Kurt and Helen Wolff

Kurt Wolff and Helen Wolff founded Pantheon Books Inc. in 1942.

Updated: June 19, 2012

“Heaven didn’t beckon. Heaven kicked.”[1]—What Helen Wolff (born July 27, 1906 in Vranjska-Banja, Serbia; died March 29, 1994 in Hanover, NH) considered as a motto for the successful publishing career she and her husband pursued in the United States, having fled Europe in 1941, applied not only to their entrepreneurial beginnings but also to their ends. They would not have founded Pantheon Books Inc. in 1942 if they as immigrants had not been forced to do so for a living, and they would not have left Pantheon Books Inc. in 1960 if they as immigrants had not been driven out by a board of directors who could not understand the cultural preconditions for the bestsellers they had created in the second half of the 1950s. Both steps, the entrepreneurial retreat as much as the entrepreneurial initiative, turned out to be good for them and good for the quality trade book market in the United States. Kurt (born March 3, 1887 in Bonn, Germany; died October 21, 1963 in Ludwigsburg, Germany) and Helen Wolff continued to publish a mainly apolitical list at Harcourt, Brace under the imprint “A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book.” Pantheon was bought by Random House and made a mark for itself with a distinguished social-political program. Today, the names of Helen and Kurt Wolff are still well known in publishing and book-loving circles in the U.S. and in Europe for their ability to render seemingly unprofitable books profitable, and for having brought European literature in first-rate translations to the American reader.[2] Even though their entrepreneurial contribution to the publishing market in the United States, measured in economic numbers, was small, they expanded and enriched it with books that previously would not have had access to it. Thereby they established themselves as role models in the business and have been added to the distinguished line of characters that came to represent “the independent age of the great twentieth-century publishers,” next to the founders of much bigger and more influential publishing companies like Random House, Alfred A. Knopf, or The Viking Press.[3]

On Their Way to America: Entrepreneurship as a Last Resort

When Kurt and Helen Wolff arrived in New York in March 1941, it seemed to some who had helped them with affidavits and advice that Kurt, at the age of almost fifty-five, had the past, and his wife Helen, more than twenty years younger, had the future—leaving a big question mark as to how to finance their living in the present. The cultural capital that both of them carried across the Atlantic would not be transformed into a financial asset easily. Kurt Wolff, born on March 3, 1887, in the German town of Bonn to its musical director Leonhard Wolff (a friend of Brahms) and the daughter of an engineer and railway entrepreneur of Jewish origin, was deeply rooted in the German tradition of music and literature. Having developed a passionate interest in the modern, expressionist poetry and literature that emerged in the years before World War I, he invested his inherited fortune as a very young man in publishing activities.[4] His publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig, the city of books, had a magnetic attraction to the young generation of poets who dreamed in those years that mankind could be renewed by a spiritual and intellectual revolution. Assembling almost all the interesting authors of the time, Franz Kafka being its most important discovery, the Kurt Wolff Verlag also became famous for introducing new methods of production and marketing and for combining good literature with an ambitious and sophisticated design. It was the first to publish unknown avant-garde poets in inexpensive but still finely produced editions which imitated the mass production series of publishing houses like Ullstein and were aimed at a broad readership.[5] It also was the first to spread the image of a “new” and “young” generation of literature in large-scale and inventive advertising in the daily media and on posters, using all sorts of “hokums” like rebinding and selling the unsold copies of a first edition as a second edition, or labeling as “new” books and authors that had been lingering on the market for quite a while.[6]

However, in the aftermath of World War I, Kurt Wolff became more and more alienated from the expressionist and post-expressionist movement that the name of his house stood for. The outcome of the revolution, the politicization and polarization of the literary scene, and above all the hyperinflation generally had devastating effects on the relationship between publishers and authors.[7] Kurt Wolff’s famous combination of being both a shrewd businessman and a generous patron of the arts, formerly so attractive, now made him suspicious in the eyes of his craving and embittered authors. Since having moved his business to Munich in 1919, he slowly lost his interest in contemporary German literature. Instead he turned to art and art history and to bibliophile activities that could be seen as apolitical and matched the taste and the inclinations of the high society in which he and his first wife Elisabeth liked to move. Elisabeth belonged to the wealthy, quasi-aristocratic family Merck in Darmstadt that owned the pharmaceutical company Merck. She supported Kurt Wolff with money, advice, and connections as long as their marriage lasted. In 1924 he cofounded the international publishing house Pantheon Casa Editrice in Florence, an attempt to bring expensively produced art books and art history books in several languages to European countries and the United States. But with growing nationalism and a declining world economy the elitist approach of both the Kurt Wolff Verlag and the Pantheon Casa Editrice was impossible to sustain. While the inventory grew, the cash flow diminished, and the lack of capital increasingly trapped Kurt Wolff in inactivity. Faint hopes that an American investor might help were shattered when the Great Depression hit. By mid-1930 Kurt Wolff was so exhausted and burned out—financially, privately, and professionally—that he withdrew from all his activities. His first marriage ended the same year. While planning to eventually return to professional life by finding employment in the cultural field, he decided to reinvent himself during an extensive vacation—a vacation which, due to the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and Kurt Wolff’s unequivocal refusal to compromise with the regime, was to last until his arrival in the United States and the founding of Pantheon Books.

His companion in these years of crisis was a young secretary and translator who had begun to work for the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1928, Helene Mosel. Helene had been born on July 27, 1906, in Vranjska Banja, a small Serbian village, to a German-Austrian family which, like the Wolffs, originated in the educated and entrepreneurial upper classes, but had been in constant decline for two generations. Helene’s father, an adventurer more than a businessman, had created and lost short-term wealth through trades and trafficking in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, and had left his wife and his four children impoverished in 1923. Helene spent her childhood years in Üsküb (today Skopje, the capital of the Macedonian Republic), in Vienna, in Berlin, and in several places in Bavaria. Even though she had to quit school to earn money as a nanny and a governess, she was able, together with her weak but determined mother, to hold the family together and allow herself and her siblings to succeed in the German upper bourgeois society. Her obvious gifts and talents—she had taught herself perfect English and French and had acquired a stunning literary knowledge by the age of fifteen—won her and her relatives the support of a network of industrial families in Frankfurt in the vicinity of IG Farben. After she had spent four years in one of these families, another one of her patrons arranged with Kurt Wolff for her to get a chance to “make herself indispensable”[8] at his publishing house, during a time when its employees had been dismissed in vast numbers. Of the approximately one hundred employees and freelancers in 1923, only a handful were left by 1927.[9]

While Kurt Wolff was in the process of dissolving his businesses, Helene worked intermittently as his private secretary, as translator and editor for his former partner John Holroyd Reece in Paris, and even briefly for a branch of the League of Nations. Beginning in April 1931, Kurt and Helene lived together permanently. Helene tried out a career as a writer of theater plays and stories, which seemed very promising to Kurt Wolff and their literary friends. But the continuous economic and political decline prevented the various publishing houses and theaters that had shown interest in her works to actually publish or show any of them. During this period, they retreated to pleasant, inexpensive places in the south of France and watched in fearful anticipation and disgust as Germany was increasingly plagued by the Depression and political extremism. Kurt Wolff managed to transfer most of his money out of Germany to banks in Switzerland and England—a prescient act which after 1933 ensured their existence in exile and even helped to enable the founding of Pantheon Books. At the turn of the year 1932/33, it looked like he had managed to secure his future in a respectable, employed position in Germany. But since Kurt was not a party member, the offer to work for the Cultural Policy Department of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin was immediately withdrawn when Hitler took power. So the couple decided on February 25 or 26—before the Reichstag fire—to leave Germany again, convinced that the new government meant a “lapse into barbarism,” as Helene wrote to her brother, and that “since the Nazis took power there obviously no longer is room to live for a halfway decent person.”[10]

What had been voluntary travel and vacation time before 1933, renting inexpensive houses in the south and sharing them with paying guests, turned into weeks and months, then long and bitter years of exile in Paris, London—where they married on March 27, 1933—Montagnola, St. Tropez and Nice—where their son Christian was born in 1934—and Tuscany, where they bought an estate, searching for a self-sufficient way of life. In the summer of 1938, when Italy became a dangerous place for German emigrants, they returned to France and ended up in Paris, desperately looking for employment. Helen found work as a secretary, whereas all of Kurt’s efforts to build a professional life were in vain. After the war broke out, both of them wrote propaganda pamphlets and brochures for the French Information Ministry. They saw this as a pledge to France and a final, unequivocal statement against Germany, putting them in acute danger once the German army invaded France. Until this point, one of the reasons the Wolffs had never been active among the politically motivated and émigré communities was that they did not consider themselves obvious targets for National Socialist persecution, but felt relatively safe as German expatriates. Helen was an “Aryan” under the Nuremberg Laws, and even Kurt’s Jewish origins were so diluted that his sister managed to live through the Third Reich without being troubled. As most of their relatives, including Kurt’s two children, had stayed in Germany, they went to great lengths not to attract the authorities’ attention. Only the outbreak of the war made them show clearly which side they were on.

The Wolff’s first choice would have been to become French citizens. Under the Vichy Regime, however, staying in France was not an option. After having been interned in camps as enemy aliens they mobilized all their resources to leave France and emigrate to the United States. With the affidavits from a friend and a helpful stranger in New York, their good connections with French politicians and the support of Varian Fry, an American journalist who ran a refugee network in Vichy France, they managed to obtain all the necessary papers. They left Marseilles for Lisbon on February 9, 1941, found a passage to New York in mid-March and arrived there on March 30, a “beautiful, sunny day.”[11]

Like many of the literary, intellectual and political emigrants that arrived in the United States after France had fallen, Kurt and Helen Wolff found it much harder to leave Europe than to leave Germany. In their first letters they repeatedly noted that Americans seemed to them strong, dynamic, and pragmatic but lacking in cultural education and historical consciousness. Notions and apprehensions like these usually made it difficult for new immigrants to succeed as entrepreneurs with cultural products in surroundings culturally alien to them.[12] On the other hand, after more than ten years of constant disappointment and harassment, the Wolffs were exceptionally willing to learn, to appreciate and to take even the smallest chance to earn their living in a free society. Apart from a small sum, which they managed to pry loose from an English bank and which would be able to sustain them for a couple of months, they had been left more or less destitute by their flight from Europe. Helen, who mastered the English language even better than French and Italian, would have had no difficulties in finding a job as a secretary. For Kurt, however, the possibility of finding an employed position was almost ruled out by his age, his deficient English, and the fact that he had been seemingly idle for so many years. As one of their American supporters had already stated in 1938: “He speaks of his own extraordinary well-being, and his anxiety to work; nevertheless, it still remains true that for the past twenty years [sic!] Wolff has done no work, and that is, from the American point of view, somewhat immoral.”[13] Nevertheless, nobody kept them from setting up a business on their own and trying—against all odds—to find a market for what they believed they could do best: making books.

Business Development: The Founding and Beginnings of Pantheon Books, Inc.

Even though war was imminent in 1941, a range of factors made the time not altogether unfavorable for starting a small, intellectually ambitious but financially modest new publishing house. The U.S. economy had just recovered from a recession, boosted by government spending and rearmament. Roosevelt had finally managed to overcome the isolationist attitude of the public, and there was a growing public interest in European culture, especially when the information seemed bipartisan, apolitical, and beyond any suspicion of fostering socialist or communist ideas. Furthermore, the immigrants that had recently arrived and settled in New York and on the West Coast had, though small in number, brought about a massive cultural transfer, bringing with them new ideas, academic knowledge, intellectual concepts, artistic creativity, and a general curiosity which created a market for its own cultural objects. By incorporating American intellectuals and artists, these networks provided not only an audience for good books but also access to authors, designers, editors, translators, sponsors, and reviewers.[14]

During their first months in New York, the Wolffs socialized incessantly, attending classical concerts and public readings, inviting people for dinner if their guests were indigent or for a drink if they were not, and mingling with emigrants and Americans alike in order to gather the knowledge and the contacts to pursue cultural endeavors. Some of the established publishers in New York, especially Alfred and Blanche Knopf of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, helped them with generous advice and information. The quality book market in those days was easy to survey: a good two dozen relatively small firms in the hands of men who “regarded the business as a gentleman’s profession.”[15] They shared the motivation that had also driven Kurt Wolff, namely to do business with what they loved most: books, ideas and art. Their readiness to cooperate with competitors and help newcomers was based on the industry’s “sense of uniqueness,”[16] i.e. the self-imagination that its product was special, could not be accomplished by commercial deliberations alone, and eluded the ordinary consumer market.[17] The publishing business as a gentlemen’s club, in part including their wives, was not yet challenged by the paperback and education industry revolution, which loomed on the horizon, and by shareholders wanting a maximum return on investments. While the publishers of course did not want to go into red ink, the absence of financial interest mitigated the competition and created images of a “small, chummy world (...), when W.H. Auden, Ralph Ellison, Edmund Wilson, or Vladimir Nabokov dropped off a manuscript or just dropped by for a chat or a drink.”[18] The downsides of this industry—the dangers of undercapitalization and overproduction, the heavy workloads and high amount of responsibility placed on individuals—were only too well known to Kurt Wolff from his own experiences in the 1920s.

As the publishing industry traditionally resisted consumer research, relying exclusively on the editors’ judgment, it was left to the Wolffs to form their own impression of the market. They began with the German and French books that had helped them through the difficult times in France and could be considered “classics.” Kurt Wolff spent many weeks in the New York Public Library to find out which of their favorites had not yet been translated. Of course most of the key works of European literature could be found in the United States. Especially the younger and smaller houses that had been founded since the turn of the century included European titles in their lists: The Viking Press held some of the former authors of the Kurt Wolff Verlag such as Franz Werfel, Joseph Roth, Arnold Zweig, and books that the Wolffs had attached themselves to in France by Jules Romain, Roger Martin du Gard, and others. Alfred A. Knopf was the publisher of Thomas Mann, W.W. Norton&Company had the poetry of Rilke, Random House had Proust, and the newcomer Frederick Ungar, a refugee like the Wolffs, had just started a company to publish new books and new editions of out-of-print books of European philosophy. Furthermore, there were the university presses to publish the more scholarly books which were unlikely to succeed on the commercial market. So the gap in the market for European literature was narrow. Nevertheless, by the end of September 1941, the Wolffs were convinced that “in cultural matters there is indeed still more demand than supply, a situation that seems quite incredible.”[19]

At Christmas 1941, two weeks after the U.S. entered the war, the Wolffs took the first step toward financing a publishing enterprise. An old friend of Kurt Wolff’s from his days in Munich and Florence, Baron Curt von Faber du Faur, a wealthy collector of rare books and a specialist in Baroque literature who later became professor and curator at Yale University, drew up a letter together with his stepson Kyrill Schabert saying that they would give $7,500 if Kurt Wolff succeeded in finding an equal sum from other sources. One month later Wolff had arranged the second half of the funding: Robert Weinberg, a New York architect who had already given the Wolffs an affidavit without even knowing them, George Merck, an American relative of Kurt’s ex-wife and president of the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., and Gerard Neisser, a friend of Helen’s brother, were willing to buy shares of the company once it was registered in February 1942. Apart from Weinberg, they all had German origins and were immigrants in the first, second, or third generation.

With the minimal capital of $15,000, the firm started off as a tiny business in the living room, dining room, and bedroom of the Wolffs’ apartment on Washington Square. It had to serve as an office, shipping room, and makeshift reception space at the same time. This saved rent, though it put a constant strain on family and professional life. Kurt Wolff had to go without a salary until profits were generated. He wrote to Faber du Faur: “Let me state this clearly once again: If I succeed in building the publishing house to the full (material and literary) satisfaction of everybody involved, to earn a modest subsistence minimum for myself and my family and of course a decent return for the shareholders, then I will be happy and content—especially happy to have found a field of work so agreeable to me. I have no intent of any personal self-enrichment.”[20] To understand this attitude, one has to consider the Wolffs’ experience during their years of exile in Europe: They had shown, by their commitment to the ill-fated French cause, that they were prepared to stand, even to die for their convictions. Now safe and able to occupy themselves with books again, it was more than ever out of the question for them to compromise their moral and aesthetic values. They were determined not to “cheat:” not the reader, not the authors, not themselves or anybody else. In later years Kurt Wolff recalled:

When my wife and I ventured into publishing again in 1942 in New York, we were asked about our publishing program. We did not have one, as the intention to publish good books can hardly be called a program. But I answered without a moment’s reflection: I only want to publish books which I do not have to feel ashamed about on my deathbed. Books by dead authors in whom we believe. Books by living authors whom we do not need to lie to. All my life two elements have seemed to me the worst and basically inevitable burden of being a publisher: Lying to authors and feigning knowledge one does not have, a sadly insincere attitude. (...) We might err, that is inevitable, but the unconditional conviction, the absolute belief in the authentic word and worth of what you choose should always be the premise for each and every book.”[21]

This morally charged determination had not motivated him in the times of the Kurt Wolff Verlag, and it also differed from the convictions of most other American publishers who, even if they had a strong notion of quality, took their profession more lightheartedly, with fewer ethical concerns.

However, the Wolffs’ judgment on what books were “good” and “authentic” was not only intrinsic, based on their values and their past experiences. It also met the intellectual and spiritual fashions and trends of the day. Crossword puzzles, cookbooks, light fiction, crime and mystery stories, ephemeral popular fact books: these all were out of the question. Political literature, books which transported the memories or experiences of one specific group, or books which were concerned with facts instead of with the seemingly eternal truth, which were “topical” as opposed to “timely,” were also excluded. The Wolffs’ “editorial concept,” if not program, was “to help spread knowledge and understanding of the essential questions of human life and culture.”[22] This “universalist” approach, claiming to represent not only one faction but humanity as a whole, putting art and literature in the realm of spiritual, moral and aesthetic experiences and excluding the realm of political and social experiences, was in line with the transcendentalist tendencies of a major part of the educated American reading public at that time. It helped rid Pantheon Books of the taint of a “publisher in exile” irrelevant or perhaps even dangerous to American concerns. The questionability of this approach becomes apparent when one looks at some editorial choices made by the Wolffs such as the books that addressed the crimes and the victims of National Socialism, for example. They published testimonies of the moral and religious resistance against Hitler, like Theodor Haecker’s Journal in the Night (1950) or the collection of farewell letters Dying We Live (1956), with an introduction by Reinhold Niebuhr.[23] But voices from the political, left-wing resistance and Jewish voices were excluded. The Wolffs declined to publish Eugen Kogon’s The SS-State – The System of the German Concentration Camps (1946) and all French accounts of the Holocaust experience as a matter of “principle.”[24] Only in the 1960s this attitude changed, and the Holocaust experience became of “universal” interest for the Wolffs as well as for the American book market.

On sufficiently large common ground with mainstream American culture, Pantheon was able to look for the small niches and gaps in the market that it could fill. The Wolffs recognized that there was a surprising absence of literary anthologies; they recognized a demand for European classics that cast a new light on the “crisis of the times” from a quasi-superior, quasi-prophetic viewpoint; they recognized a need for bibliophile books and for contemporary but not abstract art prints; they recognized—this had to be credited to Helen especially—the marketability of children’s books, juvenile books and fairy tales also for grown-ups; and they recognized—again to Helen’s credit—that there existed a larger and broader-minded audience for mystical and Catholic literature than the specialized readership of the explicitly Catholic and conservative publishing houses Regnery or Devin Adair.

Notwithstanding, the works of fellow German or Austrian emigrants were important projects, albeit not in the majority. Almost every book the Wolffs published had a European background. The fact that Pantheon Books today enjoys the reputation of having started off as a home for first-rate European literature must be attributed, to a considerable extent, to the Wolffs’ French partner Jacques Schiffrin during the years 1943 to 1950. He acquired many titles of lasting literary importance from the French underground, books by André Gide, Albert Camus, Louis Aragon and others.

Though it sought compatibility with American expectations, Pantheon Books was nevertheless conceived as a non-American business through and through: Helen described her “crazy office” as a “Babel of languages,”[25] she herself being “grotesque as it may sound, (...) the only person in the editorial and production department who knows some English.”[26] The Wolffs spoke French with Schiffrin, a Jewish refugee who had arrived traumatized from Europe, German with their part-time employee Wolfgang Sauerländer, who like themselves had left Germany for ethical reasons and brought a flair of Bavarian “Gemütlichkeit” with him, English with the salesmen and production people, and a mix of English, German, French and Italian with each other and their son. The European authors and intellectuals who came to their apartment found their “one-room life incl. publishing charming and nice,”[27] whereas American professionals were startled and asked for the official office address. Equally unusual in American publishing was the absoluteness of their publishing credo—“in the beginning was the word and not the number”[28]—always giving priority to communication over financial calculations. The Wolffs relied heavily on good, faithful, and truthful communication and contact. Money and business to them were not values in and of themselves, but expressions of the quality of human relationships. They always refused to formulate conflicts as money conflicts or conflicts of interest, but interpreted them as moral conflicts in terms of honesty, reliability, consideration, and respect.

Times of Crises: Business Development 1948 to 1955

And serious conflicts there were. From the very beginning, the Wolffs had to cope with the fact that the working capital of Pantheon Books was sorely inadequate for their operations. Seeing that the best results they could hope for seemed both financially limited and outweighed by considerable risks, the shareholders showed no interest in investing more than the absolute minimum. After 1946, the firm drew in more capital from the outside by giving out shares, but on a very modest scale and bringing only temporary relief. While Pantheon Books built an excellent reputation for itself and produced respectable profits in the years up until 1948, the lack of capital prevented growth and placed a heavy burden on the Wolffs and Schiffrin. Helen received a monthly salary of $400 and Kurt $500,[29] and if it had not been for the generous presents and frequent invitations from their wealthy friends, their material shortcomings would have been difficult to bear. After two years of operating in their one-room apartment, Kurt Wolff managed to rent an extra room in the basement of the building. Only in 1949 could Pantheon move into an appropriate office on Sixth Avenue, and the Wolffs got a new apartment that actually had a bedroom for them.

The way that Pantheon functioned in these years, the Wolffs and their publishing projects would have been better off under the head of a nonprofit organization than as a shareholders’ business. When the firm had just entered its second year of existence, in the spring of 1943, an opportunity arose for Kurt and Helen to continue publishing under the aegis of a wealthy and ambitious foundation, without ever having to worry about money again. Mary Mellon, wife of the philanthropist Paul Mellon, offered Kurt Wolff a job running the Bollingen Series, a series of books on art, art history, archeology, anthropology, psychology, and mysticism centered around the Collected Works of C.G. Jung and indeed congenial to the Wolffs’ publishing ambit.[30] Kurt Wolff, having at that time reached the age of 56, found the offer especially attractive “as this would have meant for [him] peace and retirement and pension from the age of 65.”[31] In the end, however, he declined the offer. Instead, an arrangement was made whereby Pantheon would supervise the manufacturing and undertake the distribution and sale of the Bollingen books, for a fixed remuneration and an additional ten percent share in the sales. This extremely favorable arrangement sustained Pantheon through the years.

That Pantheon should be continued as a firm and not eventually be merged into the Bollingen setting was mainly in the personal interest of one man: Kyrill Schabert, stepson of Curt von Faber du Faur and one of the main shareholders. Roughly Helen’s age, he had not yet embarked on a career of his own, and working in the publishing field enabled him to make use of his know-how in finance and marketing as well as to meet his social and cultural ambitions. Kurt and Helen perceived him as a charming man with a “veneer of sophistication,” though “no real literary knowledge,”[32] and at the outset nothing seemed to stand in the way of a good cooperation, even a friendship. As Schabert was the only American citizen among them (whereas Kurt Wolff was classified as an enemy alien after the U.S. was drawn into the war), it seemed wise to install Schabert as formal president. Kurt was executive vice president, Helen and later Schiffrin vice presidents. During the first years, Schabert accepted these positions as a formality and conformed to the firm being “headed up” by Kurt Wolff, as it was written in Faber du Faur’s letter of intent in 1941.[33] And while Schabert was mostly absent in 1942, from 1943 onwards he got involved as salesman, accountant, and treasurer, receiving the same minimal salary as Helen and Schiffrin. The Wolffs could not object and kept their complaints that the firm needed “basically a proficient business person to organize the whole thing better”[34] to themselves. When fellow émigré Salman Schocken in 1944 expressed an interest in participating in Pantheon and increasing its capital, and Schabert again was “excitedly against it,” the “only reason” Kurt Wolff “could think of [was] that he was afraid about his position and future in a completely different set up.”[35] Schocken then founded his own publishing house in the United States in 1945, Schocken Books, and from the frequency and authority of Kurt Wolff’s counseling services in their letters, it seems likely that Schocken paid him for his advice.

Eventually, the lack of funding at Pantheon not only prevented expansion at the Wolffs’ expense, but also made “the carrying on of Pantheon’s operation a problem”[36] once the economic boom of the war and postwar years ended and times became dire. From 1947/48, inflation raised production costs, yet consumers were unwilling to pay higher prices for books. At the same time, shipping costs increased and gross sales decreased. The auditor’s reports for the years 1949 to 1951 presented a dark picture: Only five to ten titles were published every season; these were usually printed in copy runs of only 1,000 to 5,000; of these, often far fewer than one thousand copies, with a maximum of up to 2,000 copies, were sold. Kurt Wolff estimated that, out of fifty titles in those three years, eleven fared “disastrous,” thirteen “bad,” eight “fair,” and only twelve “good.”[37] Kurt’s noblesse and grandeur in coping with these mortifying difficulties, at what could well have been the end of his second life as a publisher, renewed the respect that Helen had gained for her husband’s integrity and countenance during their emigration years. Business failure was a somewhat melancholic prospect but not an existential concern: “I remember Kurt’s coming into the bedroom one day—I can still see him, standing there in the doorway, looking elegant and elegiac—and saying, ‘Helen, do you realize how close we are to bankruptcy?’”[38]

At one point, Schabert, who considered Pantheon’s future also to be his, mortgaged his own securities and gave Pantheon a personal loan of $15,000, bridging the working capital deficiency in the short term.[39] Helen used the little money available for publicity and promotion efficiently. She established excellent contacts with the most prominent reviewers and then placed ads with quotes from their reviews on pages of newspapers and magazines frequently turned to by ardent readers and book lovers. She also handled the religious and juvenile department, which published the only profitable books in those years. That Pantheon survived, however, was not due to any of these factors, but to the fact that it almost continuously generated profits from “other income”—from the Bollingen Series and from the Book-of-the-Month Club choices.

While the income from Bollingen was continuous and reliable, the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) selections came as a windfall, but a windfall that hit Pantheon almost every year. The BOMC had been founded in 1923 by Harry Scherman, at that time owner of an advertising agency, who had recognized the potential of marketing critically acclaimed books by mail. A jury of renowned critics selected the books in a procedure that could be modified when a book was considered highly important or popular. In the 1940s, the membership of the club rose to almost 900,000 members.[40] The Wolffs befriended Scherman and his family and received a lot of help from them, just as they maintained excellent relationships with the board members and editors of the Bollingen Foundation. All these people supported Pantheon’s publishing policy as much as they could. Paradoxically, more than anything else it was the Wolffs’ acommercial attitude and the reputation of uncompromising quality that saved Pantheon during the lean years.

Two Miraculous Bestsellers and the Changing Nature of the Publishing Business in the Second Half of the 1950s

The entrepreneurial and economic success that finally came in 1955 was again a direct consequence of that attitude and reputation.  After long years of silence, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh, had written the small book A Gift from the Sea, a semi-poetic and semi-philosophical counseling book on how to preserve one’s inner life under the strain of everyday demands. She herself lived under immense strains, subjected to a husband who was an iconic figure in the American public but tough to the point of sadism to his wife and children, traumatized by the kidnapping and murder of her first child followed by relentless persecution by the tabloids, and at a complete loss to understand that her writing could be seen as apologetic to her husband’s past as a supporter of Nazi Germany. Now presenting her book to the public filled her with the utmost apprehension. She had met Kurt Wolff in 1949 at the Aspen bicentennial celebrations of Goethe and since then become deeply attached to his “European,” gentle, cultured and generous manners and to the Wolffs’ tactful way of not asking uncomfortable questions. The Wolffs liked her and even liked Charles, too. And again, it is difficult to distinguish between their intrinsic judgment, based on their values, and the historical circumstance that the Lindberghs were by all means well respected and promised success in the American mainstream culture of the time. The Wolffs showed leniency not only toward the Lindberghs’ pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish entanglements of the past, but also to those of CG Jung, Konrad Lorenz and other authors. Anne Morrow Lindbergh became one of their closest friends. They never mentioned that the literary quality of her writing actually did not meet their standards, and instead praised her uncalculating endeavor to face her fame and difficult life with what they considered “GALLANTRY, GRACIOUSNESS, and, above all, MORAL BEAUTY.”[41] The conditions for Pantheon to publish her book were arranged by her husband: a straight 15% royalty for the trade book, 75% for all secondary rights and a refusal to play a role in any kind of publicity—conditions quite unheard of in conventional publishing.[42] The book sold more than 600,000 copies and was a turning point for Pantheon, not only financially, but also because it showed that it was an American publishing house, good for American authors and American readers. In the days before the publication Kurt Wolff wrote a long and grateful letter to Anne Morrow Lindberg:

I am thinking of you and of your gift to us with an undivided heart, weighing it and what it has meant to me, Kurt Wolff, with more than gratitude – with a sense of the miraculous. I had long since resigned myself to do my work in this country under the sign of Péguy – that is, in relative obscurity, one’s efforts disproportionate to their tangible results, braced and exhausted simultaneously by swimming against the stream. Whenever books were offered us by authors, agents, foreign publishers, they were inevitably the ‚difficult’ ones, the ones promising success going to the old-established, large American firms. (...). It seemed a fateful, if irrevocable pattern. And that is why, in thinking of your gesture in giving us the Gift from the Sea, I used the term ‚miraculous.’ It was just that to me: the free, trusting, generous gift of an uncalculating heart.[43]

The Wolffs finally seemed to have managed squaring the circle, being commercially successful while being acommercial or even anti-commercial at the same time. Three years later they were again offered a miraculous gift on the basis of their reputation: Doctor Zhivago, by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak. This epic account of the Russian Revolution, written in communist Russia, had been smuggled into the West through different channels, and its publication had to be undertaken with the utmost caution and care so as to not additionally endanger Pasternak. For many years the Wolffs had cultivated excellent contacts to European publishing houses working under similar principles as Pantheon, especially to British firms with whom they could share translation or even production costs. In January 1957, Marjorie Villiers of The Harvill Press introduced them to the young Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who had been given the manuscript and the world rights by Pasternak.  Villiers referred explicitly to the Wolffs’ experience as emigrants.[44] The strategy to protect Pasternak was to downplay the political significance of his novel and to emphasize its literary significance in the Russian tradition. Kurt Wolff considered the book as the pinnacle of his career, comparing it to Kafka’s books and convinced that it was “one of the greatest if not the greatest work of fiction published in any language in our generation.”[45] In his own house, though, he had a difficult time making the publication happen, as Kyrill Schabert argued that there was no receptiveness for Russian novels among American readers. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, as Kurt Wolff had foreseen, and the book sold more than a million copies in the United States within a few weeks.

The overwhelming success of Doctor Zhivago made it feasible that Pantheon would establish itself as a player in the major league of American quality trade publishing, next to Random House, Knopf, and others. But the breakthrough also meant that the seed of destruction, which lay in Pantheon’s ownership structure, came to bear fruit. Perhaps this could have still been avoided had it not been for a change in the U.S. book market affecting all publishing houses. This change was a result of the demographic growth and the expansion of higher education in the postwar years.[46] Toward the end of the Fifties, the book industry shifted from the periphery to the center of financial interest. “Wall Street men,” “Wall Street money,” and “Wall Street ideas” became involved in the book market. An article in the magazine Saturday Review in October 1960, titled “The Gold Rush on Publishers’ Row,”[47] attributed this new interest to the baby boom generation growing up: “It all started (...) when some guy down here [on Wall Street] realized that the baby boom was going to mean more than gigantic sales of diapers and baby food. Now all of a sudden everyone thinks that textbooks are a foolproof growth situation. And they’re right; you just can’t miss with all those kids to educate.”[48] An interest that appeared to affect only the textbook departments also took its toll on trade books, especially quality trade book publishing. Quality trade books had to build the corporate image that was desirable in order to sell the textbooks, and in order to heighten the trade books’ marketability, their operations would have to be professionalized and modernized. The author of the article stated that this had already resulted in “a split personality” of publishing: While for textbooks “quality makes money,” for trade books “marketability makes money,”[49] which in the end might lead to general mediocrity and to the end of independent editors’ decisions.

The growing interest in capital in publishing and the subsequent changes in the nature of this business conveyed the impression that the future would lie with someone like Kyrill Schabert rather than with the old-fashioned Wolffs, who ran their operations in an unorganized way and could be misunderstood as oblivious to economic realities and commercial prospects. In those years, the board of Pantheon was dominated by two men whose main asset was that they could help get Pantheon out of its European niche and make it more compatible with the American market: John M. Lewis, lawyer and partner of the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and Nathan W. Levin, an investment consultant and financial aid to a number of philanthropic and cultural institutions.[50] Levin represented a large group of stockholders—those who had bought the shares that Pantheon had given out since 1944. Lewis, Levin, and Schabert took turns filling the positions of chairman and secretary of the company. As early as 1955, Levin argued with Kurt Wolff, denying him the role of “publisher” and demoting him to “editor.” Why he did this is not clear, but Kurt Wolff vehemently claimed ever after that to be Pantheon’s “publisher” he did not need the majority of the capital or the title of president or chairman; rather, the “publisher” should be “the man who shapes a firm’s editorial policy and directs the editors—in a small firm publisher and editor may well be one and the same person.”[51] This semantic debate, which only thinly veiled a power struggle, became more intense over the years. By the end of 1958, Schabert, Lewis, and Levin were determined in their “efforts to reconstruct”[52] Pantheon as the market seemed to demand: to reorganize, rearrange, professionalize it, and get an economically sound grip not only on distribution, sales, and inventory control, but also on its editorial operations.

For many years, the Wolffs were willing to keep Kyrill Schabert on the team, maintaining that “Kyrill kept up contact, and very ably, with people in the book trade and with various publishing organizations and committees in the U.S.,” leaving “the hard core of publishing” to the Wolffs.[53] Kurt talked “with gallows humor, of K’s ‘playing the publisher’” even to Curt von Faber du Faur, his old friend and Kyrill’s stepfather: “My dear, what should I have done? There was just one way out in all these years: tell the Pantheon directors—HIM or ME. I couldn’t. If only for your sake.”[54] Instead, they desperately tried to sustain the friendship that they had fostered from the beginning and to involve him wherever they saw fit. They would have continued to live quietly with the inherent conflict if, at some point, Schabert’s position had not infringed on their reputation—not only as publishers, but also as the editors who had the literary standing to attract and keep authors. There were rumors, apparently spread by Schabert himself, that he, not the Wolffs, had won Anne Morrow Lindbergh for Pantheon, and in 1958 newspaper articles appeared that pronounced Schabert as publisher of Pasternak and Mary Renault. That was the final straw. On November 27, 1958, Kurt wrote a devastating letter to Kyrill, crushing him morally and debunking not only his literary but also his economic judgments: “You are not a publisher and you never will be. You are an illiterate in literature, you cannot differentiate between a good book and a bad book, not even between a marketable and an unmarketable one. (...) I am not in need of publicity, but I refuse, at my age, to be ridiculed by your conceitedness and your craving for recognition.”[55]

This was the breach, although it took another half year until the Wolffs resigned. The Wolffs and Schabert interpreted it all in terms of personal jealousies, character flaws, selfishness, and intellectual or moral inferiority. Human mistakes and self-deceptions had brought a difficult, but manageable situation to an end. But one could also argue the other way: A transpersonal constellation, created by the ownership structure and aggravated by the commercializing of the market, had turned everybody involved into victims and human weakness into a relevant factor.

Age and Gender: Kurt Wolff’s Illness and the Unresolved Question of his Succession

In his response to Wolff’s letter, Schabert raised one legitimate and important point: “Your complete disinclination to discuss with me the future of Pantheon, and what should be done in the event of your retirement,” a disinclination he found “incredibly selfish and thoughtless vis-à-vis those who have a stake, directly or indirectly, in Pantheon.”[56] Kurt Wolff had turned seventy in 1957, and his old age did ask for a transition at Pantheon, though not for a “reconstruction” as meant by the board. He still was amazingly lively and energetic, and his enthusiasm for books, authors, and communication in general was undaunted. But his efficiency depended completely on his symbiotic cooperation with Helen, who compensated for his weaknesses. She had the language skills to do the editing; she wrote in his name the letters that required nuances; she fostered the relationships with many of the authors and all of the translators, reviewers, and publicity and production people; she compensated for his growing deafness, his forgetfulness when he was tired and his absences while ill. In 1948, Kurt Wolff developed a serious condition, which abated but came back full blow when his heart failed in early 1958 and made it necessary to keep him away from stress.

The faint hope that their son Christian would succeed him dwindled when, at an early age, Christian devoted himself to music as a disciple of John Cage and later chose a career in academics. Immediately after the war there had been plans to have Maria, Kurt Wolff’s daughter from his first marriage, move to New York with the prospect of working at Pantheon. But Maria, a talented and book-loving young woman who had lived through National Socialism and the war in Germany, did not have the strength to emigrate. Her brother Nikolaus joined the Wolffs in 1948, but chose to study chemistry and become a research manager in electrophotography. There was also the son of Jacques Schiffrin, André Schiffrin, to be considered as part of the Pantheon family. He, however, was not asked to join the staff until the Wolffs had left.[57]

The natural successor to Kurt Wolff was of course Helen Wolff herself. In 1958, at the age of 52, she felt at the peak of her power, doing several jobs at once. Understaffed and underfinanced as Pantheon had been until the Pasternak miracle, the firm would not have been able to carry on without her. Kurt never failed to point out Helen’s contribution and vital importance.

Nevertheless, for years it went without saying that she would retire together with Kurt, in spite of her younger age and devotion to work. In a private letter in 1952 she even contemplated returning to Germany upon becoming a widow to take a teaching job at the boarding school she had attended as a girl.[58] The Wolffs’ traditional understanding of gender roles made it impossible to discuss Helen’s position, and when the conflict between Kurt Wolff and Schabert erupted she refused “to be mentioned in this controversy.”[59] The contradiction between her real importance and the fact that it was nowhere acknowledged put a heavy burden on the question of succession at Pantheon. To the outside world it seemed logical that the president, Schabert, would succeed Kurt Wolff. Helen either would or would not continue under his leadership—something that was unthinkable for the Wolffs and for those who knew about the division of labor at Pantheon. The true adversaries in the conflict were not Kurt Wolff and Schabert, but Helen Wolff and Schabert, and Schabert was thoroughly afraid of Helen, who was prone to temperamental attacks.[60]

Making Kurt Wolff’s age and the question of succession a taboo subject had other dire consequences. Since the Wolffs remained faithful to their principle that they would not fight over money, the years passed without a word about how they would finance their retirement. Only in 1958, when Kurt became ill and was unable to work for weeks, a Pantheon pension trust was installed—too late to secure the Wolffs so much as a carefree evening in expensive Manhattan. At the end of 1958, they decided to move to Switzerland to a place in the countryside. Officially, they moved to open a European branch for Pantheon to facilitate and strengthen contact with European authors and publishers. Unofficially, the move was necessary for Kurt’s health, to get him away from the poisoned atmosphere of the New York office and to allow them a cheaper life. The board of directors made the Wolffs pay for their retreat by reducing their salaries to one half of what Schabert received. They also made them step down from the board, alleging this was necessary—a pretext, as the Wolffs later found out.[61] The Wolffs had to sell all their shares of Pantheon to be able to finance living in Switzerland. With no financial stakes in Pantheon anymore, their role as entrepreneurs had come to an end.

Kurt and Helen Wolff’s Resignation and the End of Pantheon Books as an Independent Publishing Firm

In Switzerland, Kurt recovered, and the Wolffs were able to enlist several new authors and books, among them The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. After all, they did not have the slightest intention of retiring, and the geographical separation from the Pantheon office in New York clarified several things. Firstly, the perfect symbiosis of Kurt and Helen, who (together with Jacques Schiffrin) had achieved everything Pantheon stood for, could be continued not only until but even beyond death. It became obvious that Helen was capable of doing all the work “in Kurt’s name” and “for Kurt” once he was gone. Secondly, the Wolffs did not need Pantheon to be successful publishers and could do better without it, forming new alliances that spared them the downsides of entrepreneurship. And thirdly, Pantheon, stripped of the Wolffs, would not be able to survive as an independent company. Even though several new editors were employed, the office drifted into chaos.

While Schabert was desperately trying to attain control over information and work flows and became involved in yet another power struggle with the new managing editor Gerald Gross, manuscripts were neglected, queries of authors were left unanswered, books ready for publication were reopened and meddled with, and cooperation with the Wolffs in Switzerland was made as inefficient and strained as possible.[62] The frustrated authors complained and turned directly to Helen, who had trouble explaining the situation to them: “I am afraid what has happened is that the place got ‚organized’. We have been running it in a frightfully individualistic, haphazard fashion, not at all the normal American way. (...) I was brought up by an unsophisticated mother with the motto: ‘There’s only one way to get things done—and that’s to do them.’ No IBM machines necessary for that.”[63] In order to get things done, Helen corresponded informally with the copy editor James Holsaert, who—while still working at the New York office—openly declared his loyalty to the Wolffs and moved the correspondence to his home address to avoid the “master file” that Schabert had introduced. In April 1960, on the occasion of another botched book and an insulting letter from Gerald Gross, the Wolffs gave the New York office an ultimatum for an apology.[64] When this was dismissed, the Wolffs were ready to resign. On May 24 they wrote a letter to Nathan Levin, the chairman of the board, listing their demands and requirements to continue working for Pantheon: As the publication list for the next three years was again exclusively their work alone, in spite of the substantial increase in staff in the New York office, they would not stand further discrimination in payments. They wanted it to be acknowledged that all major Pantheon authors desired to work with them personally, not with the New York staff. And they demanded to be reinstated as directors on the board, which had been withholding all information from them for more than a year and had excluded them under false pretenses in the first place.[65] The president and the directors were not in a hurry to respond to this ultimatum. Schabert declared in a note to the chairman that he would not forget the Wolffs’ personal attacks against him. It was “regrettably true” that most authors liked to work only with the Wolffs, and that Pantheon’s list for the next three years was again the work of the Wolffs. “But what of the future? Pantheon has made its special niche in American publishing. Its future rests on this side of the ocean. And while we must maintain a strong lifeline with the European sources which the Wolffs have ably cultivated, it is essential both to the health and the long future of the firm that its imprint be increasingly associated with the best of American publishing output.”[66]

It was not until July 6, 1960, that a directors’ meeting took place in which all the Wolffs’ stipulations were rejected. The minutes record that the “directors reviewed the history of negotiations with Mr. and Mrs. Kurt Wolff culminating in the employment contracts with them and the contract for the purchase of their stock interests in the company.” Even though nobody saw reasons to contradict their claims, “it was the unanimous feeling of the Board that the request of Mr. and Mrs. Wolff could not be reconciled with the basic problems which the above-mentioned contracts attempted to resolve; that Mr. and Mrs. Wolff’s demands had been fully complied within every respect in the spring of 1959. Accordingly, the Board unanimously agreed that it would be unwise to make any changes in the existing arrangement.”[67] Schabert’s salary, by contrast, was raised again as a “tangible recognition (...) to the invaluable services rendered” by him, and Schabert and Gross were given bonuses almost twice as high as those of the Wolffs. As Helen wrote to Holsaert: “In order to come to such a decision, Kurt’s and my character must have been in for a thorough assassination, our poor bones naked and covering the floor. Nothing of this was quoted in the Minutes, but anyone could read that between the lines.”[68]

On July 23, 1960, the Wolffs offered their resignation effective September 30. On August 4, the chairman accepted. Almost immediately the race was on as to how to publicly explain the resignation, which came as a shock to many authors and to the publishing world. The Wolffs could not prevent the dissemination of the most logical version: that Kurt, having grown old and ill, had confidently placed Pantheon in Schabert’s hands. But most of their authors understood the situation and hinted that they would be loyal to them. Kurt and Helen quietly waited for offers from other publishing houses. It was a moment of great suspense. When the news of their resignation had spread, several houses approached them.[69] Negotiations with Doubleday, which had a prominent Catholic list, were already advanced when the young and powerful president of Harcourt, Brace, William Jovanovich, overwhelmed them with an entrepreneurial determination and generosity that they had always missed at Pantheon. His simple inquiry “Do you want to publish with me?” containing the essential word “publish,” was read by them as an acknowledgement that to have the responsibilities and the standing of a publisher, one does not need to own the place, and that they were welcome to shape their own publishing policy on the basis of mutual trust and respect.[70] Kurt Wolff and Jovanovich outdid each other in light-handed generosity negotiating the contract. But the real question for Jovanovich during these negotiations—though discreetly pursued—was the efficiency, the wide-ranging ability, and the linguistic expertise of Helen Wolff. Their books were to be published under the imprint “A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book” and the order of their names indicated what the contract guaranteed in two inconspicuous words: that it applied to “both or either,” i.e. that Helen could continue by herself. The imprint at Harcourt survived Kurt Wolff’s death in 1963 and blossomed for more than three decades, bringing postwar European literature to the United States and continuously generating not exuberant but reasonable profits for the company. Helen died in 1994, and her books, which were taken over by her successor Drenka Willen, form an important part of Harcourt’s successful backlist to this day. How Harcourt itself stumbled into the minefield of excessive commercialization and was eventually robbed of its identity in the merger with Houghton Mifflin is another story.

Pantheon Books’ independence came to an end in 1961. Kurt Wolff had foreseen that the firm could not survive independently, even if personal conflicts were left aside. In a detailed, five-page memo to Schabert dated “Summer, 1958,” before the breach, he explained why his “view of Pantheon’s future after Helen’s and [his] retirement [was] altogether not too optimistic:” The firm would face “a terrific increase of the payroll,” having to employ at least six experienced people that could fill the vacancies created by their departure. Moreover, Pantheon had always been dependent on “other income” from Bollingen and the subsidiary rights. The excellent books that had given the firm its reputation had not achieved the sales one could expect from them: “I believe that these titles would have got a distribution twice as great and more with other publishers and that would make the difference between loss and profit.” Kurt did not mention that the sales were Schabert’s responsibility. He alluded to the small size and the undercapitalization of Pantheon, which made its operations unsafe, and concluded with advice to end Pantheon’s independent existence: “Try a merger of some kind with a larger, well-founded firm, disposing of an experienced staff whose general line has enough in common with Pantheon to make the combination look reasonable and natural.” Wolff suggested Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy.[71] On June 9, 1961, Pantheon was sold to Random House, which had already bought Alfred A. Knopf.[72] The new owners, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, dismissed Schabert, let Gerald Gross go to Macmillan, and established André Schiffrin as the new executive editor. He led Pantheon for almost thirty years as a quality imprint, modernizing its program by introducing the socially and politically engaged literature that the Wolffs had always spurned, and by eventually selling the Catholic and more conservative titles of the list back to Helen. While André Schiffrin and Helen Wolff differed in their tastes and understandings, one could see their lists as complementary, and they maintained good relations into the late eighties and early nineties, when they both fought against the new economic forces that endangered their imprints’ integrity.[73]

Immigration, Integration, and Cultural Identity: “European Style” as a Factor of Success on the American Book Market

Helen and Kurt Wolff always emphasized that they considered themselves of European rather than of German origin, a choice that dated back to the years before their arrival in New York. Their decision to leave Germany, temporarily in 1930 and for good in 1933, was the consequence of an alienation from “the Germans” as an imagined national community. Neither socialist or communist beliefs nor a nationalist or patriotic conviction allowed them to differentiate conceptually between “the Germans” and those people who had brought Hitler to power. To return to Germany after all that had happened, like Brecht or Zuckmayer or their fellow publishers Gottfried Bermann Fischer and Wieland Herzfelde, was never an option for the Wolffs. In the thirties, they would have opted to be French and taken on French citizenship if France had accepted them. After their arrival in the U.S., they opted to be Americans. They were infinitely grateful not only to be safe, but also to be allowed to move around freely, to work for their living, and to act in their field of interest. Once Pantheon was founded, they happily adopted the “American ideal,” which Helen cited in her first postwar letter to her sister in Germany: “‘The soul of republican America is the opportunity and encouragement given to each to build up, by his own efforts, and for himself and his dependants, some measure of dominion and independence all his own (...).’ We have experienced this ideal to be true and sincere firsthand and physically for us and for many other people who were not restricted and harassed even in times of war.”[74] Kurt received American citizenship in early 1947, Helen already in the summer of 1946. Identification with the United States was spurred tremendously by the fact that in those years the country was at the climax of its wealth and power:

It is a very strange feeling to have again a status in the world, to belong somewhere, and to enjoy protection, after having been an exile and an alien for so long. If one lives long enough, the wheel has time to turn, and fortune and misfortune to show their reverse. It seems like only yesterday that we lived in France in fear of our lives, and completely at the mercy of our hosts. And now to be the citizen of what the oath-taking judge called ‘the mightiest nation of the earth’, with even an atom bomb or two to back you up—I can’t quite get used to ‘So the last will be first.’ This great, strange country, still so much in the making, has shown its best face on the day I was sworn in.[75]

Prior to setting up Pantheon, the Wolffs had not been as enthusiastic about the United States. In the first months, while they were struggling for survival, when nobody seemed interested in them just having witnessed the fall of Europe, they often felt depressed and degraded to “manufactured goods of nature,” surrounded by a scared society of egoists, and only their Christian belief reminded them “that we exist to love, and not to hate:” “were we only philosophical and not also Christian, there would be nothing better to do than drink the cup of hemlock and really emigrate, this time to another star.” In another prewar letter, Helen wrote to her sister in Germany that the Americans seemed “barbaric, with no talent for the carefree enjoyment of life or gentle moral law”[76]—actually not so unlike the barbaric and dynamic Germans whom they had fled in the first place.[77] Christianity for Helen in these surroundings served not only as an antidote against hatred and fear, but also constituted the core of their identity, the quintessence of what they had experienced and morally achieved before coming to the United States: the lifestyle, the upbringing, the savoir vivre they had learned from the “Latins” in France and Italy “which comprised not only empty form, but consideration for one’s fellow human beings. I exercise this form meticulously and also teach [our son] Christian to exercise it.”[78]

The dualism of barbaric and raw (Germanic) America versus civilized and cultured (Latin) Europe conceptualized by Helen in these letters could easily have led to futility, resignation, and despair. The Wolffs, however, found that there was a way to reconcile these opposites, and to integrate what they had brought along with what they had come upon. There was a market for their “European” experiences, if only they managed to distill what could be seen as valid and as communicable at the same time. Therefore they “learned” America: “one has to learn this country like a new language, it doesn’t come naturally like a dream come true, like my oh so beloved France. There are no affinities to bridge the differences, everything has to be done by experience and intellect.”[79] Consciously and constantly assessing and calculating the cultural possibilities of the American reader, the Wolffs found it was possible to sell him the cultural assets that he himself felt wanting. If done ingeniously and subtly, one could create a market from the cultural conditions which at first seemed so discouraging: “One can get along well with the Americans if one doesn’t ask them to be like us. They are culturally giant children, but simple, grateful and modest, and their craving for culture, no matter how much they still misunderstand that word, is touching somehow.”[80] The scheme to financially exploit a self-proclaimed cultural superiority loses its offensive overtone against the backdrop of the dire conditions that forced the Wolffs to market themselves. But it was also softened by the emotional need and intellectual will to transmit their knowledge of the bloody and traumatic course that history had taken in old Europe to an America that to them still seemed innocent and young, and to thereby contribute something to the country which had rescued them from death. That they were allowed to fruitfully combine the necessary and the desirable, not having to “cheat” or to act counter to their values, became the new core of their identity and eventually even relaxed the fixity of their Christian beliefs and Latin savoir vivre.

The Wolffs’ strategy of marketing “European” culture proved successful. Books sold well if they were perceived as a proof of good taste and education, as a status symbol. “They should have it on their coffee table,” Helen would say in her later years when she wanted a difficult read to be a bestseller,[81] and would not hesitate to deploy her own and Kurt’s personalities and biographies to achieve this goal. But in spite of the growing success, having to market the cultural difference and stage her European origins always put a strain on her and made it difficult for her to feel at ease. After all, their experiences under Pantheon’s president Schabert had taught her that the cultural difference had very dangerous downsides. The Wolffs had even partly shared the consensus among the board of directors that sooner or later Pantheon would have to break free from its “European” origins and move into the mainstream, into fully “American” quality publishing, to succeed in the future. Schabert had appealed to this consensus when he confronted the board with his refusal to comply with the Wolffs, while at the same time admitting that their claims and statements for the past and for the present were correct. For the sake of an imagined future, the argument had prevailed that Pantheon had to assimilate and, if necessary, leave its founder and publisher, who was too old to change his cultural identity, behind. The chauvinism of this concept, which equated “American” and “future,” bound it to cultural assimilation and, taken to its logical conclusion, revoked the Wolffs’ American citizenship, sickened and threatened the Wolffs, and led to their seeing Schabert’s machinations and ambitions as a “murder attempt”[82] on Kurt’s life. To recover his health Kurt had to leave not only the New York office but the United States altogether, as Helen wrote to one of their authors: “I suspect, he just simply was homesick for Europe. He has never adapted to American ways.”[83] Almost twenty years of successful integration seemed to be swept away. Only after Kurt had died in 1963 did Helen return to the U.S. Backed by the strong and unequivocally supportive William Jovanovich, who himself cultivated a strong identity as the son of a Serbian coal miner, she continued to fight for her own concept of America, “cling[ing] to the belief that our experience was due to ‘an Un-American activity’,”[84] and to prove for more than thirty years that she could bridge the past and the future, the “European” and the “American”—this time not as an entrepreneur, but as a culturally and economically successful partner in another immigrant’s enterprise.

Notes

[1] Helen Wolff in the documentary The Exiles. They fled Hitler & found America, written and directed by Richard Kaplan (New York: Richard Kaplan Productions, 1989), DVD/VHS.

[2] In 1996 the Goethe-Institute established the annually awarded Helen and Kurt Wolff Translators’ Prize for outstanding literary translations from German into English published in the United States, providing $10,000 for the translator. Since 2001, the Kurt Wolff Foundation in Leipzig annually awards small, independent publishing houses in Germany with a main prize of €25,000 and a promotion prize of €5,000, and has recently begun to publish the booklists of independent publishing.

[3] The “era of people like Kurt Wolff, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Barney Rosset, George Braziller, and so many others,” a gilded and mystified age with blurred beginnings and ends. See Dan Simon and Tom McCarthy, “Editorial Vision and the Role of the Independent Publisher,” in A History of the Book in America, vol. 5:“The Enduring Book. Print Culture in Postwar America,” ed. David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, Michael Schudson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 210-222, here 210.

[4] Thedel von Wallmoden, “‘Offen sein für das Heutige, offen bleiben für das Gestrige’. Die Anfänge des Kurt Wolff Verlags zwischen Goethezeit und Expressionismus,” in Kurt Wolff. Ein Literat und Gentleman, ed. Barbara Weidle (Bonn: Weidle Verlag, 2007), 43-49; Bernhard Zeller, “Der Verleger Kurt Wolff,” in Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963, ed. Bernhard Zeller and Ellen Otten (Frankfurt: Verlag Heinrich Scheffler, 1966, rev. ed. in paperback 1980), VII-LVI.

[5] See Wolfram Göbel, “Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930,” Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens, vol. XV, 1976 (reprint Munich: Allitera Verlag, 2007), col. 521-962, here 573-579.

[6] Ibid., 714-729. The inventor of these tricks and strategies was not Kurt Wolff, but his managing director, the “propaganda genius” Georg Heinrich Meyer.

[7] Reinhard Wittmann, Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels. Ein Überblick (Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag 1991), 315-319.

[8] Leila von Meister quoted by Helen Wolff in Herbert Mitgang, “Profiles. Helen Wolff,” The New Yorker, August 2, 1982, 41-73, here 49.

[9] Göbel, “Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930”, 840 and 915-918.

[10] Helen Wolff to her brother Georg Mosel, February 26, 1933, Family Archive Georg Mosel (author’s own translation).

[11] Kurt Wolff’s diary, March 30, 1941, Family Archive Christian Wolff.

[12] See Erna M. Moore, “Exil in Hollywood. Leben und Haltung deutscher Exilautoren nach ihren autobiographischen Berichten,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933, vol. 1: “Kalifornien,” ed. John M. Spalek et al. (Bern: A. Francke AG Verlag, 1976), 21-39, here 26-33.

[13] Norman Holmes Pearson to Elizabeth Mayer, November 30, 1938, quoted in Steven John Schuyler, “Kurt Wolff and Hermann Broch: Publisher and Author in Exile,” Ph.D. diss (Harvard University 1984), 88.

[14] See John Tebbel, Between Covers. The Rise and Transformation of American Book Publishing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 337-340, 348-351.

[15] Ibid., 283.

[16] Beth Luey, “The Organization of the Book Publishing Industry,” in A History of the Book in America, vol. 5: “The Enduring Book. Print Culture in Postwar America,” 29-54, here 29. See also Charles A. Madison, Book Publishing in America (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966), VII.

[17] The secondary sources about the book publishing market up until the second half of the 1950s agree on these characteristics, although there are fundamental differences in their evaluations and interpretations. On the role of publishers and the economic nature of the publishing industry, see, for example, Linda M. Scott, “Markets and Audiences,” in A History of the Book in America, vol. 5:“The Enduring Book. Print Culture in Postwar America,” 72-106, here 84-85.

[18] Beth Luey, “The Organization of the Book Publishing Industry,” 42.

[19] Helen Wolff to Maria Wolff, Kurt Wolff’s daughter from his first marriage, September 28, 1941, Family Archive Baumhauer/Stadelmayer (author’s own translation).

[20] Kurt Wolff to Curt von Faber du Faur, February 24, 1942, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Yale Collection of German Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, YCGL MSS 16, Box 6, Folder 263 (author’s own translation).

[21] Kurt Wolff, undated note, Family Archive Christian Wolff (author’s own translation).

[22] Pantheon’s “founding credo,” undated (1942), quoted in Schuyler, “Kurt Wolff and Hermann Broch,” 25.

[23] Theodor Haecker, Journal in the Night, transl. Alexander Dru (Pantheon Books: New York, 1950); Dying We Live: The Final Messages and Records of the Resistance, ed. Hellmuth Gollwitzer, Reinhold Schneider, Käthe Kuhn, trans. Reinhold C. Kuhn (Pantheon Books: New York, 1956).

[24] Kurt Wolff to the literary agent Georges Borchardt, May 5, 1959, Private Collection Georges Borchardt. Borchardt had offered and warmly recommended Elie Wiesel’s La Nuit to them, which Kurt Wolff did not want to publish because they had “always refrained from doing books of this kind.”

[25] Helen Wolff to her sister Elisabeth Steinbeis, undated, (April 1946), Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis.

[26] Helen Wolff to Maria Wolff, May 28, 1946, Family Archive Baumhauer/Stadelmayer (author’s own translation).

[27] Kurt Wolff to Kyrill Schabert, undated (April 1944), a letter in which he appealed for sympathy regarding their need for office space, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1187 (author’s own translation).

[28] Kurt Wolff’s address to German booksellers and publishers in Frankfurt/Main, May 15, 1960, published in Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963, ed. Bernhard Zeller et al., (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), 507-508, here 508 (author’s own translation).

[29] This was considered “far below subsistence level,” and the salaries were accordingly raised to $525 and $625 respectively at the Special Meeting of Board of Directors, December 15, 1950, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 50, Folder 1554.

[30] The Bollingen Series was established in 1943 and first financed by Mellon’s Old Dominion Foundation, after 1945 by the Bollingen Foundation. See William McGuire, Bollingen. An Adventure in Collecting the Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press [Bollingen Series] 1982, rev. ed. in paperback 1989). See also the letters between Mary and Paul Mellon and Kurt Wolff, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 29, Folder 869-870; and Kurt Wolff’s undated note “no answer, for the record only” (December 1958), Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 34, Folder 1025.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Helen Wolff to James Holsaert, January 25, 1960, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 17, Folder 547.

[33] Curt von Faber du Faur to Kurt Wolff, December 30, 1941, Family Archive Christian Wolff (author’s own translation).

[34] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, November 21, 1948, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis (author’s own translation).

[35] Kurt Wolff’s undated note “no answer, for the record only” (December 1958), Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 34, Folder 1025.

[36] Minutes of Special Meeting of Board of Directors, December 15, 1950, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 50, Folder 1554.

[37] According to a list compiled by Kurt Wolff, undated (April 1952), Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 50, Folder 1546 (author’s own translation).

[38] Mitgang, “Profiles. Helen Wolff,” The New Yorker, August 2, 1982, 55.

[39] Kyrill Schabert to Kurt Wolff, November 30, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1187; Minutes of Special Meeting of Board of Directors, December 15, 1950, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 50, Folder 1554.

[40] Charles A. Madison, Book Publishing in America, 393-394; John Tebbel, Between Covers, 289-292.

[41] Helen Wolff, typed note for a speech introduction to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, undated, Family Archive Christian Wolff.

[42] Contract signed June 1, 1954, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 50, Folder 1531.

[43] Kurt Wolff to Anne Morrow Lindberg, March 13, 1955, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 23, Folder 741.

[44] Marjorie Villiers of Harvill Press, London, to Helen Wolff, January 2, 1957, confidential, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[45] Kurt Wolff to Harry Scherman of the Book-of-the-Month Club, May 16, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 3, Folder 95.

[46] See Beth Luey, “The Organisation of Book Publishing Industry,” here 48-49; Charles A. Madison, Book Publishing in America, 402.

[47] R. W. Apple, Jr.: “The Gold Rush on Publishers’ Row,” Saturday Review, October, 8, 1960, 13-15 and 47-49, Anne Morrow Lindbergh Papers, Yale University, Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library, MS 829, Box 24, Folder 474.

[48] Ibid., 14.

[49] Ibid., 15.

[50] See Obituary Nathan Levin, New York Times, October 23, 1988, (accessed May 5, 2011); John M. Lewis can be traced on the Internet as cofounder of the Irma T. Hirschl Trust (accessed May 5, 2011). The meetings of the board of directors of Pantheon usually took place at the offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

[51] Kurt Wolff to Kyrill Schabert, July 6, 1960, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1187.

[52] Kyrill Schabert to Nathan Levin, undated (recorded December 12, 1958), Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[53] Kurt Wolff to John Lewis, November 29, 1958, Family Archive Christian Wolff.

[54] Kurt Wolff to Curt von Faber du Faur, November 27, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 6, Folder 296 (author’s own translation).

[55] Kurt Wolff to Kyrill Schabert, November 27, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1186 (author’s own translation).

[56] Kyrill Schabert to Kurt Wolff, November 30, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1187.

[57] Interview Marion Detjen with André Schiffrin, New York, March 14, 2011.

[58] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, March 6, 1952, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis.

[59] Kurt Wolff to John Lewis, November 29, 1958, Family Archive Christian Wolff.

[60] Kyrill Schabert to Nathan Levin, undated (recorded December 12, 1958), Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[61] Employment agreements signed April 17, 1959, Private Collection André Schiffrin; Kurt and Helen Wolff to Nathan Levin, May 24, 1960, Private Collection André Schiffrin. Lewis, as the firm’s lawyer, had told the Wolffs that their moving abroad made it legally impossible to stay on the board.

[62] See the correspondence between the Wolffs and James Morris, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jasper, John Becker, Gerry Gross, James Holsaert et. al., Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, and Family Archive Christian Wolff.

[63] Helen Wolff to James Morris, December 22, 1959, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 29, Folder 900.

[64] Kurt Wolff to Gerald Gross, April 5, 1960; Kyrill Schabert to John Lewis and Nathan Levin, April 8, 1960, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[65] Kurt and Helen Wolff to Nathan Levin, May 24, 1960, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[66] Kyrill Schabert to Nathan Levin, undated, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[67] Minutes of the Annual Meeting of Stockholders, July 6, 1960, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[68] Helen Wolff to James Holsaert, July 23, 1960, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 17, Folder 548.

[69] Kurt Wolff’s undated note “no answer, for the record only” (December 1958), Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 34, Folder 1025.

[70] Mitgang, “Profiles. Helen Wolff,” The New Yorker, August 2, 1982, 62. According to the article and other sources, Jovanovich wrote his inquiry on a simple postcard in longhand, from his home in Westchester.

[71] Kurt Wolff to Kyrill Schabert, undated (“Summer 1958”), Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 39, Folder 1186.

[72] Contract signed June 9, 1961 by Nathan Levin und Bennett Cerf, Private Collection André Schiffrin.

[73] See the manuscript of Helen Wolff’s talk at the Goethe House, New York, May 15, 1990, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 73, Folder 2067.

[74] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, undated (April 1946), Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis. The quote originated from an article by Peter S. Grosscup, “How to save the corporation,” McClure’s Magazine, February 1905, as republished by the Center for Economic and Social Justice (accessed April 18, 2011).

[75] Helen Wolff to Maria Wolff, August 31, 1946, Family Archive Baumhauer/Stadelmayer (author’s own translation).

[76] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, May 20, 1941, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis (author’s own translation). See also Wulf Koepke, “Die Exilschriftsteller und der amerikanische Buchmarkt,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933, vol. 1: “Kalifornien,” ed. John M. Spalek et al. (Bern: A. Francke AG Verlag, 1976), 89-116, here 89-93.

[77] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, April 14, 1941, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis.

[78] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, November 12, 1941, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis (author’s own translation).

[79] Ibid (author’s own translation).

[80] Helen Wolff to Elisabeth Steinbeis, July 21, 1941, Family Archive Elisabeth Steinbeis (author’s own translation).

[81] Interview Marion Detjen with the Wolffs’ granddaughter Tamsen Wolff, Princeton, September 23, 2007.

[82] Helen Wolff to Curt von Faber du Faur, December 3, 1958, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 6, Folder 269 (author’s own translation).

[83] Helen Wolff to James Morris, January 11, 1960, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 29, Folder 900.

[84] Helen Wolff to Francis Brown, undated (Aug. 1960), probably not sent, Helen and Kurt Wolff Papers, Box 34, Folder 1025.


Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Kurt and Helen Wolff." (2014) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved September 2, 2014, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=83

Chicago Style

Detjen, Marion. "Kurt and Helen Wolff." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 5, edited by R. Daniel Wadhwani. German Historical Institute. Last modified June 19, 2012. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=83

MLA Style

"Kurt and Helen Wolff," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2014, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 2 Sep 2014 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=83>

Kurt Wolff and Helen Wolff in the 1940s

  • Kurt Wolff in Leipzig, ca. 1913
  • Office of Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919-1930
  • The Cottage “Le Cabanon”
  • Helene Mosel in the south of France, early 1930s

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