Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Leib in Love

Did Michiko Kakutani ever receive L. Goldkorn’s $6,000 worth of messages in a bottle?

by
Leslie Epstein
January 14, 2022
Alamy
Pablo Picasso, 'Flute Player,' 1946, graphite pencil and watercolor on paperAlamy
Alamy
Pablo Picasso, 'Flute Player,' 1946, graphite pencil and watercolor on paperAlamy

In the history of Western literature, has a character fallen in love with his critic? Leib Goldkorn did, at the age of 97. And how could he not? Did not Michiko Kakutani, and in The New York Times, speak of his “commodious talent”? Of his “high seriousness,” his “humanity,” his “ease in story-telling and screwball feeling for comedy”? Did she not complete her review of Goldkorn Tales with the following passionate peroration: “The reader is moved to celebrate the redemptive power of the imagination—and to applaud [his] artistry and ambition”? Was this not, as Americans say, an insinuation? Little wonder that in his next book, Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail, the aged flute player should write his “Laplandic lass” a letter inviting her to a lunch. Yes, Laplandic, for Mr. Goldkorn is convinced that Madam Kakutani—“Kakutani? Kakutani? Michiko? What kind of name is that?”—is a Finn. Thus does he arrange an assignation with his hellion from Helsinki at the Hotel Plaza. Who knows? If a true meeting of souls should occur, Leib might find himself beaten—“Yes, you can beat me! Beat me! I will not cry out”—on the back and the loin sector by his innamorata during a Finnish bath.

The first public response to this romance came from the Boston Phoenix. While Ice Fire Water was still in galleys, the paper wrote that local author Leslie Epstein must really have it in for The New York Times reviewer. Pas du tout!, I protested: I had nothing but the greatest respect for Ms. Kakutani, whether she be Japanese, Javanese, or a Finn. Which was, in fact, the truth. To this day I regard Michiko (may I use the familiarity, Madam?) as a superior reviewer, one possessed of a good deal of artistry and ambition herself. The only occasion on which she truly angered me was when she launched a preemptive, and lethal, strike against J.D. Salinger’s beautiful novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, before it had a chance to draw a single breath as a book. It is true that I, too, once sent the reviewer a letter of appreciation that went unrequited. But is it likely that such a long-buried rebuke to an author, no matter how forlorn it left him, could lead to a love-struck Leib? In any case, if the Kakutani would but finish the book (page 258, Madam), she would discover that all her motives are ascribed not to meanness or malice but exclusively to the claims of art.

Though the Phoenix was in error about Michiko, what it said gave me an idea about other reviewers for the Times. “R. Bernstein” was already in the novel, as the Kakutani’s “lackey.” Now I seized on the galleys and added a new trio of Hustler models and experts at telephonic titillation: Anatola Boudoir, Diva Evian, and, of course, Bitch Adder, who offers to give the naughty nonagenarian a good paddling. Madam Boudoir has departed for whatever circle of hell Dante reserved for reviewers who think Henry Green a greater novelist than Dostoevsky, but the others know who they are and for what sins they must, in my pages, eternally burn.

Now, a few months before publication, news of Leib’s infatuation was moving closer to Miss Michiko’s actual abode. Harper’s Magazine ran the entire contents of his billet-doux, along with an account of the long afternoon he spent at the Court of Palms, awaiting the arrival of his sensuous Scandinavian. While it is true that the banner on the cover, Michiko Kakutani’s Hot Date, was displayed in every newsstand in New York City, there was no guarantee that the Kakutani had seen it herself. It was at that moment that the muses struck me with all their arrows. Could I not arrange for Leib Goldkorn to declare himself in The New York Times itself? And on the very front page at that? Certainly then the minx, Michiko, must acknowledge the existence of her admirer.

W.W. Norton & Co. has not remained the last, best independent publisher in America by tossing away its dimes. It was not surprising, therefore, that when I approached them with the proposal to take out a series of classified ads, every one of the house’s talented skinflints turned me down flat. Leib, it seemed, was to be left in the lurch. I then calculated that my pitiful advance might just cover the sort of campaign I had in mind—an ad a day for the month that followed the book’s publication. I picked up the phone and called the Times.

That the tiny bottom-inch personals are a 19th-century embarrassment to the current management of the paper became instantly apparent not only in the prohibitive prices they quoted—$440 a line, minimum of two lines per ad—but in the dozens of rules and restrictions they threw in my path, and above all in the voice of the callow youth who after many rings answered my phone call as follows: “Front page classified and pet supplies.” This is not a joke. By the time I’d recovered from sticker shock and from the regulations about what words I could use and how many characters I’d be allowed in each line, I felt much as I had when—a Jew boy, an American, a grad with briar pipe—I attempted to pry a sporty two-seater from the clutches of its British dealer: “You have to truly want a Morgan, Mr. EpSTEIN.” Well, by then ego, stubbornness, and desire had combined to make me truly want my series of ad-orations; I ultimately settled upon 10 two-line personals, with a special three-line $1,320 valentine thrown in at the end.

The first advertisement was meant to be a parody of the notice the board of Rabbis used to place each Friday in our newspaper of record:

JEWISH WOMEN/GIRLS LIGHT SHABBAT
CANDLES TODAY 18 MIN. BEFORE SUNSET

This is what ran at the bottom of the front page on Oct. 25, 1999:

JEWISH WOMEN/GIRLS. GENTILES TOO!
—LEIB GOLDKORN IS BACK

$880, poof! Just like that.

Here are the next six advertisements and the dates on which they appeared:

October 27:

SONYA HENIE, CARMEN MIRANDA, ESTHER
—OH, YOU LEIB GOLDKORN!

October 29:

DEAR SWEET MISS MICHIKO K.
—CALL YOUR LEIB GOLDKORN

November 1:

LEIB GOLDKORN FOR PRESIDENT!
—A CHICKIE IN EVERY POT!

November 3:

WHAT IS A LEIB GOLDKORN COCKTAIL?
—READ ICE FIRE WATER TO FIND OUT

(That last lame effort was necessitated by the Times’ rule that every fifth ad reveal the “product” being sold. So much for the human heart. Even a Morgan Dealer would have been kinder).

November 8:

WHO TOOK RUDY GIULIANI’S TOUPEE?
LEIB GOLDKORN!

November 10:

TWAPFT! TWANK! TWIRRUP!
—IT’S LEIB GOLDKORN ON FLUTE

The next day, Nov. 11, I returned from a tennis match to find a message on my answering machine asking me to call the paper. Could it be? Had the Kakutani seen Leib’s message inside a bottle? His arrow into the blue? Advertisement No. 3? But when with trembling hand I dialed the New York number the person who answered was not Miss Michiko but an ex-Marine, a Mr. Bob Smith, whose Orwellian title was, I believe, acceptability manager. “You’ve got a problem,” he told me, and went on to explain that the object of Leib’s affection had indeed seen not only the advertisement of Oct. 29 but the one planned for Nov. 15:

YOO-HOO! MY CUTE KAKUTANI!
—LEIB GOLDKORN IS CALLING

Instead of asking for Leib’s number, or some other memento, she had demanded that the remainder of the series be canceled forthwith. “And that,” concluded Sgt. Smith, “is just what we’re going to do.”

“Wait a minute,” said Leib Goldkorn’s creator. “You just ran an ad about Rudy Giuliani. What if the mayor of New York—not that he would ever dream of such a thing: But let’s just say he called and demanded that any references to him be removed from the paper. Would you simply obey?”

“I’m not getting into hypotheticals. We’re going to refund what you haven’t already spent. You can’t run these ads.”

“But what if I rewrote them? Would you run new ones?”

“Yeah, but there are two conditions. First, you got to get back to me in an hour. We’re going to lay out the issue of the 15th this afternoon. Second, not a single mention of this Kakutani.”

This Kakutani? Had he no idea that he was speaking of the woman who had called Leib Goldkorn a “person of culture and sensitivity”? This task would not take an hour. Ten minutes later I dialed the drillmaster and told him I had three brand new ads.

“Yeah?” he said, a trifle warily. “Shoot. I got a pencil.”

“Ad No. 1,” I said:

HELP! HELP! LEIB GOLDKORN IS BEING
CENSORED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES!

“Ad No. 2—"

Click. The line was dead.

What to do? I had already spent a fortune and hadn’t even had the opportunity to announce that Ice Fire Water was a novel “in your bookstores now.” I talked to a number of people at the paper and eventually reached a very nice gentlemen, the head of all advertising, who explained the reasons for what he called Miss Michiko’s “upsetment.” It seems that L. Goldkorn was not the only flautist who had been similarly smitten. If I would be considerate enough to back off, the Times, while unable to refund my $6,000, would provide me with a conventional advertisement in the “Book Review.”

“Don’t take it!” cried my editor, who has a nose for news. “It’s hush money.” But it was that or lose every penny. Besides, the news was spreading whether we encouraged it or not. Salon.com ran two stories on The Affair—"Author Pitches Woo to N.Y. Times Critic Kakutani”—a paper called from Ottawa, and London’s Daily Telegraph ran a full account of the fiasco. The next thing I knew the scandal reached a kind of apotheosis in the Page Six feature of the New York Post. According to Rupert Murdoch’s minions, the Times was coming somewhat undone, with the sergeant sticking to his story that Kakutani “was unhappy,” and had made the crucial call; while John Darnton, the cultural editor, claimed that she “had nothing to do with it” and that he was the one who had canceled the ads. It wasn’t Miss Michiko? He had canceled the cry to the Cute Kakutani? Had Leib Goldkorn a rival? Was it he whose attentions had forced the fickle Finn to withdraw from the world?

Here’s what we can say: From that fiasco-filled day more than 20 years ago to this, The New York Times has refused to run a single personal ad on its front page. That is Leib Goldkorn’s contribution to world literature. Jewish women must consult the weather page to discover when best to light their sabbath candles.

Meanwhile there sits Leib Goldkorn alone at his table in the Court of Palms. Do not, sir, cast your eyes on the double-bosomed blondes. Ignore the platinums, yes, and even the brunettos. Cease all dreams of C-cups. Do you not see the little Nipponese lady with her nose pressed to the glass? Look there: the shy smile, the winsome wave of her hand. This is no cleansing lady. This is the one true love of your long and adventure-filled life.

Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. All three of his Leib Goldkorn books will appear as a Trilorgy (no typo) in fall, 2022.