André Schiffrin, the Publisher Who Knew When the Party Was Over

Remembering a Literary Man

ABC.es

By Benjamin Ivry

Published December 04, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

André Schiffrin, who died on December 1 of pancreatic cancer at age 78, made a lasting impression as longtime managing director of publishing at Pantheon Books, followed by his co-founding The New Press, a not-for-profit. Yet as Schiffrin, born in France of Russian Jewish origin, recounted in his memoir, “A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York’ (Melville House, 2007), one of his life’s lessons was the inevitability of some Jewish family traditions.

His father Jacques, born in Russia in 1892, arrived in 1920 in Paris, where he launched his own publishing house, eventually merging with the prestigious Editions Gallimard to direct la bibliothèque de la Pléiade, a still-thriving series of classics of French literature. The elder Schiffrin also made close friendships among Gallic literati, not least the novelist André Gide, who reportedly called Jacques Schiffrin the “only Jew I was ever really fond of.” Gide proved his feelings by helping to arrange and finance the Schiffrin family’s escape from Occupied France with the help of the American journalist Varian Fry’s rescue network in Vichy France, which also rescued Marc Chagall, among others. Publishing Resistance texts in New York, including those written by Joseph Kessel, another Frenchman of Russian Jewish origin, Jacques Schiffrin wrote regularly to his friend Gide, in moving letters published only in 2005, about how much he missed his adopted land of France. As if realizing the party was over, he never returned there even after the war, focusing instead on a new job at Pantheon Books until his death in 1950.

In the late 1940s, the Schiffrin family did send the teenaged André, by then an assimilated New Yorker, back to see how the old country had fared in wartime, as Schiffrin described it in “A Political Education,” like the dove sent from Noah’s ark to see what remained of life after the Flood. Remaining faithful to the French literary culture which had inspired his father, Schiffrin was an avid promoter of French literature when he in turn was hired by Pantheon Books, abandoning plans to study for a Ph.D and write a dissertation on the trial of the French Jewish Prime Minister Léon Blum at Riom in central France during the Occupation.

Also creative with American authors, Schiffrin would tell the Chicago Jewish journalist Studs Terkel to transform his popular radio programs into books of interviews. As Terkel later told an interviewer, Schiffrin was the one responsible for Terkel’s writing his bestsellers “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” and “Division Street: America”. In the mid-1960s, Schiffrin had published the leftist Swedish author Jan Myrdal’s “Report From a Chinese Village” and suggested that Terkel create a report from the American village of Chicago, as well as a record of the by-then forgotten time of human suffering, the Depression. Schiffrin also published such diverse American Jewish authors as Noam Chomsky and Art Spiegelman.

Like his father, ever-alert to when the party was over, Schiffrin wrote books and gave interviews to warn of present-day dangers of publishing houses owned by massive conglomerates, the death of independent bookstores, and other perils to democratic discourse. In a 2012 interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur,” Schiffrin announced that in terms of the future of books, he was a “pessimist,” given the corporate necessity today at big houses of earning a profit on every title published: “Today, Kafka would be sent a rejection slip,” he noted drily.

A belated bright spot in this gloomy overall picture occurred in 2011, when the French Embassy of New York finally decided to honor Schiffrin while also, as François Delattre, France’s Ambassador to the United States, put it, acknowledging the “wrong done to Jacques Schiffrin.” While better than nothing, this gesture was in the classic too little, too late style of Gallic remorse for France’s treatment of its Jews. Enjoying himself despite the impending doom awaiting small presses, Schiffrin was known for his glitzy parties at his Upper West Side penthouse (over the past decade he spent half of each year in an apartment in the old Jewish neighborhood of Paris, le Marais). Celebrating tradition while cultural standards collapsed around him, André Schiffrin remained very much his father’s son.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.