July 19, 2013

A tribute to Lindy Hess


Lindy Hess was a “walking rolodex” for the publishing industry and a “an old-fashioned literary heroine.” Photo by Melissa Wolfish.

She was like a fairy godmother.

“I’ve got an interesting opportunity for you,” she’d say in a low voice into the phone. “I think it would be fabulous.”

For 25 years, Lindy Hess was the director of the Columbia Publishing Course, the six-week intensive introduction to the publishing industry in New York, formerly known as the Radcliffe Publishing Course when it was based in Cambridge. Before taking charge of the program, Lindy had worked her way up to executive editor at Doubleday from a job right out of college as an Alfred A. Knopf editorial assistant. Her first bosses were the famous cookbook editor Judith Jones and Ed Victor, who is now a literary agent in the UK.

I was always in awe of Lindy and more than a little intimidated when I attended the course in the summer of 2007. I remember she had a particular fondness for stars in my class like Lucas Wittmann, now Books Editor at the Daily Beast, who was smart and polished and the editor-in-chief of our mock book publishing house. But even though I certainly wasn’t one of her favorites then, months and years later, I was surprised to find that she remembered me.

She seemed to remember everyone, calling or emailing when the right job came up. I recently learned that she kept a chart of former students, putting a star next to the name and picture of graduates who got a job. She helped us navigate the tricky waters of the New York publishing scene, using her friendships and contacts that traced back over decades to put the right mentor-mentee match together.

Publishing, after all, is an “apprentice industry,” and the lucky ones from the course end up with bosses that teach what they know—honing editing skills, offering up acquisition opportunities, and cultivating and promoting advancement.

But it’s a cutthroat business too—especially with all the layoffs and mergers. When we were feeling desperate, or down and out without a job, or stuck in one that wasn’t working out, Lindy would swoop in to offer a strategy or a connection, restoring our confidence, telling us a new opportunity would be lucky to have us, and offering to call the right person on our behalf.

Of course, it didn’t always work out, but Lindy wasn’t one to wallow in disappointment—“their loss” she’d say—and come up with another idea. She was a life coach, a guardian angel, and an advocate for anyone she could sense was just dying to get into book publishing, no matter their background.

And she asked for little in return—maybe just the new hot galley or anticipated forthcoming book—which she would display face out in her office, pointing them out to visitors with enthusiasm. She had a large poster of Kay Thompson’s children’s book character Eloise behind her desk, and she once told a classmate she fancied herself an Eloise at heart.

If you sat across from her in her office at Columbia, she’d be dressed in a chic black suit (even in the summer heat) with her shoulder-length broomstick-straight brown hair parted down the middle. She often carried a gulp-sized coffee cup or sometimes a mysterious pink cocktail (apparently it was vodka and Clamato).

At some point she would tilt her head down with her eyes simultaneously looking up at you over her glasses as she leaned into the desk. With a serious look she might ask how things were going, flicking her hair back with one hand. Anything you might tell her, she probably already knew—especially if it involved the latest personnel changes at various publishing houses. She had a knack for staying on the pulse of gossip in the book and magazine industry.

Because really, she did know everyone. At the course, she brought together legendary and contemporary book publishing titans like Bob Gottlieb, Morgan Entrekin, Marty Asher, Nan Graham, Ruth Liebmann, Geoff Kloske, Anna Wintour, Christopher Cerf, and many others, who would offer some feedback on your ideas, reminisce about their experience, offer analysis of the publishing industry today, or just inspire you with their passion for careers they clearly loved so much.

With those connections she forged for us, we newcomers to New York suddenly had a chance to break in—it was like we were in a movie somewhere along the lines of “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Frances Ha.” Our happy ending seemed more possible because we had Lindy on our side.

Lindy lost a battle with lung cancer this week. The news has come as a shock to many of us who remember her as such a life-force. She’ll be deeply missed. And inspired by her spirit, I think those whose lives she touched will pay it forward.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.