NEW YORK — In what may be his last remarks at a public gathering, Philip Roth accepted Yaddo's first ever Artist Medal and spoke gratefully of his time at the venerable retreat in the summer of 1964.
"I arrived at the gates of Yaddo — discouraged, sad, a little desperate," Roth said, explaining to the hundreds gathered at the Edison Ballroom in midtown Manhattan that he was in a creative slump and personal crisis, having endured a bitter and impoverishing divorce.
At Yaddo, he said, he encountered no harsh reviews calling his acclaimed debut book, "Goodbye, Columbus," a fluke. He could forget about the judge who during his divorce proceedings had told him that "rather than publishing short stories in The Paris Review for $50 dollars apiece" he "should instead write for the movies. 'Go West, young man.'"
"My manifest destiny was Yaddo," said Roth, who at the Saratoga Springs-based artist colony completed most of his ribald classic "Portnoy's Complaint" and in subsequent visits worked on "The Breast" and "The Great American Novel."
Not everyone was sure Roth would show up Wednesday, including fellow author and former Yaddo resident Alison Lurie, who introduced Roth and noted that last week he had allegedly sworn off speaking at public events. After he gave a reading at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, Roth insisted that it was "absolutely the last appearance" he would "make on any public stage, anywhere," according to The New York Times.
Roth did not refer to those remarks on Wednesday. But when The Associated Press emailed his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, and asked whether Roth had given his last public talk, Wylie responded, "That's his last."
One of the world's most honored authors, the 81-year-old Roth has a history of both keeping and stepping back from public vows. He revealed in 2012 that he had stopped writing books and, after dependably turning out a book a year during the previous decade, has published nothing since the 2010 novel "Nemesis." But he also said that a New York Times interview he granted in 2012 was his last. He has since spoken to a Television Critics Association panel and responded to questions from the cultural editor of Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish publication.
If Wednesday night was his farewell, note that he was dressed in a dark jacket and pants, no tie, and shared the bill with The New York Racing Association, a neighbor and sponsor of Yaddo. He spoke briefly, but managed to leave the audience with a run of memorable images and turns of phrase.
When he first came to Yaddo, he recalled that his closest companion was an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter on which, he lamented, he could "write nothing but crap." He praised the healing powers of his "unprepossessing cabin," the sandwich and celery stalk contained in his lunch pail and the decadent stack of pancakes he was served in the mornings.
"And yet breakfast mitigates all," he stated.
Wylie told the AP that he was not aware of any more scheduled public events for Roth. During his acceptance speech, Roth joked about a possible return.
"Next week I'm getting an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary," the lifelong nonbeliever said, "and will be introduced by Mae West."