A 'Wine Lover's Daughter' Savors Her Dad's Vintage Story

Nov 4, 2017

Author Anne Fadiman's father, Clifton Fadiman, was the very model of the modern, cultivated man: He quoted William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, recited Homer and Sophocles, and made clever wisecracks and pointed puns. He was a longtime judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, the host of a popular radio and TV quiz show, and he loved wine. In The Wine Lover's Daughter, Anne Fadiman has written a memoir that winds in and out of one of her father's most personal passions.

"Along with books, wine represented the sort of cultivated, refined life that he had aspired to when he was growing up poor in Brooklyn," she says. "And once Prohibition ended and he could legally buy wine, amassing a really expensive cellar was pretty much the first thing he did with his new money."


Interview Highlights

On her father celebrating his 80th birthday with a wine that was made the same year he was born

For his 80th birthday, one of his best friends, a wine merchant in New York, had procured a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 1904. So that bottle and he celebrated their 80th birthdays together. ... As soon as the wine, that great historic wine, went into his mouth, he stopped speaking and he looked contemplative and then he almost looked as if he might cry, not because he was sad but because he was so moved. It was as if he had put history inside himself.

On her own feelings about wine

I wish I could say I loved wine the way my father does. I was born without his palate. I don't hate it, but it tastes overly strong to me. I can't distinguish between different wines, and all my life I thought that this was some sort of terrible, fatal character flaw. And then I started wondering: What if it were biological?

And one of the chapters in the book traces my journey to a couple of taste science labs and through some genetic testing, and indeed I found that the causes were biological: an ultra-sensitive palate, particular genetic sensitivity to bitterness and so on. And this was sort of a relief. I thought, "Oh my God, thank God it's not my fault. I'm not just an inferior human being." But it was also so disappointing because I knew that a great pleasure in my father's life was never going to be open to me.

On her father's feelings about being Jewish

He fervently wished that he were not Jewish. He had encountered pretty much nothing but anti-Semitism when he was trying to make it in New York. He went to Columbia as an English major and then started graduate school there. And when he was in grad school, the head of the English department said, "Mr. Fadiman, we have room for only one Jew this year and it's Lionel." Lionel was Lionel Trilling, his best friend, and Lionel Trilling was hired and became one of the most famous academics in the country. And my father left and essentially became a popularist, spreading culture among the masses rather than teaching in an elite institution. And even though he became much more famous and much wealthier than his friend Lionel Trilling, he always felt inferior and he always felt that that moment of being rejected because he was Jewish was perhaps the most painful moment of his life — a Rubicon he could never re-cross.

On whether she learned more about herself or her father in writing the book

I think both. I wrote this book in order to try to understand my father better by understanding something that he really loved, but I learned more about myself as well. Not just about why I don't like wine, but about the ways in which I individuated, I guess you could say. I'd never thought much about what made me able to become a successful writer while so many other children of the famous live forever beneath their parents' shadows. What was it about me? What was it about my relationship with my father that ended up liberating me instead of crippling me? So both. It was a journey of mutual understanding.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anne Fadiman's father was the very model of the modern, cultivated man. He quoted Shakespeare and Shaw, recited Homer and Sophocles, made clever wisecracks and pointed puns. He was a longtime judge of the Book of the Month Club, the host of a popular radio and TV quiz show. And, boy, did he know wine.

Anne Fadiman, the author and editor, has written a memoir that winds in and out of one of her father's most personal passions, "The Wine Lover's Daughter." And Anne Fadiman, who's now the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale, joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE FADIMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Let me get you to begin as you do in the book - with a very vivid memory of your father.

FADIMAN: I would love to. So here's the very first paragraph.

(Reading) My father was a lousy driver and a two-finger typist, but he could open a wine bottle as deftly as any swain ever undressed his lover. Nearly every evening of my childhood, I watched him cut the capsule - the foil sleeve that sheathes the bottleneck - with a sharp knife. Then he plunged the bore of a butterfly corkscrew into the exact center of the cork, twirled the handle and, after the brass levers rose like two supplicant arms, pushed them down and gently twisted out the cork. Its pop was satisfying but restrained - not the fustian whoop of a champagne cork, but a well-bred thwick. He once said that the cork was one of three inventions that had proved unequivocally beneficial to the human race. The others were the wheel and Kleenex.

SIMON: (Laughter) Your father thought wine was just not another beverage. He thought it was a true force of civilization, didn't he?

FADIMAN: Yes. It was indeed a force of civilization. And, of course, it was a civilizing force in his own life because, along with books, wine represented the sort of cultivated, refined life that he had aspired to when he was growing up poor in Brooklyn. And once prohibition ended, and he could legally buy wine, amassing a really expensive cellar was pretty much the first thing he did with his new money.

SIMON: He seemed to have ambivalent feelings about being Jewish. Help us capture what your father was feeling, if you could.

FADIMAN: Oh, I think ambivalent feelings is - (laughter) I think you're being kind. He fervently wished that he were not Jewish. He had encountered pretty much nothing but anti-Semitism when he was trying to make it in New York. He went to Columbia as an English major and then started graduate school there.

And when he was in grad school, the head of the English department said, Mr. Fadiman, we have room for only one Jew this year, and it's Lionel. Lionel was Lionel Trilling, his best friend. And Lionel Trilling was hired and became one of the most famous academics in the country. And my father left and essentially became a popularist, spreading culture among the masses rather than teaching in an elite institution.

And even though he became much more famous and much wealthier than his friend Lionel Trilling, he always felt inferior, and he always felt that that moment of being rejected because he was Jewish was perhaps the most painful moment of his life - a rubicon he could never recross.

SIMON: Well, then, back to wine. You were there on your father's 80th birthday when he was honored with a famous dinner at the Four Seasons. And he had a - what was it? - half a glass of wine that was put down the year he was born - 1904?

FADIMAN: Yeah. For his 80th birthday, one of his best friends - a wine merchant in New York - had procured a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1904. So that bottle and he celebrated their 80th birthdays together.

SIMON: Well, describe that sip of wine - at least your father's face.

FADIMAN: At first, his mouth was sort of pursed in the right position for an incipient witticism to emerge. It was an expression I knew well. But as soon as the wine - that great historic wine - went into his mouth, he stopped speaking, and he looked contemplative. And then he almost looked as if he might cry not because he was sad but because he was so moved. It was as if he had put history inside himself.

SIMON: Anne Fadiman, how do you feel about wine?

FADIMAN: Oh, I wish I could say I loved wine the way my father does. I was born without his palate. I don't hate it, but it tastes overly strong to me. I can't distinguish between different wines. And all my life, I thought that this was some sort of terrible, fatal character flaw. And then I started wondering, what if it were biological?

And one of the chapters in the book traces my journey to a couple of taste science labs and through some genetic testing. And indeed, I found that the causes were biological - an ultra-sensitive palate, particular genetic sensitivity to bitterness and so on. And this was sort of a relief. I thought, oh, my God. Thank God it's not my fault. I'm not just an inferior human being. But it was also so disappointing because I knew that a great pleasure in my father's life was never going to be open to me.

SIMON: Yeah. Perhaps your father's best known quote - and I remember first coming upon it years ago - was, when you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before. You see more in you than was there before. Let me turn your father's best-remembered line back on you. When you look back at your life and your relationship in this memoir, did you see more in him than you had before? Or did you just know more about you than you did before?

FADIMAN: I think both. I wrote this book in order to try to understand my father better by understanding something that he really loved. But I learned more about myself, as well - not just about why I don't like wine but about the ways in which I individuated, I guess you could say. I never thought much about what made me able to become a successful writer while so many of other children of the famous live forever beneath their parents' shadows. What was it about me? What was it about my relationship with my father that ended up liberating me instead of crippling me? So both. It was a journey of mutual understanding.

SIMON: Anne Fadiman - her memoir "The Wine Lover's Daughter." Thanks so much for being with us.

FADIMAN: Thank you, Scott. I enjoyed every minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.