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Susannah Hunnewell, Paris Review publisher and a deft editor and interviewer, dies at 52

Susannah  Hunnewell (center) at The Paris Review’s Spring Revel in New York served as publisher at the literary magazine.
Susannah Hunnewell (center) at The Paris Review’s Spring Revel in New York served as publisher at the literary magazine.(Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

The Paris Review “writers at work” interviews are an iconic feature in the legendary literary journal, though the essential, less-heralded participants in those conversations aren’t the writers. They are interviewers such as Susannah Hunnewell, whose artful questions over the years elicited illuminating — and sometimes surprising — responses from novelists and translators.

In the introductions she wrote for interviews she conducted, Ms. Hunnewell showed she was as keen an observer and listener as she was a questioner. The writer Harry Mathews, she noted for an interview published in 2007, “speaks with the nearly extinct mid-Atlantic accent that can carry off rather and alas.”

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Emmanuel Carrère, she wrote to introduce a 2013 interview, had the slight tan and look of “a French journalist, which means he can carry off a scarf and a vaguely fatigue-like jacket with panache.”

In 2010, the controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq smoked heavily and drew from Ms. Hunnewell a particularly evocative description about their two-day conversation: “Each of my questions met with a funereal silence, during which he blew smoke and closed his eyes. More than once I began to wonder whether he had fallen asleep. Eventually the answer would emerge, in an exhausted monotone which grew only slightly less weary the second day.”

Ms. Hunnewell, who was the publisher of The Paris Review after previously serving as its Paris editor, was 52 when she died June 15 in New York City of cancer. She had spent part of her youth in Wellesley and was descended from a family whose estates gave the town its name.

“The long interviews with writers published in The Paris Review are renowned both for their seriousness and their liberty, but it wasn’t until I met Susannah Hunnewell that I was able to determine what this seriousness and liberty could be,” Carrère told the journal, which quoted him in its online tribute. “We spent two days together; I would have liked for us to have spent three, four, five …”

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In its online “In Memoriam,” the journal said that “her three decades with the magazine, a span made better by her intelligence, kindness, and great spirit, have left an indelible imprint on The Paris Review.”

During interviews she conducted with writers, Ms. Hunnewell was a stand-in for curious readers — someone who knew just what to ask of someone such as Kazuo Ishiguro, author of “The Remains of the Day.” At times her questions were a single word, or a comment designed to inspire an expansive response.

Some inquiries were gentle. Others, with someone like Houellebecq, were bracingly direct — in more than one instance drawing short answers that cast in sharp relief the author and his writing.

“You have a special talent for insult. Do you take pleasure in insulting?” Ms. Hunnewell asked.

“Yes,” Houellebecq conceded. “It is, I have to say, satisfying.”

The quick, incisive intellect she displayed in those interviews was only part of what made Ms. Hunnewell memorable, friends recalled for another tribute on The Paris Review’s website. She was, friends said, expressively enthusiastic about places to visit, people to meet, culture to absorb.

“She knew how to let loose,” the painter Duncan Hannah wrote. “Susannah was smitten with punk rock and all manners of bohemia. She danced with abandon, and I remember a hair-raising drive uptown as she accidentally ran red lights and swerved through traffic, pumping her fist to the ear-splitting sounds of The Ramones. She wasn’t what I might have expected from an Ivy League, blue-blooded mother of three. When she liked something, she really liked something.”

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Born in Boston in 1966, Susannah Gordon Hunnewell was a daughter of Elizabeth Milton Hunnewell and Francis Oakes Hunnewell, an entrepreneur whose ancestor Horatio Hollis Hunnewell named the family estate Wellesley — a word Horatio fashioned from Welles, his wife’s maiden name.

Ms. Hunnewell’s mother, a writer, recalled in a 2011 piece for the Globe Sunday Magazine that Susannah could also be enthusiastic about matters such as Elizabeth’s decision to let her hair go fully gray.

“My daughter, Susannah, who lives in Manhattan but swears she can get almost anything she wants in Wellesley, sprinted into the house with the news,” Elizabeth wrote. “ ‘Mom, there’s a big sign in the window of a beauty parlor on Central Street.’ She threw her packages on the sofa. ‘It says “Best in Boston for Turning Hair Gray.” Here.’ She thrust a card at me. ‘I’ve made an appointment for you with Helena.’ ”

Ms. Hunnewell’s father, who died in 2010, was as passionate about his enthusiasms as his daughter was about hers, and he cut an unforgettable figure.

During a casual evening at home, he might light fires in every fireplace of the family’s Victorian in Wellesley, and “then he would suddenly emerge wearing black velvet pants and those sort of old-fashioned tuxedo slippers and a beautiful shirt with a wild, silk Chinese tie and this gold disco jacket that I had given to him” — a look which, on him, was “rather chic,” she told the Globe for his obituary.

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The Hunnewells lived in Paris during Ms. Hunnewell’s childhood and early teen years, before returning to Wellesley when she was high school age. She graduated from the Winsor School and from Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English.

Near the end of the 1980s, Ms. Hunnewell joined The Paris Review as an editorial intern. Her duties grew to include reading writers’ submissions and editing, and she also was a translator. George Plimpton, the journal’s former editor, credited her with helping put together “The Paris Review Anthology,” published in 1990.

While working there, she met Antonio Weiss, an editor who was then Plimpton’s assistant. They married in 1993.

Weiss, now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, served as counselor to the US treasury secretary at the end of President Obama’s second term and was a partner at the investment company Lazard — work that brought him and Ms. Hunnewell to Europe.

They have three sons, Niccolò, Ottocaro, and Cosimo. Along with her husband and mother, Ms. Hunnewell leaves a brother, Oakes, and a sister, Lee.

Though she remained affiliated with The Paris Review, Ms. Hunnewell also formerly worked as a news clerk at The New York Times, as an editor at the American edition of Marie Claire magazine, and as associate editor at John F. Kennedy Jr.’s political magazine George.

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In spring last year, while Ms. Hunnewell was publisher, The Paris Review appointed Emily Nemens to be the journal’s top editor. At the time, Ms. Hunnewell praised Nemens’ “proven track record for finding diverse new voices outside of established networks.”

The review’s previous editor, Lorin Stein, had resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct toward female employees and writers.

In November, Ms. Hunnewell was named a chevalier in the French order of arts and letters.

“Your way with words isn’t merely scholarly and lettered; it seems to permeate every aspect of your life and character,” Bénédicte de Montlaur, cultural counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, said at the New York City ceremony. “Your wit, repartee, and tongue-in-cheek humor are praised by all, and all ascribe these to your impeccable literary taste.”


Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com. Material from The New York Times was used in this report.