Podcast 001: The Best of Humanity

In This Episode: While the stories in This is True usually point out the pitfalls of not thinking, the Honorary Unsubscribe holds up the best of humanity, which often means someone who exhibited Uncommon Sense on a regular basis. This episode not only features a interesting example, but adds some extra details and commentary.

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Judith Jones at work. (Photo: Knopf. Click to see larger.)

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Transcript

While the stories in This is True usually point out the pitfalls of not thinking (or “obliviots doing stupid things”), the publication’s nearly weekly side feature, the Honorary Unsubscribe, holds up the best of humanity. This episode not only features an interesting example, but adds some extra details and commentary.

I’m Randy Cassingham, and welcome to Uncommon Sense.

Some readers actually like the Honorary Unsubscribe more than the meat of every issue: the stories. While the stories point out the pitfalls of not thinking — or as I sometimes stay, are about obliviots doing stupid things — the Honorary Unsubscribe holds up the best of humanity, as a sort of antidote to the stories. The Honorary Unsubscribe is an obituary of someone who died, usually sometime in the previous week to ten days before the week’s stories were written, and is typically about someone who was incredibly cool. Or, as I put it on the Honorary Unsubscribe web site, “the people you will wish you had known.”

I think society lionizes the wrong people: famous actors or athletes who, sure, do a great job of entertaining us — and collecting massive salaries before going to prison for being caught thinking they can do anything they want. But I think there are better heroes to look up to, and that’s what the Honorary Unsubscribe is about. I write about one such person pretty much every week. The Honorary Unsubscribe is the upturn, if you will, at the end of the newsletter.

So I’m actually going to read you an installment to show how you might benefit from being in the right place at the right time, but that’s still not enough: you also have to have the guts to stand up for what you believe in, or maybe exhibit some Uncommon Sense — because if you do, you can utterly change the world.

And that’s what happened with the honoree I’m speaking of here, Judith Jones. Here’s what I wrote about her:

A book editor, Jones got her start at Doubleday when still in school. After college, she stayed with Doubleday, and spent time in Paris as a reader — checking out submitted books to see if they had potential. Her boss gave her a stack of manuscripts with instructions to send rejection letters to all of them, but one caught her attention. “I started reading that book and I didn’t stop all afternoon. I was in tears when my boss came back,” she said years later. “I said, ‘This book is going to New York and has got to be published.’ And he said: ‘What? That book by that kid?!’” Yes, she said, and that’s how ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ — which Doubleday titled ‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl’ — came to be published in the United States in 1952.

In 1957, Jones moved to the Alfred Knopf publishing house, where she quickly rose to editor. Among her first authors was a young guy named John Updike; she ushered his “Rabbit, Run” to press in 1960, and Updike became one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once (for the sequels “Rabbit Is Rich” in 1982, and 1990’s “Rabbit at Rest”). Jones, meanwhile, found she had been spoiled by the good food in Paris, so she took on an unknown author writing about how to cook French food, even though the author had been rejected by several Knopf competitors, and even though the author was already looked at with suspicion because she was (gasp!) a woman! — Julia Child, who had also come to love good cooking while living in Paris, and whose Jones-edited 1961 book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” not only launched the United States into a food revolution (helped along by several other Jones-edited books for other cuisines, such as Italian), it launched Child to TV chef stardom. Jones also wrote her own cookbooks, and received the 2006 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award — a bit of an irony, since James Beard was one of her authors too. Jones retired from Knopf in 2011, after more than 50 years with the company, and died August 2, 2017, at her Vermont home, from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 93.

Like the main This is True stories, I keep the Honorary Unsubscribe write-ups reasonably brief. The way I choose them is, are these people I wish I could have sat down with for a conversation? Are they, as I say in the marketing for their book collections, “the people you wish you had known”?

Obviously my write-ups can’t possibly cover their entire lives: a 600-page biography wouldn’t, and a 2- to 300-word obituary obviously never can either. What I’m trying to do is present a brief flavor of what made them interesting to me, so that maybe you’ll get a taste of the contribution they made to the world, and why I chose them to honor.

So here’s a little bit more about Judith Jones that I found interesting that didn’t make it into my brief writeup.

The first little tidbit is that Anne Frank was Dutch, and the translator who did the English translation of her diary, for British publisher Vallentine, Mitchell & Company, was named Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday. I assume it’s a weird coincidence that her name was Doubleday, and the American publisher Doubleday was the company Jones worked for!

Also, when Jones sent the book to the New York office, she said later, “I made the book quite important because I was so taken with it, and I felt it would have a real market in America. It’s one of those seminal books that will never be forgotten.” Right she was, and the book was a huge success for Doubleday: since then, it has sold around 35 million copies.

But the first thing I wondered, but didn’t find any reference to confirm, was why Jones left Doubleday for Knopf a few years after the diary was published. Based on her editor’s reaction that the book was written by “that kid,” my supposition is that after she rescued the book from the discard pile at Doubleday’s Paris office, and saw it become an international best-selling sensation, I’m thinking that Jones wasn’t really recognized or rewarded for what she did, probably because she was a mere female. When she saw her chance to become an editor, not just a reader, at Knopf, she jumped ship, quickly rose to editor and, after proving herself again and again, she rose to Vice President of the company, and she stayed there for more than 50 years in return loyalty. What a waste that Doubleday was apparently so short-sighted to discriminate against Jones over a book based on …religious discrimination. And sure enough, they lost her to the competition. We’re so slow to learn.

But Jones herself? She today provides us a superb example of Uncommon Sense.

After Anne Frank died, apparently from typhus, a bacterial infection spread by body lice — which was certainly rampant at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp — the physical diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, a secretary of the business in Amsterdam where the Frank family had hidden from the Nazis. When he was himself released from Auschwitz when Germany surrendered, Gies gave the book to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor. Miep Gies, by the way, was the Honorary Unsubscribe honoree in January 2010, and that writeup will be in the upcoming fifth volume of the Honorary Unsubscribe book collections.

Now, Jones is interesting enough in that she saved the Diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile at a publishing house. But that was far from the end of her contributions to the world. By nurturing John Updike, and guiding his books to publication, she helped him become one of the great American writers of his era, as evidenced by his winning two Pulitzer Prizes. He described his own style as an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” That’s an incredible thought, and boy did he succeed at that.

And it makes me wonder: how much did his editor — Judith Jones — help with that? I’ve worked with a giant publishing house editor: my “True Stella Awards” book was published by Dutton, one of the biggest of the big New York publishing houses, originally founded in 1852. Before I worked with them, they merged with Penguin, which was founded in 1935. And I’ll tell you that my editor there, Mitch Hoffman, gave me some big picture ideas that made my book much better. And I only did one book with him! As an author myself, I can tell you that it would be incredible to have worked with an editor like Jones on book after book; an editor who helps you get your head out of your computer to see the bigger picture.

A good editor is like a coach for a star athlete. The athlete still has to do the work to win the race or the games, but it’s the coach who gets them there. And she must have had a light hand as a coach. Anne Tyler, also a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, known for books like “The Accidental Tourist” and “Breathing Lessons”, was also one of Jones’s authors. Tyler said that as an editor, Jones was “very delicate and graceful, almost weightless.” But she guided more than one author to absolute stardom.

Which makes me wonder who Jones’s coach was — her editor. I mentioned in her writeup that she wrote cookbooks of her own, which were so good that she was given the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. That award is given to someone “whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America,” the Foundation says. But do the math: at that point Jones was 82 years old, and still five years from retirement!

Not only did Jones write her own cookbooks, including, after her husband died, “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” (a bittersweet title if I’ve ever heard one), she created the Knopf Cooks American series: 18 volumes that celebrated different styles of American cooking to open American eyes to the good food in their own country, from barbecue, to the Dungeness crabs and blackberry cobblers of the northeast, Gulf Coast gumbo and key lime pie, regional sausages, Latin American influences, even the rebirth of the craft beer phenomenon long before it was the big deal it is today. What a visionary and, indeed, “a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.”

You may have even seen her (sort of) on the big screen: in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia,” about how a blogger named Julie re-created the recipes Julia Child presented in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Jones was played by actress Erin Dilly.

Anne Tyler, though, rolled her eyes at the way Jones was portrayed in the film: in one scene, she cancels coming to dinner at an author’s house because it’s raining. That’s “stupid,” Tyler says, because “Judith Jones would go through a blizzard” to be with an author at an important event.

Yeah, I would have liked to have met Judith Jones.

Thanks for dropping in this week. The Show Page has a link to Jones’s Honorary Unsubscribe, as well as a photo of her. It’s all at thisistrue.com/podcast1 — that’s the digit 1.

To get a heads up on new Honorary Unubscribes as they’re issued, you can also subscribe to the This is True newsletter on that page.

I’m Randy Cassingham… and I’ll talk at you later.

2 thoughts on “Podcast 001: The Best of Humanity

  1. Randy, all I can say is WOW! What a wonderful Podcast!

    Thanks — and I think #2 (coming next week) is even better, since it has a “lesson learned” at the end. 🙂 -rc

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