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Life & Arts: Philip Roth's $2 Million Library Gift --- The writer, who grew up in Newark, N.J., quietly arranged to bequeath a large portion of his estate to the Newark Public Library before he died
Taylor, Candace. Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. New York, N.Y. 31 Oct 2019: A.13.
Philip Roth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, quietly arranged to give at least $2 million of his estimated $10 million estate to the Newark, N.J., public library before his death last year.
Friends say he intended his bequest to aid not just the library but the struggling city, where he grew up and which featured prominently in his writing. Before he died, the Newark Public Library announced that Mr. Roth had decided to give it his personal book collection. But his accompanying financial donation -- and the plans for its use -- haven't previously been reported.
The author of novels including "Portnoy's Complaint" and "American Pastoral" set up a $2 million endowment to benefit the library's general collections, according to the library's director. Mr. Roth left another pot of funds -- described as "significant" -- that the library can use for purposes including supporting the new Philip Roth Personal Library, a room in the main library building that is being renovated to house his roughly 7,000-volume collection. Friends say Mr. Roth hoped the gifts would draw tourists and scholars to Newark.
"He definitely wanted to contribute to keeping Newark revitalized and relevant," said Julia Golier, a longtime friend of Mr. Roth and the co-literary trustee of his estate. "There's a view that in addition to contributing to people who live in Newark, that this would attract literary tourists and festivals."
The author had great affection for his hometown but was aware of its challenges: He chronicled the city's 1967 riots in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Pastoral," and "felt that Newark was a place that had suffered a great, historical fall," said Blake Bailey, who is writing an authorized biography of Mr. Roth. With his bequests, "Philip wanted to do his part to bring Newark back. This was the single most significant gesture he could make."
According to Newark Public Library Director Jeffrey Trzeciak, Mr. Roth left a $2 million endowment to benefit the library with the Community Foundation of New Jersey, which manages charitable trusts. Each year the library will receive interest from the endowment, which the author instructed should be used to purchase books and other materials for the library's general collections, but not capital projects, Mr. Trzeciak said. In February the library will receive the first installment, which is expected to be about $80,000.
"Our library sometimes struggles to buy all the books people want," said Mr. Trzeciak, adding that Mr. Roth "did his homework" and "he knew that our budget was quite low for books." Mr. Roth's gift amounts to 12% to 14% of what the library usually spends per year. "It was very generous," said Mr. Trzeciak. "You can buy a lot of books for $80,000 per year."
Mr. Roth also left funds with CFNJ that can be used at the discretion of the library for any purpose other than capital projects, said Mr. Trzeciak. One potential use could be hiring curators for the Philip Roth Personal Library, said CFNJ President Hans Dekker. Mr. Dekker said the organization hasn't yet received those funds, some of which are expected to come from the sale of Mr. Roth's homes. He isn't certain of the exact amount, but said he expects it to be "significant."
Mr. Roth didn't leave all of his estate to Newark entities; it couldn't be learned exactly how he allocated the rest of his money. His will left all of his assets in a trust, which isn't publicly available. The executor of his estate, Perley H. Grimes, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Roth did leave "a substantial amount" to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, said Joel Conarroe, a longtime friend of Mr. Roth and former president of the foundation, which had awarded Mr. Roth a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959. The royalties from Mr. Roth's book sales will go to the Guggenheim Foundation, said people with knowledge of Mr. Roth's bequests.
Edward Hirsch, the current president of the foundation, declined to say specifically how much money Mr. Roth left to the organization, but said it will be used for fellowships like the one Mr. Roth received.
The twice-divorced Mr. Roth, who had no children and was predeceased by his parents and older brother Sandy, also left bequests to friends and other people in his life, friends said.
Mr. Roth's total estate is estimated at about $10 million, according to people with knowledge of his holdings. The novelist's condo on Manhattan's Upper West Side, plus other units he owned in the building, were sold by the estate earlier this year for a total of roughly $5.2 million. His Connecticut estate, which spans about 150 acres in rural Warren, is on the market for $2.925 million with Klemm Real Estate. Some 130 pieces of his furniture and other possessions from the Connecticut house sold at auction in July for a total of roughly $100,000, including one of Mr. Roth's typewriters for $17,500, said Tom Curran, vice president Litchfield Auctions.
The grandchild of immigrants who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, Mr. Roth in his books painted an idyllic -- and sometimes comic -- picture of Newark's Weequahic neighborhood, where he grew up, as a bustling, tightknit enclave of lower-middle-class but upwardly mobile Jews. After one year of college at Rutgers --Newark, he transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He never lived in Newark again. Yet the city of his childhood loomed large in his writing. Parts of his first and last books, "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1959 and 2010's "Nemesis" -- and many in between -- were set in Newark.
"He had left Newark, but in some ways he never left Newark," said the writer Judith Thurman, a member of Mr. Roth's literary circle of friends. "It was home to his imagination."
Raised in a household where books were a luxury, Mr. Roth as a child frequently rode his bike to the library and filled the basket with novels, says Claudia Roth Pierpont, a friend and author of the book "Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books." Later, as a college student at nearby Rutgers, Mr. Roth went to the main library on Washington Street in between classes to read and study.
For Mr. Roth, it was devastating to observe Newark's decline in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Golier said. After the riots, "he felt that what he'd known was destroyed. It upset him so much," said Ms. Pierpont.
Though Newark is still struggling with a host of problems, downtown Newark is seeing new investment from real estate developers. In 2017 a Whole Foods opened in the long-vacant Hahne & Company building on Broad Street. A few months ago Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, opened new offices in a restored historic cathedral only a few blocks from the main branch of the Newark Public Library.
When Mr. Roth first proposed donating his books to the library a few years ago, library trustee Rosemary Steinbaum said she knew right away "it would be a fabulous opportunity for both the library and the city." Already there is a Philip Roth Lecture Series, held at the library every year since 2016, which has drawn hundreds of people to Newark, she said.
Mr. Roth had specific instructions for how he wanted the library to handle his personal book collection. He gave the library three years from the time of his death to ready the space where they will be housed, and even selected the room himself -- a roughly 1,000-square-foot, high-ceiling space.
He specified that none of the funds he left for the library's benefit were to be used for the renovation of the space, which was previously a storage room. The process of renovating it has already started and is expected to cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, funded largely through individual gifts, Mr. Trzeciak said.
The Philip Roth Personal Library will be divided into two sections. One side will be used for rotating exhibits pertaining to Mr. Roth, and the other, where the books from his collection will be displayed, will be for study and research. (Another Roth specification: No photographs may be taken of the materials -- notes must be taken by hand and smartphones checked at the door.) Plans call for Mr. Roth's favored Eames chair to be displayed in this space along with the long wooden table he used for meals with friends at his house in Connecticut.
The books in Mr. Roth's collection vary widely, from first-edition copies of his own works to camping books he used for research while writing "Nemesis." Many have Mr. Roth's underlining, notes in the margins, or sticky notes or other pieces of paper jammed into the pages.
"It's an important collection for the second half of the 20th century," said Ms. Steinbaum, noting that thanks to all the notes and marginalia, "we can see the working of his mind."
Mr. Conarroe, Mr. Roth's longtime friend, said he wasn't surprised to learn that Mr. Roth was donating his books to the Newark library. "He was sending them home," he said. "That was home."
Credit: By Candace Taylor