George Braziller - founder of the eponymous publishing house known for art books and exceptional foreign authors - greeted guests at the Salmagundi Art Club last week with a firm handshake.The occasion was his 90th birthday party, organized by his family and attended by authors and friends eager to pay tribute.
That loyalty, as a fine arts photographer and former editor of the Book of the Month Club, Gloria Norris,explained, lies in his total commitment to each and every book published under his auspices. He courted authors, traveled to Europe to oversee printing, and shepherded the results into bookstores. "A Braziller book really is a Braziller book," Ms. Norris said.
His attention to detail was rivaled only by his ability to select authors, such as Claude Mauriac, David Malouf, and Janet Frame. And by bringing that talent to the printed page, George Braziller Inc. made its name. "While I knew New York to be the publishing capital of the world, I did not believe it to be the literary capital," Mr. Braziller said. "So it was in Europe, Africa and Australia that I started searching for authors to build up a publishing house. I sought out writers of diversity who were struggling with the complexities of their individual world and of our own common one."
As a young man, Mr. Braziller climbed up from poverty after dropping out of school in the 10th grade during the Depression and enduring a stepfather who took little interest in him. The future publisher worked as a shipping clerk before starting the Book Find Club, which distributed literature by mail, in the early 1940s. In 1955, he founded his own publishing concern.
His eye for talent helped established him quickly. In 1958, he published French novelist Nathalie Sarraute's "Portrait of a Man Unknown," after the book was refused everywhere in America. The publisher once told the writer that at the time, her books were called "Braziller's folly." But as Adrienne Baxter Bell,aformer editor at Braziller, recalled, Sarraute wrote in response: "But you went on being so reckless and never refused any of my books, in spite of the difficulty of finding readers for them."
His shop also attracted a young generation of editors. Richard Seaver, who was hired as an inexperienced young editor for the Book Find Club, went on to found Arcade Publishing.At the party, Mr. Seaver recalled a time when he could find no selection for the book club. Mr. Braziller invited the young man into his book-lined office in Park Avenue South. "He got up on the ladder, and he began tossing books at me. 'Here try this. Here, what about this?'" Mr. Seaver recalled. After doing this with six or seven books, "He said, 'Read them all and bring them in tomorrow morning.' I picked the one I thought was the best, and George said, 'That's no good' and chose the book that he wanted," Mr. Seaver said.
As Ms. Bell describes it, her schedule at the publishing house was like a metaphysical roller coaster. "One day you'd be checking proofs for a illustrated book on Japanese women poets. The next day, you're reading the text of a facsimile of a Spanish medieval manuscript for the Morgan Library. The following day - more like the following hour - you'd be faxing customs papers for a shipment of books on Richard Long's environmental art and then writing flap copy for a novel by Orhan Pamuk."
Not one to publish safe titles, Mr. Braziller received kudos for his risks. "Fifty years ago,"poet Richard Howard said,"I was at a party at East Hampton. Barney Rosset said, 'This is George Braziller. He wants to know about Claude Simon.'" Mr. Braziller ended up publishing the French novelist - who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985 - with Mr. Howard as the translator.Later,Mr.Howard also edited a poetry series for the publisher that introduced new poets, each of whom had to be "launched in very shallow waters indeed, as well as chilly."
Poet Charles Simic told The New York Sun, via telephone, that despite a career of great accomplishment, Mr. Braziller was one of the most modest human beings and also a "dashing fellow." Indeed, Victoria Wilson of Alfred A. Knopf told the Sun that aside from all the talk that evening about Mr. Braziller's elegant publishing and courage with which he published, George and his late wife Marsha were "two of the most glamorous people. They were absolutely drop-dead gorgeous."
And Mr. Braziller did not ignore the world outside of books. His son Joel Braziller recalled wading barefoot up to his waist in the muck of Chilmark Pond on clamming excursions. His father had taught him "the feel 'em with your feet technique," said.
He said his father's devotion to furthering literature and art through his publishing was often at the expense of personal material gain. "I remember dad saying at a gathering that all he ever wanted to do with his money he made from publishing was plow it back into new books," he said. "So now you know why dad is a great publisher, and we don't have that lovely house at the edge of Menemsha Creek - which our family rented for a few summers and could have bought in 1952 for $12,000."
Gentle ribbing did not offend pere Braziller, who said that 10 years ago at his 80th birthday, he stood before many of those present and related an anecdote about one of his authors, the late Columbia University art historian Meyer Schapiro. "Meyer was 90 at the time. He and I were talking one day, when he suddenly looked at me and asked how old I was. When I told him I was 80, he sighed and said, 'Oh, to be 80 again.' Now that it's my turn to be 90, I'd like to use this occasion to invite all of you for my 100th birthday. On that occasion, I will sigh, 'Oh, to be 90 again.'"
A Poem for a Legend
Poet Charles Simic wrote this poem in tribute to publisher George Braziller:
How to the invisible
I hired myself to learn
Whatever trade it might Consent to teach me.
How the invisible
Came out for a walk
On a certain evening
Casting the shadow of a man.
How I followed behind
Dragging my body
Which is my toolbox,
Which is my music box,
For a long apprenticeship
That has as its last
And seventh rule:
The submission to chance.