demobilizing message: “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know / We all want to change the world /… But when you talk about destruction / Don't you know that you can count me out.” (In fact I seem to remember that Lennon actually wrote the song as an answer to my friends Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, who, as members of New Left Review and the Fourth International, had suggested to Lennon that the Beatles pony up some dough to finance the revolutionary cause.)

And now Castro’s latest outing into political asininity has been to give an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg, of the Atlantic, allowing the man Castro cordially describes as “a great journalist” to cite Castro as saying that the Cuban economic model has been a disaster.

Goldberg is an appalling journalist, whose most notable achievement was to run an enormous piece in the New Yorker in the run-up to the attack on Iraq in 2003, which was one of the most effective exercises in disinformation designed to stoke up the Congress and public opinion in favor of the war. The piece was billed as containing disclosures of “Saddam Hussein's possible ties to al Qaeda.”

This was at a moment when the FBI and CIA had just shot down the war party's claim of a meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before the 9/11 attacks. Goldberg saved the day for the Bush crowd. At the core of his rambling, 16,000-word article was an interview in the Kurdish-held Iraqi town of Sulaimaniya with Mohammed Mansour Shahab, who offered the eager Goldberg a wealth of detail about his activities as a link between Osama bin Laden and the Iraqis, shuttling arms and other equipment.

The piece was gratefully seized upon by the Administration as proof of The Link. The coup de grâce to Goldberg's credibility came on February 9, 2003 in the London Observer, administered by Jason Burke, its chief reporter. Burke visited the same prison in Sulaimaniya, talked to Shahab and established beyond doubt that Goldberg's great source is a clumsy liar, not even knowing the physical appearance of Kandahar, whither he had claimed to have journeyed to deal with bin Laden; and confecting his fantasies in the hope of a shorter prison sentence.

Needless to say, Burke’s demolition was not picked up in the US press, nor has the New Yorker ever apologized for Goldberg’s story, certainly as pernicious as anything offered by Judy Miller in the New York Times.

Since Castro has been sounding tremendous alarums about a possible attack on Iran, it’s bizarre to find him lofting Goldberg, a former member of the Israeli Defense Force, to the journalistic pantheon and taking pains to paint his fellow 9/11 conspiracist, president Ahmadinejad of Iran, as an anti-Semite.

Some on the left see Castro’s deprecating remarks about the failure of the Cuban economic model as part of a tactical maneuver to help his brother institute the “reforms” that will see somewhere between half a million and a million Cubans lose their jobs. I see it as a spectacularly foolish misjudgement by Castro, who told Goldberg “The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore” and later said he was misinterpreted and that he meant the exact opposite, which is obvious nonsense.

Then Castro took Goldberg to — of all disgusting things — a dolphin exhibition. Lock the old fool up I say, free the dolphins and turn the exhibition into a theme park for all the CIA’s efforts to kill Castro, including booby-trapping a coral reef. The ironies of history: the CIA failed, and here’s Castro taking up the task, methodically assassinating his reputation, week after week.

Body Parts, Bio-Piracy and Israel’s National Forensic Institute

Our latest newsletter, now available to subscribers, features an extraordinary special report by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1996, she has been involved in active field research on the global traffic in human organs, following the movement of bodies, body parts, transplant doctors, their patients, brokers, and kidney sellers, and the practices of organ and tissue harvesting in several countries — from Brazil, to Israel to the United States.

In our newsletter Scheper-Hughes describes the tissue, skin, bone and organ harvesting conducted for many years at Israel’s National Institute of Forensic Medicine, under the aegis of its former director and current chief pathologist, Dr. Yehuda Hiss. Long before Donald Boström leveled allegations of organ-harvesting from Palestinians in the Swedish tabloid, Aftonbladet, in August 2009, causing furious accusations of “blood libel,” Scheper-Hughes had already interviewed Dr. Hiss and had on tape the interview that forms part of her report here.

Scheper-Hughes says her purpose is to refute the controversial official statements of the Ministry of Health and the IDF that while there may have been irregularities at the National Forensic Institute, they have long since ended. To this day, she says, they have failed to acknowledge, punish, or rectify various medical human rights abuses, past and present at the National Forensic Institute. While many of the allegations are widely known, the testimony by Israeli state pathologist and IDF (reserve) Lt. Col. Chen Kugel has never been published in English and his allegations are known only within Israel. Dr. Scheper-Hughes invited Dr. Kugel to speak publicly on this topic in the U.S. on May 6, 2010.

There are two lawsuits ongoing in Israel at the present moment concerning the Forensic Institute and Dr. Hiss. One concerns alleged abuses against the dead bodies of Israeli citizens. The other concerns Rachel Corrie, a U.S. citizen who was killed in Gaza in 2003 while protesting the demolition of houses. Scheper-Hughes cites transcripts of court proceedings showing disturbing irregularities in Corrie’s autopsy conducted by Dr Hiss. Scheper-Hughes’ article, I should also mention, takes care to note Dr. Kugel’s description of his former mentor, Dr. Hiss, as a man who saw himself as willing to take great personal and professional risks “to serve a noble end… to help the war-wounded victims of terrorist attacks,” with his actions “as something sublime, or even heroic, as a modern-day Robin Hood.”

(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.)

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