André Schiffrin, key figure in N.Y. publishing, dies at 78

December 3, 2013

André Schiffrin, the publisher of many celebrated writers at Pantheon Books, whose forced departure in 1990 became a cultural cause celebre as supporters charged his corporate bosses with stifling intellectual freedom, died Dec. 1 in Paris, where he had a home. He was 78.

His death was announced by the New Press, the publishing house Mr. Schiffrin had led since 1992. He had pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Schiffrin, whose father had worked in publishing in Paris before World War II, was born into an international milieu of authors, editors and political engagement. While still in his 20s, Mr. Schiffrin became the top editor at Pantheon, then an imprint of Random House known for its commitment to serious-minded literature.

At Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin published works by a galaxy of literary and intellectual luminaries, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureate Günter Grass. With his European sensibility and elegantly disheveled manner, Mr. Schiffrin seemed to embody the idea of publishing as a noble intellectual pursuit.

By his own admission, he paid only intermittent attention to the bottom line, believing that the value of literature could not be measured by immediate financial returns. Instead, Mr. Schiffrin sought to draw attention to writers and ideas that could have a lasting effect on the culture. He published the works of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, for instance, long before Foucault’s books became popular in college classrooms.


Andre Schiffrin, who was expelled from the corporate publishing world after fostering the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel and Noam Chomsky, died Dec. 1 in Paris. (Henri Zerdoun/AP)

For years, Pantheon’s expenses had been covered by other branches of the vast Random House business. But accountants began to look more closely at Pantheon’s ledgers after its parent company, Random House, was bought by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse Jr. in 1980.

Mr. Schiffrin’s empire of books came tumbling down in 1990, when his boss at Random House, Alberto Vitale, ordered him to cut his staff and reduce his list of titles.

Vitale said Pantheon was “publishing a lot of books that no one wanted to read” and was losing as much as $3 million a year. There were unconfirmed reports that Mr. Schiffrin was asked to publish more books with a right-leaning political slant instead of favoring books with a leftist point of view.

After refusing to trim his staff or cut his publishing list, Mr. Schiffrin was dismissed.

Outrage against Mr. Schiffrin’s corporate overlords immediately erupted, making the Pantheon case one of the most contentious intellectual disputes in decades. Most of the top editors quit in solidarity. Prominent writers signed letters of protest and picketed outside Random House headquarters.

While accepting a literary award, author E.L. Doctorow praised Pantheon as “a forum for the critical, the unpopular, the scholarly, the dissenting, the difficult, the impassioned, the contrary” and accused his own publisher, Random House, of a form of literary censorship.

Helen Wolff, who founded Pantheon with her husband, told The Washington Post in 1990, “I’m deeply sorry to see that a gifted publisher who comes from such a publishing milieu, whose father was a publisher, who has devoted his life to books, should be treated as if he were a shirt-dealer.”

A backlash soon emerged, charging that Pantheon and Mr. Schiffrin had been coddled too long. A group of Random House editors issued a statement that their books were just as distinguished as those published by Pantheon — and managed to turn a profit, as well.

“This was a great publishing institution,” Jason Epstein, a top Random House editor, said in 1991, “and I hated to see it abused by someone who had failed as a publisher.”

Less than two months after Mr. Schiffrin left Pantheon, one of the books he published, “And Their Children After Them,” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. The book, by Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson, explored the fate of the Alabama families depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 classic “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

“I would say,” Mr. Schiffrin said at the time, “the prize is a reaffirmation of what Pantheon had been doing.”

Andre Schiffrin was born June 14, 1935, in Paris, where his Russian-emigre father worked in publishing and was a co-founder of the renowned Pléiade editions of classic literature.

After the Nazi takeover of France in 1940, Mr. Schiffrin’s Jewish family fled to the United States. His father worked at Pantheon Books until his death in 1950.

Mr. Schiffrin, who grew up in New York, graduated with top honors from Yale University in 1957 and received a master’s degree in history in 1959 from the University of Cambridge in England. He was the first American to edit Cambridge’s literary journal, Granta.

Before joining Pantheon in 1962, Mr. Schiffrin worked at New American Library, where he had a major role in launching the Signet Classics line of paperbacks.

In 1992, Mr. Schiffrin co-founded the New Press with Diane Wachtell, another former Pantheon editor. Established as a nonprofit enterprise, New Press has published books by television personality Bill Moyers and writer Alice Walker, as well as John W. Dower’s “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2000. Mr. Schiffrin continued to lead New Press until his death.

Pantheon is now part of the Knopf Doubleday publishing group.

Mr. Schiffrin’s survivors include his wife of 52 years, Maria Elena de la Iglesia of New York and Paris; two daughters, Natalia Schiffrin and Anya Schiffrin, who is married to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz; and three grandchildren.

In his later years, Mr. Schiffrin wrote several books and essays that recounted his personal history and outlined his views on publishing.

“Book publishing in North American and Europe has changed more in the past decade than in the preceding 100 years,” he wrote in a 1999 essay, “and not — so far — for the better. A major cause of the decline is the number of publishing houses absorbed by conglomerates whose managements have no experience — and often little interest — in books.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=books}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, moderationrequired=false, display_more=true, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, includepause=true, display_ugc_photos=false, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, moderationrequired=false, display_more=true, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, includepause=true, display_ugc_photos=false, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=books}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, moderationrequired=false, display_more=true, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, includepause=true, display_ugc_photos=false, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, moderationrequired=false, display_more=true, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, includepause=true, display_ugc_photos=false, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment