Harpers, Gorbachevs 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 dont like? Well,
there are a lot of books out there, and Im kind of opposed to publishing a book that
you dont really 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.
My own feeling, about myself, anyhow, as a publisher is: I
dont want to publish things I dont 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. Thats why we competed vigorously for Eisenhower, but didnt
get it -- Doubleday got it -- and I think the reason we didnt get it, probably, was
Now, interesting example of the opposite: Its 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 Im 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 youre going to give Gorbachev $500,000 for a lot of Communist propaganda? I said, Rupert,
Ill remind you: the understanding is that we dont sign the contract until we
have a manuscript; and we dont 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
MICHAEL BESSIE: World rights: I
mean, Ive occasionally been very lucky. And so, Rupert says: Well, I think
youre crazy. Are you committed to it? I said, Yes. Meaning, are
you and the house of Harper committed to it? Yes. Well, I think youre
CORNELIA BESSIE: Just to interject:
I think -- we dont 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,
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
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 wasnt
really too bad. Cornelia did a very fine editing job on it, which he asked us to do. I
dont know how I lucked into this understanding.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: He had done
other things in life; he hadnt dealt with publishers. (Chuckle)
CORNELIA BESSIE: Thats true!
As youll see, when the story goes on.