Clifton Fadiman had two passions, books and wine, both of which he pursued with exceptional intelligence and energy. His achievement in the first realm made him one of America's most famous public intellectuals but was always tinged for him with regret about what he might have accomplished had he not been the son of Jewish immigrants. Fadiman came to wine as an adult, and it gave him friendship, sensory pleasure and intellectual engagement, Anne Fadiman writes in The Wine Lover's Daughter: A Memoir.
As a child in Brooklyn, Clifton Fadiman read constantly, and he matriculated at Columbia University at age 16 in 1920. He had a brilliant undergraduate career and dreamed of becoming an English professor until the head of the department told him, "We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Lionel Trilling," a college classmate of Fadiman who went on to be one of his generation's great literary critics.
Instead of becoming an academic, Fadiman spent a decade at Simon & Schuster as a editor, a judge for the Book of the Month club, a host of quiz shows on radio and television, and, the 1970s, an editor of the children's magazine Cricket. Despite his success, he always "considered himself an outsider," writes Anne Fadiman, a writer in residence at Yale University, even as he sought to flee his origins. He avoided the foods of his childhood until the final months of life, when, dying of pancreatic cancer, he "craved" Nova and sturgeon that Anne had ordered from Barney Greengrass.
"It was as if he'd crossed the river in the other direction and was coming home to Brooklyn," she writes, after leaving the then-backward borough to go to college as a teenager.
Wine was much less fraught for Clifton, though here too there was status anxiety - or, perhaps, evidence of social status achieved. As he wrote in his 1957 essay "Brief History of a Love Affair," he fell for the drink in 1927, on his first trip to Paris, where he went to retrieve his wayward first wife. They eventually divorced, but the simple white Bordeaux she ordered at the Bon Marché department store changed his life.
"For the first time I tasted wine," he wrote in the essay. "It must have sent me into mild catatonia, for it was not until perhaps 60 seconds alter that I seemed to hear my wife's voice say from far away, 'You have the most peculiar, foolish smile on your face.' 'Do I?' was all I could reply."
In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, he began collecting wine, mostly Burgundy and Bordeaux, including some of the greatest producers, which he noted diligently in a cellar book. Château Margeaux, 1929, one case purchased on Oct. 18, 1935 for $25. Grands Échézeaux 1933, one case purchased on Oct. 1, 1941 for $35.40. He studied wine rigorously; "I know no other subject that, placed in the mouth, forces one to think," he wrote in his 1957. He drank it and talked about it with the most knowledgeable wine people of his era, including the importer Frank Schoonmaker and Sam Aaron, who owned Sherry-Lehmann, one of the best wine stores in New York.
Unlike many collectors, Fadiman consumed what he bought, never more flamboyantly than at a 21st birthday party that he threw for his son Kim at Harvard in 1972. The wines were stunning - Latour 1945, Romanee Conti 1934, La Tâche 1947 - but they were lost on Kim and Anne and most of their friends. Fadiman's children didn't develop a taste for wine, Kim believes, "Because we didn't need to escape our origins."
Anne is more generous. "My father may have felt like an outsider in many aspects of his life, but when he drank wine with friends, he always belonged," she writes. "As he had once written in a letter to an old friend, he had never felt counterfeit when he was in love. He was in love with wine."