By Elizabeth Greenwood
I meet Paul Holdengraber on a blustery December evening at the M Bar, adjacent to the Mansfield Hotel in midtown. The bar is a few blocks from his office at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the main branch of The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street - the one with the lions and where Big jilted Carrie on her wedding day in Sex and the City: the Movie - where Holdengraber is director of public programs.
I arrive unfashionably early, and quickly realize I am the only unescorted female in a bar that resonates of a different era, a room with a sense of illicitness, of dark mahogany wood and low-slung leather banquettes. Men in navy-blue blazers and half Windsor knots stir whiskey in rocks glasses and wait, scanning the bar for their drinking partners, or not.
Reading about Holdengraber, one might imagine a middle-aged version of actor Rob Pattinson for the New York City literary set. Image and video searches produce photos of an immaculately-pressed man leaning jauntily against one of the Library's marble columns, then a close-up of his full lips and furrowed brow that resembles an actor's headshot.
One blog described Holdengraber on a November evening as "resplendent" in a cream-colored suit. Why are there so many pictures of him anyway? Part of the intrigue might be because he is an anachronism; in his natty dressing, in the formality of his speech, and in his dedication to "Old World" arts and letters. He is old-fashioned in the same way that libraries seem old-fashioned these days.
Much to the benefit of my nerves, Holdengraber breezes through the carved wood archway in a fedora and light brown coat, accented with a camel-print scarf. His blue eyes are watery from the stinging cold outside. The eyes are the first part of Holdengraber to capture one's attention, before the unplaceable European lilt that accents his words, before his copious recollection of stories and references.
"You have two ears and one mouth," Holdengraber says his mother instilled in him at an early age, meaning that a person should listen twice as much as speak.
But his icy clear eyes lock and hold their object in a gaze that oscillates between intense and unnerving.
And he hasn't stopped observing or engaging: he is, among other things, a very busy man. As programmer of the New York Public Library's LIVE series, Holdengraber curates and hosts conversations among leading writers and intellectuals, politicians and scientists. Since his appointment at the Library in 2004, Holdengraber has instigated conversations between such contemporary luminaries as rock icon Lou Reed, author and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías. Authors who come to the LIVE stage are not shackled to the project their publishers send them out to promote.
"I try to save the writers from this form of torture," Holdengraber explains, "of repeating the exact same thing for twenty audiences."
In the unscripted flow of conversation, there is a sense of discovery, a satisfaction in stomping through rough terrain. In a proper conversation, Holdengraber says, the subject "will discover while speaking aspects of their own self they didn't know before. In conversation, a lot can happen." While this discovery occurs naturally, the pairings of personalities Holdengraber arranges are challenging by design. "I mean, some of it is impish. You wouldn't put Al Sharpton with [atheist author] Christopher Hitchens, it's maddening. You wouldn't put [staunch Republican] Newt Gingrich with [sustainable development expert] Jeffrey Sacks, that's also kind of crazy." Crazy or not, this is precisely how Holdengraber has transformed a once stagnant series, known prior to his appointment as the Public Education Program.
Despite the hospitable atmosphere, some interviews do go awry. Spike Lee reacted with hostility to Holdengraber's comparison of Lee's film Miracle at St. Anna with the works of Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera. "There was a certain non-productive antagonism, like 'why are you bringing up this highfalutin stuff?' But much like in a relationship, you try, and you try it in a different way, and you try again."
More than half of the 2008-2009 dates were sellouts. But rather than reveling in his success, Holdengraber says, "I have no ability to take pleasure in the work I do. Nearly none." I was dubious when he made this remark, as he nearly bounces off the banquette when reminiscing about compelling conversations that lit up the stage. "I'm mostly dissatisfied, which keeps me alive. Like a collector who found his last object would no longer be a collector, I'm looking for the perfect conversation. It's not yet happened, really, exactly. But I'm still striving for it."
Holdengraber's persona, as well as his series, challenge a phenomenon of modern living: that technology fragments human relationships and makes us sloppy. We write emails in all lowercase in lieu of applying ballpoint pen to stationary, eVites serve as wedding announcements, and courtship comes in the form of text messages reading "where u @?"
Born in Houston, Holdengraber, in his late 40s, grew up bouncing between Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and France. His parents, both Jewish, met in Haiti after being displaced by the Nazis during World War II. His father fled Vienna during his final year of medical school. But he utilized his knowledge of chemistry in Haiti by farming and harvesting foreign vegetable species for a Chicago seed company. "It was a very optimistic way of surviving a tragic moment," Holdengraber remarked. His father's unyielding attitude toward life influenced his relationship with the world. "My father accustomed us to learn how to fend for ourselves, to find a solution in difficult places."
At 14, young Paul hitchhiked across Europe alone. When I asked him how he pulled off this feat, he replied sardonically, "I put up my thumb. The world has always been dangerous but you can die out of boredom in front of your television." At 17, Holdengraber recreated this adventure in the United States, hitchhiking 21 states before entering university in Belgium. But more than wanderlust and adolescent hubris, this unorthodox education prepared Holdengraber to sit in the host's chair: "Hitchhiking was a huge influence to the work I do now because it nurtured in me the notion that you have to have a good story to tell. What I do is sniff out the world. In some ways, it is a form of hitchhiking."
Holdengraber became a professor of comparative literature at Princeton at 25, and as he recalls, "I looked about nine." The literature and letters bit is no surprise; he peppers his sentences with references from Russian author Nikolai Gogol, Herman Melville's novel Bartelby and German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamín. When he contracted meningitis at 15, Holdengraber's father, in a bout of dark humor, gave him Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot to read.
The morning before our meeting, he woke up at 6 a.m., after his regular four hours of sleep. He held a meeting to arrange a conference of soccer journalists slated as "The Word Cup"; began organizing a conversation on the subject of ping pong, his latest passion; took phone calls for festivals he'll be attending in France and Jamaica; had lunch with a representative from the Soros Foundation; spoke with a collaborator on a tribute to George Carlin he is hosting; consulted on an interactive website depicting Voltaire's Candide; and will later return to his brownstone in Fort Greene where he will read Lou Reed lyrics to prepare for his hosting of the Velvet Underground's reunion taking place at the Library the following night.
"It's a perpetual education, I'm constantly learning new things," he smiles to himself. "They haven't found me out yet, I'm having a great time."
Holdengraber "instigates" a conversation between authors Krista Tippett and Andrew Solomon this Wednesday at the Schwarzman building, 5th Ave. and 42nd St.