i n s t i t u t i o n a l  m e m o r y

2-1conversation.gif (1741 bytes)

Katherine McNamara

In this, second, part of my conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, publishers and editors of Bessie Books, now associated with Counterpoint, they told me about an event which took place more than a decade ago but which turned out to have contemporary, even immediate, resonance. The event they recount -- their publication of Gorbachev’s memoirs, in 1987 -- involved (incidentally) Rupert Murdoch, then the new owner of Harper & Row. Michael Bessie, on the board of Harper, had opposed the sale. Murdoch had also bought William Collins Publishers, the distinguished Engish firm, combined it with Harper, and retitled the combination HarperCollins. The publishing house now sounded like an advertising agency. At the time of sale, Harper had a signed contract with Gorbachev for his political memoirs, negotiated by Michael Bessie. Murdoch, the neophyte publisher, was known to be strongly anti-communist, and he told Bessie he was “crazy” for publishing the book.

The book appeared nonetheless; not long ago, Murdoch even took credit for it. But lately, Murdoch’s heavy hand has fallen on another political book, and dropped it. In London in January, his courtiers, (as the English press likes to say) anticipating his disapproval of the political memoirs of Chris Patten, last (Conservative) governor of Hong Kong before its reversion to China, broke their firm’s signed contract with the author. The erstwhile anti-Communist has huge business dealings with China, where “making money” is the order of the new day, while Patton had criticized the Chinese government. Nervous, Murdoch’s managers provoked the “principled resignation” of the young senior editor who refused to go back on his word and abandon the book he had already praised in public. (See also, “Endnotes.”) A number of prominent authors published by HarperCollins roundly denounced Murdoch, to no apparent effect.

The Bessies talked about the Gorbachev book late last summer, long before the scandal in London, when we met at their country retreat near Lyme, Connecticut. It is a pretty, book-filled farmhouse and separate office situated amid tall old-growth trees on a sloping back lawn, where they’ll offer a visitor an afternoon drink. Michael Bessie is an open-handed host and worldly raconteur, while Cornelia, though more reticent, when amused laughs knowingly. Her handsome, blonde beauty, in no way masking a sharp intelligence, must often have been a trial to her inside the masculine offices of publishing. When she spoke about books and the surprise and pleasure of finding literature -- Lampedusa, Harper Lee -- her face lit up. Michael, the “outside person” at his old company, Atheneum, spoke with zest about the rough and tumble of publishing during the time when it was run by book men till the time -- the present era -- when it changed to something else.

Before this issue went online, I asked Michael Bessie if he would care to comment on the matter of the Patten book and Murdoch’s getting rid of it. He declined, saying that on the one hand, this was hardly the first time a book had been in effect suppressed by the head of a publishing company; and on the other, that, at that moment, all he knew was what he had read in the papers, though he was acquainted with and thought well of the editor in question, who had done the honorable thing by leaving. In his voice I detected a certain dryness. Perhaps he was recalling the ambitions of young men and old men and the lay of once-greener playing fields; and, having had a long good run there himself, perhaps he wasn’t sorry to be watching this one from the sidelines.


see also:
A Conversation with Cornelia and Micheal Bessie Part 1 (Vol. 1 No. 4)
Letter to the Editor: Benjamin Cheever
Endnotes: Fantastic Design, with Nooses
A Conversation with Marion Boyers (Vol. 1 No. 3)


here.JPG (528 bytes)next.JPG (490 bytes)








contents download subscribe archive