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Safire and Friends Celebrate 'Freedom'

September 23, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sometimes they are friends, Henry Kissinger was saying, and sometimes they are antagonists.

"We have gone through cycles," said the former secretary of state of his relationship with novelist/journalist/lexicographer William Safire.

On Monday night, though, the two were best of buddies at Kissinger's riverfront apartment, greeting 100 or so old friends who had come to celebrate the publication of "Freedom," Safire's 1,125-page novel about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

By anybody's reckoning, this was definitely an A-list gathering, of those who somehow passed muster in a building with more security than most self-respecting airports. Media moguls mixed with statesmen. Literary types mingled with lawyers whose last names are synonymous with "famous clients." Historians offered assessments of the novel's allegiance to its era.

Wearing black tie, U. S. Ambassador to Austria-designate Henry Anatole Grunwald, long the editor-in-chief of Time magazine, dropped by before the opera. In the cobalt-colored dining room, violinist Isaac Stern and his wife nibbled giant shrimp and miniature empanadas.

The Political Corner

"Henry wanted to give a party for Bill," Nancy Evans, the president and publisher of Doubleday, Safire's publisher, said. "And Bill has a great group of friends."

In one corner, for example, not far from the rare painting depicting the European China trade in Shanghai, former Nixon counsel Leonard Garment vigorously conveyed his view of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork to Kennedy epoch historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Kissinger, as slender as he has been since his days as a Harvard professor, alternately greeted guests and traded China talk with former Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Richard Holbrooke.

Holbrooke's longtime companion, CBS correspondent Diane Sawyer, showed up on the late side and plunged almost immediately into a heated discussion of the Philippines. Washington Post board chairwoman Katharine Graham, holding forth in front of the Monet above the fireplace, revealed that she was off momentarily to Paris. Peter Kann, publisher-apparent of the Wall Street Journal, showed pictures of his baby daughter, Petra, while in the living room, Harry Evans, editor-in-chief of Conde Nast's new magazine, The Traveler, showed pictures of his baby, George. "February," said Doubleday publisher Nancy Evans (no relation) when asked when her own first child was due.

Sounding for all the world like a expectant parents themselves, novelists Shirley Lord and Dominick Dunne discussed their own literary due dates.

"Sept. 1," Dunne said. "I'm late."

"Sept. 30," Lord said. "I can't wait to get it out."

Lord said that even though Safire had sent an inscribed copy of "Freedom" to her husband, Abe Rosenthal, Safire's longtime colleague at the New York Times, she had bought a copy of her own.

"I always feel novelists should buy other people's novels," she said.

Still, Lord and Dunne confessed they had not yet ventured into Safire's imposing tome.

"You can't," Dunne said. "You can't read fiction when you're writing fiction."

But Evans, Safire's publisher, said she doubted readers would be intimidated by a book the author himself has described as suitable for use as a doorstop.

"I don't find length a debit," Evans said. "If there's a good story, people want a good, big story."

Corporate changes at Doubleday, acquired last fall by the German publishing giant Bertelsmann, had made Safire's chain of editors such a source of humor to him that as galley proofs of the huge book began to appear last spring, Safire said he joked to his secretary as he left for lunch one day that "if my editor calls, get his name."

But Sally Arteseros, "the last of Bill's editors," insisted it had been a pleasure to work with the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, who organized the 1959 "kitchen conference" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev and who later served as special assistant and senior speechwriter in the Nixon White House.

Ever mindful of the critical quality of timing in public speaking, Kissinger waited until the large living room with its malachite-silk-covered walls was packed to capacity to address his guests.

"About three months ago," he boomed in his unmistakable baritone, "I brought home a big set of bound galleys of a book called 'Freedom,' and my WASP wife asked me what it was."

When Kissinger told her that it was "a book by Bill Safire about Lincoln," Nancy Kissinger, her husband recalled while looking directly at her, "told me, 'There's no way in the world a Jewish intellectual will ever understand Lincoln.' "

At which point Nancy Kissinger vanished with the galleys, so entranced by the fat piece of fiction that Kissinger was forced to seek out a new copy for himself.

"I think Lincoln is one of the really fascinating, great men of American history, one of the people of whom you can really say, 'He made a difference,' " Kissinger said.

Of Safire's blend of fact and fiction, Kissinger said, "I think Bill has written an extraordinary historic work. In the form of fiction, it is probably the only way Lincoln could be rendered meaningfully."

Famed as much for his biting humor as his political barbs, Safire decided to take whatever bouquets Kissinger and the crowd were throwing him.

"As (Delaware Democratic Sen.) Joe Biden would say," Safire said, " 'Never have so many owed so much. . . .' "

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