Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Quite the name he made for himself

...When his father refused, blaming his mother’s resistance (she apparently didn’t like Mr. Bessie), Mr. Knopf said in an interview in 2005, Mr. Knopf (pronounced with a hard “k”) decided to join Mr. Bessie and Hiram Haydn, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill, in founding Atheneum. They lined up four backers, each willing to put up $250,000, and established their offices in a four-story brownstone on East 38th Street. Cornelia Schaeffer, who would later become Mr. Bessie’s wife, joined the house as an editor about a year after its founding.

Atheneum got lucky fast. Its first three lists produced three No. 1 best sellers: “The Last of the Just” (1960), a novel about the Holocaust by André Schwarz-Bart; “The Making of the President, 1960” (1961), the first in Theodore H. White’s series on presidential campaigns; and “The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait” (1962) by Frederic Morton. These books were acquired by Mr. Bessie, although by informal understanding each of the founders had to agree on every book the house published.

Other projects, if not best sellers, also did well for the house. The first list included Jan de Hartog’s crime novel “The Inspector,” Wright Morris’s “Ceremony in Lone Tree” and William Goldman’s “Soldier in the Rain.” Atheneum later published Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1962), which sold more than 70,000 copies in hard- and softcover editions. On the other hand, having published Mario Puzo’s second novel, “The Fortunate Pilgrim” (1965), the house turned down “The Godfather” (published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1969). Mr. Haydn thought it “junk,” Mr. Knopf said.

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