If you never heard Stefan Kanfer play the saw, then you missed out on one of the great musical experiences of the age. By saw, I mean a real, honest-to-God saw from the hardware store, which he would place between his knees like a cello and command with a mastery that would make Yo-Yo Ma weep with envy. I had the privilege of accompanying him on the piano on several occasions, and believe me when I tell you that his rendition of Alec Wilder’s “I’ll be Around,” Rodgers’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” or just about any Gershwin tune had to be heard to be believed, and was never to be forgotten.
You may think I jest, but I do not. For Steve Kanfer, who died quietly in his sleep Wednesday night at the age of 85, almost nothing was beyond his expertise, his knowledge, or his talent; the man was not so much a polymath as a poly-abled master of just about anything he tried—writer, essayist, screenwriter, wit, bon vivant, host, devoted husband of his wife May Kanfer, father of two, grandfather, mimic, musician, craftsman and one of the titans of Manhattan arts criticism during his heyday at Time magazine, where he reviewed films and edited the Books section with grace and style for decades.
To start with the parlor tricks first: at a party in Beverly Hills one evening—to which I had invited him and the actor Michael York—I watched them both do pitch-perfect impressions of James Mason in various famous roles (among them Humbert Humbert in Lolita), which Steve then proceeded to top by doing a Michael York imitation right to Michael York’s face. All, including Michael York, agreed that his version was even better than the original. Also in his wide-ranging repertoire were Henry Kissinger, Toshiro Mifune (“I shuddahtotink . . . what this monsta . . . will do to To-Kyo!”), Gregory Peck, and of course our mutual boss at Time Inc., Henry Anatole Grunwald.
It was that ear—for voices, for nuances, for the telling details—that made him such a perceptive writer and critic, not only of movies and books but of life itself. Steve, however, didn’t just do the voices, he also assumed the mien of his character as well, so that you could have sworn that Kissinger, Mifune, or Peck had suddenly inhabited Steve’s body. And then, just as suddenly, the impish grin with the hint of the Transylvanian voivode he might have been in another life—Steve’s family hailed from Romania—would reappear and so also would the visage of one of the last civilized men in New York City, ready with equal facility to tuck into writing, editing, reading, or a meal at our regular Round Table lunches at Joe Allen on W. 46th Street in Manhattan.
I first encountered Steve in the most terrifying way possible for a young writer at Time: he was the substitute editor of my first Time cover, which was about James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera. (The regular arts editor, the late Martha Duffy, was away that week.) Writing a cover was the most daunting assignment in magazine journalism, and most especially at Time, whose subjects didn’t choose Time, Time chose them, and our profile would be the last word on the subject. Further, an arts cover was a relative rarity even back in 1983, which meant the story had to be written with both sophistication and elan in order to appeal to the general reader, both of which Steve generously supplied as he whipped my copy into shape. He made my baptism-by-fire as successful as possible, and he did it all with his characteristic professionalism and personal modesty.
Of all the adjectives one might use to describe Steve, I believe “modest” most becomes him. He was a man of formidable knowledge—his study in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. was crammed floor to ceiling with books on every conceivable subject. He wrote biographies of Groucho (another spot-on impersonation), Brando, Bogie, and (Lucille) Ball, along with studies of the Jewish Rialto (Stardust Lost) and a history of the Jewish Catskills (A Summer World). And yet, he was always interested in what you were doing, what you were writing, how your family was. He took joy not in his own accomplishments, but in those of his friends. It was entirely characteristic of him that, in the end, he slipped away from us in the middle of the night, without waiting for, or wanting, applause—which we the bereaved must now supply posthumously.
But he could also be fierce, especially regarding Jewish issues. A close friend of Elie Wiesel, Steve had a clear-cut opinion about the moral rightness of Israel and no patience with attacks on it. Remarkably, for a New York Jewish intellectual, he was a political and cultural conservative, which is to say he believed in the superiority of Judeo-Christian Western civilization and sought to preserve, protect, and defend it from all its enemies, including radical Muslims, cultural Marxists, and the New York Times.
(The Times had a Stammtisch near ours at Joe Allen. One afternoon, gesturing across the room at our rivals, he remarked: “This is the like the scene in Rick’s Café in ‘Casablanca,’ with the Resistance on one side and Major Strasser’s thugs on the other.”)
He was, as far as I could tell over the course of nearly 40 years, afraid of absolutely nothing and nobody and would take on all comers in the pages not only of Time, but also City Journal, the New Leader, and elsewhere. Thanks to his formidable erudition, he was equally at home debating politics, history, music, as well as literature, especially American literature—and always from the standpoint of a moral humanist, equal parts the Jewish Jesuit Naphta (in his burning intellectualism) and the expansive Settembrini (in his love for people and his appreciation of the human comedy) in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And we were all Hans Castorp, the “pure fools” learning at his feet.
But above else, Steve Kanfer was an American—not just a patriot in the political sense, but an American in the old-fashioned sense. From his Old Country ancestors, he inherited the Jewish love of learning and respect for tradition; from his New York upbringing he had the American skepticism of pigeonholes and categorization, and contempt for arbitrary limits; for Steve, there were no limits to understanding, only a failure of the will and the imagination.
One of the highlights of our lunches was the occasional appearance of Steve’s good friend, the legendary Warner Bros. cartoonist Chuck Jones (does it surprise you that Steve was also a gifted cartoonist?), and the two of them would gleefully draw all over the paper tablecloths, leaving priceless souvenirs behind. The advice he gave me at one critical juncture of my life still resonates: “It’s like the Road Runner heading straight for the cliff,” he said. “If you think you can fly, you’ll fly. If you don’t, you won’t. But you have to jump off the cliff to find out.”
It was a lesson, one sensed, that he had taken to heart long ago, and was determined to pass along to as many of his fellow writers as he could. That he did it with such grace and style told you all you needed to know about the kind of man he was.
As he was wont to say: “Mazel, and may I add, Tov.” To which I can only add: “Ave atque, rabbi, and, may I add, vale.”