Her Father Was A Drama Critic, Her Mother A Superstar Agent

In her memoir “The Critic’s Daughter,” Priscilla Gilman recounts her life with intensely intellectual — and very different — parents.

Image: Twitter via @pricillagilman

The Critic's Daughter: A memoir
By Pricilla Gilman
W.W. Norton & co,

Priscilla Gilman’s new memoir, “The Critic’s Daughter,” is about her tangled relationship with her father, the critic Richard Gilman. By the end of the book, there’s a lot of blood on the floor, but it doesn’t belong to the author or her ostensible subject.

Richard Gilman’s name has begun to fade, like a paperback left too long in the sun, but in the 1970s and ’80s he was a critical and academic titan. He was theater critic at Newsweek back when that meant something, and then at The Nation. He taught for three decades at the Yale School of Drama. He was president of PEN America. His books of criticism (“The Making of Modern Drama”) and memoir (“Faith, Sex, Mystery”) were issued not by academic presses but by vital mainstream houses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Simon & Schuster. He’d been an expert witness at Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial.

As a critic, Gilman was brilliant; he made the light in your head brighten by a few lumens. He was also a hanging judge. The New York Times critic John Leonard described his style as “confrontation criticism.” He often got as good as he gave. John Updike zinged him on several occasions and gave an unpleasant lawyer the name Gilman in his novel “S.” These barbs only refreshed Gilman’s zeal for battle.

“The Critic’s Daughter” is about growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a gregarious and intensely intellectual household. Priscilla’s mother is the literary agent Lynn Nesbit. Their friends, who included Harold Brodkey, Susan Sontag, Jerzy Kosinski and Anatole Broyard, were major presences in Priscilla’s life. Aunt Toni was Toni Morrison, Uncle Bern was Bernard Malamud and Aunt Ann was Ann Beattie. Nesbit and Beattie alone are still with us, but it seems like only six months ago, to me at least, when all these personages were striding the planet.

Among this set, Richard Gilman was a ringleader. He was a raconteur, a charmer, a wit. His daughter writes that “he indisputably was a certain kind of New Yorker in the 1970s,” a breed that has largely vanished.

Liberal, passionate, intellectual, clad in denim shirts or turtleneck sweaters, bell-bottom jeans or corduroys, sneakers or Wallabees, a pack of cigarettes bulging out of one pocket or another, with black clunky glasses and wild curly hair, my father cut a dashing yet unpretentious figure. He was as at ease discussing the travails of the New York Giants as he was debating the merits of the latest Eric Rohmer film.

In private, as a father, he was mostly a charmer too. He was the one who helped Priscilla and her siblings (she has a sister and a half brother) with their homework; he got down on the floor and played with them; he was the chaperone on school trips; he cried at cheesy musicals; he had a good Cookie Monster voice. “My father,” she writes, “was the priest of the cathedral space that was our childhood.”

Her veneration, though, started to wear. She became more aware of his dark side, his volcanic rages, his implacable insecurities. He never really got over, it seems, not being tapped to be a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

She became aware of things she didn’t want to know about his sex life, predilections that made him seem sad and fragile. She found a letter, written to his first wife, expressing a desire to be humiliated and urinated upon. She learned that he slept with some of his Yale students, and on a handful of occasions slept with men. After Nesbit divorced him, he spun into relative poverty and gloom.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar, and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child,” a memoir that is in part about raising a son with a disorder that is sometimes linked to Asperger’s. She has since worked at her mother’s literary agency and become a “certified mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation teacher.” A certain soft, therapized tone weighs on this book and keeps it from becoming a good memoir instead of a merely tolerable one.

You don’t have to have spent time in therapy yourself to recognize that this book has, hiding in plain sight, a shadow subject. Nesbit, the super agent whose clients have included Joan Didion and Robert Caro and Tom Wolfe, is portrayed so coolly in this book that the pages about her almost shatter as you turn them. It’s a devastating portrait. At times I was reminded of Francine du Plessix Gray’s comment, in her memoir “Them,” about her own mother, whose presence “had the psychic impact of a can of mace.”

“My mother never played with us or watched PBS with us; she never took us to movies or museums; she never read to us,” Gilman writes. Though Nesbit was the family’s primary breadwinner, her daughter is almost entirely unforgiving of her intensity and aloofness, her life in overdrive.

Gilman critically appraises her mother’s morning workouts, her power suits, “her vanity table fit for a movie star,” her professional makeup lighting (I kept waiting for a “no wire hangers” monologue), and her nibbling on fiber crisps, fished from a baggie she would bring along, while others were having treats.

Gilman writes that her mother never looked at her homework, stifled yawns at her school performances and threw her dolls away, when she was still a preteen, while she was at summer camp. One day Priscilla was badly hurt in a playground accident. When her mother came home, she brushed it off. When her father arrived, he rushed her to the hospital, where it was discovered she had a shattered wrist. Nesbit told her daughter about her father’s impotence when she was far too young to process it and tried to turn her against him.

The author attributes the lack of affection in her parents’ marriage to the fact that Nesbit married him on the rebound from her great love, the writer Donald Barthleme. When the formidably undemonstrative Nesbit learned, many years after their divorce, that Gilman had lung cancer (he would die from it in 2006), she expressed no sadness, the author writes. You finish “The Critic’s Daughter” wondering which of her parents she is referring to in her title.

At its best, this memoir evokes a shaggy lost world. After his divorce from Nesbit, Richard Gilman married Yasuko Shiojiri, who had translated his books into Japanese. At his memorial service, she captured him in two lines: “Thank you for missing him. He loves to be missed.”