Hilton Kramer was one of those Americans whom once upon a time I had heard of as a maker and breaker of cultural reputations. All I then knew about him was that his opinion really mattered. And there this awesome figure was at a conference in London. What survives is one of those small moments that the memory engraves unaccountably. Hilton was talking about a Marxist artist who was committing the very offenses for which the artist damned everybody else, and this was—a long pause, wait for it, with a genial smile right across Hilton’s face, the voice inflected rather than raised—“rather rich.”

Not impolite, nor ideologically blown off course, but still firm, he won arguments and established his own point of view in just this style. He was at his best with like-minded people—conversation between him and Sam Lipman that I heard in the office of The New Criterion would have satisfied Socrates and de Tocqueville. After one cheerful dinner in my house, another guest, as it happened the wife of a famous man, vented approval of socialist nostrums, and even then Hilton refrained from jousting. At our last meeting, he had come from the British Museum. In an institution that ought to be pursuing knowledge for its own sake, political correctness had slanted the descriptions informing the public about exhibits they were seeing. This was censorship, not to be borne—a scandal.

Scholar and aesthete, a wise and elegant public figure, he did turn out to be—as rumor had led me to anticipate—someone whose opinion really did matter.

—Mr. Pryce-Jones is a Senior Editor at National Review. His most recent book is Treason of the Heart (Encounter).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 26
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