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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt

Did you have relationships with those guys?
Not with them. Sartre did actually come to New York during that time. But he stayed in a cold-water flat that had no telephone, so it was difficult to communicate and I didn't get to meet him. I was only at the agency for three years before I got drafted into the army. This was in 1950 during the Korean War. I had a choice of serving in the French army or the American army. The French consul told me that I would be better fed and better paid in the American army, so I decided to serve in the American army, and I did for two years. I was sent to Fort Devens for basic training and was put in a Tennessee National Guard unit that had been activated and needed to be brought to full strength with draftees. We were sent to Iceland to defend Keflavik Airport against a possible Communist takeover. This was in the days before jet engines were common and planes couldn't cross the Atlantic without stopping somewhere. When we got to Iceland, the army, which was not any more efficient than publishing, realized there was no one to pay the troops except for a warrant officer who was leaving. They looked for a volunteer to take over the job. Most of the Tennessee boys were totally illiterate and couldn't do arithmetic, so I started paying the troops. And when the air force came in, they kept me because I had all the records. I was in charge of a little division that looked after travel pay. I would compute officers' claims for reimbursements or per diems and so forth. I had two air force people working under me as well as an American civilian girl named Bunny, who I didn't consort with after hours because she'd go to the officers mess and...who knows what she was doing. [Laughter.] Anyway, I was very good at my job and the officers loved me because they usually had a hard time getting their money. As a result of that I got two thirty-day leaves to go to Paris, hitchhiking on air force planes. So I spent two longish periods in Paris and got to meet the French publishers for whom I'd been selling books in America. One was rather terrified when he saw me because he was a member of the Communist party—he was the rights director at Gallimard—and to be seen with someone wearing an American uniform did not give him much pleasure. Those trips were very useful because I'd corresponded with these publishers but I hadn't met them.

When I got out of the army, I'd agreed to go back to the agency for a year, but I didn't really want to. I thought maybe I would work for a publishing house instead. But nobody seemed particularly interested in hiring me because having a language was not considered any more useful than it is now because nobody wanted to do translations. So when I left the agency after another year, I got a letter from the head of one of the French publishing houses, Editions du Seuil, that said, "Should you decide to start your own agency, I'd like you to represent us in America." I was sort of amazed by that because I was shy, I was in my early twenties, I didn't have much self-confidence, and the idea of somebody else having any confidence in me seemed amazing. So I decided to do that, sort of on the side, while also taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and taking courses toward a master's at NYU, where I'd already, at night, gotten a B.A. in English. When I went down to NYU I met a woman in the elevator named Germaine Brée who had just become the head of the French department that day. We started chatting and I said, "Let me know if you ever need somebody to teach a conversation course. I'm very shy and maybe that will help me get over it." She said, "Fine," and the next day her secretary called and said, "You've got three courses." But they weren't conversation courses—they were languages courses. So that's what I did. I got a master's and taught French for six years and did agenting on the side. But I only represented French publishers. No one else was doing that. I would go over catalogues and go to France twice a year, which was tax deductible. Not that there was much to deduct since none of this was bringing in much money. But I was actually being paid by the G.I. Bill—it was different than the World War II G.I. Bill—and I didn't have to pay for my courses since I was a graduate student. I was getting a bit of money from NYU, maybe a thousand dollars a year, a bit of money from the government, and a bit of money from selling the occasional book for very little money.

Tell me about some of the editors you were getting to know.
The one I knew best, and the one who was incredibly nice and generous to me, even before I went into the army, was Mike Bessie, who was then at Harper and later started Atheneum and then went back to Harper. He was very interested in France. He'd been a journalist, he was fluent in French, he'd been in army intelligence in World War II, and he was very cultured. I did, of course, meet Blanche Knopf, who was also fluent in French but knew very little about literature. I was somewhat intimidated by her but I also found her slightly ridiculous. With Sartre she had decided that he was a novelist and a playwright but systematically turned down all of his nonfiction. So all of his essays and philosophical writings were published by minor firms like Philosophical Library or Citadel. When I took him over it was with The Words, which I sold to Braziller. But all of those books should have been with Knopf. I remember having lunch with Blanche. She was extremely gracious. If we had lunch in a restaurant she'd say, "Last year when we had lunch you ordered gigot, but I remember that you like it rare and I don't think they do it very well here. Maybe you should try...." She was sort of amazing in that way. But I also remember having lunch at her apartment, which was in the building where Michael's is now, on Fifty-fifth, where the Italian Pavilion used to be. It would be the two of us and her poodle, Fifi. She'd say, with her raspy smoker's voice, "Mr. Borchardt, what is interesting in Paris right now?" I'd say, "Well, there's Michel Butor, who's just written a new—" She'd lean over and say, "Fifi! Don't do that! This is my Balenciaga suit! I'm not going back to Paris until next spring! You were saying, Mr. Borchardt?" [Laughter.]

What other editors and publishers made a big impression?
I became very close with Bob Gottlieb, who was at Simon & Schuster. He knew French, and his French was particularly fluent if he'd had a drink. At one point later I was very impressed when he decided to memorize the whole of Valéry's "Le Cimetière Marin," which is a very long French poem. That was really quite impressive. He was a junior editor at Simon & Schuster when I started agenting on my own. I had been introduced to someone important at Simon & Schuster, who of course didn't want anything to do with a somewhat useless agent who had practically no books, and she handed me off to Bob, who then called about once a month and said, "They just gave me money to take someone out to lunch. When are you free?" I think he called me so often because he couldn't take out a real agent, who would have been insulted to be seen at lunch with this kid, who not only was fairly young but looked ten years younger. He may have been twenty-five, but he looked fifteen. He wore sneakers when nobody was wearing sneakers. He looked terribly unimportant. And he was fairly unimportant, although by then I think he was already allowed to buy the occasional book. So we would have lunch, sometimes in a restaurant and sometimes in Central Park, and I actually sold him Michel Butor and eventually de Gaulle's war memoirs, even though the first volume had been published by Viking and had done very badly. He also asked me to help out a friend of his named Richard Howard, who stupidly enough had translated a short novel by Jean Giraudoux without checking to make sure the rights were free. But they were, and I got it published by a little firm called Noonday Press, which was an independent house at the time. And then this same Richard Howard started translating other books, many of them for Grove. He also translated de Gaulle's war memoirs for Bob and he got invited to the Elysée in Paris.

So there was Bob. There was also a very smart editor at Knopf who spoke French named Henry Carlisle, who was the father of Michael Carlisle and who later became a writer. But the editors were all sort of in the background. They weren't listed in the Literary Market Place. Editors were considered, by many publishers, a semi-necessary evil who were nearly as unpleasant to deal with as authors or agents. [Laughter.] Agents were at the bottom, then authors, then editors. If all three of them could have been gotten rid of, publishing would have been a nicer, more clubby industry. I remember selling Henry a book called The Notebooks of Major Thompson that became a mini best-seller. Knopf had this little bulletin in which Alfred would write a letter, and in one of them it said, "Next spring we are publishing The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, which Blanche snapped up in Paris on her last trip." I remember calling Henry and saying, "This is outrageous! You bought this book here, from me, and you should be the one who gets the credit." He said, "Oh, no, calm down, that's just how it is...." [Laughter.]

I've already mentioned Mike Bessie. I was able to sell him The Last of the Just, which was Atheneum's first best-seller. There were the Wolffs at Pantheon, Kurt and Helen, to whom I tried to sell Night. But nobody wanted Night. I have a letter from Blanche Knopf saying something like, "You're wasting your time with Elie Wiesel. He will never find an audience in this country." I have a long letter from Kurt Wolff, which unfortunately says nothing. It says, "You're right. This is a great book. Usually when you send a book you don't make many comments. I assume that if you're sending it, it means you feel we should publish it. In this case you said it's something we have to publish. And you're right. But for reasons that I'll explain to you the next time we have lunch, we just can't do it." I don't remember if we ever had that lunch or if he ever explained their reasons, so I'm afraid that will be missing from your interview. I could, like most people who write their memoirs, invent a nice story. I've never understood how people can write their memoirs in such detail. I don't remember details about 99 percent of what has happened in my life.

There's Braziller, who bought a lot of French things even though he didn't know French himself. From time to time he would take out an ad in the French equivalent of Publishers Weekly, and many French publishers thought he was one of the biggest American publishers. Dick Seaver worked for him for a while before he moved over to Grove, where I dealt with him a lot because he was Barney [Rosset]'s French guy. Barney knows some French but Seaver was really quite fluent and he'd lived in Paris. Dick and I were friends for years and years.

Do you have any great stories about Dick or Barney?
With Barney the relationship always had its ups and downs. I liked him a lot, and I liked the books he did. I also sold him a lot of books, including Story of O, which, later, during one of his bankruptcies, he had to give to Random House. It's still selling very well. I remember him often being angry at me for one reason or another. I remember complaining to Don Allen once and saying, "What's wrong? I'm bringing him all these books and I'm certainly not hurting him in any way...." Don said something like, "Barney is a rooster. You can't have two roosters in one henhouse." [Laughter.] I think that is sort of true of Barney. But Barney can also be very generous. And I like him.

But there were moments when he would get very angry at me for one thing or another. I remember once going down to Grove Press because they hadn't paid their royalties or something. The first thing Barney said was, "I never bought a book from you that I hadn't heard about before." I said, "That may be true, but you still owe me...." [Laughter.] But to some extent he was probably right. It was sort of irrelevant, but he was probably right because everybody had potentially heard of these French books. They were published in France. And I had heard about them and asked to represent them. Although by then I had exclusive arrangements with several of the publishing houses, two of which we still represent: Seuil, the original one, and Minuit, who have been Beckett's publisher and also publish Elie Wiesel's Night. Night, incidentally, now sells about six hundred thousand copies a year in its Hill and Wang trade paperback edition in America.

How did you meet Elie Wiesel?
I met him because I was trying to sell Night, unsuccessfully. The French publisher wrote to me and said, "Elie Wiesel now lives in New York," where he'd come from Paris to be the UN correspondent of an Israeli newspaper. One day he came over to my apartment, which was also my office at the time, limping with a cane. I thought it was the result of his concentration camp experience but it turned out that he'd been hit by a taxi and broken practically every bone in his body and was still recovering. I have a letter, actually, where I wrote to the French publisher saying, "I met Elie Wiesel and you're right, he seems quite nice." We finally sold the book to Arthur Wang.

How much did you get for it?
Two hundred fifty dollars, payable in two installments and on condition that I find a British partner to share the translation cost.

[Laughter.] How much money do you think they've made on that book?
That's the irony when you see how publishing works. You don't necessarily make the money out of the flavor of the month. The real money, if you're in it for the duration, comes from books like that—from books nobody wanted—be they by William Faulkner or Elie Wiesel or Beckett or many others. Unfortunately, that argument is totally unconvincing to publishers now. If you're an editor at Random House or one of the other large firms, you can't say, "We're not going to make any money on this book for the next three years, but in ten years everybody will be envious of us for having it." The guy you're saying it to has two years to go on his contract, which is about to be renegotiated next year. What good does it do him to have a book that will bring in money ten years from now? He couldn't care less! He wants the book that makes money now so he can tell his bosses, "You should give me another contract for five years at twice the salary." So it's become different, and I think that's what's weighing on publishing, more than any of the other crises that come and go.

Did you become close with Wiesel?
I did. We were both bachelors at the time. We had the kind of relationship where you call up at six o'clock and say, "Are you doing anything tonight? You want to meet at the Italian place on Fifty-sixth?" He lived in a one-room studio on upper Riverside Drive. It wasn't much bigger than this room but it was filled with records and books. For some reason he had a car and would sometimes drive me to the airport. I was living, before getting married to her, with a woman who had been a student of mine at NYU. In Elie's memoirs he says something like, "I drove Georges and Anne to the airport and during the drive Georges mentioned that Anne had decided to change her last name to Borchardt. That's how I found out that they had gotten married." Whether that's true or not, I don't know. It could be. But we had, indeed, gotten married, partly because we found it too complicated not to be married. I would be invited to dinner by, say, Roger Straus. FSG was also buying French books, and Roger had been very nice to me and would invite me to dinner parties at his townhouse with really important people like George Weidenfeld. These were fairly formal dinners and it was awkward to say, "Can I bring a date?" If I was invited it was probably because they were a man short, and by bringing somebody you upset the balance of the dinner. It seemed simpler to be married. People had to invite both of you. So one day we went down to City Hall and got married and then went back to work. [Laughter.]

Reader Comments

  • susan@glimmertrain.org says...

    Another fantastic and significant piece by Jofie Ferrari-Adler. Thank you.

  • lynn@sagantechnology.com says...

    Although, because "he is he and I am I", I loved Georges Borchardt from the moment I met him at his midtown office, your splendid profile (by Jofie Ferrari-Adler brought to my attention by my beloved publisher, Chelsea Green's Margo Baldwin) intensified my feelings of love-admiration. [Indeed for both agent & publisher]. Our Georges (with an "s", just like the calculating scientist-protagonist, Georges Standon, in my only published fiction, Luminous Fish: Tales of science & love) is unique and fabulous in a way precisely captured by Ferrari-Adler's insightful writing. In this near miracle interview, Ferrari-Adler has gently revealed Borchardt's genius, his capacity for survival, love and his own version of success. We, his clients, and direct recipients of his wisdom and good taste, are grateful for the revelation, in his own words beyond French, of some of his many secrets. Although he claims not to remember much, maybe Ferrari-Adler can get him to write, and then auction himself, Georges' very short autobiography. It will be worth millions.

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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt (September/October 2009)
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