Harper’s, Gorbachev’s PERESTROIKA, and Rupert Murdoch

MICHAEL BESSIE: Is what I said reasonable? Should you publish what you like, or, more importantly, should you not publish what you don’t like? Well, there are a lot of books out there, and I’m kind of opposed to publishing a book that you don’t really like.

I used to do a session at Stanford: I’d 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.

My own feeling, about myself, anyhow, as a publisher is: I don’t want to publish things I don’t like.

An example of how this came to roost: During the first round that I was in at Harper, Canfield was, as I was, a liberal Democrat. We had a problem, which was that we had virtually become publishers to the Democratic party. Canfield had published Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt, Roosevelt and Hopkins. He and Jack Fisher and Evan Thomas and I all had friends in the liberal Democratic camp. The house was being increasingly characterized by it; so we consciously set out to find some Republican books. That’s why we competed vigorously for Eisenhower, but didn’t get it -- Doubleday got it -- and I think the reason we didn’t get it, probably, was the reputation.

Now, interesting example of the opposite: It’s a long story as to how we came to publish Gorbachev. Because it really started with an idea which I gave to a Russian friend at the embassy in Washington. It took a couple of years to come about. The year I’m talking about was 1986; it was at Harper and Row; we had not yet sold the firm to Murdoch. I had gotten this idea, and then all of a sudden it began to happen. [Bessie Books was then an imprint financed by Harper & Row.]

So: in April of 1987, the Gorbachev thing is cooking, very secretly, and Harper is sold to Rupert Murdoch.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: You were on the board of Harper and you opposed it.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes; but I lost. But profited financially. Now Rupert Murdoch suddenly is the owner; and Brooks Thomas, who was then the head of the house, said, “You know, I think you ought to tell Murdoch,” who is very conservative, an anti-Communist. “I think you should tell him about this deal with Gorbachev.” So I did; I called Rupert on the phone and I described to him what the situation was. He said, “You mean you’re going to give Gorbachev $500,000 for a lot of Communist propaganda?” I said, “Rupert, I’ll remind you: the understanding is that we don’t sign the contract until we have a manuscript; and we don’t give him a cent until we sign the contract.” Believe it or not, that was the situation with the head of the Soviet Union!

CORNELIA BESSIE: And we got world rights.

MICHAEL BESSIE: World rights: I mean, I’ve occasionally been very lucky. And so, Rupert says: “Well, I think you’re crazy. Are you committed to it?” I said, “Yes.” Meaning, are you and the house of Harper committed to it? Yes. “Well, I think you’re mad.”

CORNELIA BESSIE: Just to interject: I think -- we don’t know this -- but I think, also, that was a different Rupert Murdoch. He was, then, a book publisher for two weeks.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Trying to be, anyhow.

CORNELIA BESSIE: He was a neophyte.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Cornelia and I go to Russia, and we get the manuscript, finally, in English; and we like it; and we sign the contract.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: He [Gorbachev] had had it translated? You had it translated?

MICHAEL BESSIE: He had had it translated. That was, again, one of the conditions.

CORNELIA BESSIE: He had had it translated in a week, by five people, in Russia, into something that resembled English.

MICHAEL BESSIE: It wasn’t really too bad. Cornelia did a very fine editing job on it, which he asked us to do. I don’t know how I lucked into this understanding.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: He had done other things in life; he hadn’t dealt with publishers. (Chuckle)

CORNELIA BESSIE: That’s true! As you’ll see, when the story goes on.


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