When novelist Leslie Epstein sent mash notes to New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani through the small classifieds at the bottom of the Gray Lady's front page, he intended them, he says, in a playful spirit. The critic, however, didn't want to play.
Epstein's first feeler, which ran Oct. 29 on the front page of the Times, pleaded: "DEAR SWEET MISS MICHIKO K. -- Call your Leib Goldkorn." On Thursday, the Times' advertising acceptability department received a call from Kakutani. She was upset about Epstein's campaign and demanded that the paper squelch his Nov. 15 ad, which was to read: "YOO-HOO! MY CUTE KAKUTANI! -- Leib Goldkorn is calling." Two other ads bit the dust as well.
Goldkorn is the bumbling 94-year-old protagonist of three of Epstein's books, most recently "Ice Fire Water," which received warm reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Kakutani had given her own stamp of approval to Epstein's 1985 "Goldkorn Tales."
"Apparently she was unhappy and complained here," said Bob Smith, the Times' acceptability department manager. "Not to me personally, but complained. As we would do with any other person if their name is in an ad and they object, we got it out of there."
What if Mayor Giuliani, who also figured in one of Epstein's ads ("WHO TOOK RUDY GIULIANI'S TOUPEE? -- Leib Goldkorn!"), demanded that the newspaper pull his name from the campaign, as he did over a series of New York magazine bus ads in 1997? "We try not to make judgments on hypothetical situations," Smith said. "Now, if you're talking about public officials, there's probably a different slant on it. But in this case, here was a person who was clearly disturbed to have her name used this way, so we took it out."
Did whoever initially signed off on the ads in October recognize Kakutani's name? "I can't speak for them," Smith said. In any case, if they didn't know who she was then, they do now. "Needless to say, at the time the ads were approved, we didn't have any idea that anyone would be disturbed by them," Smith went on, adding that he hadn't seen the ads himself before they were cleared.
Epstein, who spent nearly all of his $10,000 advance on the campaign (despite the suggestion from his publisher, W.W. Norton, that he invest in something more conventional), has been left bewildered, if not bereft, by Kakutani's response to his publicity stunt. "It's a parody of the 'Jewish women light your candles' ad," he says. "It's a parody of the personals ad."
He expects to get at least $3,000 back for the cancelled ads. Before asking the Times for a refund, however, he suggested a series of replacement ads to Smith, one of which would have read: "MY LOVE -- Why do you wish to censor Leib Goldkorn?" The Times turned him down.
Kakutani did not return a call for comment.