My best friend in high school was Edward Lipman, the son of the pianist Jeaneane Dowis Lipman and her husband, Sam, who had once been a piano prodigy himself but was by that point better known as an acerbic cultural critic, the director of the Waterloo Music Festival, and the founding publisher of The New Criterion. Edward and I, each of us an only child with a parent who was also an only child, lived ten blocks apart on Riverside Drive, and we spent uncountable hours talking about books, listening to music, and doing our homework in the Lipmans’ apartment, which was dominated by two Steinway grands nestled together in an airy living room. There was also a third piano in Sam’s record- and CD-lined study.
I have no idea what happened to these pianos. Indeed, I have no idea what happened to almost all of the possessions of Sam (Mr. Lipman to me), Jeaneane (Mrs. Lipman), and Edward, all now dead. But as of a few months ago, there is a Lipman piano in my home, and it brings me great joy. This is the story of that piano, in a roundabout way.
Edward died in July 2008 at the age of thirty-eight. He was not the first of my classmates to pass away. In December 2007, Amy Rosenblatt Solomon, married with three children, died of an asymptomatic heart condition on her treadmill in Bethesda. Her father, Roger Rosenblatt, published a luminous little book about her three years later, Making Toast: A Family Story. But no one has written about Edward: Sam was long dead by the time we put Edward into the ground in Sharon Gardens in the appropriately named New York town of Valhalla; Jeaneane, who was in no emotional state to write about her beloved son, died in 2013; said son was unmarried, unpartnered at the end, and childless; and if there were or are any other close members of the Dowis or Lipman families, I have never known about them. The warm remembrances of Sam and Jeaneane by Hilton Kramer, Joseph Epstein, and Martin Canin make clear how special they were. And Edward? He was special, too, and it’s up to me, maybe, to recall him for the world.
This is the story of that piano, in a roundabout way.
Edward Walter Joseph Lipman—he enjoyed writing his full name on the flyleaf of books with a fountain pen—arrived at Dalton from Allen-Stevenson, another New York private school, only in the tenth grade. He cut an unusual figure: Dalton had no dress code (aside from “Students wear free sweaters from their designer Daddies’ warehouses,” as per The Official Preppy Handbook, 1980), but he was more often than not in coat and tie. He also carried a flick knife. We had a few run-ins early on as we jockeyed for position but quickly became inseparable, an odd pair of bookish West Side boys who roamed around New York, eating breakfast at a greasy spoon on Broadway before taking the bus together to school, carting home shopping bags full of books from the Strand and used records from Academy Records after school, and drinking sidecars at The Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar many a happy evening (no one ever carded us) as the pianist played Gershwin and Cole Porter. Once in a while, we would take the train to Philadelphia for the day just to go to W. H. Allen on Walnut Street—a wonderful bookstore, now gone, alas. Once in a while, closer to home, we would stop by the offices of The New Criterion, which were then on Seventh Avenue near Carnegie Hall, and schmooze with Sam.
In our senior year at Dalton, Edward received permission to teach a for-credit class himself on W. Somerset Maugham. I was his only student. On graduating, we shared a yearbook page: at the top, the first ten bars of the Brahms Haydn Variations for the one piano, at the bottom, the same for the other, and with quotations about music from Verlaine (“De la musique avant toute chose”) and Kafka (“War er ein Tier, da ihn Musik so ergriff?”) in between. I do not remember when the variations became “our” piece, but I do remember how Sam and Jeaneane once played it for us: a rare treat since, by the time I knew him, Sam didn’t play very often.
I’ve never known a child to be as close to his parents as Edward was: after his freshman year in a (truly awful) dorm room at Columbia, he moved back in with them—happily, not under financial compulsion. Fortunately for me, Sam and Jeaneane approved of our friendship and treated me not as a son exactly, but as a sort of cousin whom it was their job to educate. The doorman at their building regarded me as a member of the family, and when I would arrive on the thirteenth floor, Jeaneane, if she was not with a student on one of the Steinways, would instruct me on how to play those opening chords of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto properly, while Sam would wander out of his study, pick a book off the shelf (Hazlitt’s essays, for example), ask me whether I’d read it, and when he discovered that I had not, inform me that he would be questioning me about it in a few days, which he always then did. Echoing Bagehot, Sam liked to say, “The function of the critic is to criticize,” a simple idea lost on the witless affirmers of cultural debasement who are taking over our institutions with “critical theory” rather than critical knowledge—just as the three Lipmans predicted would happen, long before I recognized the danger myself.
I’ve never known a child to be as close to his parents as Edward was.
I was very fond of Edward’s parents, while also being not a little scared of them—tall Jeaneane from Texas, short Sam from California, both very fierce. And I was not a little cowed, too, by the intellectually sophisticated guests at their dinner parties, who engaged in fierce repartee as the wine and whisky flowed: Hilton Kramer, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, Helen Frankenthaler, Gerard Schwarz, Jacob Neusner, and a young Roger Kimball.
But then Sam was diagnosed with leukemia and died, slowly and, ultimately, painfully. He was only sixty. By the end, Edward had graduated from Columbia with a degree in classics and was at Cambridge, where he had received a second B.A., in history, and had been appointed to a prestigious research fellowship at Peterhouse. He wanted, I think, to be his father, only with a Ph.D.—perhaps a wide-ranging and cantankerous scholar-cum-bon vivant in the mold of Maurice Cowling, perhaps the next Niall Ferguson, whose success he confidently predicted to me already in 1992.
It was not to be. With Sam’s illness, Edward started to fall apart. His sparklingly intelligent and beautiful girlfriend, Marjorie, who was by far my favorite of my friends’ girlfriends, broke up with him; his next girlfriend, whose name I have dropped from memory, was awful. He did write a few reviews here and there: one for Sam’s old stomping ground, Commentary, on Rosalie Maggio’s silly book The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language; another, grumpy, for The American Scholar on Roy Jenkins’s biography of Gladstone. But mostly he gained weight, no longer always spoke lucidly, and received regular shock therapy. I accompanied him on many of his appointments for this treatment. Mercifully, he never remembered what was done to him; I, however, will never forget the crackling electricity and the thuds behind the closed door as I waited in a dingy hospital corridor in northern Manhattan to take him home.
Edward was an accomplished oboist, photographer, and carpenter.
On returning to the United States from England just before the turn of the millennium, Edward worked for George W. Bush, the governor of Texas at the time. I couldn’t even then have told you what he actually did. In truth, it is my impression that he did no work at all—and he wouldn’t do much of anything again for the final decade or so of his life.
In his good years, Edward was an accomplished oboist, photographer, and carpenter. (I helped him build the wooden bookshelves in his room in New York. Which is to say: he did the work while I watched with admiration.) He liked Goslings Black Seal rum, American Chinese food, and bikes (you can find online something he wrote in 1996 titled “Touring in Provence”). He introduced me to Thomas Pink shirts and to Joseph Wechsberg’s Looking for a Bluebird, which remains one of my favorite books; it was because of him, and our hours at Bemelmans Bar, that I started to collect signed first editions of Ludwig Bemelmans; and whenever I listen to Poulenc, he is at the front of my mind.
Of course I prefer to remember Edward the teenager. Who wouldn’t? Three of our classmates were present at his burial: Hillel Hirshbein, who grew up in the apartment just above the Lipmans’; Andrew Goodwin, who had been at Allen-Stevenson with Edward before Dalton; and Ben Wolff, a professional cellist. The gathering after the funeral was chez Hirshbein—presided over by Hillel’s vivacious parents, Omus and Jessica, the former, like Sam, a Juilliard-trained pianist who made his greatest mark as an impresario, turning the 92nd Street Y into a world-class concert venue. Afterward, a group of us went out drinking: to the Friars Club, courtesy of Andrew, to God only knows how many midtown and downtown bars, and in the end to a dive near Penn Station. It was so late when the last of the gang parted ways that I was on the first train back to Princeton in the morning.
Last December, Roger Kimball asked my wife and me whether we wanted a piano. We did. One of our first tasks on moving into a beautiful old house a couple of years earlier had been to install bookshelves in what is now the library, but for a long time the center of the room was largely empty as we dithered about just what kind of instrument to buy. How fortunate that we waited! For it turned out that Erich Eichman, an old friend of Roger and of the Lipmans (and the managing editor of The New Criterion for its first decade), had been patiently maintaining Sam’s mother’s piano (and bench) in a storage facility in Suffern, New York. He wanted after many years to find it a good home.
This Lipman piano is a brown Chickering baby grand from around 1925, recently restrung, repinned, and generally refurbished by Klavierhaus. It’s been loved—Erich believes it may have been Sam’s first piano—and I love it. It’s not a Model D Steinway, but I’m not a Model D Steinway pianist. It looks beautiful in its new setting, which is the room directly to the right of the small foyer when you walk in the front door. It is not a piano I knew as a young man, and I never met Sam’s mother, who I suppose must have died before Edward and I became friends. But when I play it, I think of Riverside Drive in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, and I think of Edward and of Sam and Jeaneane.
And what lies directly to the left of the foyer? That is a room we call our Bemelmans Bar. Filled with books, drawings, and paintings by Bemelmans, it is where I sometimes sit in the evening drinking sidecars and thinking of Edward. Perhaps one day Earl Rose will stop by on his way to The Carlyle and tickle the ivories.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 78
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