A CONVERSATION WITH
CORNELIA AND MICHAEL BESSIE (1)
If you can say to yourself, when that manuscript goes to the
printers, This is the best book that this person can write at this time,
then youve done your job. Cornelia Bessie
The important question about the publishing industry is: how well
does it serve literature? Michael Bessie
In this second of my conversations with distinguished literary
publishers, the question of good books recurred as a counterpoint in the discussion of
institutional changes that have taken place in trade publishing. It recurred, I think,
because of an assumption that once could have been made and now, especially at the
trade-book conglomerates, cannot be: that bringing literature into print is the purpose of
the responsible publisher. It has been remarked that publishing, in the old
sense, perhaps, of the gentlemans occupation, began to change about the time the
phrase publishing industry came into use, probably in the mid- or late-1970s.
If true, it marks nicely the changes Ive been interested in tracing.
Substantially, however, what has been changed? Are there more bad,
fewer good, books than ever? What has become of the editors art? Indeed, what sort
of people became editors and publishers; why? Do the same sort run the business now?
Ive been inquiring of some notable editors and publishers of an older generation
what they thought.
Generously, theyve told how they entered the profession; spoken
about writers they published and declined to publish; described the class structure of
their domain; talked straight about money, commerce, and corporate capitalism. Without
exception they are serious readers, usually of more than one language. They recognize that
times have changed but do not agree, necessarily, on why and how.
Excerpts of these conversations will continue to appear regularly in ARCHIPELAGO and may serve as an opening onto an institutional memory
contrasting itself with the current establishment, reflecting on its glories, revealing
what remains constant amid the present flux. Despite their surround of gentility, these
publishers are strong-minded characters engaged with their historical circumstances. Out
of that engagement have appeared a number of books that we can say, rightly, belong to
Vol. 1, No. 3 A Conversation with Marion Boyars
Vol. 1, No. 1 Endnotes
Vol. 1, No. 2 Endnotes
Vol. 1, No. 3 Endnotes
Cornelia and Michael Bessie, of Bessie Books
Michael Bessie began his career in publishing in 1946,
when Cass Canfield, then head of the house, invited him to join Harper and Bros. as an
editor. Cornelia Shaeffer, as she was then, joined the firm several years later, as
foreign reader; she became an editor, subsequently, for The Readers Digest,
Dutten, and, once more, Harpers. In the meantime they had married. In 1960,
Michael Bessie left Harper and, with Pat Knopf and Hiram Hayden, founded Atheneum, a
successful literary imprint. Cornelia joined the firm a year afterward. They remained with
Atheneum until 1976, when they returned to what had become Harper & Row; and where, five years later, they housed their own imprint,
Bessie Books. After Harper & Row was sold to Rupert Murdoch and
transformed into HarperCollins, Bessie Books migrated, first to Pantheon, then to
Counterpoint, of Washington, D. C., where it is presently housed.
(Counterpoint is an imprint backed by Perseus, a corporation whose
owner, Frank Pearl, has recently acquired, as well, the respected imprints Basic Books and
Addison-Wesley and, with the former editor-in-chief of Times Books, has opened Public
Affairs. It looks as if a new conglomerate is in the making, this one devoted, so far, to
literary publishing. We will keep an interested eye on this development.)
Among the hundreds of authors whom the Bessies, together and
separately, have edited and published are (a nearly random selection): Edward Albee, Luigi
Barzini, Justice William Brennan, John Cheever, Cyril Connelly, Jan de Hartog, Len
Deighton, Janet Flanner, Ruth Gordon, Richard Howard, Guiseppe de Lampedusa, Harper Lee,
Nadezda Mandelstam, John McGahern, Nigel Nicholson, André Schwartz-Bart, Jean Renoir,
Peter Shaffer, Saul Steinberg, Joanna Trollope, Peter Weiss. Among Nobel laureates, they
have published Miguel Angel Asturias, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachov, Sir Peter
Medawar, Anwar Sadat, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, James Watson, and Elie Wiesel.
Two years ago I approached Michael Bessie because of his founders
connection to Atheneum. A respected literary imprint, Atheneum had been closed in 1994 by its new owner, Simon & Schuster, itself
owned by Paramount, which in turn had been bought by Viacom, an entertainment
holding-company. Atheneums last editor and publisher had been the late Lee Goerner,
who was my husband. The reasons given for the shut-down were appalling. Atheneum did not,
it seemed, turn enough profit; another literary imprint was not needed by the corporation.
Viacom, or Paramount, or Simon & Schuster also owned what used
to be Charles Scribners Sons, also considered literary, which survived the corporate
in-fights and is now called Scribner. What had such reasoning to do with
literature? Yet, in opportune circumstances a writer can observe the operations of those
who hold power, in this case, power over the disposition of works of the imagination.
Observe, closely, is what I proposed to do.
Lee Goerner was praised by his colleagues for publishing good books,
books that appealed to his inclusive, American taste, without considering the so-called
market. From the advantage of obscurity I had supposed this was any editors
responsibility and, though deferring to no one in my high regard for him, I thought he had
been praised for doing what should have been expected. Gently, Michael Bessie put me
right. Lee, it seemed, had acted as the owner of a house might act, when in fact he had
not owned it. Although he had begun to put Atheneum in the black, his margins of profit
had been narrow: to be expected, but not what the conglomerate desired. Owning your own
firm, said Michael Bessie, keeping it to a reasonable size: here was the best possible
situation of the good publisher. Smaller was better, because more responsible.
Responsible publishing was a phrase he used more than once.
For the conversation published here I visited the Bessies twice, in
August and October 1997, at their wooded retreat in rural
Connecticut and in their handsome, art-filled apartment on Washington Square, in New York.
Against the fate of Atheneum Cornelia and Michael Bessie placed the breadth and
uninterrupted length of their involvement with books. Their discussions and disputations
were conducted in the courteous, sparring style of long-time partners who believe in the
necessity of good books and intelligent publishing, yet each of whom holds, nonetheless, a
particular point of view formed by experience, intuition, and educated taste. For this
first of two parts, I have excerpted, chiefly, their remarks about the complex
relationship between character, background, class, and institution as it appeared in
publishing; their own entry into the field; editors and the books they take or let go; the
founding and early growth of Atheneum. Part 2, a conversation about
reading, the literary life, the (further) education of an editor, and
structural changes in
Harpers, will appear in our next issue.
How They Entered Publishing
McNAMARA: Weve all observed huge
structural changes in publishing -- in the institution, we might call it, of publishing
books -- in the last decade or two. And yet, the relationship between an institution and
its people, their relative influences upon one another, is complex. I think it just as
important to know who the people involved were, and have been, as the nature of the
institution itself. Amid change, Im interested in learning also: What continues?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Are you asking, What are the
relative influences of institutions and individuals? Individuals are more apparent, more
interesting, more dramatic, more concrete than institutions; and so the great question
that presents itself to me is, How important is it when Doubleday is headed by Nelson
Doubleday, with Ken[neth] McCormick [1906-7] as chief editor, as it was when I first came
into publishing, as against today, when its become an enormous institution headed by
an ambassador, basically, from Germany because its owned by Bertelsmann. So, in the
long run, it has to satisfy German business requirements, although it is theoretically
rooted in the American scene. Thats an extreme example.
How much difference does it make to Harpers between the long run
of publishing people who ran it [as Harper and Brothers, then as Harper & Row]
and when it gets to be owned by Mr. Murdoch [as HarperCollins]?
McNAMARA: Would you talk, both of you, please,
about how you came into publishing?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I once had a conversation with a
bunch of women friends, and we discovered, because we happened to be all of us female in
that group, that all of us came in by accident. And, because we had had one salable skill
which the gents were willing to pay for -- though not very well. In my case, it was
languages. [Wry chuckle.] It was funny, because we discovered that all of us got
into publishing quite differently from the men, who were generally recruited; and we came
to the conclusion, over a good bottle of wine over a long evening, that we had all sort of
fallen in backwards.
MICHAEL BESSIE: May I rudely tell Cornelias
story slightly differently? As I tell it? When Cornelia was finishing up at Barnard, she
learned something from one of her teachers that she couldnt believe: namely, that
there were places downtown in New York that paid you to read! The notion of being paid to
read seemed to her a voluptuous impossibility.
So, she checked into a few places, with the result that, one day, the
then head of reading at Harper, a very New York spinster, who was never seen without hat
and gloves, came into my office and said, You know, theres that German
manuscript that you were trying to find readers for? -- because I dont read
German -- Theres this young girl from Barnard and she says she reads German.
She seems very intelligent. Should I give it to her? And I said, Yes, of
course, Amy, why not? She said, Well, Michael, shes very young. I
said, Yes? What? Well, its a biography of Casanova. And I
said, Amy, you know, these girls nowadays, they read almost everything. Lets
try it. [CB: throaty laugh]
Net result: a week later I got what I still think is about the best
readers report Ive ever gotten, because it was fresh and thoughtful. I said,
Is she there? Id like to meet her. Result: a career in publishing, and a
marriage! [CB: hearty laugh] Now:
isnt that old-fashioned publishing at its best?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I have to tell you, because that
was the old-fashioned, 33rd Street Harpers [Harper and
Brothers, as it had been since 1817], this was in a modest
building where there was no natural light for anybody who spent their days reading, to say
nothing of air or air-conditioning. I discovered, several months later, that I was the
foreign reader, which nobody had bothered to tell me, which I gathered was par for the
course for that Harpers. I did not know that this had been a competitive thing; that
a number of people had been given the same manuscript. It wasnt till a long time
later, when they kept sending me checks for $10 whenever I brought a
book back, that I thought, Well, really! Thats my recollection.
MICHAEL BESSIE: What Cornelia is suggesting is
that I was invited. I had been a newspaper person and a magazine editor, and at the end of
World War II I was at the Paris embassy. One of my colleagues,
indeed my boss, was on temporary embassy service: Cass Canfield, who had suddenly during
the war become the head of the house of Harper and also one of its principal owners. He
asked me what I was going to do after the war. I told him I was planning to go back to
Cowless newspapers, whence I had come. He said, Well, what about book
publishing? What about coming to Harper? I said, Cass, two days after I
graduated from Harvard, I went to Harper to try to get a job, and I was unceremoniously
shown the door. The person whom I saw said, Why should we have a job for you? You
cant know anything, you just graduated. Anyhow, thats how I got
into publishing: I was invited.
McNAMARA: And you were invited to do what?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, if I may rephrase your
question: Why was I invited? I was invited because, at the age of 29,
I had had ten years of journalism in various forms; I had also worked in the movies; I
knew a hell of a lot of people; I talked a lot, had a lot of good connections among
journalists and academics, etc.; and, in a word, because Cass Canfield said to me one day,
I think you would make a good publisher. And he was right: it was good for me.
Now: how important was the fact that I had a good degree from Harvard,
that I knew some of the right people, that I even belonged to one of the right clubs? In
those days that was not without significance. I do remember one delicious example. I had
been at Atheneum for about a dozen years or so, when the leadership back at Harper was
changing, and all of a sudden there was a new guy there, in succession to Canfield. His
name was Winthrop Knowlton. I was having lunch with Cass one day and I said, Cass,
how did you find Knowlton? Knowlton had worked for the Treasury in Washington, and
on Wall Street. Cass said, Well, its a funny story, you know. We got a
head-hunter, and he looked all over the place for people who might be the right person to
head Harper, and we saw probably about 50 or 60
people; and then, along comes this guy Knowlton. We were very impressed with him. It was
only after we hired him that I realized it could have been much simpler, because I learned
that he was a fellow member of Porcellian at Harvard. We could have spared ourselves the
whole search. Now, thats an exaggeration, of course, but not by far.
McNAMARA: For the time, no.
MICHAEL BESSIE: And what about most of the people
I later hired? Well, most of them had a connection of some kind. We hired one person who
just came in on the right day.
I think that two things have changed. One is this string of publishing
courses, summer and graduate programs -- NYU, as you know, has a
masters degree in publishing. But these summer courses [at Radcliffe, Stanford, NYU, Columbia] produce a lot of people who get a smattering. And the
faculty of these courses are all publishing people, so they--
CORNELIA BESSIE: They also have, in New York, a
kind of trade market where the people who graduated come for cocktails or something, and
the people who want to hire come and look. Apparently, a lot of jobs really are filled
McNAMARA: But those jobs are mostly for
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes; good point. Because what
Ive been talking about is, by and large, people who were hired to do editorial
duties. Whats also happened increasingly in publishing, of course, is that marketing
and finance, as firms have grown, have become more and more important, and those people
tend to come with both different backgrounds and training, from business schools.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Its the marketers that end
up being the publishers.
Becoming an Editor
McNAMARA: Would you tell, Cornelia, how you
became an editor?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Thats a nice story,
actually. I went straight from college to Harpers, and Harpers was full of
hot-shot young men -- youngish men -- like Michael Bessie and Evan Thomas and Jack Fisher,
and so forth. I was the first reader, and knew nothing, and nobody spoke to me. What
happened, I think, was that somebody left. I had been an outside foreign reader; I got
offered this job; and, once I was offered the job, they showed me into a cubbyhole and
showed me where the manuscript pile was, and that was it. Then no one spoke to me. But as
time went by, I realized that there was a wonderful person there, whose name was Elizabeth
Lawrence. Elizabeth never went to cocktail parties, or seldom did, and was not a glamorous
hotshot: Elizabeth, basically, did the work. I realized that a wonderful way to learn my
job was to look over Elizabeths shoulder; and, happily, Elizabeth was a wonderful
teacher and enjoyed having someone to teach. So, for about a year, thats what I did.
I realize, in retrospect, that I learned from one of the great old editors.
MICHAEL BESSIE: She made books.
CORNELIA BESSIE: She made books. Ive had
this conversation with young people in various New York publishing houses: what Elizabeth
gave me is no longer being given.
McNAMARA: And what was that?
CORNELIA BESSIE: What you do with a manuscript.
McNAMARA: What do you do? Can you speak of it?
Because I think there is much about editing that cant be spoken of.
CORNELIA BESSIE: There is. A lot of it is that
you develop instincts. One of the instincts you develop, for example, is for the book that
will never be finished: how do you know this? Somehow, you feel it in your bones. What you
develop an instinct for is, what the writer really meant and what is not on the
page. I leave aside the writing problems -- unclear thoughts, repeats, this kind of thing.
But that sort of sixth sense which a good editor has: thats something you really
pick up as you go along. But you pick it up much faster if you see somebody, as I saw
Elizabeth, who did it superbly, and whose queries in the margins were just about
publishable. They were a publishing course, Elizabeths margins. She had a kind of
generosity, she really, literally, sort of took me on.
MICHAEL BESSIE: She really taught us all, because
she was also a senior editor when I came. She was not a sort of outside person; but
several agents had come to realize her value. She made person after person. She was
a specialist in taking on somebody who had had an interesting life or experience, somebody
like Jade Snow Wong, for example, who wrote that marvelous book SIXTH
CHINESE DAUGHTER; or Santha Rama Rau, whom Elizabeth edited. The only wonder about
Elizabeth was that she didnt write: because she could.
Id like to go back to the question that you asked Cornelia. What
youre really asking is: Whats the job? Whats required?
I think two forms of either sensitivity or awareness are needed. One
is, Whats in this? And two is, What can I do, what can be done, to help the writer
get it as good as that person can get it?
CORNELIA BESSIE: You see, the end result is, if
you can say to yourself, when that manuscript goes to the printers, This is
the best book that this person can write at this time, then youve done your
job. Its as simple as that. Maybe in three years therell be a better book; but
this is the best, now. And not to stop until youve reached that. And, since one of
the things were discussing is the changes in publishing, to do that, you have to
have the luxury of no time constraint. You have to be able to say, No, that will not
make this list; it will make the next list. All these things have become either more
difficult or impossible.
McNAMARA: What kept you going in publishing, and
in editing; and is there is a distinction?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Hmmm, not from my point of view.
What kept me going was the same thing that kept me reading clockwise around my
fathers library when I was a kid: love of books!
McNAMARA: And they kept sending you those
CORNELIA BESSIE: I kept getting these ten-dollar
checks, and one day I was terribly rich and had about $200 and went
to Europe [laughs], and when I came back, I met this man in the street. And he
said, Well, we have a job to fill: how would you like to come and work?
How Publishing Has Changed
MICHAEL BESSIE: Let me illustrate the change.
My first round at Harper went from the end of 1946 until we started
Atheneum, in 1959. During that period, and previous to it, the
phrase P&L was unknown at Harper, and probably at
any other place. There was no such thing as a P&L statement--
CORNELIA BESSIE: Profit and loss.
MICHAEL BESSIE: It was not known. When you came
upon a book manuscript you wanted to publish, what you did was this: you had to explain to
the chief editor why you wanted to publish it. You had to give a notion of what you
thought it could sell, and maybe how it could be sold. But that was likely to be
conversational; or, maybe a memo was exchanged. Okay. Sixteen years pass between 1959, when I leave, and 1975, when I come back from
Atheneum. The P&L is regnant; it runs things. Youve got an
idea for a book, or youve got a manuscript, you have to fill out a form which is
full of numbers. What you have to do is, you have to consult with the marketing people,
the sales people; you have to get their take on it, until youve gotten to the point
where now, in many places, that judgment, the sales and marketing judgment, and/or the
financial judgment, are the prime.
Now, I dont mean to suggest that when I was president of Atheneum
during those years, and was responsible for what we took and didnt take, that I
didnt consider sales or marketing. But I didnt pretend that it was an
exact science, and that the numbers could predict anything. What I did pretend was
that there was still a crystal ball, and that there were some things you had to see in the
crystal ball; but you couldnt do it on an adding machine. Thats one of
the big changes in publishing.
McNAMARA: Between when you left Harper and when
you returned, how had the ownership changed?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, the ownership hadnt
changed very much; but the nature of the beast had changed enormously.
McNAMARA: Who owned it when you began?
MICHAEL BESSIE: When I began, and until 1975, Harper was owned in effect by itself. It had gone from the Harper
family to a series of stockholders. When I joined Harper, in 46,
there were about eight or ten principal stockholders; and that was the condition during
the time that I was there -- we all had some stock. We bought it; or you were given an
option. It didnt go very deep in the organization.
McNAMARA: You said, for example, that Cass
Canfield had bought into Harper.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Oh, yes. He had, Cass and his
family had -- he was the largest single stockholder -- he had about 20%
or 22% of the stock. There was a board of directors, which included
the principal stockholders. It was very closely held during this time.
McNAMARA: Were they also an editorial board?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Not in any sense of the word!
Cass presided over the trade department editorial board -- he didnt preside over the
editorial board of college publishing, school publishing, medical and so forth -- because
he was particularly interested in trade. Cass was, basically, a trade-editor. He ran the
house, but he edited and published a good number of books. Indeed, he published the
principal authors of the place, the E.B. Whites and the Thornton
Wilders and so forth; they regarded Cass as their editor and publisher. He might get
somebody like Elizabeth Lawrence, or me, or somebody, to read it and counsel with him
about it. But in any event, the corporate change that took place, happened during the time
that I was at Atheneum.
Harper discovered that it didnt have a school department. It had
had, but had sold it. During this period, the 1960s, was an enormous
increase in government investment in education, under the Kennedy and Johnson
administrations. A publishing house that didnt have school books -- that is, a big
house; and Harper was one of the biggest -- knew it needed them. And so, Harper bought
Row, Peterson [& Company], which was a large school-book publisher, in about 1962 or 63, and with that, went public: issued
public stock, for the first time, and was listed on the NASDAQ, and,
subsequently, on the Big Board. So the Harper that I returned to, in 75,
was a publicly owned corporation with the stock listed on the Big Board.
What does that mean? That means you have to issue quarterly reports.
That means, four times a year youve got to look good. That means that
youve got to jimmy the numbers. Simplest example: the fiscal year of Harper then
ended on the 30th of April, which meant that, during the month of
April, we emptied the warehouse: we shipped out everything, so that the numbers for
that year looked good. Now, mind you, many of those books came back in May, June, and
July. Returns have been a problem for American trade publishing ever since, oh, somewhere
in the early part of the 20th century, when it was decided that--
CORNELIA BESSIE: Only in book publishing is it
Gone today; here tomorrow.
MICHAEL BESSIE [chuckles]: Thats
right. [Seriously] Last year returns were averaging about 40
to 45%, which means almost one out of two books were sent back.
McNAMARA: Even with marketers in charge.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, its really a function
of the growth of the big chains. The point that Im trying to make, Katherine, is
that the Harper I returned to was dominated by numbers -- P&Ls,
numbers -- and by marketing, in the sense that the firm I had left 16
years before was not.
What Im not describing, of course, is what I see as an
institutional change. By the 1970s, trade book publishing, and
indeed, education publishing, was increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. There
are two elements to this, institutionally. One is the five, six, seven large firms, which
now account for, oh, about 25% of the trade books published; and
then there are somewhere around 1200 or 1500,
maybe almost 2000, small firms publishing anywhere from two to 30 or 40 books a year. And theyre regionally
dispersed; there are 400 publishing firms on the West Coast. So you
see, where the subject gets complicated is, the important question about the publishing
industry is, how well does it serve literature? And youll have to conclude
that, while a small number of big firms has become increasingly dominant, this large
number of small firms makes it possible for almost anything to be published.
Now, that brings you to the distribution problem: how well can the
small firms market and distribute their books in a wholesale/retail area which is itself
increasingly dominated by a small number of firms? Our present firm, Counterpoint, is
distributed by PGW, Publishers Group West, which distributes
independent publishers. Jack Shoemaker [the publisher, formerly head of North Point,
which now is owned by Farrar Straus & Giroux] goes through
the books with PGW before he finalizes the list; but he
doesnt change that list. The big houses have pre-publication conferences with the
big wholesalers before they make up the list! They have what they think the
list should be; they go through that stuff for two or three days, with three or four of
the big chains; and if the big chains dont react properly to the list, if it
doesnt look as though the chains are going to take thousands of copies of that book,
they [the publishers] may not put the book on the list.
Turning down LOLITA and Franz Fanon
McNAMARA: When you read a book while trying
to decide whether to publish it, are you affected by other things than the quality of the
MICHAEL BESSIE: Let me tell you my LOLITA
McNAMARA: Please tell me your LOLITA
MICHAEL BESSIE: Scene: Im in Paris.
[Maurice] Girodias [founder of the Olympia Press], who was a pornographer extraordinaire
but also a real publisher, gives me a manuscript by Vladimir Nabokov. Harper had published
several of Nabokovs previous books, which was why he gave it to me: because I was
the young fellow from Harper. And I started reading it. I went to bed that night thinking
to myself, This is wonderful. I had read maybe 75 or 100 pages. Then I got up in the morning and went back to it. As I went on,
I thought, Its getting repetitious. I can see whats coming. This is
really a short story or a novella, reconstructed as a novel. And Nabokov is too good a
writer for this. None of the so-called pornographic aspects of it disturbed me, but
I thought it inferior Nabokov. So I let it go. Six months later, I picked it up, because
its been taken now by Putnams, and I cant believe that I had let
that book go out of our hands. Its a great book.
Now: what does that illustrate? It illustrates the point I think
were trying to make: One is not always the same person. One reads under different
circumstances. I have now re-read LOLITA several times since, and I
cannot reconstruct the S. M. Bessie who sat there in a hotel in
Paris and turned that book down! But I did.
Cornelia and I had an argument once about [Franz] Fanon, whom she
wanted us to publish, and I was against. We were reading him in French, and she wanted us
to publish it, and she was absolutely right.
CORNELIA BESSIE: It was a great book: LES DAMN+S DE LA TERRE [THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH]. I also heard from
friends that Fanon was dying, and it was important that at least the book be taken. But
mainly, I thought it was a good book.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I cant believe that I
turned it down.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Oh, I remember your arguments.
There isnt a decent bookstore in Harlem -- which probably was true at
that time -- and--
Some embarrassment follows, as changes in time and mores are
McNAMARA: Im not making a personal
point here. What Im inquiring about is ways of thinking.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Memory is fallible, Katherine, as
I have increasing reasons to understand. Ive searched my mind on this one, and I
havent said this to Cornelia because its a confession of stupidity which
Im loathe to make, but Ill make it now. As I reconstruct my response to that
book: I disliked it. I disliked it because Im against violence, and its a book
that preaches violence. It says, in effect, We have to liberate ourselves --
violence has been practiced on us, we cant liberate ourselves without it. And
I really think in retrospect, painful as it is, that I was against doing that book not for
that reason which Cornelia says I gave, which Im sure I did, but because I didnt
CORNELIA BESSIE: I know you didnt like it.
MICHAEL BESSIE: And I didnt want it to
CORNELIA BESSIE: Also, you didnt like
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, I think I was right about
McNAMARA: Why? Because he praised it in the
MICHAEL BESSIE: Because I thought it was a parlor
pink saying You go kill em.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Which, incidentally, is not what
Fanon was about.
MICHAEL BESSIE: No, it was what Sartre was
McNAMARA: He was still a Stalinist then, surely.
MICHAEL BESSIE: But in any event, I was wrong.
Because Cornelia was right about the merits of the book, the importance of the book -- and
McNAMARA: Would you speak to that -- what you
thought the merits were?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes. I had just come back from
the Sorbonne, where I had a number of North African friends. I wasnt, as the French
so nicely say, dans le vent. But I was plugged into that mind-set; and also,
its a very strong book. And a beautiful one. I thought it was an important book. Now
its a classic.
MICHAEL BESSIE: The circumstances are interesting
in this case. Cornelia had never been in Africa; I had lived in North Africa before the
war; I was there for a year and a half during the war; I was very interested in
North Africa in particular, but Africa in general. Cornelia had had a different form of
African experience. Although I had been there and seen it, she knew more about it than I
did. She was more aware of what was going on. And I was wrong.
But: Is what I said reasonable? Should you publish what you like, or,
more importantly, should you not publish what you dont like? Well, there are a lot
of books out there, and Im kind of opposed to publishing a book I dont like. I
used to do a session at Stanford: Id give em a list of books, saying,
Would you publish? One of the books on the list was MEIN KAMPF:
would you publish it? When I got into publishing, at the end of the war, this is the thing
that young editors like me would sit around arguing about. And my own feeling, about
myself, anyhow, as a publisher is: I dont want to publish things I dont like.
I dont want to publish things which add--
McNAMARA: You mean this morally and--
MICHAEL BESSIE: Authentically. You think
it will affect--
CORNELIA BESSIE: Also, you live with a book for
months and months: you dont want to live with a book you dont like any more
than you want to live with a man you dont like.
Collegiality and Paul Flamand
MICHAEL BESSIE: We mentioned his name, Paul
Flamand, and that Editions du Seuil was an example of, what shall I say, of almost
everything about publishing and the difference between small and large publishing firms.
McNAMARA: We were talking about competition and
collegiality. I remarked that competition, as you describe it in publishing, sounds very
much like what they always did at, say, Harvard: theyd hire five young assistant
professors for three possible tenure-track positions.
MICHAEL BESSIE: On, man; on, bear! In
other words, lets see who kills whom first.
McNAMARA: Exactly. And it seems to me that that
was part of a certain kind of education, wasnt it: to learn to compete?
CORNELIA BESSIE: It was. Remember, this was the
early 60s, and the womens movement was really not yet born;
and so, this was a very masculine point of view. [To MB:] Do
you remember Papa Knopfs phrase, which was printed somewhere, which was: Women
should pay to be in publishing, they shouldnt expect to be paid. He said this
in the 50s, on record. Nobody else would have dared say it; but they
would have acted on it. At that time, Papa Knopf could say that, cheerfully, and
the women in publishing were quite aware of it. Certainly, that was true of my time at
Harper. But that kind of competitiveness was bred into the situation; it was unspoken, but
McNAMARA: Would you speak about Paul Flamand and
his spirit of collegiality?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Shortly after I joined Atheneum,
I had this vision of the perfect publishing house, which would of course be small enough
to be manageable, and which would have the kind of atmosphere which I had seen in France
at Les Editions du Seuil.
MICHAEL BESSIE: And uniquely there.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Uniquely there. I remember
various times at Atheneum when I talked about this, saying that we had a vision of a
publishing house where part of the pleasure was intellectual stimulation. After all, you
dont go into publishing to make money; you go into publishing to do what you love--
MICHAEL BESSIE: And to make a living.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes; and, you hope, for the
pleasure of the kind I once saw in France. I guess we tried at Atheneum to recreate that.
But its very difficult in America.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes. But remember the origin:
Paul Flamand and his wife and his partner, before World War II, were
members of the group centered around Emmanuel Mounier, called the Esprit group.
They were liberal Catholic intellectuals. And the house, Le Seuil, was formed with a deep
spiritual agreement of purpose, which animated it. [Turning to CB:]
Is that fair?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes.
McNAMARA: Were they part of Catholic Action?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Not really. They were too
independent. Later on, Paul had actual arguments with Rome; he was liberal to that extent.
But the original Seuil, that group, was more interested in the process than the result.
What they wanted was a certain kind of group, with certain moral imperatives and certain
goals. In fact -- but this was way back, in the beginning--
MICHAEL BESSIE: And they werent all
CORNELIA BESSIE: The house was known to be
Catholic. Yet, his successor was a Muslim, and the current head of the house is a Jew. Le
Seuil means the threshold.
MICHAEL BESSIE: And that expresses it very well.
McNAMARA: You said that its difficult to
have an intellectual, collegial atmosphere in American publishing; and you said also that
Paul Flamand was paternal. Are these things related, do you think?
CORNELIA BESSIE: He was paternal; he is
a very strong person. He had something which is so missing in todays American
publishing world: he was never in competition with his editors. He edited books, secretly,
really; but how he conceived of his job was to encourage all those people to go out and do
MICHAEL BESSIE: He cherished his relationship
CORNELIA BESSIE: He had wonderful relationships
with authors, and still does; but there was no competitiveness. The place was,
intellectually, enormously stimulating, and, sure, there were disagreements, but they were
family fights. That sort of organization takes a strong, sensitive hand at the helm.
Now, as weve discussed, you often have the feeling in the big
houses that the editor-in-chief resents any big authors going to other
editors. Paul was non-competitive. He was extraordinarily supportive in that paternal way
of his. But he was no patsy; and when he thought something was getting out of hand.... He
would not tolerate certain kinds of behavior. The rules were clear. He would tolerate any
kind of intellectual discussion, and relish it. But he wouldnt tolerate in-fighting.
No office politics.
MICHAEL BESSIE: He also had a wonderful, subtle
sense of organization in the real sense, so that senior editors had clear-cut domains.
Didnt mean they were restricted to them, but everybody had an area of
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes. Also, everyone had a stake
in the company, in real financial terms.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Thats right.
CORNELIA BESSIE: When he proposed his heir
apparent, and the troops said No, we dont want this guy, he said:
Its your house.
McNAMARA: Why do you think it is so -- different,
let us say, intellectually, between the publishing environments in France and America?
CORNELIA BESSIE: As you know, having lived in
France, its getting more similar everywhere.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I dont think its
different today at all.
McNAMARA: But it was.
CORNELIA BESSIE: It was, in certain places. As
Michael has said, Le Seuil was not typical for France; it still isnt.
McNAMARA: But Atheneum was meant to be a literary
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes.
McNAMARA: And you wanted a certain kind of
environment there, that you knew in Europe and didnt see so often in America; is
MICHAEL BESSIE: I think that is true, although I
think that the publishing world that I entered, at the end of 46,
had a number of places that operated with a measure of collegiality. You see,
Im obsessed with numbers, and I think that the much larger number of people around
the table is not likely to be collegial any more. Thats a change, institutionally,
in American publishing. Also, the kind of people who run publishing operations -- this is
beginning to be true in France, also --
CORNELIA BESSIE: --and in Germany, and in Italy--
MICHAEL BESSIE: --are not, essentially, literary
people: which, whether we were right or not, we considered ourselves to be.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Also, it has to be said, again,
that at that time, at Atheneum, there was no such thing as a P&L.
There were very few of us. We all knew each other well. We didnt always agree. But
we could work together....
McNAMARA: You had a protocol for disagreement,
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes; an understood one. And to
take or not take a book, which is, after all, the prime publishing decision, was done very
casually, was done by persuasion. If Michael and I disagreed, I would attempt to persuade
him of why he was wrong.
MICHAEL BESSIE: We gave each other room, which
was important; we didnt crowd each other. Im not saying we were angelic, but
Cornelia has a story which illustrates this very well.
CORNELIA BESSIE: What suddenly comes to mind is
this: I had read a play in German, which I thought was very interesting and which I wanted
to do. And, because, occasionally, the devil gets into me, when we were for once having a
sort of formal editorial session, for the fun of it I told the plot of this play to Hiram
Hayden. After I finished, there was dead silence, until Hiram said, Youre seriously
considering this? I said, Hiram, I just bought it. And that was a
play called Marat/Sade [by Peter Weiss] [general laughter]. But you tell the
plot of Marat/Sade, and people will say: Are you serious?! [More
laughter] Thats an example of how casual it was at the time; you couldnt
do that today.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Maybe at a few places; but
its not to be expected. The point that could be made is that you could induce an
atmosphere, as Cornelia described how Flamand did, and which I think was done in a few
places in this country for a while. For example, the young house of Simon and
Schuster was a mad place in many ways. For one thing, the two principal partners, Dick
Simon and Max Schuster, were bright people, themselves, and they acquired a lot of very
bright people; the place was a maelstrom of activity. They published almost everything,
but also a lot of good books. But there was an atmosphere of -- it was febrile, the place
CORNELIA BESSIE [to KM]: Youve
brought Paul Flamand up. I think you realize that, of all the publishers Ive known,
hes the man Ive most admired. He ran for many years a largish publishing house
and, so far as I know, never compromised his principles. Paul has two gifts: one is
literary, the other is with people. He took a very disparate, gifted, contentious group of
people and really made a family of them, and made a family of them during those famous
Fridays. Michael mentioned them, I think; I was invited to them several times. It was a
great experience, and when Atheneum was founded, I kept saying to Michael, If we can
have anything like Seuil, well be doing well.
You know, we were starting from scratch, we were small, and I saw no
reason why we couldnt do something like that; but we never really managed. I think
part of it is that the culture of the business and the times were agin us.
THE LAST OF THE JUST
MICHAEL BESSIE: When we started
Atheneum, in the spring of 1959, we decided we would publish nothing
for a year. We needed a year to collect a list. I went off to Europe, and circulated in
France and Germany and England and Italy, buoyed by the wave of enthusiasm for the new
publishing house. We were really the first literary publishing house to start up since
Farrar, Straus, and that was 15 years before; and I had published a
lot of stuff from Europe; and so there was a great deal of good will for us.
When I got to France, the last stop, I met with my old friend Paul
Flamand and begged of him something for the new house. He said, Well, weve got
one thing here. Its not finished yet and its very strange, and I dont
know what your reaction to it will be; but when we get it in finished, which we should in
a month or two, Ill send it to you. And along in August came this manuscript,
in French, which was a novel, a Holocaust novel. It began with a pogrom in England in the 12th century and ended with the gas chambers at Auschwitz. I read it all
night and went into the office the next day, and said to my colleagues, Im
going to describe the book briefly. Ive already called Paul Flamand and said that we
want it, and Ive committed us to pay -- I think it was -- a $2500 advance for it, which is what he asked for. I described it to
them, and they said, Are you sure? I said: Yes.
Because by this time, in 1959, anybody
would have told you that we were fed up to the gills with the Holocaust! You know,
starting in 1945, 46, there was a great flood of books, some
of them wonderful books, about the Holocaust, the Jews, etc.; understandably, my partners
were very suspicious. All I said was, This book moved me deeply, and I was in
a position to say we wanted to publish it.
[The book was the beautiful THE LAST OF THE JUST,
by André Schwartz-Bart.]
That goes back to your question a while ago about the Fanon--
McNAMARA: My question was this: You said that, a
propos publishing Fanon, or not publishing him, you might have made a different
decision at Atheneum than you did at Harpers. Why is that?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Quite simply because at Atheneum
I would have had nobody to answer to for that decision except myself. You know, the real
reason that I wanted to start Atheneum -- aside from the adventure of starting your own
publishing house -- was that, after 13 years at Harper, there was a
question in my mind: Could I do it if the buck stopped here? Every book I
published at Harper had Cass Canfield or somebody else as the ultimate authority. I had to
get his agreement, his approval. It wasnt difficult. There were a certain number of
things under those circumstances that he would just say yes to, because I put it to him
strongly. When he was dubious about it, he would say, Would you be really miserable
if we dont publish this? Talk about collegiality: that was his way of running
Anyhow, THE LAST OF THE JUST: I had no hesitation
in saying to Pat and Hiram, We must publish this book. I dont think,
said I, genius that I am, that were going to sell very many copies; but
Ive only had to pay 2500 bucks for it, and Ive got an
idea for the translator, if he will do it. They couldnt say no. Three weeks
later, the book was published in France, created a sensation, became the number-one
best-seller in France, got the Prix Goncourt; so, who looks good?
Next miracle: we get a really good translation. Its a book
written by somebody whose first language is Yiddish. Schwartz-Barts first language
was Yiddish; French was his third. He was an Auschwitz child who ended up in France, and
its hard to describe the French in which that book was written; so the problem that
it presented to the translator! The good Lord presented me with Steven Becker, then just
emerging from an iron lung. At the age of 29, after publishing two
or three books and starting a family, Steve got Landrys paralysis, which is rarer
but more fatal than polio. Steve had a Jewish background, had religious parents. He was a
miraculous linguist. He was still on his back! I sent him the book, and he said, I
will love to do it. And he did a miracle in translation, partly because he was just
back from the dead himself. You know, those things sometimes combine; and in this case,
Go back to your question about the Fanon book [WRETCHED
OF THE EARTH]: if Cornelia had brought in the Fanon at Atheneum, for two reasons I
think I would have said yes. One is because I would have been in a position to say yes
without contradiction from somebody else; I wouldnt have had to justify that
McNAMARA: But did you have to justify the
no? Well, to Cornelia you did.
MICHAEL BESSIE: No: to myself. Yes, to Cornelia,
and to myself. And thats the difference. Look, when we started Atheneum, I found
myself saying to myself, You cant call yourself a publisher until your
decision is the last one. Nobody else to lean on. Pat [Knopf -- Alfred A. Knopf,
Jr.] always had his parents, and I always had Cass Canfield or somebody else. Now,
Id got a whole series of people on whom I placed responsibility or shared judgment
with. And the great trick in publishing -- which is why, by and large, small publishing
is, what shall I say, the more responsible act -- is doing it to ones
satisfaction. And Ive done it, for the most part, to my own satisfaction.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I became friends with Alfred
Knopf Jr. -- Pat Knopf -- who was essentially the sales and marketing manager of his
father and mothers house; and in the course of a lunch one day, Pat said to me, out
of the blue: I dont suppose anything would ever persuade you to leave
Harper. And I, without forethought, said, Im happy at Harper; good job,
decent pay. But there are two things that would cause me to leave. One is an opportunity
to join you at the house of Knopf, where somebody is now badly needed. Your father and
mother are getting old. They dont admit editorial authority to anyone else.
The chief editor was a fellow named Harold Strauss. The Knopfs were merciless in their way
of dealing with other people, including their son. And I said, You will need a chief
editorial person. He said, Do you really mean it? I said, Yes, I
do. He said, Whats the other thing that would cause you to leave
I said, Sounds crazy, but the opportunity to start a house of my,
or our, own.
About a week or ten days after, he came back to me and said,
Ive talked to my parents, and they entertain the idea; lets talk about
it. In a series of discussions, we outlined an arrangement under which I would come
to Knopf. I would be, at the moment, the editor-in-chief; and I would become Pats
partner on the retirement of his parents, by the acquisition of a sufficient number of
shares to bring that about. I wasnt going to despoil him of his inheritance. And it
was all agreed. Then one day, I get a note from Pat that says, This is most
difficult note Ive ever had to write. My mothers just come back from Europe,
and she wont have it. She has told my father, You mustnt do
this. He said, I am miserable; I dont want to talk.
Several weeks later, came a call from Pat saying, Were you
serious when you said that you might be interested in starting your own publishing house
with somebody, specifically me? I said I didnt think it was a possibility but,
Come to lunch today, he said.
Third person at lunch was a fellow named Richard Ernst, who was a
classmate of mine at Harvard, who was a cousin of my then-wife, and who had had the good
sense to marry a woman whose maiden name was Bloomingdale; and who was trained as a
lawyer, and who was investing good Bloomingdale money in enterprises that his friends
started. He was a benign investor. The year was 1959.
McNAMARA: He wanted return, but not a hand in it.
MICHAEL BESSIE: He wanted to smile upon it. He
didnt want to play a role in it, not at all. So, we had lunch, and Ernst said,
You guys serious about this? We said yes, we were. He said, Okay, give
me a plan. Ill put some money in it, and well find some other investors.
So we did a plan; and what it came down to was finding four people, each of whom would put
in 250,000 bucks. They had to be rich, and not care what happened to
that sum of money, Ernst being the first. Among us, we found three more. Thats how
McNAMARA: That was real money then.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, we checked around, and
people said, What you need to get started on a small scale, you need about seven or
eight hundred thousand dollars. So we said okay, and got a million. In actual point
of fact, we had to make a second call.
Two extraordinary things about Atheneum: the people who put up the
money -- Pat and I didnt put up a cent -- the people who put up the money gave
us 51% of the vote. We could do anything with the firm except sell
it; and that, you may be sure, is very unusual. 1959 was a glorious
time in many ways; it became so. Thats how Atheneum started. I suppose I could say I
owe it to Blanche Knopf, who couldnt stand me.
McNAMARA: And you and Cornelia were both at
Harper. Did you go to Atheneum, Cornelia, as well?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I went when they were ready for
me. I had a job that was really an interim job [at The Readers Digest; see
Part 2, next issue], and a funny job, which in its peculiar way
taught me a great deal; but I really was biding my time to join Atheneum, which I did.
McNAMARA: What did you do at Atheneum? And what
did you intend to do at Atheneum?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Edit.
McNAMARA: Atheneum had what you called
MICHAEL BESSIE: Sure did. How many publishing
houses that pretend to be literary have a number-one best-seller on each of their first
McNAMARA: And those were?
MICHAEL BESSIE: The first was the Schwartz-Bart.
Second, the first THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1960,
by Theodore White. And the third was THE ROTHSCHILDS, by Frederick
Morton, which sold very well. The timing was right, as we said before, and, to a certain
extent, as Mr. Dooley said, The victor belongs to the spoils. Cornelia will
tell you about what young Roger Straus told us when he went back [to Farrar, Straus & Giroux] -- for the second time, I guess -- after theyd had
that terrific success with that novel by the lawyer, what was his name, Scott Turow. Roger
said, You know, everybodys now got to have an assistant.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Young Roger, whom Im very
fond of, has a marvelously clear and keen view of publishing. He once said to me,
The most dangerous moment in a publishers life is after the first big
success. Its a very smart observation.
McNAMARA: But you didnt bobble it.
MICHAEL BESSIE: In a sense, we did.
CORNELIA BESSIE: All of a sudden, there were 60 people on the payroll.
McNAMARA: When was this?
MICHAEL BESSIE: In the course of two or three
years after our start. We had to make a second call on our investors; we collected another
almost a million, because we needed it.
Look, we were determined, Pat and I, at the start, that we would
publish childrens books and we tried to get Margaret MacElderry to come with us, but
she was tied to Harcourt [-Brace, Jovanovich], she thought, and so she couldnt. I
said, Margaret, -- shes one of my oldest friends -- youve
got to find somebody for us. And she did: she found an absolute genius in Jean Karl,
who was then working for the [United] Methodist Publishing House [/Abingdon Press]. Jean
came; and we had set aside 250,000 bucks out of our kitty to start
childrens books. With that 250,000 bucks, and a little bit
more, Jean within a couple of years was profitable. She was beginning to get Newberrys [awards
given for childrens literature]. We subsequently got Margaret because the idiots
at Harcourt fired her. They told her that her books werent adequately
course-adjusted for the childrens market.
McNAMARA: You were not there for the whole
life of Atheneum?
MICHAEL BESSIE: I was there the first 16 years.
McNAMARA: You were an owner and a director, and
your backers would not allow you to sell Atheneum.
MICHAEL BESSIE: That was the only restriction.
Pat and I divided the majority shares when Hiram left; they were originally divided three
ways, then two ways.
McNAMARA: When he left, his shares reverted?
MICHAEL BESSIE: We bought them back. In any
event, we started publishing in 1960, and everything was glorious,
for just about ten years. We prospered; we were profitable. We werent profitable the
first year or two, but we became so by the third year. And we grew -- too much, I think --
but anyhow, we grew, we were a presence. As a symbol of it, I was the only person, to this
day, from a small publishing house who became chairman of the Publishers Association.
Theres never been another: there wasnt before, and there hasnt been
since. As a general rule, the chairman of the Publishers Association is the head of one of
the five or six big houses, for obvious reasons: pays the most dues; swings the most
Why did they make me the head of it? Maybe because Im a stand-up
Jewish comic, and they needed one.
In any event, those ten years were glorious. But by 1970,
Pat, in particular, and I began to get the wind up. We were both now well into our 50s. We had 60 employees. Our backlist had not grown
sufficiently to be a real cushion. And also, the publishing business turned down in 1970. And we, particularly Pat -- Pat got scared. The responsibility of it
weighed on him very heavily. And so, he decided, and I agreed, that we had to do what
everybody else was doing. By everybody else I mean Knopf, Viking, Little,
Brown, you name it: they were all getting under the umbrellas, they were all selling to
Random House or Simon & Schuster or Time, Inc.
McNAMARA: Is there a why behind that?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes: capital needs. Business was
becoming more expensive. Authors were getting larger advances. You had to compete in
marketing. Advertising became more expensive.
McNAMARA: The large companies were publicly
owned? Random House, for example?
MICHAEL BESSIE: They were either publicly owned
-- Random was owned by RCA, for a while, though now its
privately owned, by the Newhouses -- or private. And Pat and I got worried, vis-a-vis our employees. If either Pat or I had died at
that point, our estates couldnt have coped with the tax burden on our Atheneum
shares, which had appreciated sufficiently in value, and yet there was no market for them.
Successful small business in America -- you see it happening now in the computer
field: as soon as a small computer firm is successful, Bill Gates or somebody buys it. And
the reason for this is because they cant compete in the big market, unless they grow
the way Microsoft did.
Anyhow, we got scared, because all of a sudden, we were nearly alone.
Farrar, Straus was holding on, but then Roger Straus and his wife both are wealthy people.
Pat and I were not. And so, Pat gave me the assignment, as the sort of outside person, to
find somebody to buy us. And the first person who showed up and was interested was from,
of all places, Raytheon. Raytheon then owned [D. C.] Heath, the
CORNELIA BESSIE: We ought also to speak of the
time. Of a time when big, really very business-oriented companies, felt rich. You
remember, in the 19th century when a rich man was really rich, he
kept a danseuse in a gartonniFre. The
big companies wanted their danseuses, which were these small, stylish
MICHAEL BESSIE: We did sell part to Raytheon;
Raytheon bought 10% of our stock. We needed some cash at that point,
and thats how we devised it. Those of us who sold our stock put our money back into
In any event, I spent four years, from 1971 to 1975, trying to sell Atheneum, and I had the same response almost
McNAMARA: How could you sell by then? Your
original backers had made it a condition that you couldnt.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, we had gone to them and
said, Weve got to get under the umbrella. They were delighted at the
idea because they would have made a lot of money out of it. Two of them had put in $250,000 and two of them had put in $500,000. They
had gotten a fair part of their money back, because we were a Subchapter S
corporation, which meant our first two years losses came off their tax returns; so
their actual out-of-pocket investment in Atheneum was less than what they had put in.
McNAMARA: Inflation was growing then.
MICHAEL BESSIE: A problem -- also, the Vietnam
War, the atmosphere of the country.... I really covered the waterfront, and everybody said
the same thing. Kay Graham [owner of the Washington Post and Newsweek] said,
Oh, absolutely, wed love to own it! And then, their accountants would
take a look at our books and say, Wellll, a very distinguished imprint,
So, after several years of trying to do it, we found two possible
buyers. One was the Los Angeles Times-Mirror, which was quite big in book
publishing then; still is. They made us an offer, actually: a little bit more than book
value. The other, in a sense more serious, purchaser was my old firm of Harper, then being
run by Win[throp] Knowlton, who was beguiled partly by me -- lets see, 1975 was the year that I was elected chairman of the Publishers
Association, so that I was, in the publishing world, a fairly public figure. Knowlton
offered to buy us, for a little bit more than that. I was for it, and Pat was against it.
Pat was against it for very good reasons: he couldnt see himself working for anybody
else, anyhow; but he really couldnt see himself working for Harper, or for me. The
deal with Harper was that Harper would buy Atheneum and I would be made publisher of the
In the end, Knowlton bought me and not Atheneum. In one of those
marvelous board meetings, our board of directors voted not to accept the Harper offer. I
had told them I didnt want to put a gun to their heads, but that if they didnt
accept the Harper offer, I was going to leave. As I put it openly to them, Atheneum
has a problem that I can no longer solve. This is partly a function of my own
inability, for example, to attract and publish commercial fiction. By this time, Atheneum
needed blockbusters, needed a couple a year -- everybody does, but Atheneum really
did. I didnt feel I could do that. And I had gotten Herman Golub as chief editor,
and he was good -- he had brought [James] Clavell [author of TAIPAN]
and several other blockbusters -- but more was needed. And also, I had been there 16 years, and I was no longer interested in being president of a
publishing company. My principal interest was books and writers, and I wanted to stop
pretending to be a corporate officer, which I didnt succeed in doing, but which I
tried to do.
Knowlton offered me a good deal: go back to Harper; specifically, to be
senior vice-president until I became 65, and then Harper would
finance Cornelia and me in Bessie Books: which was the deal, and which I wanted. I
dont think either of us foresaw the problems that we would have at Harper.
CORNELIA BESSIE: We didnt foresee the
problems. The atmosphere in publishing had so changed in the years between when we signed
the agreement and when we wanted to start Bessie Books -- the agreement was that we could
have Bessie Books on demand -- that when we demanded, we thought, Are they going to
honor their agreement? Because, by then, the atmosphere in publishing had greatly
changed. But to our pleasure, they did.
McNAMARA: This was between 1975
MICHAEL BESSIE: 1975 and --
I became 65 in 1981.
McNAMARA: What had changed?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, these had been boom years,
and it was during those boom years, really, that the agreement was made. Money then
disappeared on the education side. All kinds of financial things happened.
McNAMARA: The economy started to change about 1972.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, it was an entirely
different publishing atmosphere; so it was honorable of them to keep to their agreement.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Book-publishing is
counter-cyclical, it reacts slowly and late to changes in the economy, and therefore is in
recession after the recession is over, and doesnt get into it until its been
on for a while.
And so, the board of Atheneum bought back my stock at a calculated
value, which didnt make me a rich man but gave me some money, and I went to Harper,
to be joined subsequently by Cornelia. Pat, within two years, merged with Scribners.
It wasnt a buy, either way; they merged the two firms. Scribners was private,
I think, owned by the family.
McNAMARA: This must have been about 1978?
MICHAEL BESSIE: It was 77
or 78; I think it was consummated in 78.
With the Scribner-Atheneum merger completed, it was less than two years before Macmillan
bought the combo. That was a very successful operation, because Macmillan paid quite a lot
for it. [Macmillan was then publicly owned; afterward it was bought by Robert Maxwell,
the late English media baron who thus acquired Scribners, Atheneum, the Free Press,
and Collier Books and formed a conglomerate he called Maxwell-Macmillan.]
So, thats how Atheneum came to its ante-penultimate
situation. Have I explained why that happened? I think so. I think it happened partly
because of the changes in circumstances, partly because small publishing firms were having
an increasingly difficult time surviving as independent entities, because they
couldnt have the capital to compete, (a) for authors, and (b) for a place in the
market. And also, Ill admit that I, too, got the wind up a bit. A bad year would
have been bad for us; two bad years would perhaps not have been fatal, but would have been
pretty close to it. There is a very low ceiling on profitability of quality publishing. If
the firm makes more than 4% or 5%, its
because of blockbusters; otherwise, the cushion is not there.
And the same thing was operating everywhere. Why did Random House sell
to RCA? Just a little before that, Random House was a prosperous
firm. Bennet Cerf was no longer head. He had brought Bob Bernstein from Simon &
Schuster: and then Bob subsequently brought [Robert] Gottlieb [later head of Knopf;
afterward, editor of The New Yorker], Tony Schulte, and Nina Borne: a trio. By the
time of the sale to RCA, Bob Bernstein was head of the house. I
dont know what the price was; and of course, subsequently, RCA
sold it. Why? Because RCA discovered that you cant make as
much money in book publishing as you can in TVs and radios.
Jews and Publishing
McNAMARA: We talked a bit earlier about about
Jews and publishing. Would you say more about this?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, yes; its a subject of
interest to me, and Ill tell you why. Harold Guinzburg was the founder and financier
of The Viking Press, and he inherited a sizable fortune from the dress-goods business. In
fact, it was said that the important publishing houses, American publishing houses,
founded in the 1920s, were almost uniformly products of the
dry-goods business. Knopf was started by Knopf money: Alfreds father made his money
in textiles. Simon and Schuster were two guys both of whose parents were in the dry-goods
business; and so on, and so on.
When I came back from the war, I had in effect been invited to join a
couple of places, Harper being one of them. Harold Guinzburg had become a good friend, and
suggested that I might want to join Viking. I was attracted to Harper for a variety of
reasons, one of which was Harpers Magazine. It had interested me a lot and
was then an integral part of the house. I called Harold to tell him I was thinking about
going to Harper, and what did he think? He and Cass were very close friends. He said,
I think its a great idea. Its time that Harper had a Jewish editor.
Its time that Harper had a Jewish person in the hierarchy. I was surprised by
that. And, indeed, it was accurate, because when I came to Harper I was the only Jew at
that level. But I wasnt ever made to feel that.
Shortly after I came to Harper I began to get to know the agents. One
of the most important of them was a woman named Helen Strauss, who was the literary
department of William Morris, and she and I became friends. She said to me one day,
You know, youre really very bright, and youre going to be a real
success, but youll never be president of the company. I said, Why
not? She said, Youre Jewish.
I cite that because thats the way the world was. And had been.
Now, I think its no longer true. I think a somewhat similar thing has happened as
far as women in publishing are concerned, though I think the Jews are doing better than
women, by and large.
McNAMARA: Was Atheneum considered a Jewish
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, Hiram Hayden proudly
informed us one day that he gathered he was known as our golden goy, which he
CORNELIA BESSIE: No, he wasnt!
MICHAEL BESSIE: I dont think-- But by that
time, namely 1960, things had changed.
McNAMARA: And so, that was, in a sense, a
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes. What I described as true in 1946-47 really ceased to be, in the 1950s. In the
course of the 50 years Ive been at it [publishing], I really
think there has been a very considerable change. I dont think that what was
essentially a segregated publishing world in America, and also in England, still exists.
(End of Part 1)
In Part 2, (Vol. 2, No. 1) Cornelia Bessie talks about editing, reading, and how she discovered
THE LEOPARD; Michael Bessie talks about Atheneums failures, and the evolution of
Harper and Bros. into HarperCollins.
Cornelia and Michael Bessie can be reached at:
296 Joshuatown Road, Lyme, Ct. 06371
Some Books Published by Michael and Cornelia Bessie:
Edward Albee, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, and othersK. Fairbank, THE GREAT CHINESE
REVOLUTION, and others
Robert Ardrey, AFRICAN GENESIS; THE TERRITORIAL IMPERATIVE, and others
*Miguel Angel Asturias, EL SE-OR PRESIDENTE
Marcel Aymé, URANUS, and others
Luigi Barzini, THE ITALIANS, and others
Georgio Bassani, THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI CONTINIS, and others
Daniel Boorstin, THE IMAGE, and others
Peter Brook, THE EMPTY SPACE, and others
John Cheever, THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE, and others
Richard Crossman , et al., THE GOD THAT FAILED
*The Dalai Lama, FREEDOM IN EXILE
Jan de Hartog, THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM, and others
Freeman Dyson, DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE, and others
Janet Flanner, PARIS JOURNAL, and others
*Mikhail Gorbachev, PERESTROIKA
Yoram Kaniuk, ADAM RESURRECTED, and others
*Peter Medawar, THE LIVING SCIENCE, and others
Nadezhda Mandelstam, HOPE AGAINST HOPE and HOPE ABANDONED
Alan Moorhead, GALLIPOLI, and others
Frederick Morton, THE ROTHSCHILDS
Grandma Moses, MY LIFE'S HISTORY
Nigel Nicolson, PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE, and others
Harold Nicolson, DIARIES
*Anwar el-Sadat, IN SEARCH OF IDENTITY
André Schwartz-Bart, THE LAST OF THE JUST
Peter Shaffer, AMADEUS
Ignazio Silone, FONTAMARA, and others
*Alexander Solzhenitsyn, THE OAK AND THE CALF, and others
Saul Steinberg, THE ART OF LIVING, and others
Alice B. Toklas, THE COOKBOOK
Kenneth Tynan, CURTAINS, and others
*James Watson, THE DOUBLE HELIX
Theodore H. White, THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1960, and others
Peter Weiss, THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS
PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER
THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE, and others
*Elie Wiesel, THE CITY BEYOND THE WALLS