Ann Arensberg, insightful novelist of mysteries and manners, dies at 84

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Ann Arensberg, insightful novelist of mysteries and manners, dies at 84
A provided image shows the auther Ann Arensberg in 1998. Arensberg, a novelist equally at home writing Gothic mysteries set in dark corners of New England and airy satires set in her native territory, the Manhattan publishing and cultural scene, died on Jan. 14, 2022 at a hospital in Sharon, Conn. She was 84. Joyce Ravid via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Ann Arensberg, a novelist equally at home writing Gothic mysteries set in dark corners of New England and airy satires set in her native territory, the Manhattan publishing and cultural scene, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in Sharon, Connecticut. She was 84.

Her brother, Walter W. Arensberg, said the cause was complications of COVID-19.

Arensberg came to writing relatively late in life, after an early career in museums and more than a decade as an editor at Viking Press. After publishing a few short stories in the 1970s, she finished her first novel, “Sister Wolf,” in 1980, when she was 43.

The tale of a young Hungarian American heiress who establishes a wolf sanctuary on her family’s estate in rural Massachusetts established her reputation for conveying eccentric, detailed plots in witty, confidently unadorned prose.

She described the book’s protagonist, Marit Deym, as having a love for animals “untrammeled by suspicion, the kind of love that does not seek its own advantage, or negotiate for favorable terms. With human beings her insight foundered in mistrust. When animals bared their fangs, they were enraged; in humans a show of teeth was called a smile.”

“Sister Wolf” was roundly praised by critics and won the 1981 National Book Award for best first novel, beating out Jean M. Auel’s mega-bestseller, “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” (Between 1979 and 1987, the awards were known as the American Book Awards, not to be confused with another, unrelated literary prize with the same name; they also included many more categories than they do today, including best first novel.)

By then, she had settled in at the center of the Manhattan literary world, with a circle of friends that included humorist Fran Lebowitz and writers Janet Malcolm, Marie Brenner and Laurie Colwin. Gregarious and gently charismatic, she and her husband, editor Richard Grossman, were fixtures at book parties and long Sunday brunches at their friends’ weekend houses, at a time when even a midlevel New York editor could afford one.

“I think that she was aware of her allure, but not in an immodest way, and she drew people toward her as a way of learning about them,” her friend Alice Quinn, who edited her first two books at Knopf and later became the poetry editor at The New Yorker, said in an interview.

Arensberg’s next book, the satirical “Group Sex” (1986), grew out of a short story she had written in 1980 and drew on material closer at hand, including her own life. It told the story of a meek, eager-to-please book editor named Frances Girard who falls in love with her temperamental opposite: a brash, rebellious theater director named Paul Treat, best known, Arensberg wrote, for putting on a production of “As You Like It” but with seals.

Though Arensberg was far from the wallflower she depicted Frances to be, the character’s relationship with Paul drew on her own marriage, by then long ended, to director John Hancock, who rose to early acclaim in 1967 with an avant-garde staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and later directed the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly” (and, even later, was fired from the set of “Jaws 2”).

Reviews, this time, were mixed. Tama Janowitz, writing in The New York Times Book Review, praised Arensberg’s “talent for entertainment and wit,” but Michiko Kakutani, also writing in The Times, said the book lacked a “moral center.”

By then Arensberg and Grossman had decamped for rural Connecticut, where they settled into a farmhouse outside Salisbury, in the state’s northwest corner. There, working in a chicken coop they had converted to a writing studio, she completed her final novel, “Incubus” (1999), about a Maine town overtaken by demons.

That book could not have been more different from “Group Sex,” though a bright thread ran through all her work that tied together themes about community, passion and the indistinct edges of human reason.

“From our side, the frontiers of the underworld are all but impassable,” she wrote in “Incubus.” “Are the borders as hard to infiltrate from the other side? Are the flesh eaters, castaways and scarecrows we meet in dreams content to stay where they belong or do they want to travel? If they start to wander, how do we shut them out?”

Ann Eveleth Arensberg was born in Pittsburgh on Feb. 21, 1937. Her father, Walter E. Arensberg, worked for a company that manufactured plate glass; when Ann was 9, he asked for a transfer overseas and was sent to Cuba.

Her parents later divorced, and her father returned to the United States after the Cuban revolution. Her mother, Mariada (Comer) Arensberg, remained in Cuba for a few years, then moved to Washington, where she helped the CIA establish and operate an anti-Castro radio station broadcast from Florida.

Though Ann Arensberg rarely spoke about her childhood in Havana, her friends said it infused her personality, from her lifelong interest in mystery and the occult to the Latin cooking she served them at her many dinner parties.

“She had this natural glamour, with this kind of exotic Cuban backstory,” Brenner said in an interview. “And that backstory powered her imagination in ways that just fueled her later literary success.”

She studied art history at Radcliffe College and, after graduating in 1958, worked briefly at the Museum of Modern Art. She returned to Harvard to study French literature and received a master’s degree in 1962.

Her first two marriages, to Pierre Leval and Hancock, ended in divorce. Grossman died in 2014. Along with her brother, she is survived by her stepdaughters, Joan Grossman, Nancy Nagle and Lucy Rochambeau. She lived in Salisbury, Connecticut.

From 1967 to 1974 she was an editor at E.P. Dutton and Viking Press, where she worked with established writers like Don DeLillo and John Lahr and discovered new ones, like Colwin.

“A good editor is a person who understands you and, as it were, eliminates your vulgarities,” Lahr, a former New Yorker theater critic, said in an interview. “And she certainly did that.”

Arensberg said she decided to try writing during her separation from Hancock; they divorced in 1975, the same year she published her first short story, “Art History.” Quinn, at Knopf, read it and asked her to send a novel, if she ever had one. Five years later, she did.

Never the most prolific writer, Arensberg took pride in her deliberative approach to research and composition, filling piles of yellow legal pads with her crisp boarding-school handwriting. And while she seemed to recall her many years as an editor with fondness, she counseled would-be writers to avoid following the same path.

“If you’re going to write,” she told Publishers Weekly in 1999, “you should not use up all your intuitive skills on other people’s writing. It’s better to do something physical, something mechanical — sell gloves at Bloomingdale’s, be a turkey-plucker or a bartender. Anything.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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