R.I.P. Philip Roth, Upper West Sider; Where are Those Mystery Initials?


Photo by Robyn Roth-Moise of Roth in front of Zabar’s around 2012.

Philip Roth, one of the great American authors, died on Tuesday. Roth spent his last years living quietly on the Upper West Side, taking walks and meeting friends at local restaurants.

As one of his neighbors told us the last time we wrote about Roth, he clearly valued his privacy. “Introduced himself as Phil when I moved in and despite having his books on my shelf, it (embarrassingly) took me a bit of time to put two and two together. He was a quiet and kind neighbor.” He was also spotted at the Planetarium Station post office on 83rd — the greatest writer of his generation mailing letters like the rest of us schmoes.


Roth seen through a window at Nice Matin on 79th and Broadway. Photo by Ethan.

Brian Koppelman, the co-creator of Showtime’s Billions, wrote a nice account of what it was like living in Roth’s building when Koppelman was a young aspiring writer.

The Guardian put together some anecdotes from other writers and Roth’s friends, including this one from writer Ann Margaret Daniel:

We walked him back to his apartment. Outside it, three workers were smoothing fresh cement on the wide sidewalk. Our friend said, “Let’s write our initials,” and Roth eagerly agreed. We all compared keys to see which was the sturdiest-looking, and Roth said to one of the cementers, “Excuse me, we’d like to write our initials.” He paused, courtly, for a reply, and the guy shook his head, no, not yet. Then he nodded at Roth, but held up a cautionary finger. “When I’m finish,” he replied.

Roth guffawed. “That oughta be the title of my autobiography.”

The smoothing over, we wrote our three sets of initials, and said our goodbyes.

The first person who can find the initials and send us a photo will get a West Side Rag mug. (We think he lived in the West 80’s but will update this when we get the exact block.)

HISTORY, NEWS | 18 comments | permalink
    1. UWSer says:

      I thought he lived in a building near 79th and Columbus. Just tried looking for his initials but didn’t see them. Some faded initials but couldn’t make out PR.

    2. Dee says:

      My husband often saw him on a bench on the museum grounds on Saturday mornings, so 79th and Columbus would make sense…

    3. Robert MacMillan says:

      He lived at 130 W 79th Street, I’m told.

      • Dr. Cary Goodman says:

        My wife and I met Philip Roth in Teddy Roosevelt Park one Sunday afternoon. He was sitting on a bench as we walked towards the dog run.I did a double-take; turned to Cris and said, “That’s Philip Roth.”

        We thanked him for his writing and mentioned that he was sitting where the museum wanted to expand.

        “I know, ” he replied. “I’ve signed the petition against it.”

        • UWS_lifer says:

          WOW!!! at first I was like “good for you Cary, for once no mention of the museum expansion plan and you even shared a nice little anecdote about Mr. Roth.”

          and then you ruined it….Wa Wa Waa (trombone sound):)

          Oh well….RIP to a true literary great.

    4. PS87 Grad says:

      44 West 77th

    5. Beth Caron says:

      He lived on 79th Street in the Austin

    6. Susan Epler says:

      What a writer, what a life! His writing is his immortality as
      Is Tolstoy’s, Joyce’s and all the other great women and men before and after Philip Roth. The West Side was graced with his presence for the last years of his life. Shopping at Zabars like the rest of us. The book seller in front sold his books for years.

    7. Susan Epler says:

      PS living on or near Columbus would make sense for a guy from Newark, eh?

    8. Sari Anthony says:

      He lived on 77th Street b/w Columbus and CPW; closer to Columbus Avenue.

    9. BillyNYC says:

      Philip would stop by my house on W. 80th St. Check out my garden which was the same address he had on 79th St.
      He loved the plants… I planted each spring and he came back many times during the summers and just look over my front garden gate staring at my birdhouse & birdbath and the plants I chose for that year to display. Many times he would ask me the names of each plant I planted each year. This went on for many years, Unfortunately, I have not seen him this year at all.
      May God rest his soul, amen (BillyNYC)

    10. Lenore Lapidus says:

      I found the initials “AP” in the sidewalk in front of a building near 80th and Columbus. Could it be Alexander Portnoy?

    11. John says:

      Very sad when an Atheist dies

    12. mar says:

      The photo of Roth in front of Zabar’s reminds me of the last lines of Barry Levinson’s film Avalon, “So this is how it all ends?”