John Gross, “the Gentleman of Letters” (& other tributes)

January 16, 2011

Above: John Gross, last year



Thank you to all the many, many hundreds of people who wrote expressing condolences on the death of my father. I have been inundated with emails, letters and calls, and heartened by them all, and I am sorry that I don’t have time at present to reply to everyone individually.

Because there are a large number of people on this list who know me or knew my father personally, and because many of you said you would be interested in seeing additional articles about my father, below is a further selection from the last couple of days.

Among the articles below are a perceptive and amusing piece in the American magazine, The Weekly Standard, entitled “Gentleman of Letters”; a second piece in The Guardian published yesterday by the author Victoria Glendinning entitled “John Gross: My Hero”; a tribute by Roger Kimball in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal titled “A Tonic, Humane and civilizing force”; pieces by Craig Brown and Charles Moore in The Spectator; a tribute by D.J. Taylor in today’s Independent on Sunday (in Britain); and various other items from The Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph, and elsewhere.

-- Tom Gross


Further tributes to John Gross can be read here:

* A wonderful father (Jan. 12, 2011)
* “The Pleasure of His Company” (Jan. 23, 2011)
* “The plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy and the teeming streets of Dickens” (Jan. 28, 2011)
* “Remembering John Gross: friendship flooded the RIBA” (March 25, 2011)
* John Gross’s friends remember him in London and New York (Jan. 10, 2012)
* John Gross on the silver screen (Jan. 10, 2012)



1. “My hero: John Gross” (By Victoria Glendinning, The Guardian, Jan. 15, 2011)
2. “Immeasurably saddened” (By D.J. Taylor, The Independent, Jan. 16, 2011)
3. “A Tonic, Humane and Civilizing Force” (by Roger Kimball, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 15, 2011)
4. “The man who read everything” (By Craig Brown, The Spectator, Jan. 12, 2011)
5. “Remembering John Gross” (By Charles Moore, The Spectator, Jan. 12, 2011)
6. “Gentleman of Letters’ (By Joseph Epstein, The Weekly Standard, Jan. 24, 2011)
7. “RIP John Gross, distinguished man of letters and warm companion” (By Toby Young, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 12, 2011)
8. “One of our last great men of letters” (By Sebastian Shakespeare, Evening Standard, Jan. 14, 2011)
9. Other articles (from the TLS, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Commentary, Scotsman, Week and elsewhere)


My hero: John Gross, “the best-read man in Britain”
By Victoria Glendinning
The Guardian
January 15, 2011

John Gross, the distinguished literary critic and editor, known as “the best-read man in Britain”, died this week. Much has been said and written in the past few days about his stature as a man of letters, his unbeatable knowledge of books and authors, and his own books, including The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Working with him, as I did as an editorial assistant on the TLS, was like playing tennis with a much better player than yourself, and even when you sent the ball into the net the game went on. He saw in all of us capacities we did not know we had, and we responded. No one has ever been a more supportive friend, both professionally and personally.

But there were many other sides to him, such as his sense of the ridiculous and his genius as an anecdotalist. He was, in his diffident way, a man of the world. Well informed, and a graceful guest, he had many real friends among the wealthy and aristocratic, who appreciated not only his intellectual distinction but his transparent integrity. His response to the “great world” was Proustian.

In what one could call his middle period, he and I used to meet for drinks in the Zanzibar, that pre-Groucho haunt in Covent Garden, or for tea in the vast lounge of the Piccadilly Hotel (now the Meridien), where we were often alone except for the harpist plinking away in the middle distance, her large handbag at her feet.

He had total recall for dialogue, and launched into long, louche stories about his social experiences, spinning off in colourful tangents (“There’s a subtext here you may not know about”), always coming back, as in a well-turned essay, to his narrative – very funny, wildly indiscreet but never, ever malicious. This was gossip as an art form.

He could be dismissive, because some ideas have to be dismissed, but he did not mock or sneer. What gave him joy was the human comedy, of which he was an astute and affectionate observer.



From D.J. Taylor’s column
The Independent on Sunday (London)
January 16, 2011

Like many another labourer in the valley of the shadow of books, I was immeasurably saddened to hear of John Gross’s death last week.

In a career that lasted over five decades, Gross – don, publisher, editor, anthologist and critic – was the consummate all-round literary professional, but his reputation will rest on his study of English literary life, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), inset left.

His great theme, in an age of academic specialisation and the McLuhanesque valuing of the medium over the message it conveyed, was the enduring worth of the old-style reviewer. If anything supported his argument that “the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition”, it was his own efforts to keep that tradition alive.

He was one of my great book-world heroes, a bright Olympian torch flaring out over the Grub Street wastelands, impossible to replace.


John Gross in 1984 (Photo by The New York Times)



A Tonic, Humane and Civilizing Force
By Roger Kimball
The Wall Street Journal (Features page)
January 15, 2011

“As an adolescent,” the distinguished critic, editor and anthologist John Gross wrote in his memoir, “A Double Thread: Growing up English and Jewish in London” (2001), “I believed that one day I would find time to read everything.” Many of his friends and admirers assumed that he had long since achieved his ambition. Last year, Bevis Hillier, writing in the Spectator, called him “the best-read man in Britain.”

Earlier this week, when I wrote to tell the literary scholar John Ellis, who had been at the City of London School with Gross in the 1940s and early 1950s, that our friend had died, age 75, he passed along a story about Gross at school. The headmaster used to compose a 250-point general-knowledge quiz for the entire school, masters as well as pupils. The questions ranged over art, history, literature, science and politics. Occasionally some of the older boys placed among the masters with the top scores. But in 1950, the astonished headmaster announced that the winner was a mere fourth-former – what we would call a sophomore. Gross was 14.

In his memoir, Gross casually cited “curiosity” as the prod for his reading. “Taste wasn’t allowed to get in the way.” Mysteries as well as 17th-century poetry, potboilers as well as serious novels, Eliot and Joyce but also “the incomparable Simenon”: literary, historical, biographical, political lore of all sorts were his goad. One evening after dinner in Manhattan, my wife and Gross began singing the Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” My wife, no slouch in these matters, knew a couple of verses. Gross knew them all.

One of our favorite pastimes when in London was going on tours with Gross. He knew the city as well as any London taxi driver – better, because he could take you to any address you named and also knew what had happened there from the time of Julius Caesar until the day before yesterday. He sat on the English Heritage committee that dispensed new Blue Plaques to the clamoring line of worthy (and sometimes not-so-worthy) dead, and he introduced us to some delicious conjunctions. At Hyde Park Gate, for example, you can see not only the plaque for Robert Baden-Powell, “Chief Scout of the World,” but also the one for Winston Churchill and the 19th-century man of letters Leslie Stephen and his daughter, the future Virginia Woolf. Just around the corner, in De Vere Gardens, Henry James lived for some 15 years.

Like Stephen before him, Gross was a distinguished representative of that vanishing race he wrote about in his most famous book, “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters” (1969). The title, he noted, was something of an exaggeration. Homo litteratus was not, is not (not quite), extinct. But it belongs on the list of endangered cultural species. In a new afterword for the 1991 American edition, Gross delicately acknowledged that “some of the more extreme developments inside universities have gone further than I would have dared predict in demonstrating the dire effects that might follow if literary studies ever became an academic monopoly.” “Rise and Fall” – indeed, Gross’s entire career – was a quiet, good-humored battle against that reader-proof leviathan. These days academics use the phrase “belle lettrist” as a term of diminishment. Gross gloried in it, noting that “the belittling of the belle lettrist, the person who writes as he pleases, is at bottom a demand for ideological conformity.”

He had brief stints teaching, but his real career was in the world of live literary endeavor. He worked briefly at the late, great Encounter magazine in London and had a distinguished tenure as editor of the Times Literary Supplement (1974-81). He was a book critic for the New York Times back when the paper had critics and a theater reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph in London. One of the first people he called when he took over the TLS was the poet and critic William Empson. “‘Oh, it’s you,’ came [Empson’s] strange sing-song voice over the phone. ‘Are you in the chair already?’ ‘Yes.’ A long pause. ‘Does it swivel?’ “

Before Gross’s editorship, reviewers for the TLS had been anonymous, a pleasing system for disinterested expertise in theory but one that in practice invited all sorts of abuses, from score-settling to self-serving. Gross remembered a long essay on the state of comparative literature that began by asking whether there were any heirs to the great European practitioners of the genre, men like E.R. Curtius and Erich Auerbach. Only, intoned the anonymous reviewer, perhaps George Steiner . . . Gross, from his new swivel chair, looked up the piece. It was by George Steiner.

Gross loved to tell such stories. And he had so many by heart that he was the natural person to edit the “Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes.” “The urge to exchange anecdotes,” he wrote in the introduction, “is as deeply implanted in human beings as the urge to gossip.” It was an urge he indulged with innocent zest. “We value anecdotes about a writer, beyond their immediate point, because they bear the stamp of his or her personality.”

Oxford was on to a good thing with John Gross, anthologist. He turned out a short shelf of them: of essays, aphorisms, comic verse, quotations by and about Shakespeare and, most recently, parodies. All are distinguished by a commanding erudition lightly worn and an intellectual impresario’s talent for balancing the serious and the amusing. His anthology of essays, for example, begins with Francis Bacon and includes such worthy and entertaining figures as Sir Thomas Browne, Dryden, Swift, Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, William Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, the James brothers (William and Henry), Oscar Wilde, John Jay Chapman, H.L. Mencken and many others. He ends with one of the funniest reviews I have ever read, Clive James on Judith Krantz’s novel “Princess Daisy.” (“To be a really lousy writer,” Mr. James began, “takes energy.”)

In his introduction to the volume, Gross remarked that the 18th-century editor and essayist Joseph Addison “transformed the essay into a civilizing force, an engine against coarseness and pedantry.” Gross was himself such an engine over the course of his career. His friends lost something precious with his passing; our cultural life lost an engaging, tonic, humane and civilizing force.

(Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion, and publisher of Encounter Books.)



The man who read everything
By Craig Brown
The Spectator
January 12, 2011

Mark Boxer once drew a caricature of his friend John Gross half-buried beneath piles of hardback books while glancing up from a copy of Tatler. It’s a caricature that contains a nugget of truth – it is rare, these days, for anyone so bookish to keep such a close eye on the toings-and-froings of high society and showbiz – but there is still something not quite right about the rather severe, tight-lipped expression on John’s face. Though he always read everything with a singular intensity, the moment he looked up he would start talking and smiling, his eyes a winning mixture of benevolence and glee.

John had a startling breadth of knowledge, aided by what seemed to me an almost photographic memory: when he watched Mastermind on television, he was as swift with his answers in the specialist rounds as in the general. From time to time, he would join a team for a charity quiz; his team would always win. He was once stumped by a question about which school was attended by the hero of Lorna Doone. I remember the look of admiration in his face when he told me that his fellow team-member, the late Hugh Massingberd, had come up with the right answer in a flash: ‘Blundells’.

When he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack some years ago, I gave him a copy of the 1968 Simon Dee Annual: there are not many former editors of the TLS who would welcome such a gift, but within minutes, he seemed to know it off by heart. He loved improbable connections between people, particularly high and low. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Lucian Freud had once had a small part in a George Formby film, and, furthermore, that George Formby had, many years earlier, shared a music-hall bill with the wife of Dr Crippen. ‘I must tell John,’ I thought to myself. And now I never can.

He was interested in everything (except, perhaps, sport). This is what made him such a perfect person to invigorate the TLS as well as a brilliant anthologist. Though anthologies are, by their nature, devoted to the works of others, his anthologies also serve as a sort of silhouette of the sharp and capacious mind that edited them, and of his underlying humanity.

In his last but one, The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, he includes a story about the popular novelist Catherine Cookson, who was serving as a laundry girl in a workhouse when, in the South Shields library, she came across a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, written in 1737. Lord Chesterfield spoke directly to her: ‘If you improve and grow learned everyone will be fond of you, and desirous of your company.’ Cookson recalled falling asleep reading the letters and awaking ‘round three o’clock in the morning, my mind deep in the fascination of this new world, where people conversed, not just talked. Where the brilliance of words made your heart beat faster.’ Other anthologists might have rejected Catherine Cookson as too lowbrow, but John had not only read her biography (how many of us can claim that?) but had clearly been moved by this unlikely union of two quite different minds separated by two centuries.

John himself was a tireless anecdotalist; it is easy to transpose many of the literary anecdotes in his anthology into his own idiosyncratic delivery, rapid, but full of asides and qualifications. In one, Kingsley Amis is quoted by John Mortimer as admitting that he had ‘hit his son with a hammer’, when in fact he had said that he had hit his thumb with a hammer. In another, also involving a mishearing, Kenneth Tynan quotes Tom Stoppard as saying ‘I am a human nothing’ and then suggests that all his plays should be read as an attempt to come to terms with this bleak truth. Thirty years later, Stoppard writes a letter to the Guardian stating, with characteristic good humour, that what he in fact said was, ‘I am assuming nothing.’

He had a particular interest in the humour of social embarrassment. I remember him telling the tale of Mark Boxer at dinner with Noel Annan, getting carried away with listing all the people they knew who never lived up to their early promise. ‘Yes – and of course there’s Noel Annan!’ said Mark, forgetting for a fatal second that it was Annan to whom he was talking. While Mark collapsed on the ground, writhing in embarrassment, John remembered thinking to himself, ‘I may be able to get through the rest of my life, but how can I get through the next five minutes?’

As a critic, he never mistook the po-faced for the serious or the flashy for the innovative. He had a passion for comedy. He was a member of the committee that advises the government on the awarding of public honours, and remained cross and bemused that Ronald Searle had for some reason been denied a knighthood.

He was no cultural relativist. His literary and theatre criticism was always underpinned by sanity and sound judgment. He once wrote of another critic that ‘One major source of strength in his work is an exceptional breadth of culture. He doesn’t parade his knowledge; his cultural allusions are almost always casual and unforced. But you never doubt that the knowledge is there, or that it has a living value.’ Had he been less modest, he might have written this description, with equal accuracy, of himself.

He was a modest man, beady but unassuming, and by temperament understated. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis recalls bumping into him in a shopping centre, a month or two after he had suffered a major heart attack. ‘It wasn’t too bad. Bearable. I’ve had worse toothaches,’ reported John.

He remained friendly and unpompous to the end. A day or two ago, a West Indian nurse at St Mary’s, Paddington, told John’s son Tom that ‘Mr Gross was the best conversationalist we’ve ever had here.’ It can’t be said of many people, but I think John died in just the way he would have chosen: to the sound of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, read by his daughter Susanna.



Remembering John Gross
By Charles Moore
The Spectator
January 12, 2011

John Gross, who has just died, had many distinctions in the world of letters, but his obituaries did not report that he was the shortest-serving literary editor of The Spectator ever. In 1983, Alexander Chancellor, the editor, sacked A.N. Wilson from the job for a piece of mischief involving Clive James and Bel Mooney, and appointed John in his stead. John commissioned, it was alleged, one book review, and was then poached by the New York Times. He later returned to England and became theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph. I inherited him when I became editor there in 1992.

One day, he disparaged a new play by David Hare. Hare, who is a charming man in all other circumstances, is very sensitive to unfavourable comment on his work. ‘Your theatre critic’, he wrote to me, ‘is a subliterate dickhead.’ I have always treasured this judgment, because it was so perfectly wrong. John Gross was about as literate as it is possible to be. His learning was deep but, both in conversation and on the page, lightly worn.

The last time I saw him he corrected me when I attributed to Auberon Waugh a witticism which was actually Jane Austen’s. He did it so delicately that I only noticed afterwards what a fool I’d been. Although there have been handsome obituaries of John in the newspapers, I am left with the irritated sense that he was under-appreciated. He was too clever, too witty, too modest for our age.



Gentleman of Letters
John Gross, 1935-2011
By Joseph Epstein
The Weekly Standard
Edition of January 24, 2011

My friend John Gross died on Monday, January 10. His son Tom, who sent out an email announcing John’s death to a large number of his friends, noted that his father’s death was caused by complications relating to his heart and kidneys. His health had been failing in various ways for quite a long spell. Tom Gross also mentioned that his sister Susanna, John’s daughter, was reading to him from Shakespeare’s Sonnets when he died. That is a proper touch, for John knew English literature, knew it with greater breadth and more deeply than anyone I have ever met.

If a decently educated person knows Shakespeare, and someone with a specialized interest in the theater also knows the plays of Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Kyd, John knew Elizabethan playwrights at the next level down. The same was true of every other age or genre of English literature: obscure Romantic poets, unknown Victorian novelists, barely published critics of every age – John knew them all. As a young man, John wrote a brilliant survey of English criticism and reviewing called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, English Literary Life Since 1800 (1969). He also wrote Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1992), a splendid account of the differing ways the character of Shylock has been presented on the stage, from utter fiend to sympathetic victim. These were subjects that a standard English or American academic could nicely kill, but John wrote about them with easy sophistication, brio, charm, wit, and his always present commonsensical intelligence.

Such fame as John enjoyed was, I suspect, chiefly English, though for a period he worked for the New York Times as one of its daily reviewers. He also wrote with some regularity for American journals, among them the New Criterion, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books. Unlike many English intellectuals, he was a man without the least touch of anti-Americanism, and in his memoir of the first 17 years of his life, A Double Thread (2001), he recounts how important American movies, popular songs, and comic books were to him when growing up.

“Not everyone approved. Objections floated down from the adult world – political criticisms from the left, disdain for American vulgarity from the right. But among children, if I am in any way representative, the image was overwhelmingly favorable. America stood for streamlining and the open road, for excitement and optimism.”

John had a good run as an editor, both of intellectual journals and of anthologies. He was an assistant editor at Encounter. He was the literary editor of the New Statesman at a time when the so-called back of the book, where reviews of books and arts appeared, was easily the best thing about it. He later worked at the same job for the Spectator.

But John’s great editorial contribution was as the principal editor of the Times Literary Supplement, from 1974 to 1981. As editor of the TLS he put an end to the paper’s long tradition of anonymous reviewing, which too frequently resulted in the corrupt practice of puffing the books of friends and sneering at those of enemies. Quite as important, he widened the range of the TLS, making it less scholarly-parochial by opening it up to subjects of broader intellectual interest without in any way diminishing its seriousness.

His editorship at the TLS came at a difficult time. For one thing, the then very belligerent British printing union was menacing the paper, frequently threatening not to print the current week’s edition or refusing to do the lithography that made possible the photographs and drawings accompanying an issue. (This belligerence was finally put down by the new owner of the Times, Rupert Murdoch, who built a new printing plant in the London district of Wapping, which kicked into force, with the help of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Union (EETPU), when the printing unions announced a full-scale strike in 1986.)

The TLS had the standing of a national paper, which meant it couldn’t, like most American intellectual journals, comfortably hew to a political line. The time of John’s editorship also saw the rise, in universities, of critical theory, academic feminism, and other university waste products, whose measure one may be sure John had taken but which he could not altogether ignore in the pages of the TLS. Although John had his own politics and his own strong views on all things literary, as editor of the TLS he had to walk a high and slippery tightrope. That he did so without ever undermining his own beliefs or surrendering his standards is a tribute to his tact, subtlety, and extraordinary intellectual balance.

I wrote for John before I had met him. At the TLS he gave me, then a youngish writer, plummy assignments. I wrote about Maxwell Perkins, Edmund Wilson, and Walter Lippmann for him. He was an editor whose tolerance for the slightly outré and distaste for received opinions one could count on, so that, when asked to review a book on the Pulitzer Prizes, I knew that in his London office John would be amused at my writing that the Pulitzer Prizes tend to go to two kinds of people only: those who don’t need them, and those who don’t deserve them.

After his seven-year stint at the TLS, John worked briefly for the publisher George Weidenfeld and then took a job as a reviewer at the New York Times. How one wishes that he had instead been asked to edit the New York Times Book Review, for he would have made it, for the first time in its long history, serious and substantial. With his easy charm, he was a great social success in Manhattan. He never mentioned it to me, but I had heard that he led a book discussion club for Brooke Astor and her friends.

Working at the New York Times, which he did between 1983 and 1989, was something else. What it mostly produced was a fund of amusing stories about the ineptitude and fecklessness of the paper’s editors, at all levels. I recall John telling me a story about his mentioning in one of his reviews the name Plekhanov, whom he described as “the father of Russian Marxism.” One of the paper’s copy editors wanted to know his authority for calling Plekhanov that. “It’s almost a bloody cliché,” John told me recounting the story, “like George Washington was the father of his country.” But the copy editor wouldn’t back down until John, exasperated, said, “Look. Why don’t we compromise and refer to Plekhanov as the uncle of Russian Marxism.”

John had a keen taste for the absurd behavior of intellectuals and the vanity of writers. He got a kick out of my calling the contributors of the New York Review of Books “mad dogs and Englishmen,” and told me that the visits to London of that journal’s editor, Robert Silvers, given the obeisance that English intellectuals paid him, resembled nothing so much as the return home of the Viceroy of India.

I didn’t see the Sunday Telegraph, for which John became drama critic, but always thought it an amusing mating for a man with a taste for the absurd having to review so many plays that must themselves have been well beyond absurd. He was once seated in a London theater, watching a production of King Lear being done in mud, when he was attacked by severe angina. “Oh, Lord, I said to myself,” he told me, “dear Lord, please don’t let this be the last thing I ever see.” Fortunately, it wasn’t, though he went home afterwards and had a heart attack and, subsequently, bypass surgery.

John’s sense of the absurdity of intellectuals was nicely conveyed in his letters, subsequently his emails, and his occasional phone calls to me. He was a wonderfully entertaining gossip with a large supply of artful indiscretions at his disposal.

I don’t know when, precisely, John’s health began to break down, but when it did the steps down the precipice were all serious. He had a heart attack, as I mentioned, and at one point he suffered a stroke that, he reported to me, left one of his arms temporarily dangling out of commission. After some hesitation, I took a chance and wrote to him to say that I hoped he would not take advantage of his bad arm to do imitations of Isaiah Berlin or George Steiner, who each had a withered arm. He thought it very amusing, or so he said.

Part of John’s genius was for tact. He reviewed two of my books, praising them both, but in each case quietly getting in real criticisms, both of acts of commission and omission on the author’s part. So suave a prose stylist was he that it might seem that John had, to use Sam Lipman’s phrase, “no fist.” In fact, when sufficiently aroused John had a knockout punch. See his quietly devastating review of Stefan Collini’s Common Reading in the (London) Sunday Times of May 21, 2008. John also had little use for dogmatic critics. Readers of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters will recall his attack on the still alive and then-highly influential Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis. In defense of the vigor of his attack, John wrote in an afterword to a republication of the book in 1992: “I still believe I was right to react as I did. Leavis attempted, as no one before him, to pronounce a death sentence on the entire man-of-letters tradition. He also set a precedent for trying to police literary studies and impose one man’s will on them.”

In the end I am not sure that it is as a writer that John will be best remembered. He wrote four books – along with those I have already mentioned, he did the James Joyce volume (1970) in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series – all excellent of their kind. He edited a number of anthologies for Oxford University Press, among them The Oxford Book of Essays, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, The New Oxford Book of English Prose, The Oxford Book of Parodies, and After Shakespeare: Writing Inspired by the World’s Greatest Author – quality goods, all these volumes, exhibiting John’s immense range of reading in English literature, and books that will live on for many years. But he never thought to put together a volume of his criticism and reviews. A Double Thread, an autobiographical account of his early life, is, for an autobiography, written with an unusual tact and modesty. The truth may be that John hadn’t the egotism and vanity, the pushiness and self-absorption, required of the true writer. (Please not to ask how I know about these requisite qualities.)

John may also have enjoyed life too much. He had a natural bonhomie combined with a winning detachment. Once, in Chicago, he told me that he was the next day to visit a woman (he did not vouchsafe her name), who now lived in the city, with whom he had been close during his years as a student at Oxford. “Pity we never married,” he said, with his amused irony. “We could have caused each other much heartache.” (John’s one marriage, to the editor and writer Miriam Gross, ended in divorce, but the two remained good friends, and I never heard him utter a critical word about her.) He once took my wife and me round London, to the (in that day) with-it clubs and to the historical places only a born Londoner knew. His love of the city was palpable.

So John Gross is dead at 75. For me, he has left too early. But then I always felt John had left too early, which is another way of saying that I never got enough of him. During his last phone call to me, six or so weeks ago, we talked about a T. S. Eliot essay I had written; he told me about his own meetings with Eliot, and left me with one of his characteristic golden nuggets of gossip.

The last time I saw John in person was in Manhattan. We had breakfast together, and after breakfast we walked around the block, it must have been 10 times, trading stories, telling jokes, gossiping, laughing. At the end, I remember saying to him, “You know, John, if I were the sort of Jewish gent who went in for show-biz-like hugging, I should bestow upon you my best bear hug. But you don’t seem to me a man in desperate need of a hug.”

“Quite so,” he said, and we shook hands and parted.

John Gross was my contemporary, the smartest literary man of my generation, a sweet character, and his death marks a genuine subtraction, not merely in my life, but in the life of the culture.

(Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff And Other Stories.)



RIP John Gross, distinguished man of letters and warm companion
By Toby Young
The Daily Telegraph (London)
January 12, 2011

I heard the sad news yesterday that John Gross has died. He was a lovely man – warm, generous, clever, funny, honourable. I got to know him during my five-year stint as a drama critic for the Spectator. The fraternity of theatre critics is notoriously unfriendly towards newcomers and it became quite demoralising to be snubbed by the same group of middle-aged men three or four times a week. John, who was working as the Sunday Telegraph’s drama critic at the time, was more or less the only one who would talk to me, a characteristic act of kindness on his part. Without his companionship the job would have been a good deal less fun.

In the obituaries that appeared yesterday he was widely praised for his erudition, having edited a number of Oxford anthologies as well as the TLS, and one of the most remarkable things about him was his ability to complement almost any story with a literary anecdote. I remember telling him of my discomfiture at being confronted by Alain de Botton who berated me for having come to his book launch in spite of the fact that I’d given his book a bad review. John instantly quoted Hilton Kramer, the New York Times art critic, who had a similar experience when attending the opening of an exhibition he’d given a bad review to in that morning’s paper. The artist came up to Kramer and said, “Aren’t you embarrassed to show your face here?” “Not at all,” said Kramer. “You should be embarrassed at having produced such bad art.”

When I last saw John about a year ago he had retired as the Sunday Telegraph’s drama critic, just as I had as the Spectator’s, and we both shared a guilty secret. “Do you miss going to the theatre?” he asked. “The awful thing is, I don’t really,” I said. “Neither do I,” he replied. “Terrible, isn’t it?”

Not so terrible, in fact, given the number of dreary plays we had to sit through together. But I will miss him a great deal.



One of our last great men of letters
Sebastian Shakespeare’s column
(London) Evening Standard
January 14, 2011

The death of John Gross this week has robbed Britain of one of its most distinguished men of letters.

He was the best advertisement for this endangered species and was always eloquent, erudite and entertaining. Unlike the monstrous regiment of academics who clutter up our universities and cannot write for toffee.

Gross made his name with his book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, published 1969. The term feels more and more like an anachronism now. Which is perhaps a sad reflection on literature and life.



From The Scotsman:

From the TLS (with links to other pieces):

From Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

From Commentary:

From Tablet magazine:

From Jewish Ideas Daily (including a passage from John Gross’s memoir):

Charles Moore in The Spectator (for a second week in a row), Jan. 22, 2011:

Last item here:

(Previous column here.)

Evening Standard Londoners diary (Jan. 17, 2011):

“London literati turn out to pay their respects for the funeral of John Gross”

The Week (Jan. 22, 2011):

Obituaries of the Week: John Gross (1935-2011): Britain’s best-read man

Available to subscribers only:

The Halifax Courier:

Paul Levy in Arts Journal:

Obituary in The Nashua Telegraph (Washington Post):

The Huffington Post:

The Frum Forum:

Charles Moore (second piece) in The Daily Telegraph:



There have also been many tributes to John Gross and comments in various blogs, among them:

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.