And it was Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., who spotted Jean's talent. The obituary below is laudatory and informative, but I do take issue with the line "Atheneum got lucky fast." Publishing three bestsellers in your first three lists is not luck: it's hard work, acumen, hunch, intuition, and smarts.
Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., Influential Publisher, Dies at 90
Published: February 16, 2009
Alfred A. Knopf Jr., who left the noted publishing house run by his parents to become one of the founders of Atheneum Publishers in 1959, died on Saturday. He was 90, the last of the surviving founders, and lived in New York City.
The cause of death was complications following a fall, his wife, Alice, said.
The only child of the publishing giants Alfred A. and Blanche Wolf Knopf, Pat Knopf, as he was called, worked at his parents’ company, concentrating mainly on sales and marketing, when he approached his father about hiring the editor Simon Michael Bessie as the Knopfs’ eventual successor. Mr. Bessie had recently been passed over for the position of editor in chief at Harper & Row in favor of Evan Thomas.
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.
Although the founders called on their backers for what Mr. Knopf said was almost a second million, in part to start up a children’s book division in 1964, Atheneum prospered, and the three founders were able to exercise options to buy the company’s stock. “We had good lawyers,” Mr. Knopf later commented in an interview. “Everybody, including the original backers, was very happy.”
In the 1970s, economic conditions began to make it harder for independent publishers to stay afloat. After selling 10 percent of the company to Raytheon, the electronics conglomerate, Atheneum in 1978 merged with Charles Scribner’s Sons, another independent house, to form a third entity, Scribner Book Companies, of which Charles Scribner Jr. became chairman and Mr. Knopf vice chairman, although both houses continued to operate independently. Mr. Haydn and Mr. Bessie had both left Atheneum by then.
In 1984, Scribner Book Companies was acquired by Macmillan Inc., and Mr. Knopf assumed responsibility for all adult books put out by Scribner’s houses. He continued as a senior vice president of Macmillan until his retirement in 1988.
Mr. Knopf was born in White Plains, N.Y., on June 17, 1918. At 7 he was sent to boarding school, first at the Riverdale Country Day School, in the Bronx, then from 1933 until 1937 at Phillips Exeter Academy. The summer after he graduated from Exeter, according to a 1959 story in Time magazine, he ran away from home, despondent over being turned down by Princeton and determined (he said in a note) not to return until he made good. Following a police search, he was found in Salt Lake City, “barefoot, hungry and broke.”
After attending Union College for three years, he was inspired by the Veronica Lake film “I Wanted Wings” to join the United States Army Air Force, which called him up in December 1941. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work in the 446th Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force, rising to the rank of captain. (Union awarded him a B.A. in 1945.)
When he was discharged, he telephoned his father, who asked what he planned to do for a career. “I guess I’m going to work for you,” he said, and did. In 1952, he married Alice Laine. They had three children, Alison Insinger and Susan Knopf of New York and David A. Knopf of San Francisco.