April 16, 2013

Remembering Nina Bourne, book advertising and publishing legend


Nina Bourne worked in book publishing for  seventy years. After graduating from Barnard, she started her career in 1939 and learned her celebrated copywriting skills from beloved and legendary Simon & Schuster editor Jack Goodman, who edited James Thurber and many others. Nina worked her way up, becoming friends with Robert Gottlieb and Tony Shulte along the way. The three of them revitalized Simon & Schuster, launching enthusiastic campaigns for classic books like Catch-22. In 1968, Alfred A. Knopf lured the triumvirate to his semi-independent house (Random House had acquired it eight years earlier). As the Knopf Advertising Director for forty years, Nina worked until just shortly before her death on April 9, 2010.

When I started a job in the academic marketing department at Knopf, I used to see Nina, a small elderly woman, walking slowly down the hall, sometimes with an ad she was working on in her hand. She’d always be at the table at the Knopf editorial launches, usually sitting towards the front, next to Nicholas Latimer, Knopf publicity director, who would help her climb into the chair. I’d always try to talk to her—stopping into her office on the 20th floor, sitting with her on the bench in the Random House lobby as she waited for her car to take her home, asking her questions at Knopf Christmas parties—and sometimes she humored me.

I was impressed by the sheer number of years she’d worked in publishing and the myriad colleagues she must have worked with over the years, but I was also interested in the books she championed. Not only was Nina instrumental in promoting Catch-22, she had a particular knack for capturing the essence of a book with a sprinkling of perfect quotes. In Al Silverman’s history of 20th century book publishing, The Times of Their Lives, Bob Gottlieb tells the story of how Nina responded to reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok:

Bob couldn’t wait to give Nina Bourne the manuscript to read. He told her it was a book he was absolutely crazy about. “Then came another perfect Nina moment,” Bob said. “She took it home that night and the next day she came in and said, ‘I read it last night. It is so wonderful and it was so frustrating because I wanted to tell somebody about it. It was too late to call you. But I had to tell somebody about it. So what I did was, I made myself a cup tea, and I saw down and I told myself about it!'”

Bob looked directly at me, saying nothing for a moment or two, then his voice softened.

“That’s the publishing impulse: the desire to make public your enthusiasm for a book. That’s what it is, whether you’re an editor or a publisher or a salesman. It doesn’t really matter—you want to grab the next person you see and say, ‘You’ve got to read this.'”

Her copywriting skills were famous. In the biography Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, Sam Irvin describes how Kay Thompson recruited Nina, who had written ad copy for the Eloise books, to help her write lyrics for songs. It didn’t go so well.

“She thought I was a good rhymer,” Nina recalled, “so I spent several evenings collaborating with her in her teeny-tiny apartment. I’ve never been so at sea working with anybody in my life. It felt as if I were swimming through honey or glue. So, eventually, the meetings just stopped.”

Nina also occasionally wrote poems that appeared in the New Yorker.

In May 2010, many long time friends of Nina’s celebrated her life at the Society for Ethical Culture. Bob Gottlieb served as emcee, and told wonderful tales about their work together. Stephanie Kloss, Nina’s protégée at Knopf and the current Advertising Director there, created a booklet of her ads, correspondence, and tributes from Knopf colleages, which appear in the slideshow below.



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