Publisher's Note — December 12, 2013, 11:45 am

The “Paper of Record” Gets it Wrong on André Schiffrin

Times obituary misrepresents the career of a distinguished publisher

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on December 12, 2013.

It’s hard enough to lose a close friend, but it’s even worse when the friend is famous enough to be misrepresented in a New York Times obituary. Such was the case last week when the distinguished publisher André Schiffrin died in Paris of pancreatic cancer. For more than twenty years, André — a brilliant editor, critic, and analyst — was my counselor and inspiration in most things having to do with books, writing, and politics.

He also greatly enhanced my social and cultural life. With his lovely wife, Leina, André hosted dinner parties at his rooftop apartment on West 94th Street here in Manhattan that were among the liveliest and most stimulating I’ve attended.

As a Jew, André was indelibly marked by his escape from Vichy France, in 1941, after the book publisher Gallimard bent to anti-Semitic laws and fired André’s father, Jacques, who was publisher of one of its imprints. This made André’s success in the 1950s at Yale, when it still had Jewish quotas, and his willingness to forgive a country he was forced to flee, all the more remarkable. It also speaks to his great determination, intelligence, and generosity of spirit. He was a man of the authentic left, but I never heard him be dogmatic and always found him willing to listen to the other side of the story.

If only the New York Times had a similar inclination toward generosity and open-mindedness. At first, I was gratified to pick up my paper on December 2 and find that André’s obituary “referred” on the front page to a long piece on Page A31; his life and work deserved substantial space. But then I started reading.

To my disgust, here is how the Times summarized André’s life: “The longtime chief of Pantheon Books, a literary imprint of Random House, he was forced out in 1990 because of mounting losses, setting off a storm of protest against the increasingly commercial world of publishing. He later founded his own successful nonprofit house, the New Press.”

How did The Times know with such certainty that there were “mounting losses” at Pantheon? I hoped that the full article would present a more nuanced history of the conflict. No dice. The Times faithfully adhered to the Random House line — twenty-three years later and long after the company’s ownership had changed: “Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses . . . Mr. Vitale and others called his dismissal an inevitable result of Pantheon’s losses, which Mr. Vitale said reached $3 million in Mr. Schiffrin’s final year, and his refusal to adjust his list to turn the imprint around.”

For backup, the obituary quoted a contemporaneous Times op-ed piece by Errol McDonald, named by Vitale to run Pantheon after André’s departure, as if he had already worked for the imprint and had stayed when all the other editors resigned in protest.

I was trained as a reporter to get different, often contradictory versions of the same story. It’s really not hard to do if you have a little energy and a telephone or computer. In this case, however, one only had to pick up André’s memoir to get another view of what happened at Random House.

Here’s the alternative version of events from A Political Education: “Though we had never lost any money for Random, as [former CEO] Bob Bernstein often assured me, we were clearly not going to maximize [owner S. I.] Newhouse’s profits. . . . As part of Newhouse’s master plan, Bernstein was fired and replaced by an incompetent former banker named Alberto Vitale, who boasted to all and sundry that he was far too busy ever to read a book.”

Andre wrote that without access to the company’s balance sheet at the time of his departure, he didn’t “understand the degree of fiscal trickery that was going on. . . . I didn’t know that we were being charged for the expenses of the other divisions that had nothing to do with us, or that we were being billed for expenses we never incurred,” such as André’s company car — a perk that he was likely unaware of: He never learned how to drive.

“Most important, much of our backlist was declared to have no value and was written off by the accountants as having no future sales potential. . . . These tricks applied only to us and not to other parts of Random, and were used by Vitale to show that Pantheon and Pantheon alone was losing millions.”

Book accounting is complicated, but the Times’s obit writer certainly could have squeezed some part of this narrative into the story, or he might have cited some sales figures of books that André published at Pantheon to counterbalance the caricature of a woolly-headed ideologue with no sense of the bottom line. The obit writer could have mentioned the Studs Terkel oral histories that sold in the millions, or the first installment of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, whose two volumes have sold more than 3 million copies worldwide (there is no mention of Spiegelman in the obituary), or that in his last year at Pantheon, André signed the first of the immensely profitable Bart Simpson series by Matt Groening, whose “Life in Hell” cartoons André had already published.

Life is hell when you’re defamed and can’t get your side of the story out in the open. Unfortunately, André Schiffrin is dead and can’t talk back to “the paper of record.”

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note June 8, 2016, 2:31 pm

The Leftist Line

The French left self-destructs

Publisher's Note May 4, 2016, 12:33 pm

The Clinton Cartel

Journalists are doing the Clintons’ dirty work for them and their machine.

Publisher's Note April 8, 2016, 2:07 pm

The Antiglobalists

“Both Sanders and Trump affirm their determination to rebuild an America weakened by unhealthy relationships with the outside world.”

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
Post
Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Average speed of Heinz ketchup, from the mouth of an upended bottle, in miles per year:

25

After studying the fall of 64,000 individual raindrops, scientists found that some small raindrops fall faster than they ought to.

The Playboy mansion in California was bought by the heir to the Twinkie fortune, and a New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to protest his neighbors’ loud lovemaking.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today