IT’S ONE OF those strange things that I always automatically assume that anyone I know or have had dealings with cannot, by any stretch of the mind, be considered famous or well-known. The falseness of this assumption was made apparent to me when I picked up this week’s Economist after it arrived through the mail slot. As usual, there were a number of fascinating and well-informed articles, on the airlines of the Gulf, on the Colombian election, a special report on South Africa, and more. But then I finally reached the end pages and read the full page obituary of “Martin Gardner, man of letters and numbers,” who died on May 22nd at 95 years of age.
I never met Mr. Gardner but interacted with him several times during my New Criterion days by phone, and good old-fashioned post. He was a regular though not a frequent contributor to the magazine and was singular in that he was the only writer with whom the editor did not have the option of contacting via that nebulous mystery called the world-wide web. It was often, I confess, a source of some frustration that one would have all ones eggs in a row regarding pieces edited and signed off, and then there’d be something to do with Martin Gardner’s work and one would think “Blast! You mean I’ve got to stick this in an envelope to get the final OK?” Of course, when The New Criterion was founded, there was no internet, so there was a time when the whole magazine — indeed when every magazine — was put together via what I called the Martin Gardner method.
This aspect notwithstanding, it was always a pleasure working with Mr. Gardner, who was unfailingly polite over the phone when he would call in with his changes to our edits. It’s one of those inevitable aspects of death that one often discovers more interesting facts about the deceased than one ever knew while he was alive. In Martin Gardner’s case, it’s that this science maven published a number of annotated editions of works by G. K. Chesterton.
Roger Kimball writes of his last contact with Martin Gardner just a short time ago:
I wrote to tell him about the coincidence that a good friend now occupies the house he lived in for decades on Euclid Avenue (how’s that for an appropriate name?) in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. I discovered this quite by accident. My wife and I were having dinner with a few other people at our friends’ house. I can’t remember Gardner’s name came up, but when it did I mentioned that he had lived for many years in Hastings-on-Hudson. “Yes,” said my friend, “and he lived in this very house.” One of the other couples present also knew Gardner. They recalled the time he invited them, shortly after they had moved to the neighborhood, to his house for drinks. Would it be alright if they brought their young children along, since no baby-sitter was available? Of course, nothing could be more agreeable! They arrived and Gardner proceeded to entertain the children with magic tricks for two hours.
My favourite story, however, is that he once wrote a devastating review of one of his own books and got it published under a pseudonym in the New York Review of Books. While he was a noted contributor to numerous sceptical reviews, he did come to a belief in God late in his life. “His declaration,” The Economist writes, “of this belief caused, he admitted, profound shock to those who knew him only as a sceptic. But there was too much playfulness in Mr Gardner to make him yield entirely to reason. His faith, he said, was based on an “emotional turning of the will”, unsupported by logic or science. It was his way, perhaps, of recognising that mind and man are not synonyms.”
Requiescat in pace.