Paul Holdengräber is the kind of cultural gadabout that makes New York one of the greatest cities to live in, since New Yorkers like him are forever tracking down the world’s best writers, thinkers, and artists and roping them into intimate, unscripted public interviews, discussions, and performances. He belongs in the company of such luminary interviewers as James Lipton or Charlie Rose, but Holdengräber does something so many curators of culture don’t—he pulls things from his subjects that you’ve never heard them say before, and he does it because he’s seemingly fearless and a consummate amateur in the best sense of the word: he’s a lover—of literature, the arts, music, philosophy, and most of all, conversation. A recent Wall Street Journal profile described Holdengraber as the “only one man in New York who possesses the complement of skills—charm, erudition, curiosity and perhaps most of all chutzpah” to pull off what appear to be casual chats–but which Holdengräber carefully prepares–with people like Pete Townshend, Colum McCann, Umberto Eco, and just about anyone else you could think of.
Holdengräber works as curator of LIVE from the NYPL, a regular event described as “Cognitive Theater” that has featured previous guests like Harold Bloom, Patti Smith, Jay-Z, and Colm Toibin. It’s something of a variety show. Some events put two complementary figures in conversation with each other, such as this past November’s conversation between the pardoned West Memphis Three suspect Damien Echols and former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins; some feature surprising, out-of-character performances, such as a reading of the modern classic kid’s book for adults, Go the F*ck to Sleep, as deadpanned by the voice of existential despair, Werner Herzog; and sometimes LIVE takes place in traditional interview format, with Holdengräber doing what he does best, getting fascinating people to tell stories about themselves. For example, Holdengräber sat down in June, 2010 for a lengthy talk with Christopher Hitchens, who had just published his memoir, Hitch 22. Little did either of them know that Hitchens would be gone in less than two years. In the short clip above, Hitchens and Holdengräber talk about mortality, both onstage and during an intimate backstage smoke break. Watch the full video of their talk below, and find the schedule for upcoming talks here.
As if his curatorial work for the NYPL were not enough, Holdengräber also hosts The Paul Holdengräber Show, which premiered last year on YouTube’s Intelligent Channel. Here he gets the chance to flex his interview muscles away from the audiences in a small studio setting. Now nine episodes in, the show has featured an unpredictable lineup of guests such as master chef David Chang, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, Robin Hood Foundation managing director Eric Weingartner, and this past July, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch. In their conversation below, Holdengräber and Gourevitch have a conversation that swings effortlessly from reporting on international tragedy and war to writing a piece on James Brown to Gourevitch’s love for the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Gourevitch retells the story with the intensity and vividness of an eyewitness and the incisive commentary of a Talmudic scholar. It’s a moment only Paul Holdengräber could set up.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on land, literature, and labor.