had flown in from various parts of the country, and since most of them hadn’t seen each other in a long while, the dinner conversation quickly became a free-for-all, with everyone talking at once. At any given moment, four or five separate dialogues were going on across the table, but because people weren’t necessarily talking to the person next to them, these dialogues kept intersecting with one another, causing abrupt shifts in the pairings of the speakers, so that everyone seemed to be taking part in all the conversations at the same time, simultaneously chattering away about his or her own life and eavesdropping on everyone else as well. Add to this the frequent interruptions from the children, the comings and goings of the different courses, the pouring of wine, the dropped plates, overturned glasses, and spilled condiments, the dinner began to resemble an elaborate, hastily improvised vaudeville routine.
It was a sturdy family, I thought, a teasing, fractious group of individuals who cared for one another but didn’t cling to the life they had shared in the past. It was refreshing for me to see how little animosity there was among them, how few old rivalries and resentments came to the surface, but at the same time there wasn’t much intimacy, they didn’t seem as connected to one another as the members of most successful families are. I know that Sachs was fond of his sisters, but only in an automatic and somewhat distant sort of way, and I don’t think he was particularly involved with any of them during his adult life. It might have had something to do with his being the only boy, but whenever I happened to catch a glimpse of him during the course of that long afternoon and evening, he seemed to be talking either to his mother or to Fanny, and he probably showed more interest in my son David than in any of his own nephews or nieces. I doubt that I’m trying to make a specific point about this. These kinds of partial observations are subject to any number of errors and misreadings, but the fact is that Sachs behaved like something of a loner in his own family, a figure who stood slightly apart from the rest. That isn’t to say that he shunned anyone, but there were moments when I sensed that he was ill at ease, almost bored by having to be there.
Based on the little I know about it, his childhood seems to have been unremarkable. He didn’t do especially well in school, and if he won honors for himself in any way, it was only to the extent that he excelled at pranks. He was apparently fearless in confronting authority, and to listen to him tell it, he spent the years from about six to twelve in a continuous ferment of creative sabotage. He was the one who designed the booby traps, who fastened the Kick Me signs on the teacher’s back, who set off the firecrackers in the cafeteria garbage cans. He spent hundreds of hours sitting in the principal’s office during those years, but punishment was a small price to payfor the satisfaction these triumphs gave him. The other boys respected him for his boldness and invention, which was probably what inspired him to take such risks in the first place. I’ve seen some of Sachs’s early photographs, and there’s no question that he was an ugly duckling, a genuine sore thumb: one of those beanstalk assemblages with big ears, buck teeth, and a goofy, lopsided grin. The potential for ridicule must have been enormous; he must have been a walking target for all sorts of jokes and savage stings. If he managed to avoid that fate, it was because he forced himself to be a little wilder than everyone else. It couldn’t have been the most pleasant role to play, but he worked hard at mastering it, and after a while he held undisputed dominion over the territory.
Braces aligned his crooked teeth; his body filled out; his limbs gradually learned to obey him. By the time he reached adolescence, Sachs began to resemble the person he would later become. His height worked to his