Newark-born Philip Roth, author of more
than a score of successful books, and hailed by the National Book
Foundation as "One of America's most acclaimed and inventive
authors," grew up in Newark's Weequahic section and was educated
in Newark public schools.
He is a two-time winner of the National Book Award, a Pulitzer
Prize winner, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, given in
a White House presentation, and has been on the short list for the
Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was born March 19, 1933 to Herman and Bess Roth, middle-class
American-born Jews, and the grandson of Yiddish-speaking European
immigrants who settled in Newark in the 1890s.
My Roth Connection
Philip Roth burst on the American literary scene in 1959 with the
publication of his first book, a novella, "Goodbye, Columbus."
It was hailed as "A masterpiece" by Newsweek and for
it, Roth was given the 1960 National Book Award.
At the time of his book's publication, Roth was an unknown 26-year
old and just nine years beyond his 1950 graduation from Weequahic
High School. But it was soon evident that this was an important
new writer of explosive wit, and merciless insight and fierce compassion
for his characters ... a writer of great promise.
At the time Roth won the National Book Award in 1960, I was in
charge of marketing, sales, and promotion for the Hillside-based
Baker & Taylor Company, then the nation's largest wholesale
supplier of books to bookstores and libraries.
I recall, at that time, I made a special effort to promote "Goodbye,
Columbus" to our major bookstore accounts, not only because
of its flavorful and familiar Newark locale, but also because the
author's father, Herman, and I were both members and acquaintances
at the Newark "Y" Health Club at 255 Chancellor Avenue.
It was just a few steps away from his author-son's high school,
Weequahic High, at No. 279 Chancellor Avenue1.
The senior Roth and I felt a sort of bond at that time as we sat
side by side in the "Y" steam room. His son was a recently
published author, and I was a book industry marketing professional.
Further, Herman Roth found me a willing listener and he loved
to talk about his son's almost instant success as an author, and
his pleasure at the attention his son's book was getting at that
Herman Roth, like myself, had lived in Newark through the 1930s
and had worked Newark's streets collecting premiums for the Metropolitan
Life Insurance Company. He knew the city intimately.
Elevation to Celebrity Status
Although Philip Roth continued to turn out new and favorably received
books, he did not achieve super-stardom until ten years after the
appearance of "Goodbye, Columbus."
He did it with "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969. The New
York Times described "Portnoy" at that time as "A
deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.
It offered an uninhibited blend of nostalgia for Roth's Weequahic
neighborhood with ribald, delirious accounts of sexual adventures.
At the end of 1969, "Portnoy" had sold 3,866,488 copies.
It was the year's biggest-selling book and elevated Newarker Roth
to celebrity status.
"Portnoy" was an intensely personal novel3
that many readers and reviewers considered as much of a social document
and depiction of life in a middle-class Newark Jewish neighborhood
(Weequahic) as a work of fiction.
Back to Pop and the "Y"
By the time of Roth's triumph with "Portnoy" the riots
in Newark had come and gone. The Chancellor Avenue "Y"
building, virtually abandoned after the 1967 riots, had been sold
to the Newark Board of Education and become a school annex. The
YM-YWHA movement in Newark was dead after nearly a century.
Both Herman Roth and myself had now become members of the Health
Club at the Union YMHA at 501 Green Lane.
My last contact with Herman was in 1988 when I was writing a book
on book titling and wanted to contact his son about his book titling
However, in the years leading up to Herman Roth's death on October
25, 1989, at the age of 86, I had learned from conversations with
him that he and his wife, Bess, enjoyed basking in the glow of their
son's literary success and accompanying notoriety, and Philip, always
the dutiful son, tried to share as much of it as he could with them.
The senior Roths celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in
1977, the same year their son saw his seventh book published --
"The Professor of Desire." Bess Roth died in 1981 and
Herman managed to make a new life without her, engaging a housekeeper/cook
to keep his apartment running. He died eight years later.
Father's Death Sparks a Bestseller
Two years after Herman Roth's passing in 1989, son Philip wrote
and published an unsentimental portrait of his father's life, his
final illness and physical decline from a brain tumor, and the author's
close relationship with his father.
The book: "Patrimony: A True Story" was hailed by many
critics as one of Roth's best books and became a national bestseller.
In life, Herman had been an insurance salesman for Met Life. In
death, he became a literary partner of his son, providing the source
material for yet another of his son's award-winning literary triumphs.
"Patrimony" A True Story" won the National Book
Critics Circle Award in 1992.
The New York Times called "Patrimony" "...a highly
moving and beautifully rendered portrait of a father and son."
The Washington Post review said "His father emerges as one
of the genuinely indomitable figures in American literature."
Sven Birkirts wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Roth has looked
past all comfort and condolences to find the truth about himself
and his father; about death and the fear of it."
* * *
Inside Story Behind Patrimony Dinner Guest
More than five percent of the printed pages in "Patrimony"
are related to author Roth's experience while having a Friday night
dinner at his father's apartment with a surprise guest -- a Union
'Y' Health Club friend of Herman -- who author Roth said had been
invited by his father -- "to tell us his story while we ate
our dinner -- particularly to me."
Roth describes the guest in "Patrimony" as a Newarker,
"Walter Herrman" who had been a Holocaust survivor of
two concentration camps who found success in America and had become
a wealthy furrier.
The guest had brought with him a manuscript of a book he had written
about his Nazi-era survival.
Roth apparently read portions of the manuscript later and told
his father "It's pornography."
Herman responds to his son' "Maybe it'll be a bestseller
That visit with Roth happed in 1985 when Herman, then a widower
for 4 years, had both a housekeeper/cook and a steady lady friend,
both of whom were present.
Facts About Visit and Visitor
I am closely familiar with the visit described in "Patrimony"
because that 1985 Holocaust author was then, and still is, a friend
who had kept me informed about his book while writing it.
He was hurt and incensed with his depiction in Patrimony"
and felt the facts on his survival memoir had been sharply distorted,
improperly presented, and misrepresented as to its content.
He told me he had given thought to suing Roth, but I assured him
there would be no basis for it as a fictitious name was used and
his true occupation as jeweler was changed to furrier. Roth had
fictionalized the meeting to make it more interesting, and even
a bit hilarious.
The Holocaust memoir was subsequently published in the United
States in 1996 and its author wrote in my copy "Here is the
true story of and about Walter Herrman."
* * *
What His High School Yearbook Said
Philip Roth's Weequahic High School Yearbook, The Legend, the
caption under the photo of the 16-year old Philip says "A boy
of real intelligence, combined with wit and common sense."
Little did the writer of the caption in the yearbook know that
this former Assistant Editor of the School Annex News would go on
to more literary awards than any other American author, including
a Pulitzer Prize, and would be on the short list for the Nobel Prize
* * *
Newarkers Used as Book Characters
A former Weequahic High classmate recalls that Philip had a gift
for taking fragments of several people and weaving them into a fictional
but believable character.
It was a popular pastime during Roth's early years as an author
for former Weequahic High schoolmates, teachers, neighbors, girlfriends,
and relatives to scrutinize his newly-published books to see if
they could recognize themselves or someone they knew.
A distant cousin told me for this recollection that Philip Roth
had also used relatives as characters in his books.
Further Clues to Roth's Writing Philosophy
For more information about Philip Roth and his personal outlook
on "Writing as a Profession," see: "The Joy of Publishing'
Fascinating Facts, Anecdotes, Curiosities, and Historic Origins
about Books and Authors, Editors and Publishers, Bookmaking and
Bookselling" by Nat Bodian. Published 1996 by Open Horizons
Publishing Co. (ISBN 0-912411-47-3).
* * *
Roth's Words Given an Accent
In 1999, forty years after its initial publication, Roth's first
book, "Goodbye, Columbus", was re-released in audio cassette
with Theodore Bikel and Elliott Gould as the readers.
I recall the Library Journal review on the release of the audio
cassette. The review praised the excellence of Bikel and Gould in
"capturing the characteristics of Jewish-American speech in
their accented renditions."
As the locale of the book was largely Newark's Weequahic neighborhood
where Roth spent his formative years, I was led to wonder what a
"Weequahic accent" sounded like. If any of you recall
that cassette, perhaps you can tell me.
* * *
Roth's Novels on the Silver Screen
- Goodbye, Columbus (1969 film)
- Portnoy's Complaint (1972 film)
- The Human Stain (2003 film)
- American Pastoral (film announced for 2005)
Roth Novel as Television Adaptation
- The Ghost Writer (1984)
* * *
Philip Roth Today
Today, at age 70, after two failed marriages, author Philip Roth
lives alone, a veritable recluse, in his 18th century farmhouse
in Warren, Connecticut. he spends his days at a writing studio about
60 yards from his house. he also maintains a writers studio on the
upper West Side in New York City.