Education of an Editor

KATHERINE MCNAMARA (to CB): What did you do, from the time Atheneum was being sold [see Part 1] to the time you joined Harper’s?

CORNELIA BESSIE: I worried. I went to India.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: But when did you know, in fact, that you were an editor, and even a publisher?

CORNELIA BESSIE: Ah. Interesting question. To go back to the then-Harper’s, the “Canfield Plantation”: one of the things that was very obvious was that I had had a very sheltered life as far as the business world is concerned. My father wasn’t really a business man. I’d not heard business discussed, I had no business sense at all. My father was an art dealer, but he was an independent spirit, and what was talked about at table was never business. So, I came to Harper’s really very naive; and also, as far as the female side goes, it was “pre-feminism.” There came into Harper’s, at exactly the same time I did, a young man who was a Harvard graduate, who came from the right kind of family, who, I think, was Porcellian, probably -- if he wasn’t, he should have been -- and, because we happened to come in at the same time, I was quite aware that he was being groomed and I was not. If he hadn’t been there, I would have been quite unaware of what was going on.

And I left several times. I was fed up; I was depressed -- well, what I was is, I was a reading machine.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: You were then in your twenties.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes. So I left all the time. I went off to Spain once... I went to a lot of places; I supported myself by translating, which is a wonderful trade; it’s like being a carpenter, you can do it anywhere. And so, that’s when I did my traveling. -- Actually, because this is a nice kind of a story: as you know, there is what publishers call the “slush pile,” the books that come in over the transom; and once in a blue moon, one of these things is good. Nowadays, incidentally, among the changes in publishing is that these things don’t get read.

MICHAEL BESSIE: In many places.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Almost every place. If things don’t come in agented or as “Friend of” somebody you know.... But at that point, if anything came up in the pile, it was then given to the lowest guy on the totem pole, which was me. I found a book, and worked with the author, and it became a book; and I was really in one of my I’m-sick-and-tired-of-all-this moods, when I was called by The Reader’s Digest. They said, “We would like to take this book as a condensed book.”

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Would you like to say which book it was?

CORNELIA BESSIE: It was a book called EPITAPH FOR AN ENEMY, by a man whose last name was Barr: George Barr. He never wrote another book.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Very nice book.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes, very nice book. Because, when that call came in from The Reader’s Digest, had I not been in one of my I-hate-you-all moods I would have gone to the nearest handy male and said, “Will you handle this for me?”; but because that day I was sick of them all, I did it myself. And from that came, to everyone’s great surprise, an offer of a job at the Digest; and the job they offered me was very interesting. It was a job that didn’t exist; it didn’t exist after me, either. It was that I was the liaison between Europe and America, for all of Condensed Books.

I was hired in Spring. I said, “Can I start in Fall?” And so, I went to Europe, of course -- and there was a day when I was visiting my future colleagues. Reader’s Digest had an office on the Boulevard St.-Germain. While I was in the office of one of them, a man, there was a parade, one of those Sixties parades from the Sorbonne. I was fairly recently out of the Sorbonne myself, so, suddenly, I disappeared out of the window. There was my head out the window, and my ass in his office, with shouts back and forth between me and people in the street. When I reappeared in the office, my future colleague looked at me and said, “They hired you at The Reader’s Digest?” (Laughs) That was the beginning.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: What was the real situation; what had the man in Paris told you about why you were hired?

CORNELIA BESSIE: Because the European editions wanted their independence. I was the stop-gap measure.

As a result of this funny incident, he then told me the truth about what was really going on, which was very useful: why I had been hired, what the real problems were, and so on. He was amused by me, and so he was willing to talk. If there hadn’t been that parade under his window, he probably wouldn’t have. -- But, in a serious sense, what Michael was getting to, is: I learned more. I got the publishing reports from all over the world. I learned more about publishing in that one year -- that was while I was waiting for Atheneum to be able to put me on a salary -- and it was a marvelous teaching experience. It also was a very interesting experience as an editor, because the people who condense those books, some of them, were extraordinary editors. The technique that they had evolved was a very sophisticated technique, which, once again, I learned from an older lady, and which served me in very good stead, in some ways. They had an eagle eye for the fat on a manuscript, that was a very good thing to learn; and I learned it there.

I also got a very good overview of world publishing that I could have gotten from no place else. After a year, I got an offer from Atheneum, and left. But I learned more in that one year than in any year before.


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