George Braziller is one of the great publishers of our time, and he takes deserved pride in his remarkable contribution to the cultural and scholarly world.
DAVID FINN: You and I have been friends for a long time, and I'm delighted to have a chance to interview you for MOVE!. I have been interviewing friends who are 90 years old or older, I guess because I'm getting close to that age myself. I'm 85 years old, and I enjoy interviewing distinguished people who are doing well in their later years. The achievements of active people like you who are 90 or older are an inspiration. You have long been recognized as one of the great figures in the book publishing world, and I'd like to begin by asking you how you got started.
GEORGE BRAZILLER: My start in publishing came out of a job that I was lucky to get as a shipping clerk in a book company dealing in publishers' overstock, known as remainders. I was 18 at the time, and while working there I was amazed that books could be bought and sold for as little as 10 or 15 cents a copy books by leading authors at the time.
So after a year of learning how to tie cartons and pack books, I went up to my boss and asked for a dollar raise. He said no, so I quit. It was while working on that job that I got the idea to start a book club, so the Book Find club was born. Through my years of experience in the book club, I decided to go into book publishing. And here we are now celebrating our 50th anniversary.
DF: Tell me about your childhood, your family, your schooling.
GB: My parents came from Russia. I never knew my father he died when my mother was pregnant with me. I was told that he was a heavy smoker and died at an early age. When my parents immigrated, my mother was about 19 years old and totally illiterate. She couldn't read, but somehow she managed to raise a family of seven children, working and earning a living and taking care of us. None of my brothers and sisters finished school; they all went out to work at an early age.
I was the youngest of the family. What I remember most about my childhood was the chaos of living with my four brothers and two sisters, all of us in three rooms, of which the kitchen was one. I barely knew my mother at the time, as she was always away working to support the family. My two sisters seemed to raise me. The household was a mess; it was a raucous but happy one.
DF: Where did you live at the time?
GB: We lived in a place called East New York, on the border with Queens. At the time, I recall most of the street names were Dutch. The community consisted of Jews on one street, Poles on another, Italians on still another. My neighbors were all immigrants and the children were all first generation.
We had no TV or radio, so social life was on the stoop. Families knew each other and protected each other's children. The houses were all attached the whole way down the street and on hot summer nights, everyone would head up to the rooftop and spread out blankets to sleep. We young kids would run up and down, jumping over people, mixing and having fun. I remember very little feeling of racial tension or anger. I do remember a fear of the rigid teachers at P.S. 149, where I went to school.
My mother worked all week, but on weekends, we would walk out to the farms abutting Jamaica Bay with pails to buy milk, or we would buy food from the pushcarts near where we lived on Bradford Street. The big excitement in the summer was heading out to Coney Island on a Saturday or Sunday; it was a big event for us. When it was very hot, the fire department would set up showers in the streets for the kids to play in. We were all poor, but the immigrants really brought so much with them.
DF: Your mother must have been a remarkable woman, working full time to make a living and bringing up seven kids at the same time without any help.
GB: I hardly knew my mother up until the time she remarried and we went to live in Huntington, on Long Island. Until then, my sisters raised me while my mother worked. My world collapsed one day when my mother introduced me to a strange man and said to me, "Meet your new father." I burst out crying and yelling, for I had never in all the years of my life heard the word "father." I rushed out of the house to where my sister lived and begged her to let me stay with her, to no avail.
Only in Huntington, when my mother and I were alone, did I get to know her. I recall her loneliness living in Huntington, where there were very few Jewish families. She could barely speak English. I recall her begging me to help her learn to read and write. I was only nine. But I did help her to go to night school to learn to read, and she did. The high point for her was the day she went to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When we moved to Long Island, I was about nine years of age, and like my siblings before me, I would work after school and before school. There were only about thirty or forty Jewish families in Huntington. I often think about that small community. I remember that in order to hold religious services on Friday nights, there had to be 10 adults to attend. I was about 13, so I was badly needed, and they would come looking for me to convince me to go to services. I would hide, and they would find me and give me a bribe; a piece of chocolate or something like that.
When I was 16 or 17, my stepfather died, and we moved back to Brooklyn. It was then that I started to live alone, looking for work, up until the time I found a job with a book company.
DF: Were you interested in books when you were a youngster? GB: My real interest in books began with my first job in a book company. I would read as often as I could; popular books, whatever I thought was "educational." I eventually replaced most of that material with newspapers and magazines as I became involved in the politics of the left during the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi period in Germany. It was also the time of the Scottsboro Boys.
When I was about 21, the Spanish Civil War broke out. I was living alone in Brooklyn and was essentially unemployed, picking up odd jobs to keep going. Like many people, I was unaware of politics and world events. I didn't know anything about the situation in Spain when the war broke out.
But Brooklyn was a very political community, and I witnessed many demonstrations in support of the elected government of Spain. At one demonstration, I was approached by activists who explained what was going on and asked if I wanted to do something. I was taken aback, but I was intrigued. I was living alone and had very few friends, and the issue became attractive to me; it gave me something to do and something to be a part of. I threw myself into it. It brought me to the point where I volunteered to go fight in Spain as a part of what was called the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." You needed a passport to go, and after the interview with the authorities, my passport application was denied.
DF: You have often talked about your wife, who I know died some time ago. Can you tell me something about her?
GB: In many ways, I am indebted to my wife. It is due to her that I was able to continue working in publishing. When I was drafted during the war and was away for two and a half years, she raised our son, Jim, and ran the Book Find Club. She also later started a children's imprint, Venture Books, and she continued to work while fighting off a terrible illness until it struck her down after five years of struggle.
DF: Everyone in the book business knows about the great books you have published. How did all that come about?
GB: To answer this question, I have to say that the I had little formal education and never specialized in any specific discipline. It helped me to be open to whatever seemed new to me. I love art, literature, music, etc., and in running a publishing house, I felt a responsibility to get below the surface. I called on many people in diverse fields who came to my aid. It has been a wild ride over the past fifty years to see what a little publishing house can do as a catalyst.
DF: When I look at the bookshelves in your office, I see great books of Egyptian art, Renaissance art, Medieval art, contemporary art that you have published. It's amazing to think of the contribution you have made with those many different books over the years.
GB: I always tried to publish books that were a little different from what had been published in the past. For example, one of my most rewarding experiences was publishing a series of the twenty of the greatest illuminated manuscripts. We published a new manuscript every year for twenty years. We sold over 100,000 copies all over the world, and many great libraries have them in their collections.
DF: How did you get interested in medieval manuscripts.?
GB: I read a review by John Canaday in the New York Times of a medieval manuscript at the Morgan Library called "Catherine of Cleves." I had never seen a medieval manuscript before, but I decided to drop in at the Morgan Library during a lunch hour and look at the book. I was stunned. I thought I had never seen such beauty in my life. I immediately went into the office and said I wanted to publish that book. I did, and it was a sensation. It stayed in print for 30 or 40 years. I was thrilled to be able to reproduce the images in exactly the same size as the original and in many colors including gold. That's how I got interested in medieval manuscripts.
DF: I have long admired the Andre Malraux books you published about the art of different periods of history. I have some of them in my library and think they are wonderful.
GB: I'm very proud of those books. We had help from curators in many museums all over the world to make sure we were not overlooking an important work. Every museum we approached cooperated with us.
DF: There must have been a lot of books that you published that you didn't make money on but were proud of. Do you think there has been anyone else like you in the publishing business?
GB: Yes, there were books that made money and allowed us to pay for others which lost money. You never know beforehand, as with most business ventures. I know there have been many like me in the publishing world.
DF: I imagine that some of the books you were proud of didn't make money. Did you ever get funding from foundations or others to help cover the costs of your book?
GB: No, we didn't. We were, after all, a commercial publisher; even had we applied for something like that, we would have been turned down.
DF: You have told me about some books that you were especially proud to publish. Thinking back over the years, which ones stand out in your mind?
GB: I have been proud of many over the years. I am especially proud of our list of distinguished international authors, which includes four who went on to win the Nobel Prize, including the most recent winner, Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey.
I am also very proud of our medieval manuscripts, our series on frescoes, our Arts of Mankind series, our architecture titles, and the exceptional works of Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall that we have published.
DF: I see that impressive book on Jacopo Bellini on your shelf. There must be a story about that one too.
GB: This was another book that I was very proud of, Jacopo Bellini's drawings. It was his sketch book that was in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The sketches were in black and white on parchment, but to reproduce the subtlety of the drawings we printed it in four colors! We printed only 3,000 copies, but it is extraordinary. Every page is exactly the size of the original because we learned how to clone. In other words, if we were simply to bleed the page, we would have had to cut into it and lose the images at the edge. But with the cloning technique we could bring the print to the edge so when it was trimmed nothing was cut out. It's a facsimile reproduction in every respect. Even if there was very little in the back of the page, we printed it exactly as it was. We didn't want to lose anything. This is one of the greatest books on drawings ever created.
DF: Do you think you made money on this book?
GB: I don't remember. But I'm very proud of it.
DF: Did you know a lot about Bellini's work before you published the book?
GB: Not as much as I would have liked. But there are a lot of works we have published that I didn't know as much as I would have liked. For instance, we published a series of 10 volumes on Renaissance frescoes, and I didn't know a lot about them. I had been to Italy and had a great time there, so I knew a little about frescoes. I knew enough to love publishing those 10 volumes. I also don't know as much as I would like about medieval manuscripts, but I loved publishing them. The same is true about drawings. I'm not what you would call an expert in depth about any of them. But I have published great books in all those fields. People ask me how I can publish such a wide range of books, from medieval manuscripts to Helen Frankenthaler and Pollock. But that's what I love to do.
DF: How many books do you publish a year? GB:We don't publish nearly as many as we used to. We do about eight books a year. But we still make a small profit because of our backlist.
DF: It sounds as if at the age of 90 you are continuing to do what you always loved to do. You feel just as enthusiastic about new idea as you always have and are continuing to look forward to publishing great books.
GB: Perhaps I have slowed down a little, but I still love what I always loved to do.