Book of the Times

The Maslin Stain: A Writer Defends Himself Against the NYT Critic

When Times book critic Janet Maslin accused the author of writing a “Jew-baiting” book, he found himself branded. By William Stadiem.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty

Just as a diamond is forever, so is a book review. Thanks to the Internet, authors now have to face their critics from here to eternity. The notion that a bad review is as ephemeral as yesterday’s papers is as archaic as the papers—and the books—are becoming. This past Christmas Day, I received a gift of eternal damnation from The New York Times’s Janet Maslin in her review of my book Moneywood, a nonfiction odyssey through Hollywood in the 1980s. The worst part of the review wasn’t the review itself (she found the book “terribly disappointing”), but her broadside that “this is one of the most blatant Jew-baiting movie books in memory.” Ms. Maslin thus played her version of “the race card,” to which I immediately responded with a letter to the editor crying foul. However, when the Times did not publish my letter, that race card became a trump. I felt as if I were in a literary version of kangaroo court. My only appeal was to Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public-affairs editor, or ombudsman. She kindly responded by finally getting my letter published January 14.

There were no retractions or apologies on the Times’s behalf. At 150 words, my letter was dwarfed by Ms. Maslin’s 1,500-word review. And I had to wonder how many arts-section readers paged onward to letters to the editor. Not I, for one. Furthermore, in Googling Moneywood, I saw, to my despair, the multiplication of Ms. Maslin’s “Jew-baiting” calumny by its syndication to countless other papers and outlets throughout the world. For example, the Bangkok Post ran a banner above the review decrying my “obsession with pointing out the Jewish at every turn.” It wasn’t that I was worried that I’d never eat lunch at the Mandarin Oriental hotel again. That Bangkok Post piece ranked second when one Googled my book, right behind Ms. Maslin’s review. Unlike articles, the letters to the Times are not syndicated. On Google, I found my letter two pages back, in no man’s land. I sadly realized that my brief missive was not going to make me a David to Maslin’s Goliath.

As a 10-year-old Jewish boy in North Carolina, I had a cross burned on my family’s lawn by the local Ku Klux Klan. I am thus particularly sensitive to Ms. Maslin’s imputations. Because of the Times’s strict word limit, I did my best to make my letter short and sweet, focusing only on the “Jew-baiting” charge. I called attention to the fact that Ms. Maslin herself had quickly backed off her initial indictment, noting that “anti-Semitism doesn’t even seem to be Mr. Stadiem’s intent.” But wasn’t she then contradicting herself? A Jew baiter is a Jew hater. Was I or wasn’t I? If I can read between her lines, what Ms. Maslin seemed to be decrying was my using Jewishness as a common thread among the producers and moguls who populate my pages. In a town and a business where being Jewish is both a tie that binds and a point of pride, not to mention a major player’s ethnicity would have been the height of disingenuousness, far beyond political correctness.

My goal in Moneywood was to take a lighthearted look at a heavy-handed era. Ms. Maslin had cited, completely out of context, a chain of descriptive phrases that sound like a lyric outtake of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” (So many Jews. So few adjectives.) If someone were identified as Jewish, it was in the vein of biography-as-destiny full disclosure. In Ms. Maslin’s list, the only real potential pejorative was her citation of Aaron Spelling’s “soft spot for fellow southern Jewboys” in his hiring choices. Had the word “Jewboys” come from the megaphone of sheriff Bull Connor, that would have been hateful. Here, however, the word was a reference to the famous band (the Texas Jewboys) of Spelling’s fellow Texan Kinky Friedman. As a former rock critic, Ms. Maslin should know better than to impute bad intent here. Furthermore, as a Carolina Israelite (pace Harry Golden, the editor of the Carolina Israelite), I feel I can grant myself a certain latitude to speak on the subject of Jewish nepotism based on self-defense.

Ms. Maslin, however, could not let go of the bait. She very wrongly insisted, “Mr. Stadiem constantly identifies his book’s moneymen as Jewish, even when they aren’t.” Her illustration here was my recounting of how a young Jon Peters played a fleeing Israelite in The Ten Commandments. While Peters went on to embrace Jews, if not Judaism, in his wife Lesley Ann Warren, his great love Barbra Streisand, and his partner Peter Guber, playing a Jew and being a Jew are two entirely different things, so her point was not at all made. It is Ms. Maslin, not I, who needed the fact-checker.

But the barrage continued. Ms. Maslin continued to add fuel to a prejudicial pyre by citing my description of Chariots of Fire as “a film about a Jewish runner.” Again, in building her case for bait and hate, she completely neglected the context, which was an account of the Anglo-Egyptian mogul Mohamed al-Fayed’s objections to his son Dodi’s West Coast extravagances, among which was bankrolling Chariots. Dodi al-Fayed received an executive-producer credit on the Oscar-winning film. Here I was illustrating nothing more sinister than how the allure of movies can attract the most unlikely investors to equally unlikely projects.

The gravamen of Ms. Maslin’s Jew-baiting complaint seems to be that, in her opinion, the machers I survey have, besides their Judaism, little in common “beyond their shared moviemaking and moneymaking aspirations.” To me movies and money were common enough, indeed, for me to call the book Moneywood. Whatever ... A bad review, that’s showbiz. But implications of anti-Semitism, that’s something else. That’s the first position on Google, a “stain” that Reputation Defender, the leading Internet escutcheon cleanser, quoted me a fee of $15,000 not to erase but to “diminish,” so that the review appears several pages back in a search request. No, no, they can’t take that away from me. If only. Janet Maslin is no cheap date.