Overshadowed by her husband, the major American critic Lionel Trilling, during their long marriage, Diana also achieved a notable literary career as a book critic and political and cultural essayist.
Outliving Lionel by 17 years, she in her 70s turned to journalism, writing a bestselling book about the murder trial of Jean Harris, who killed her estranged lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, the cardiologist who invented the Scarsdale diet. Expertly fashioning the techniques of new journalism, Diana wrote a classic of crime and trial reporting.
Like Lionel an inside member of New York's left-wing intellectual community centered around magazines such as the Nation, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the Partisan Review, Diana also wrote the well-regarded memoir "The Beginning of the Journey," an account of her troubled marriage.
Now, 21 years after her death, Diana is the subject of a biography, "The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling," written by a close friend, Natalie Robins. Writer Tobi Haslett wrote a mixed review of the book in The New Yorker, finding that Robins didn't engage fully with Diana's ideas. The photo of Lionel and Diana above comes from the New Yorker web site.
The famed critic and Columbia University professor Lionel Trilling was plagued by frustration: He longed for success as a novelist. His one novel, "The Middle of the Journey," - the journey motif keeps returning in Diana's memoir, his novel and Robins' biography - was unsuccessful, although the book has received positive re-evaluations since his death.
According to Robins, Lionel's rages damaged their marriage. Not as knowledgeable as Lionel when they married, Diana with her art-history degree from Radcliffe was a major editor of Lionel's work, guiding him from ponderous academic writing and sharpening his arguments.
Turning against the Partisan Review's Marxist politics, Lionel and Diana expressed a staunch anti-communism. Nor was Diana much taken by radical feminism or the New Left counterculture of the 1960s. She harshly condemned the student riots that brought severe damage to Lionel's beloved Columbia campus.
Diana's late work made its mark on the new journalism landscape. I particularly remember her account of the evening she and Lionel were invited to John F. Kennedy's White House for a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners. That was the event after which Kennedy quipped that never had the presidency seen such a collection of intellects, except for when "Mr. Jefferson dined alone." Her descriptions of the glittering evening are among the best portraits of Kennedy's presidency.
Is a biography of Diana Trilling needed? With all of her productivity during her long life, she was a relatively minor figure in the New York intellectual community that thrived from the 1930s through the 1960s and beyond. Diana Trilling's life and work are worth revisiting; she registered enormous changes in American society from a dispassionate viewpoint. These days, America is bereft of such discerning thought.