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

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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.”

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