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 Harpers?
CORNELIA BESSIE: I worried. I went
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-Harpers, 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 wasnt really a business man. Id 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 Harpers really very naive; and also, as far as the female side goes, it was
pre-feminism. There came into Harpers, 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 wasnt, 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 hadnt been there, I would have been quite unaware of what was going
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
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; its like being a carpenter, you can do it
anywhere. And so, thats 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
dont get read.
MICHAEL BESSIE: In many places.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Almost every place.
If things dont 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 Im-sick-and-tired-of-all-this moods, when I was
called by The Readers 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 Readers 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 everyones great surprise, an offer of a job at
the Digest; and the job they offered me was very interesting. It was a job that
didnt exist; it didnt 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. Readers 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 Readers 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 hadnt been that parade under his window, he probably wouldnt 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.