Jean Stein’s Rolodex

The legendary editor’s social genius

Benjamin Anastas

Jean Stein edited and published the literary and arts magazine Grand Street. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe. Copyright Brigitte Lacombe.

Entries in the “england” section of an address book belonging to Mrs. Jules Stein, from the Jean Stein papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library:

ANNENBERG, M/M Walter (Lee)                        262-XXXX

Winfield House

Regent’s Park

BEATON, Sir Cecil                                 589-XXXX

9 Pelham Place

London, S.W. 7

DIOR, Christian                                 499-XXXX

9 Conduit Street

London, W.1

Jörn Langberg—Director

FAIRBANKS, M/M Douglas (Mary Lee)                 373-XXXX

28 The Boltons off. 493-2704

London, S.W. 10


Kenneth Farley                               01-546-XXXX

55 Gibson Rd.

Kingston upon Thames


Also:                                                    Fortum & Mason

                                                                    for Butlers

Entries in an address book belonging to Jean Stein, ibid.:

Renata Adler

230 E. 49th Street

Pr: 751-XXXX

An: RE7-9767

Leonard Bernstein

1 West 72nd Street

Tel. 362-XXXX


off. c/o Amberson Enterprises


Asst. Philip Allen

Craig Urquhart

Ivanhoe Donaldson


P.O. Box 1000-Camp

Petersburg, Va. 23803


25 miles south of Richmond

Visiting hours:

Mon, Thurs, Fri


Sat., Sun., holidays


Larry Flynt

9171 Wilshire Boulevard

Suite 300

Hustler Magazine

Sec. Liz Alicia

9a.m. to 5:30 usually

h. 9211 Robin Drive

L.A. 90069

h. tel. 271-XXXX

Dennis Hopper

330 Indiana Ave.

Venice, Calif. 90291

home (213) 392-XXXX

off. (213) 315-XXXX

Dennis H. private home:

(213) 392-XXXX


When I first came to New York City as a twenty-four-year-old writer with one published short story to my name, my friend Scott, who had already published a book and was writing for Harper’s, brought me to a party that was being thrown by a fact-checker at The New Yorker who was gaining some renown for her ability to make connections in the literary world. “She has a Rolodex,” Scott told me.

I must have laughed to express my amazement; the idea of someone my age having a Rolodex in their apartment seemed so improbable that I knew I had to see it for myself. Rolodexes belonged to the office. To the world of work and my dreary temp jobs. They didn’t belong to the world of literature or the lives of the literary people I admired. I didn’t even keep an address book, and I didn’t have a business card to hand out when I went to readings and book parties.

Scott set me straight, though: “You want to be in her Rolodex.” We were speaking on a landline. It was the mid-1990s. It was per­fectly normal to pick up the phone and call your closest friends then.

“I do?” I asked.

“Trust me,” he said. “It will make things happen.”

I wanted things to happen. Things like getting an agent who would return my calls and take me out to lunch, who would help me move out of the friendly rejection letter phase I was marooned in and into the more advanced stage of regular publication.

“Just come to the party,” he said—I can still hear the sudden pause over the phone line when Scott brought a cigarette to his mouth and inhaled, the sizzling intake of breath followed by the suspense of when he would let it out again—“and try not to fuck it up.”

I am decently sure the fact-checker’s party that night was at an apartment in the East Village. I can smell the cat-litter-ish odor of the tiled entryway, feel my nervousness as Scott and I climbed the stairs to an upper floor, remember the impostor syndrome kicking in as I tried to make small talk with the young editors, writers, and publicists from magazines I’d been scouring for clues on how to enter them since I was nineteen. They’d all gone to the same Ivy League schools, or at least near-Ivies like Wesleyan or Amherst; I had not. I had come to New York after two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I had received an MFA in fiction, so I had some reason to presume I belonged in their company. I’m sure I found myself answering the question I often fielded at parties like this: “Who did you study with?” I recited the list of my work­shop leaders and watched for reactions: Frank Conroy (“Stop-Time holds up…”), Deborah Eisenberg (“Isn’t she great?”), James Alan McPherson (a silent nod), Margot Livesey (“Oh, I adore Margaret Drabble”). But mostly I felt aware of my anti-magnetism in the room, the way the members of a group I had sidled up to in an alcove would start peeling off, one by one, and women in fine car­digans would shrug and mouth “sorry!” as a poet with a shiny bald head and Malcolm X glasses led them by the elbow away from our just-budding conversation.

Jean never spoke about herself, and what I knew about her was fragmentary or apocryphal or both.

The Rolodex was on display, sitting on a console table that everyone had to pass as they entered the party. It was a classic rotary model, the kind with a knob on either side and a curving black metal stand. I remember empty address cards littering the table, slotted at the bottom for mounting to the Rolodex, though it’s possible that I am imagining this last detail.

What I am not imagining is the moment in the party when the crowd reached its peak and there didn’t seem to be space in the apartment for one more New York literary type and the cigarette smoke had to be waved away with the hand not holding a drink, turning every non-smoker (like me) into a smoker for the night. I was stuck in conversation, as always, with an oddball copyeditor or the assistant who had never moved up the editorial ranks, excitable men who carried workplace grievances so deep-seated they could seem possessed. I looked across the room for Scott. I had seen him a while before, deep in conversation with the hostess in the kitchen. Now he was holding forth to a crowd of partygoers at the Rolodex table, the hostess beaming at his side. My heart sank. I couldn’t watch. And sure enough: by the time we left the party, a new card with Scott’s name, number, and address had joined the others in the Rolodex. Mine had not.

i was coming up in the world, or so I thought, when a few years later I started a part-time job helping Jean Stein, the renowned editor, oral historian, and former lover of William Faulkner, on her new book project. Jean had a Rolodex, too, and I had been tapped to sit beside it.

I can still see her Rolodex out of the corner of my eye, installed beneath a windowsill in the office off her kitchen at 10 Gracie Square, a co-op building so exclusive it was almost completely unmarked. Jean’s Rolodex inhabited an entirely different social order than the fact-checker’s aspirational model. It was a Doge’s Palace of a Rolodex. It was vast and daunting, something like eight or nine open trays of cards lined up in a row, the blue alphabetic divid­ers frayed from use and mended in places with Scotch tape, plain white notepaper with even more names and numbers folded in to further expand capacity. From the A section there were cards for Marina Abramović, Woody Allen, Hilton Als, Richard Avedon. At the other end of the alphabet were Edward Said, André Leon Talley, Guy Trebay, Gore Vidal, Robert Venturi, William T. Vollmann, John Waters. Did Slavoj Žižek have a card in the Rolodex? I know that Mort Zuckerman did. And so did Isabelle Adjani, Candice Bergen, Mary Boone, Francesco and Alba Clemente. Andrew Cockburn. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Merce Cunningham. Patricia and Daniel Ellsberg. Barbara Epstein.

Most descriptions of Jean begin with her voice: the flighty, unpredictable lightness of it, as if she were high on a combination of helium and laughing gas. It made me think of air balloons and rooftops. These are fitting associations given that Jean had grown up at Misty Mountain, the Beverly Hills estate run by her parents, Jules and Doris Stein, as a Hollywood social club and living theater. In Jean’s final work of oral history, West of Eden: An American Place (2016), a kind of memoir in five variations that is also a dissec­tion of Hollywood power in the studio era and how it deformed everyone who was drawn too close, the section about Jean’s family begins with a quote from Jean herself:

JEAN STEIN: I still remember listening at night to the cries of coyotes around our family house. . . . It was built by Wallace Neff during Prohibition for Fred Niblo, the director of the first Ben-Hur. Its site high up in Beverly Hills led me to imagine as a child that we were far removed from town. Even then I had the sense that my world was make-believe. I recall my mother boasting that Orson Welles had come to the house with Dolores del Rio and praised it by saying, “This place reminds me of Berchtesgaden.” In the mid-thirties when Katharine Hepburn lived there, she had to fend off snakes in the living room—or so I was told.

Berchtesgaden: the fairytale village in the Bavarian Alps where Adolf Hitler built his private retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, on a mountain­top. The idea of Jewish American strivers like Jules and Doris Stein climbing all the way up the social ladder to their own constructed version of Hitler’s mountain aerie in Beverly Hills was ironic in a way only Jean could truly appreciate. “A sense of the absurd!” she used to say. “It’s the most important quality in anyone.” When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” at your coming-out party—I didn’t learn this about Jean until I read West of Eden—navigating the absurd must have been a survival technique and a way of life.

I had been warned, before I interviewed for the job, that Jean could be difficult to work for. (One novelist who preceded me in the same job told me recently that she left for vacation on good terms with Jean, and when she came back, she could never get through to find out when to come into work. “Jean’s not available now,” she was told again and again.) “She’s very private,” I was told by an editor who had worked at Grand Street, the high-styled arts and literary magazine Jean published and edited. It’s important to maintain her trust, the editor warned me. If you’re that wealthy and well connected, everybody wants something from you. And so, before the interview, I told myself, Don’t want anything from Jean Stein. It was a mantra of sorts to help me land the job working for her—I needed a job, after all—and it became a password that allowed me to grow close with her, at least for a time. Don’t want anything from Jean Stein.

Jean never spoke about herself, and what I knew about her was fragmentary or apocryphal or both. I knew that her father had founded the talent agency MCA during the Jazz Age and had been a titan in Hollywood during the golden age of studios like Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I knew that Jean had dropped out of Wellesley College and gone to Europe in the 1950s and started running with the founders of The Paris Review. I knew she’d been active in radical politics in the 1970s and threw famous parties that brought together the high and the low, the famous and the deranged, art stars and Nobel Prize–winning sci­entists and members of the Black Panther Party. More relevant to my own ambitions, I knew she had interviewed Faulkner for The Paris Review in 1956, and a famous exchange from that interview made me wonder about the advice I’d received about the difficulty of maintaining Jean’s trust:


Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?


Ninety-nine per cent talent . . . ninety-nine per cent discipline . . . ninety-nine per cent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

I no longer remember that first job interview. I’m sure it hap­pened in the “Moroccan Room” at her apartment, which she also called “the Edward Said Room.” This was both a tribute to one of her dearest friends and an excellent joke about the room’s Orientalist decor.

The job, at least as I understood it, was to assist Jean on her next oral history project, a follow-up to her epoch-defining Edie: An American Biography (1982), a cultural autopsy of Edie Sedgwick, the sixties fashion model and muse and “superstar” of Andy Warhol’s Factory. The new book, Jean explained to me, would be about Hollywood in the 1970s, when the studio system that exerted hegemonic control over every aspect of the cinema in the United States had lost its grip on audiences and the New Hollywood rushed in to fill the gap. This new radical generation of actors and filmmakers came with connections to the art world and to the counterculture and revolutionary politics, and for an all-too-brief period, Hollywood became their playland.

It was something I found astonishing then and still do, the quality of attention Jean could beam on anyone she loved.

Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim, then Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. . . . It all seemed a little too fuzzy, to be honest, and Jean admitted to me, when we started talking about the book, that she felt stuck, that her work editing Grand Street had inter­fered with her ability to conduct new interviews that would be “crucial”—this was one of Jean’s favorite words, and I can still hear her saying it emphatically, “cruh-shull.” It would be helpful to her, she said, if I could go through the transcripts of the interviews she had already conducted and write detailed memos on how I thought the oral history could find its form.

I was older now, twenty-nine. I had an agent who returned my calls. In fact, I had published my first novel earlier that year, and there was a film deal in the works. I was deep into another novel and writing book reviews for The New York Observer and The Village Voice, and helping Jean with her book for twenty hours a week seemed like a perfect way to cover my rent in Williamsburg. On the mornings I went to 10 Gracie Square, I joined the sec­ond wave of commuters on the platform at the Bedford Avenue L station, heavy on the plaid flannel and paint-splattered Carhartt overalls, and took the train to Union Square; from there I joined the people of the 4 and 5 trains—an alien race to me, with different languages of self-presentation—and read my smeary copy of The Nation with my head down while the express crawled its way to 86th Street.

It was a long walk from the superstores of 86th Street and Lexington Avenue to Jean’s lofty high-security island on the banks of the East River. Gracie Mansion was across the small park out­side her building, and the water’s edge made me think of Melville and his “mortal men fixed in ocean reveries” drawn to Manhattan Island’s shores. I knew the tabloid history of Jean’s penthouse and its expansive terrace, which had been the site of Carter Vanderbilt Cooper’s suicide in 1988. The thought of Carter Cooper’s fourteen-story plunge sometimes gave me a chill while I was crossing those long avenue blocks in a neighborhood that still had the feeling of old Manhattan. I passed elderly women stooped over upright shopping carts and making their rounds with dogged persistence, doormen in uniform spraying the sidewalks clean with hoses, Hungarian bakeries whose trays of cherry cakes and strudel in the window belonged in a museum of the senses.

The first day I worked with Jean at her apartment might have been the only time we actually did anything together on the Hollywood book. We sat in the office behind her kitchen, where there was a wall of white file cabinets, the contents neatly orga­nized and labeled, and she pulled out a copy of an interview tran­script with Dennis Hopper for me to read and edit—this would be my “editing test.” I passed. Or at least I was invited back to work again. But I could tell, even without knowing Jean yet, that her heart wasn’t in the book. She grew abstracted when we talked about the interviews still left to do, confiding in me that she was full of doubts. “Who wants to read another book about Hollywood?” she would complain. So I started working on her let­ters, a more pressing concern, and we would sit side by side in front of the computer screen drafting thank-you notes, R.S.V.P.s, personal notes she would send with contributor copies of Grand Street, congratulations to all the creative people she knew for this or that award, new gallery show, performance she’d seen, or recent publication.

We quickly settled into a comfortable routine. I spent my days in the back office, usually alone, sometimes chatting with Jean’s staff. Her chef, Paul Hassett, was usually ordering supplies for the house or trying to replicate a dish that Jean and her husband, Torsten, had particularly enjoyed at Restaurant Daniel or Jean Georges; Mercedes Marcial, Jean’s housekeeper, spent a lot of time with her in the distant master bedroom, helping Jean get ready for the lunch appointments she often cancelled at the last minute or rummage through the closets for a piece she wanted to wear at an event later that evening. We started the workday over the phone, Jean talking to me from the deep interior of the apartment; some­times she stayed in the bedroom until lunch, when I might join her in the dining room for something simple Paul had made and we would touch base about the urgent things going on in her life and any work that required attention. A small painting of two ballet dancers in the studio hung over the table. It looked at first like an unfinished Degas—but then you noticed that one of the figures was wearing high heels and fisting a bent-over male dancer dressed in a tutu (Sue Williams, Ballerina, 1993).

The phone: Jean was always on the phone—or avoiding phone calls—and there was an extension in the dining room that she used to deal with any Grand Street business that couldn’t wait or to take calls from her dearest people. Torsten, her husband, always got through; so did her daughters, Katrina and Wendy. Edward Said, if he called at lunch, usually got a “Dear Edward, I’m in the middle of lunch, I’ll call you right back.” But then they would start talking and she would fall into a state of enchantment—it was something I found astonishing then and still do, the quality of attention Jean could beam on anyone she loved. Was this one of the secrets of her Rolodex, that it wasn’t only about social agency, gaining power in the way that socialites and hostesses always had—it was also about creating elaborate networks of loving care?

I spent two years working for Jean. For that first year I stayed at her side, in her home office, and drafted her letters. There were times when I had a lot of work to do and would spend all day on tasks that seemed incredibly inane. But I was a good mimic, and after a few months I knew her well enough to ghostwrite letters in her effusive style—to compliment Gore Vidal on an essay he’d recently published or tell Mike Davis how much she’d enjoyed their dinner out. There were other times when Jean didn’t have much work for me to do at all, and I was being paid, I realized even then, for my proximity. Maybe my being there, even on those days when I hardly saw her, when she was just a voice over the office phone, was the greater part of my “work”? In West of Eden, the actor Bud Cort, speaking of the actress Jennifer Jones, said, “Being her friend was like being friends with a unicorn.” I often felt the same way about Jean.

Her days of throwing legendary parties were for the most part over. When I was in her orbit, anyway, Jean was reclusive, hardly leaving her own constructed refuge at the very top of 10 Gracie Square. She used to talk about how much she hated looking in the mirror; her skin was diaphanous and pulled tight across her face by too many plastic surgeries. She was constantly primping her curly hair. She had terrible tremors. She continued to throw book par­ties for friends on occasion, and she hosted dinners with the same eclectic guest lists if someone important to her, like John Waters, was in town. But the burden of being social on that scale—on any scale, really—left her depleted and at sea. For days afterward, she would hardly come out from the depths of the apartment. When I spoke to her on the office phone, she sounded rattled, teary.

“How was the dinner?” I would ask.

“It was a nightmare,” she would say.

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

“A nightmare . . .”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Don’t say anything to Paul,” she told me once after a particularly stressful dinner. I was sitting in the office, phone against my cheek.

The apartment had never seemed so isolated, like a castle in the clouds. Recently I had noticed a flock of brightly colored parakeets outside on the terrace. Why not? I thought. Of course there’s a flock of wild parakeets up here. “Paul worked so hard to make every­thing perfect. But never again. It’s torture. I just can’t do it.”

The Rolodex never slept; it was just too dynamic. And the energy it ran on was ambition.

At times like this I understood the precarity of a socially con­structed life—at least for someone like Jean. The Rolodex has largely vanished as a measure of social capital in the literary world, replaced by the more “democratized” tally of followers and friends on social media platforms, networks that we don’t control, made up largely of people we’ve never met. But in those days, if you were young—or not—and made your way to New York City because you wanted to start publishing in the right places and earn your entry into the society of books and literary culture, a Rolodex like Jean’s was something akin to the Promised Land. To build your own, as the fact-checker from The New Yorker had, was a way of showing that you belonged, of manufacturing a network that would sustain your rise in the ranks. And to have your name in someone else’s Rolodex was to have your merit recognized. It was a sign of oppor­tunities to come and ambitions to be realized. It was no guarantee that you would succeed, of course. Nothing was guaranteed. But it meant you mattered enough to have been included, along with the other members of the elect. You had a chance.

What about the Rolodex’s keeper, though? I’ve thought a lot about this burden of Jean’s. Before I knew her, of course, Jean had been a great hostess, playing that role reserved for socially prom­inent women, often the wives of wealthy and powerful men, who in this way were able to exercise their own power in the world, to influence “great” events from behind the scenes. She had been like the character Diotima in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, hosting the salon where Austria’s most prominent think­ers, bureaucrats, and industrialists meet to propose a justification for the threadbare Habsburg empire to continue as a unifying idea. But Jean took the power of the Rolodex in a new direction when she started writing oral histories—a literary form based on social connection and dependent on the writer’s access—and then car­ried it in another direction still when she transformed the literary journal Grand Street into a showcase for emerging international art stars and subversive writing of all kinds.

The truth is, I could never look at the Rolodex, not straight on: it seemed too private to me, too powerful in its accumulation of almost unbelievable social capital, with all its names and private numbers and addresses in the Algarve or in the Hamptons. The Rolodex never slept; it was just too dynamic. And the energy it ran on was ambition.

Want, want, want, the Rolodex hummed.

Have, have, have.

And I sat there at the Rolodex’s side, day after day, pretending that my reasons for being there were different.

there’s one more thing about Jean’s Rolodex: no one in it ever vanished. When someone in the Rolodex died—and by the time I came to work for Jean a significant number of them had—she kept their cards in place. I don’t know if she did it out of super­stition, or as a gesture of mourning, or an assertion of her own survival for another day. But I can remember sitting with her in the office numerous times while she was flipping through the Rolodex in search of someone’s number or address and she would pause: “Oh, dear Andy.” (The journalist Andrew Kopkind.) Or, “Poor poor Terry . . .” (The screenwriter and novelist Terry Southern.)

Then Jean would go on with the task, patting her tight curls and sighing. And I would repeat to myself: Remember this.

Benjamin Anastas is the author of three novels and a memoir. His story “Versace Enthroned with Saints Margaret, Jerome, Alex, and the Angel Donatella” appeared in The Yale Review in January 2005 and won the Smart Family Foundation Prize for Fiction.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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