F. D. Reeve, Poet and Translator, Dies at 84
Published: July 7, 2013
F. D. Reeve, who gave up an incipient acting career in his early 20s because he feared that immersing himself in dramatic characters might erode his own poetic voice, and who went on to write 10 volumes of highly regarded poetry, died on June 28 in Lebanon, N.H. He was 84.
Martin J. Desht
The cause was complications of diabetes, said his wife, Laura C. Stevenson. He lived in Wilmington, Vt.
Mr. Reeve, the father of the actor Christopher Reeve, published more than 30 books, including translations of Russian authors. One book chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union in 1962 with Robert Frost on a good-will mission requested by President John F. Kennedy.
As he neared 40, Mr. Reeve gave up a tenured professorship in Russian language and literature at Wesleyan University to throw himself into writing full time. Christopher Reeve, who soared to stardom in the “Superman” movies, said he admired his father’s audacity in putting art ahead of academic and financial security.
“I may not do anything quite so dramatic with my life,” he told The Boston Globe in 1980. “Then again I may.”
Christopher Reeve died at 52 in 2004 after a horse-riding accident in 1995 had left him a quadriplegic.
F. D. Reeve’s poetry was published in leading journals and magazines and collected in books, and he founded the journal The Poetry Review. The publisher and editor Robert Giroux called Mr. Reeve “one of America’s most gifted and individual poets.”
Mr. Reeve also wrote a half-dozen novels, five books of criticism, eight translations from Russian and five plays. He translated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel lecture and delivered the keynote address at the International Conference of Translators of Russian Literature in Moscow in 2007.
Mr. Reeve recounted his trip to the Soviet Union in “Robert Frost in Russia,” published in 1964 and in a second edition in 2001. Frost had recited a poem at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and had been asked by the president to go to Moscow as a cultural ambassador during some of the tensest years of the cold war. Mr. Reeve, who acted as Frost’s interpreter, found himself trying to ease tensions in his own way when Frost insisted on repeatedly lecturing the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev on how to humanize Communism.
Franklin D’Olier Reeve was born into a well-off family in Philadelphia on Sept. 18, 1928, to the former Anne D’Olier and Richard Henry Reeve, who was the chief executive of Prudential Financial for 25 years.
Franklin attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton, where he was inspired to write poetry in a class taught by the poet and critic R. P. Blackmur. After he came upon Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” he recalled, he started reading it after dinner and kept going straight through to breakfast. He called it history’s greatest book.
After graduating from Princeton, Mr. Reeve bicycled through Europe and worked in the Dakota wheat fields and on the Manhattan docks. He entered graduate school at Columbia University to study Russian while working as a longshoreman. He also began acting professionally.
“For the first time I discovered what happens when a person really acts: the self disappears; you entirely, inside and out, become the character,” he once wrote. He said he realized that he, “as a person who wanted to write poetry, would have to give up too much of my inner self for a stage career.”
Mr. Reeve married Barbara Lamb in 1951. Their son Christopher was born in 1952 and another son, Benjamin, a year later. The marriage ended in divorce, and Christopher recalled growing up in two homes. “I resented being shuttled back and forth,” he told People magazine in 1981.
After finishing his doctorate, Mr. Reeve taught Slavic languages at Columbia and was an exchange professor in the Soviet Union in 1961, when such exchanges were rare. He then became a professor of Russian at Wesleyan but resigned his tenured position to write full time. (Three decades later he returned for a part-time position there.)
Mr. Reeve’s later marriages to Helen Schmidinger and Ellen Swift also ended in divorce. Besides his fourth wife, Ms. Stevenson, a novelist, he is survived by his son Benjamin; a daughter, Alya, and two sons, Brock and Mark, all from his second marriage; two stepdaughters, Katharine O’Connell and Margaret Staloff; his sister, Anne Reeve Childs; his brother, Richard; and 18 grandchildren.
Mr. Reeve reflected on death in a 1994 poem, “The Village Graveyard.” It begins:
The fallen leaves are red and dry.
Autumn burns. The still lake mirrors
a blue October sky.
In this cemetery the forgiven and unforgiven
lie side by side.