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Anthony Bailey, biographer with restless literary spirit, dies at 87
In an undated photo from Jessica (Bibby) Giesen, Anthony Bailey. Bailey was a longtime New Yorker magazine writer who wrote about Rembrandt, J. M. W. Turner and other artists. He died from the novel coronavirus on May 13, 2020, at 87. Jessica (Bibby) Giesen via The New York Times.

by Glenn Thrush



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anthony Bailey’s mother packed her 7-year-old son off in 1940 for safekeeping to an American foster home, far from the German bombers pulverizing their dockside hometown Portsmouth, England.

Two weeks later, Bailey found himself in the Dayton, Ohio, mansion of Otto Spaeth, a wealthy factory owner, philanthropist and art collector who owned paintings by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Edward Hopper and Paul Gauguin.

“It was imprinted on him, art, from that moment forward,” his daughter Annie Bailey said in an interview.

Bailey would go on to a prolific career as a staff writer for The New Yorker and as the author of 23 books on topics that spanned multiple continents and genres.

But those four years of enlightenment and dislocation inspired Bailey’s best-remembered projects — two memoirs of childhood chronicling his “divided loyalty” to both countries and biographies of artists, including Rembrandt, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner and “Vermeer: A View of Delft,” which shortlisted for the Whitbread biography prize in 2001.

Bailey died in Harwich, Essex, England on May 13 of the novel coronavirus, contracted in a recovery area following surgery to repair a broken hip, his daughter said. He was 87. He had been living on Mersea Island, near Colchester, at the time he suffered his fall, with his wife Margot, an artist.

Bailey was born Jan. 5, 1933, to Cowper Goldsmith Bailey, a bank manager, and Phyllis Molony, a homemaker, in Portsmouth.

He read history at Merton College, Oxford, served a tour in the West African Frontier Force in modern-day Ghana and bounced around in bookseller’s shops around London, before heading back to the United States, under Spaeth’s sponsorship, to embark on a writing career.

In the mid-1950s, after failing to find a job at a newspaper, Bailey sent a story about Ivan Ilyich, a young priest ministering to the poor in Harlem, to New Yorker editor William Shawn. Shawn responded with an offer to work on the Talk of the Town section, and an office next to a young John Updike, who would become one of his closest friends. He would remain on staff until 1992.

He wrote a book about his banged-up sailing yacht and, in the 1960s, a candid portrait of his then-hometown of Stonington, Connecticut. (“In the Village,” 1971). In the 1970s, he moved back to seaside England and, later, wrote accounts of walkabouts through Wales and the Outer Banks. He also wrote a novel based on the life of John Andre, a co-conspirator of Benedict Arnold. Over the past three decades, he focused on his artist biographies.

Bailey was, his friends recalled, a patient listener happily afflicted with a kind of literary restless-leg syndrome. He became known, even as a young writer, for taking long walks that often yielded friendships and story ideas. His writing style matched his gait, unhurried but purposeful.

“Tony was a very peripatetic guy,” said writer Paul Brodeur, who began his New Yorker career with Bailey. “He loved to walk and to meet people along the way. He had a wonderfully imaginative, descriptive style.”

A memorable 1980 interview in The New Yorker with Irish poet Seamus Heaney about the conflict in Northern Ireland took place on a stroll along the River Boyne. It began with a trip to the boot shop where Heaney made an unlikely purchase: a pair of bright white Dr. Martens.

“They would look all right, he thought, after he had stepped in a few cowpats,” Bailey wrote.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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