In March of this year, the literary biographer Blake Bailey paid a visit to Francine du Plessix Gray, a former New Yorker scribe living in western Connecticut. Bailey is at work on the official biography of Philip Roth, and he had a question about one of Roth's novels—specifically about the jacket art.
The novel was The Human Stain, Roth's 2000 tome about scandal and shame in academia, which was adapted three years later into a Hollywood film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. The cover (seen above) shows a top view of yellowed envelope, torn open, exposing part of a handwritten letter: "...EVERYONE KNOWS you're..."
It seems to be an obvious, literal reference to an anonymous note a character in the novel receives. (In full: "Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age.") But Bailey had a tip that the image had an older provenance than that: It was a photograph of an actual letter sent to Roth himself, during a rough patch in his five-year marriage to the English actress Claire Bloom.
To determine who had sent it, a source familiar with Bailey's work-in-progress told Gawker, Roth enlisted a retired FBI handwriting analyst, who concluded it was the work of Gray, a neighbor of Roth and Bloom when the couple resided in rural Connecticut. Roth then campaigned his publisher to place the letter on the cover of his upcoming novel. In the book, he named the character who'd written the corresponding letter "Delphine Roux."
At least that was what Bailey had heard. He recently explained to his publishing colleagues that he had asked Gray whether she authored the jacket letter. She matter-of-factly denied it—but, as Bailey later told others, after initially seeming to be aware of the incident and the accusation, she later claimed no memory of it at all. Bailey, we're told, still has his suspicions.
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So a few weeks ago, I drove up to Warren, Conn., about two hours north of New York City and 10 miles east of the state line, where Gray has lived for 50 years. It is one of those rural New England places where street addresses are near useless. After 30 minutes of stumbling through fields of yard-tall bluegrass, I found Gray in her backyard, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and weeding her garden.
She was happy to talk. "No, I didn't write that letter," Gray told me, after I pulled out my copy of The Human Stain. She confirmed that Bailey had approached her to ask about the letter, and that she had denied writing it. "You would have to be extraordinarily stupid to write an anonymous letter in cursive," she said.
"If I had written the letter," she went on, jokingly, "I would have used a typewriter to conceal my identity."
It occurred to me, right then, that Bailey's tipster was probably Roth himself. (Bailey declined to answer any questions regarding the Roth biography, except to confirm that he had interviewed Gray. The Wylie Agency, which represents Roth, and Michaela Sullivan, who designed the cover, did not respond to requests for comment, either.)
Gray was indeed aware of the context in which the letter had supposedly appeared: Roth's publicly documented estrangement from Bloom, who divorced Roth in 1996 and went on to publish a scathing memoir, titled Leaving a Doll's House, in which Bloom claimed that Roth had propositioned her daughter's friend and further implied that her former husband arranged a mistress behind her back. Gray lives just down the road from an estate owned by Roth, who had taken up full-time residence in Warren when he received the letter: if anything, Gray was a suspect by virtue of proximity.
But in our conversation, Gray said that she had known few details of Roth and Bloom's marital troubles. She didn't even remember Roth's exact address in Warren, she said. She took my contact information and walked toward the shade of a nearby tree.
I ended up running back to Gray's backyard to get her phone number, which she supplied without hesitation. "Can you get out OK?" she asked me, gesturing in the direction of where I came from.