Simon Michael Bessie, 92; Book Publisher Led Atheneum

Simon Michael Bessie published 8 Nobel winners.
Simon Michael Bessie published 8 Nobel winners. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Simon Michael Bessie, 92, a gentlemanly book publisher who guided the literary efforts of eight Nobel Prize winners and who helped shape Theodore H. White's landmark "The Making of the President" series of campaign histories, died April 7 at his home in Lyme, Conn. His wife would not disclose the cause of death.

Mr. Bessie was a founder of Atheneum Publishers in 1959 and was known for producing high-quality literature and books of timely public interest. Before and after his 16 years at the helm of Atheneum, he held key positions at Harper & Row.

Mr. Bessie published books by four recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize: Anwar Sadat, the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev's 1988 memoirs, "Perestroika," appeared only after stealthy international arrangements worthy of a John le Carré novel.

In 1987, Mr. Bessie was in delicate negotiations for Gorbachev's book when conservative Rupert Murdoch bought Harper & Row, the company Mr. Bessie worked for at the time. Mr. Bessie had dealt with Soviet officials in coded language and traveled to Leningrad to pick up the manuscript for "Perestroika," which Gorbachev had written in secret.

When Murdoch learned of Mr. Bessie's project, he fumed: "You mean you're going to give Gorbachev $500,000 for a lot of Communist propaganda?"

Murdoch calmed down when the book became, in Mr. Bessie's words, "an immense success. . . . It made millions."

During his five-decade career, Mr. Bessie published such esteemed authors as John Cheever, Edward Albee, Oriana Fallaci and former Supreme Court justices William O. Douglas and William Brennan, as well as Nobel laureates Miguel Asturias, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Sir Peter Medawar. In 1968, he published the best-selling "The Double Helix," by James D. Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his co-discovery of DNA.

One of Mr. Bessie's most lasting contributions, however, came with his early championing of journalist and novelist Theodore H. White. Other publishers had balked at publishing White's microscopically thorough coverage of the 1960 presidential campaign. But Mr. Bessie, then launching Atheneum, sensed that White could produce a memorable work of genuine literary merit.

"It was to be a study of how the ultimate power in American life is gotten, is seized," Mr. Bessie told The Washington Post's Robert G. Kaiser in 1988. "I told him I thought it was a tremendous idea."

With unparalleled access to the inner workings of the campaigns, White wrote what was, in effect, a nonfiction novel about the election in which John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon.

The resulting book, "The Making of the President, 1960," became a bestseller, and Mr. Bessie helped White produce sequels for the next three presidential elections. With its emphasis on drama and colorful anecdote and its searching look at the electoral process, "The Making of the President" series forever changed political journalism in the United States.

Mr. Bessie was born in New York on Jan. 23, 1916, and entered journalism after graduating from Harvard in 1936. Two years later, he wrote a book about tabloid newspapers called "Jazz Journalism."

He worked in the movie business and for Look magazine before becoming an information officer during World War II. While working at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, he met a publisher who offered him a job at Harper Bros. He started in 1946.

Mr. Bessie thrived at Harper, but he did admit to the occasional lapse, most notably his decision to pass on Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita." It wasn't that he objected to the story of a middle-aged man's obsession with a 12-year-old girl, but he "thought it inferior Nabokov," Mr. Bessie said in a 1997 interview with the online publication Archipelago.

"Six months later, I picked it up," he added, "and I can't believe that I had let that book go out of our hands. It's a great book."

In 1959, Mr. Bessie founded Atheneum with Hiram Haydn and Alfred A. Knopf Jr. and built it into a house known for literary quality. He returned to Harper in 1975, then formed an independent imprint at Harper, Cornelia and Michael Bessie Books, with his wife in 1981. After leaving Harper in 1991, they took their imprint to Pantheon and later to PublicAffairs publishers before retiring about eight years ago.

Mr. Bessie's marriage to Constance Ernst Bessie ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Cornelia Bessie of Lyme; and two children from his first marriage, Nicholas Bessie of Tucson and Katherine Bessie of Boston.

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