October 31, 2014
The New Press hosts a tribute to André Schiffrin
by Claire Kelley
Publishing colleagues, family members and admirers gathered in the Cooper Union Great Hall on Wednesday night to celebrate the life of André Schiffrin, the visionary publisher who refused to sacrifice his dedication to books and authors to conglomerate publishing.
The event was hosted by The New Press, and executive director Diane Wachtell recalled that Schiffrin once observed that “publishing houses are like families” on a walk through Central Park. She remembered his sense of humor by describing that at a Random House sales conference in 1965 that occurred shortly after the publication of a new Dr. Seuss book, Schiffrin launched Zoé Oldenbourg‘s Catherine the Great calling it “Hop on Cat.” And, she said, he started every letter—no matter how long—with “Just a brief note to say…”
Other speakers included Schiffrin’s daughters Anya and Natalia, Calvin Trillin (who remembered their years at Yale together), Victor Navasky, Dawn Davis, John R. MacArthur, and Schiffrin’s grandson, Leo Schiffrin Sands, who read a a very tender and funny letter Andre’s father Jacques Schiffrin wrote to André Gide about his 14 year old son.
In the early 1940s, the Schiffrin family escaped the Nazis and the Vichy government in Paris with the help of American journalist Varian Fry. They traveled to Marseille and took a boat to Casablanca, but were stuck in Morocco for months, waiting for a visa (just like in the film Casablanca). After they arrived in New York, Jacques Schiffrin eventually joined Pantheon Books, which had been established by exiled German Kurt Wolff. After attending Yale and Cambridge, Andre Schiffrin began his own publishing career at the New American Library, and was hired as a junior editor at Pantheon Books in 1962. He went on to publish writers like Michael Foucalt, Marguerite Duras, Frances Fox Piven, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Studs Terkel, as well as major works like Art Spiegelman‘s Maus.
When Si Newhouse took over at Random House, Schiffrin resigned rather than submit to commercial pressure to cut his list. The “Pantheon Five”—senior editors Wendy Wolf, Tom Engelhardt, Sara Bershtel, Jim Peck, and Susan Rabiner—all quit their jobs in support. Schiffrin went on to found The New Press, which he based on the model of book publishing described The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read.
As Harpers publisher Rick MacArthur said in his remarks, Schiffrin was a “publishing humanist” and a friend to authors. And he has inspired a new generation of independent publishers.
Schiffrin’s memoir A Political Education is published by Melville House.
Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.