Lunching with Luminaries

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What do W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin,  and William Empson have in common?

Besides their Britainia, they’ve all had lunch with Steven L. Isenberg. If you missed it, Isenberg vividly recalls four mealtime encounters in this lovely essay from 2009 over at The American Scholar.

A snippet from his lunch with Auden:

“Ed Kuhn, the head of the trade editorial department, summoned me to his office. “I have just had a call,” he said, “from Bennett Cerf [I knew who he was from the television panel show What’s My Line?], the head of Random House, asking who the hell you were. I couldn’t imagine why he had heard of you and why he sounded so damn put out. Cerf asked, ‘What does he do for you? He is poaching on one of our authors.’ I asked Cerf who that was. ‘W. H. Auden. He is trying to get him to write a biography.’ I told Cerf you were just a kid out of college, and I had no idea about this, and Cerf said, ‘Well, Auden is having lunch with him.”

Lunch with Forster:

“He suggested a walk along the River Cam. “Would that suit you?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. As we began to walk, he laced his arm through mine. Can you imagine how I felt—a boy from my circumstances, so American, so unfinished—walking along the backs of the Cambridge colleges with the man who wrote A Passage to India and Howards End on my arm as a silent companion?”

Lunch with Larkin:

“He told me he had a friend who visited New York and was mugged outside the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. I told him that when he came, I would get my younger brother, who was a strong guy, a criminologist, and knew a lot of policemen, to see that he was protected.”

Lunch with Empson:

“Ricks was ordered to stay seated, and then the soup making began. First, Empson produced a large, dirty pot, which I had no chance to rinse. He ran water into it and set it to boil. From strange corners he found an onion, leeks, parsley, and some of the browned celery. He threw in some other things, but by then I couldn’t look.”

Read it all here.


Nina Moog currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. More from this author →