Jackie as Editor

Jackie as Editor

Stemming from my interest in working as an editor, I read Jackie as Editor by Greg Lawrence last year. Here are a few excerpts from the book, giving glimpses of what of what Jackie was like and what it was like to be an editor for a publishing house in New York.


Jackie’s editorial efforts were to be anonymous. “The book belongs to the author.” Editors who established relationships with their authors that went beyond the formalities of collaboration and commerce took an interest in the lives of their writers and established lifelong friendships with them. She had a belief that there could never be anything more important than books, and she revered their creators.

But after committing a personal affront or gaffe she was humble enough to offer apologies. Handwritten notes.

I. Viking Press

Peter Beard’s illustrated book Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa. Drawings of Kamante. In her afterward, Jackie wrote “To hold his drawings was like touching a talisman that took you back to a world you thought had disappeared forever.”

The quixotic ideal of preserving works of literature and preserving cultural discourse. She looked like a kid straight out of college, all excited about her first job. She knows things are going to be crazy around here and she’s okay with that.

She drafted a few query letters and began to make calls, as she put it, ‘beating the bushes’ for books. The importance of query letters—the one she sent to John Kenneth Galbraith immediately comes to mind. ‘He says that he wants to be wooed!’ He also managed to convey that he relished the idea of being wooed by her and felt that she would be marvelous at this particular aspect of her job.

II. In the Russian Style, by Way of Paris

Jackie often drove her little green BMW — jellybean green. She often took manuscripts with her. Jackie would use her social networking skills to lure a number of authors. Her principle means of acquisition, her line into getting a book, apart from the hotshot agents who submitted things to her, was that she would go to dinner parties with very interesting people who would tell her interesting things. And then she would say, “That’s so interesting! You must write a book about that.”

Diana Vreeland as a force of nature. “I don’t think anybody ever brought Diana to any office unless she marched in herself.”

Jackie’s memo re: Sicilian Carousel. Durrell can evoke place better than anyone I know . . . I loved . . .[Marina Venus and Prospero’s Call] before I ever saw a Greek island – When you know them, every white pebble, every olive tree, every character and all the history he weaves in and out. Of course everyone is going to the Greek Isles now – so it would be the standard book that they buy as they take off with their sun-oil and their instamatic cameras – just to be crass and commercial. I mean I think it would have an audience that perhaps Durrell’s books do not always reach. To those who love Durrell – what a joy to sit down with this and just savor it . . .

His book was published by Viking in September 1977.

Assessing Jackie’s sensitivity as an editor, Eugene Kennedy later wrote that she “understood that writers, like fine china being prepared for shipment, need to be packaged gently and supported strongly for the long journey from blank paper to publication day. Her style was encouragement, that of a coach prompting as good a performance as possible out of a long distance runner.

Barbara Chase-Riboud. This was the first novel that Jackie acquired and played a role in editing, and it was to be a learning experience, a balancing act undertaken while negotiating the tightrope that extended between a neophyte author and a fledgling editor. When Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemmings was published, it created stirs of protest. The lesson that controversy sells books was not lost on Jackie.

“We arrived at the Island, and I started talking to Jackie about the presidency and power and love and her life in the White House, and how these men operated on that level of worldly ambition and vision. I told her about my doubts at being able to bring these iconic characters to any kind of life. We talked and finally she said, ‘You know, Barbara, you’ve got to write this book.’”

“People just did not faze her, and I think they didn’t because she had spent the first part of her life—let’s put it that way—building this kind of network of empathy. She was very brave in the heroic sense.

Singleton, her assistant at Viking, offered a lengthy recollection:
It was decided that Jackie and I would deal with the issue at a customary sit-down editorial conference . . . I made a list of our objectives, and Jackie and I talked about how these might be most tactfully achieved. Since the novel was much too long, we had marked passages for possible exclusion. If Barbara agreed to the cuts, the entire issue could be resolved . . .

On the day of the meeting, Jackie and I began by giving Barbara lots of praise – and in truth, many of the passages she had written were moving, lovely and powerful. Then we slowly began to raise the issue of historical inaccuracies . . . We had found many inaccuracies of the sort that could diminish the impact of her narrative, but could easily be corrected. The ‘bad cop’ role went to me.

Barbara wasn’t impressed by our efforts to be tactful. She was hostile to the idea of making any changes, even minor ones. Her responses to our suggestions seemed to question the notion that a publisher might actually ask for revisions rather than to embrace the artist’s completed work as written. They, rather than you, are the only ones qualified to judge the accuracy of my portrayal of plantation life in Old Virginia . . .

Momentarily, we were left speechless . . . After that, we tried to move forward . . . Tom’s verdict – namely that her novel could not be accepted for publication by Viking in its current form. She erupted in fury . . . I glanced over at Jackie and she immediately took the lead. She tried to calm Barbara down by reminding her of our glowing praise for many sections of her book and then made what I considered to be a lovely appeal to Barbara about what she would miss, if she chose not to work with a publisher to create the best possible book. [Jeannette Seaver] I inherited the book. Tom came into my office and asked if I could take it over. [Barbara Burn] The best authors always are the ones willing to be edited. The worst authors are so defensive about their writing that they fight with every change. And Jackie was aware of that. Whatever the challenges Jackie faced with the Sally Hemmings book, she never lost her belief in it. [Singleton] nearly all of the revisions Jackie and I had originally suggested had been incorporated . . . What’s important in the end is that a good book was made to happen. Harrowing episode offers a telling portrait of ‘the real Jackie’ at work. She was willing to take whatever came with being an editor in order to make good books happen.

III. A Tale of Two Houses

Jackie becomes desperately involved in her projects. She’s likened it to the birth of a baby. It’s like being there for the delivery; she’s pushing and pulling and tugging.

Typical of many of Jackie’s rejection letters: “While I enjoy reading anything about Duchamp, I am afraid the feeling here is that the writing isn’t original enough to market it very well. What a shame, because the author has obviously worked so hard and done so much research. . . . Thank you again . . . and I do hope you will send me other manuscripts in the future.”

“What I like about being an editor is that it expands your knowledge and heightens your discrimination . . . I’m fascinated by hearing artists talk of their craft. To me, a wonderful book is one that takes me on a journey into something I didn’t know before.”

IV. An Office with a Window

Even before her promotion, Jackie had recruited one more author from her days at Viking. Eugene Kennedy. Political themes at Doubleday: “And I talked to Jackie on the phone. And I said to her, “I think I’d rather work with you on this.” So she said she was very delighted that I’d made that decision. . . . I just felt more comfortable sticking with her and going to Doubleday. I think she did spoil us in a way. I worked with a lot of different editors, and most of them deal with you with a sort of calculated indifference.

"The things she would talk about or want to change or question were whether the character would really react in this way or not react in that way. She would surprise you with a phone call, as she did me once on a Fourth of July evening, to tell you what she liked about your manuscript that she had spent several hours on that day. 'No woman would react that way to a man,' she once said of a female character who had responded passively to male indecision in Father’s Day. A real woman would kick him all over town."

Her eye for the telling details of existence had once motivated her to be a photographer. It served her and her authors well in the editing process. For most writers, being edited is like handing your firstborn over to a doctor you don’t trust for delicate surgery you don’t think is necessary in the first place. But I will always be grateful for her incisiveness.

V. Unseen Vistas and Avant-Gardens

George Hamilton— Jackie expressed interest in having him write a memoir. It was delivered overblown, presenting him as a major historical figure. “Hmm. He’s George Hamilton—not quite Alexander the Great.” A memoir that Dolly Parton was planning—“Well, it sounds like another cultural watershed.”

Louis Auchincloss recalled “She was pleased when I informed her that I had another book, False Dawn (1984), a series of biographical essays that I hoped she would publish: ‘I am so happy that we still have False Dawn ahead of us, as every step of Maverick in Mauve was such a joy. I have terrible withdrawal pangs and feel the depression people do at the end of making a movie— all the fun and excitement over, back to everyday plodding.’

[Jackie] . . .This is what I have decided I feel: it is a little too concentrated in spots, more for an English audience than an American one. Could you get a little more air flowing through it in places where information is more tightly packed? Could we have some lovely stories, some waspish stories?

"I want every chapter to be a novel so that I can know more about these people and imagine them in their setting, and of course, that is impossible to do in an essay. I do look forward to our lunch and am prepared to be told I am an utter dolt.”

[George Plimpton] Thinking back on it, I think one of the curious pleasures of doing a book with Jackie was that one felt part of a conspiracy—that somehow she had infiltrated into enemy territory and was there to guide her writers through the barbed wire and across the trenches. The editorial relationship was very personal. Her voice over the telephone was certainly conspiratorial: “I’m going to get you more money, but don’t tell anyone!” The author also noted that Jackie possessed a kind of oblique way of looking at things that was never solemn, as if humor was the best condition to face almost any situation.

Says Greg Lawrence, co-author of a book with Gelsey Kirkland about the dancer's life [Dancing on My Grave], "With great patience, our editor instructed us to tone down and soften the invective, and we relented, only later realizing how right she was."

In one of her many manuscript notes, Jackie wrote, “Delving too deeply into philosophy here? Cut — Especially quoting Stravinsky. Readers won’t be coming to this book expecting such a polemical work, and will be alienated. Include only as much as illustrates Gelsey’s developing creative attitudes and contributes to the story. Keep story in mind and omit anything that seems unnecessary. The reader, by this time, understands that Gelsey and Balanchine have inharmonious attitudes. Any more is overemphasizing the point . . . ‘I was trying to be a classical dancer on a modern stage.’ This encapsulates the point very well. The 20 preceding pages could be summed up with this one concise sentence."

Jackie was also right on the mark when she later cut the first draft of our six-hundred-page manuscript almost in half, though Gelsey and I found that awfully difficult to accept at the time. I remember wanting to argue with Jackie at times on the phone, but then being repeatedly disarmed by that voice of hers. Her most frequent editorial note, written over and over in the margins of our manuscript, was ‘Concision!’ It was a lesson that we slowly took to heart, and which made our future collaborations much easier. We began to understand, as far as the editing was concerned, how her mind worked.

[Jackie] Early anecdotes: Watch out for ones that aren’t needed, that detract from the impulsion of the story . . . Any autobiography that starts from childhood has this problem. What the first chapters do is: introduce you, your background, your temperament as a child, the family influences that shapes you—and then take us through the first part of your fascinating relationship with Balanchine. If this happens with fluidity, the reader will be HOOKED.

[Lawrence] We regarded her as our special friend and ally—She made us feel like what we were doing might actually be important. She was both an editor and a friend, and whenever the two roles came into conflict, the friendship always won out. Jackie called and insisted that Gelsey had to do additional press interviews. The next day Jackie sent a gigantic bouquet of roses and apologized, telling Gelsey, “I remember when Jack was running for the Senate, and they wanted me to do more publicity appearances, and I finally refused. That’s exactly what you did, Gelsey. I’m so sorry I tried to push you too far.”

[The Gelsey Kirkland book] It was Jackie’s first bestseller. How important that particular book was for her professionally and how she relished it as a personal victory. She was treated differently by the other editors now that she had a bestseller. Despite the furor over its more salacious material, the book generated heartfelt response from dancers, and that made her proud. She felt she got it right.

She made a point of saying, ‘Both my children read a lot as kids and still do.’ So reading—the act of reading—was really important to her. To me, that explained her passion for editing: She was fostering a cause she advocated deeply in her own life, with her own family, and for the general public. If she could keep someone reading, then she was succeeding.

Also in 1988, Jackie made an acquisition that even for her was a departure, one that surely challenged her more conservative colleagues. Larry Gonick, The Cartoon History of the Universe. In the course of soliciting promotional blurbs for the book, Jackie sent one to Ann Landers. Ann wrote back and said, “I won’t just blurb it, I’ll do you one better. I’ll plug it in my column in early December.” It was like an avalanche. And the fact is that those two books that she bought at Doubleday still sell, and Larry gets royalties every six months. All of that is a tribute to Jackie. She saw there would be an audience. “To be fair to the industry, there are people who care. But let’s not romanticize publishing. There’s always been an enormous volume of schlock. It’s always been a mix.”


Add comment

Security code