Clifton Fadiman '25:
An Erudite Guide to the Wisdom of Others

By Timothy P. Cross


Clifton Fadiman '25


Unlike many men of letters, Clifton Fadiman '25, who died on June 20 on Sanibel Island, Fla., at the age of 95, thought of himself primarily a guide to the wisdom of others. But as a guide, Fadiman had few equals: over the last 60 years, the editor, essayist, anthologist, and broadcast personality led countless readers to a myriad of subjects. As an editor and judge for the Book of the Month Club for over 50 years, he helped shape the reading choices of countless Americans. He wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica as well as numerous magazines, and compiled over two dozen anthologies on subjects ranging from mathematics to poetry to the pun. On a series of radio and television programs, most notably the radio quiz show Information, Please!, he become a model of wit and erudition.

The day after his death, National Public Radio's All Things Considered eulogized Fadiman as someone who "took joy in bringing ideas to a broad audience" as well as for being a modern rarity, "a man popular for being brazenly smart."

"Kip" Fadiman was a Brooklyn native, the son of Russian immigrants (his father was a pharmacist, his mother a nurse). Anxious to avoid the problems encountered by his parents, who spoke English imperfectly, Fadiman consciously set out to master the language. This commitment led to his "interest in the whole Western cultural tradition," he told CCT in a Fall 1982 interview. He traced his lifelong involvement with books to age 4, when he read his first one; by 10, he was reading Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and Milton. "By the end of high school I was not of course an educated man," Fadiman said, "but I knew how to try to become one."

Like many students of that era, Fadiman commuted to the College. "My main recollection [of the College] is of the work I had to do in order to eat," he said. To earn money, Fadiman told his daughter, he even broke in smoking pipes for some wealthier students. But classmates remember his prodigious intellect. At 17, he was writing book reviews for The Nation, and he was commissioned by the Modern Library to translate Nietzshe's Ecco Homo and The Birth of Tragedy while still an undergraduate. "He was generally worshiped among those interested in literature," remembers University Professor Emeritus Jacques Barzun '27. At Columbia, Fadiman became lifelong friends with some of the College's most illustrious teachers and alumni -- not just Barzun, but Mark Van Doren (saluted by Fadiman in the essay, "What Makes a Teacher Great?"), Mortimer Adler '23, and Whittaker Chambers '24, who was encouraged by Fadiman to read The Communist Manifesto.

Although Fadiman entered with the Class of 1924, the need to make ends meet delayed his graduation until 1925. He taught English for two years at the Ethical Culture (now Fieldston) High School in the Bronx before joining Simon & Schuster as an assistant editor. In 1933, he became book editor for the New Yorker, a position he kept for 10 years.

In 1938, Fadiman was hired for the then impressive salary of $250 per week to host a new game show, Information, Please! As the moderator, Fadiman directed questions sent in by listeners to a panel composed of newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams, concert pianist Oskar Levant, sportswriter John Kieran, and one guest. Questioners who stumped the panel won a set of encyclopedias. The program proved immensely popular, remaining on the air until 1948. At its peak, Information, Please! had an estimated audience of nine million listeners a week.

Confronted with the suggestion that Information, Please! was somehow edifying for its listeners, Fadiman told the Los Angeles Times: "That's preposterous. I was on it for years and didn't learn a thing." In truth, the program was often less about giving the right answers than about making clever ones, right or wrong. As Fadiman told CCT, he tried "to use the questions and answers as an armature on which to build a sculpture of genuine conversation." One observer credited Fadiman with having "the perfect mixture of bright interest and delicate malice" that encouraged the panelists to do their best.

Fadiman became a regular on other radio shows, including Quiz Kids, Mathematics, Alumni Fun and Conversation, and in the early 1950s, he became a television host for This Is Show Business and a short-lived televised version of Information, Please! None, however, achieved the popularity of the original radio show.

Despite his success as a broadcaster, Fadiman remained committed to the written word. His daughter Anne Fadiman, now editor of The American Scholar, recounted the book-filled, intellectual atmosphere of the Fadiman home -- "Fadiman U." the family called it. Her first encounter with erotica, she said, came from her father's well-thumbed copy of Fanny Hill.

In 1944, Fadiman joined the editorial committee of the newly formed Book of the Month Club, where he helped select the books offered to readers. He also became a consultant and contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For an entry on the history of children's literature, he learned to read Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Dutch in his mid-70s (he was already fluent in French and German). Indeed, children's literature remained a special love for Fadiman. In 1985, he received the Dorothy C. McKenzie Award for his contributions to children's literature for his anthology, A World Treasury of Children's Literature, and other works.

He wrote informal essays for Holiday magazine for 10 years, abandoning the column when he discovered to his horror that he had written more essays than Charles Lamb. He wrote more than 65 introductions to books ranging from The Martian Chronicles to War and Peace. For one anthology of short stories, he wrote not only the introduction, but also 63 commentaries. In the early 1980s, Fadiman, who once listed his avocations as wine and "the avoidance of exercise," co-authored the compendium The Joys of Wine with Sam Aaron.

Barzun considers Fadiman to be an "often unheralded, but powerful and important" influence on twentieth-century American letters. Fadiman's work on Information, Please!, Barzun fears, may have "obscured his first-class activity of mind." Fadiman possessed an "absolutely sure critical sense," says Barzun, and through his writing and editing, Fadiman "taught people what was important about literature." In 1993, Fadiman was honored with a National Book Award for his contributions to American letters.

Fadiman once estimated that he had read over 25,000 books in his life, and he never stopped. Even after completely losing his sight in his early 90s, Fadiman continued to vet manuscripts for the Book of the Month Club. His son, Kim, would make tapes of books for his father, who would dictate his impressions. And although he had to give up plans to edit personally the new edition of Mark Van Doren's World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse (1998), he remained the volume's general editor.

Fadiman, whose first marriage to Pauline Elizabeth Rush ended in 1949, married Annalee Whitmore Jacoby, a foreign correspondent for Life and Time magazines and co-author with Theodore White on Thunder Out of China (1950). In addition to his wife and children Kim and Anne (both from his second marriage), Fadiman is survived by a son from his first marriage, Jonathan Rush.