Working on a photographic biography of writer Philip Roth, now on display at Newark Public Library’s main branch, was “a dream come true” for guest curator Rosemary Steinbaum.
For nearly a year, Steinbaum collaborated with Roth and librarian James Lewis to organize a collection of photographs and memorabilia celebrating the Newark-born novelist on his 80th birthday.
The exhibit traces his boyhood and adolescence in what was the heavily Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, the cultural source of many of his 27 novels, two autobiographies, and numerous short stories.
“We met with Roth over the course of three meetings at his New York apartment and went through his family photographs with him, listening to his anecdotes and laughter,” Steinbaum recalled as she conducted a tour of the exhibit. “We took notes on what he had to say, and they became the basis of the captions than accompany the photographs.”
The captions they drafted were e-mailed to the author, who “carefully rewrote them for his own voice,” she said. “So, in fact, the captions themselves have become little pieces of literature.”
Steinbaum read aloud one of her favorite captions, from his 1968 work The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. It is displayed under a black-and-white photo of eight-year-old Roth at bat in Weequahic Park.
“Three relatively inexpensive fetishes you could have always at your side in your room…a ball, a bat, and a glove,” writes Roth. “The solace that my Orthodox grandfather doubtless took in the familiar leathery odor of the flesh-worn straps of the old phylacteries in which he wrapped himself each morning I derived from the smell of my mitt.”
“He writes so much about baseball,” Steinbaum said.
Her chief role was to read through Roth’s novels and memoirs “to find selections from the works than complement or comment on the photographs and their captions. I sat down with post-its and stickies and made myself a note whenever there was a useful Newark reference in any of the books. When I saw what pictures we had, that gave me a way to select from the passages.”
Steinbaum was an English major at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and has read Roth’s works “off and on through my adulthood.” She and her husband, Robert, live in Montclair, but are active members of Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s 107-year-old Conservative synagogue, and devoted supporters of the city.
“Newark is a locus of our philanthropic and our social lives,” she said. “We have a lot of friends here.”
Her mission actually began in 2005, when Steinbaum was asked by Elizabeth Del Tufo, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, to read through the Roth books and come up with passages that could be illustrated by actual locations in Newark.
The excerpts she found served as the basis for “Philip Roth Day” that October, when admirers of the author were able to join a bus tour of Roth’s Newark, and then Mayor Sharpe James unveiled a plaque in the writer’s honor outside his boyhood home on Keer and Summit avenues.
Steinbaum said she first met the author when he received an award from the library in the early 1990s. “We have had dinner several times,” she said. “One hears he is reclusive or hard to get to or not nice, but he has been entirely friendly, welcoming, and generous of his time. He comes across with a certain menschlichkeit.”
Among the vintage photos is one of a teenage Roth in a tie and wide-lapelled plaid sport jacket. “He loved that outfit,” she said. Others cover his undergraduate years at Bucknell University, where he was an actor and the editor of the campus literary magazine.
Among more contemporary pictures in the collection are photos of the author with Bill Clinton. Roth wrote: “Clinton manages a smile during the summer of 1998.”
“It was during the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” Steinbaum pointed out.
In addition to Roth’s personal photographs, there are vintage photos of Newark supplied by the late Charles Cummings, the city historian who served as assistant director of the library’s New Jersey Information Center.
“The whole cluster of latter-day Newark books — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America — were replete with historical data that Cummings fed to Roth,” said Steinbaum.