The Editor
by Sara B Franklin

Is the subtitle of this new book, How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America really plausible? Even if it’s safe to assume — and I think that it is — that Jones was among the three or four most influential editors in the history of the Knopf imprint, there remains the question of just how far that influence reached. The “America” mentioned here seems to be the relatively small world of people who might read The Editor or who might at least be interested to hear about it (if only because of the Julia Child connection). It goes without saying that I’m one of those people, and happy to be one; but I’ve learned from Donald Trump’s followers that there is a larger America that takes no interest in the culture that Judith Jones did or did not shape. And this awareness lacquers the mentality of Franklin’s book with what feels like a dangerous unreality. It reminds me of the douce days when “France” meant la noblesse and the writers and artists in their employ.

I swallowed The Editor in two days. It really oughtn’t to have been such an easy read. It certainly wasn’t an entirely pleasant one. Where there ought to have been substance, there was copious wallpaper. One of Franklin’s favorite patterns is to begin a chapter section with a scene that opens in medias res, with little to indicate what the context of that res is.

The gifts poured into room 905. Dick brought Judith tulips. Alfred Knopf [the man, not the firm] sent a mixed spring bouquet. His second wife, Helen… (141)

Thus opens Chapter 13; right through Chapter 12, there has been scant mention of medical problems. The second paragraph of Chapter 13 backtracks to the day, “two weeks earlier,” when Jones made a bloody mess in an assistant’s office — endometriosis. The tulips and the bouquets were to grace Jones’s convalescence from a radical hysterectomy. Once again, the point is made that, had she been able to bear children, Jones’s life would have been very different. About ten years earlier, however, it had been different: she had become the acting mom for two teenaged children to whom she was related only tenuously. (Their father, Jack Vandercook,  a quickly decaying widower, had been married to Jones’s cousin Jane during the war, after which Jane left him to marry John Gunther. Vandercook also remarried, and had the two children of whom he could no longer take care, hence the appeal to the Joneses.) Franklin’s account of Jones’s foray into motherhood ends with pure boilerplate:

Motherhood wasn’t coming as easily to Judith as she’d hoped and imagined it would. …

Judith was spread thin. The children needed her attention. [Her husband] Dick wanted it, too. And then there was her Knopf work, unrelenting, where Judith was still trying to prove her worth. (93)

Franklin states in her introduction that The Editor

is not a definitive biography but an intimate portrait, one that aims to highlight Judith’s prescience and outsize influence on American culture and to humanize her — from girlhood to old age — as well. (xviii)

The problem with this approach is that, given the absence of a biography, and even a generally widespread sense of who Judith Jones was and what she did, Franklin finds it necessary to stuff her book with names and dates. These are strewn through the text — another wallpaper pattern — rather than set apart concisely in a section on “background.” We are also told “Judith’s story” as if through her own eyes, an impertinent impersonation that often grates.

One aspect of The Editor hit me a bit close to home. Like my late wife, Kathleen Moriarty, Judith Jones was a very successful graduate of the Brearley School here in New York who also acquiesced to professional to sexism throughout her career, often to her own disadvantage. Kathleen and I often argued about this, as did Judith and Dick Jones. Both women, I suspect, believed that the alternative to acquiescence was somehow worse, and so much worse that they preferred simply to dismiss the matter. Others might find them to have been “too ladylike.” Franklin does not even get that far; it seems to suffice to note the “anomaly” and to move on, as she does with Judith’s being “stretched thin.” Insofar as The Editor contributes to Women’s Studies, it falls woefully short of reflection on a serious problem.

I cannot end this sour-lemon appraisal without shamelessly displaying my own cleverness. As early as page 27, I knew that I was in for a careless drive when I read the following, a passage describing Judith Jones’s first taxi ride through Paris.

The two young women stared wide-eyed as they passed the manicured gardens and fountains of Jardin du Palais Royal…

I quickly translated this impossibility into New York terms.

Whizzing through Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens in their cab, the young ladies peeked in at the chic diners at the Rainbow Room.

As Jones herself actually did say of serving tripe to the Vandercook kids, “That was mean of me.”

When the definitive biography of Judith Jones does appear, I’ll be only too ready to weigh, consider, and enjoy it.