Podcast 006: The Best of Humanity

In This Episode: While the stories in This is True usually point out the pitfalls of not thinking (or “obliviots doing stupid things”), the Honorary Unsubscribe holds up the best of humanity. This episode not only features a interesting example, but adds some extra details and commentary.

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Show Notes

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

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Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the podcast where we get a little deeper into the stories from the ThisIsTrue.com email newsletter. I’m Randy Cassingham, and I’m alone this week, so I’m going to try something a little bit different. I’ll still be digging deeper into a story, but this week, I want to talk about one of TRUE’s sub-features.

Some readers actually like the Honorary Unsubscribe more than 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: it’s an obituary of someone who died, usually sometime in the previous week to ten days before the week’s stories were written.

I think society lionizes the wrong people: famous actors or athletes who, yes, 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 I write about one of them pretty much every week. And that’s the Honorary Unsubscribe, which is included in the email newsletter.

So I’m actually going to read you this week’s 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, because if you do, you can utterly change the world.

And that’s what happened with this week’s honoree, Judith Jones.

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 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 pretty 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-up can’t cover their entire lives: a 600-page biography wouldn’t, and a 2- to 300-word brief 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.

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 who 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 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. 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, then Vice President of the company, and she stayed there for more than 50 years in return loyalty. What a waste that Doubleday was so short-sighted to discriminate against Jones over a book based on …religious discrimination. We’re so slow to learn.

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. Gies gave the book to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor, just after the war was over. 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 win 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 she 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. There’s a link on the show page to Jones’s Honorary Unsubscribe at thisistrue.com slash Podcast 6 — that’s the digit 6. Next week, Clare Angelica will be back, and we’ll take a deep dive into a couple of stories from the This is True newsletter, so be sure to subscribe so that episode automatically shows up in your podcast app. And if you’re not already a subscriber to the This is True email newsletter, you might want to try a subscription to that, too, at thisistrue.com. I’m Randy Cassingham… and I’ll talk at you later.

Originally posted 10 August 2017

8 thoughts on “Podcast 006: The Best of Humanity

  1. Nice. It’s the other, background, ‘in depth’ tidbits that help flesh out the lives and circumstances of almost anything/anyone historical. I know a lot of work goes into finding the background info, confirming the facts, etc. I’ll spend hours upon hours researching people and things that interest me… then try to condense it into a small posting on our Historical Site. I think this podcast worked well, it made me interested in a person I would never have heard of and her contributions to what actually had impacts on our lives. Anne Frank’s Diary is required reading in school. That’s an Impact!

    • I loved this podcast. I’ve loved reading about people’s lives and achievements since I was a child. This podcast was right up my alley. It brought to light previously unknown (to me) information on the Diary of Anne Frank and Julia Child’s cookbook while highlighting the life of someone I’d only heard of previously just in passing. It also fleshed out more info. on one of your excellent Unsubscribed.

  2. This is excellent. I really appreciate your Honorary Unsubs for both learning more about people I already know of (quite a few of those I’ve read since subscribing) and others who are not so well known but should be. Having a little more detail tossed in during a podcast is a welcome addition.

    I’m definitely on the bus with this feature.

  3. Wow! This is really excellent work. Great material and wonderful speaking voice, made for radio, and podcasts. I cannot wait to buy the best of Honorary Unsubscribes CD’s to share as gifts next year.

    I have Honorary Unsubscribe books coming in ebook and paperback (and four are already out, in Kindle format). Audio CDs, if they ever come, will be much later. But thanks for your kind words. -rc

  4. Though this format is great, I also really liked it when you gave insights to your life. Perhaps you could go back and forth, doing one in-depth podcast on a story or Honorary Unsubscribe, then the next on something interesting from your life. On the other hand, perhaps two segments in each podcast. Either way, being a premium subscriber, I will continue to both read and listen.

  5. As with the other podcasts, very interesting and entertaining.

    One technical request: even with your high quality work, I occasionally want to skip over a section, but this is quite difficult to control with the very short progress slider. Would you please make it a lot longer?

    I can’t: that’s entirely controlled by your browser. All I do is create an “HTML 5 call” to your browser, and it does the rest. Most podcast apps, though, have quick forward/back buttons (usually 15 seconds) to make it easy, so if you have a tablet or smartphone, that’s the “usual” way of listening. -rc

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