In 2006, I was researching a biography of Random House cofounder Bennett Cerf; Toni Morrison had begun working there when he was still alive. During two conversations that year, she gave me the great gift of four hours of her time, stirring up memories from her days as an editor. When news of her death came, those stories stirred up in me, and after reading through my notes, I wanted to share a few of them with you.
In 1965, when Morrison was 34, had an MA and college teaching experience, and was newly divorced and caring for two small sons, she began to work on high school anthologies as associate editor in literature at L.W. Singer, an RH textbook subsidiary in Syracuse, N.Y. The civil rights movement, she said, had spotlighted the fact that “textbooks didn’t represent minorities,” and she believed she was hired in part due to RH’s interest in revising some, to gain “bulk purchases in places like Detroit.” (But for texts sold in Texas, she recalled, “we still had to say ‘war between the states’ instead of Civil War.”)
Some of the other things Morrison recalled learning while working on those books: that certain lines from some well-respected authors “were never printed,” to avoid political, religious, or sexual controversy, and that there were other “restrictions to which editors had to submit.” Textbooks, she concluded, “are a time bomb in every country.”
RH’s Singer subsidiary was in trouble and would eventually be sold; before then, the decision was made to move certain anthology series to RH’s reference division in New York City. Morrison had realized, early, that some people would go with these series and wanted to be among them. In 1968, she was.
She had begun a novel in Syracuse, finished it in New York, and “didn’t tell anybody at work—they’d wonder where my time loyalties lay,” she told me. Morrison felt “it would be a serious conflict to show it to Random House.” Instead, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970 from Holt.
Robert Bernstein was RH’s CEO, and one of his key lieutenants, Tony Schulte, went to see her and asked her, “Wouldn’t you like to be a trade editor? You can talk to Knopf and Random House.”
Morrison was aware that RH had recently signed up “an interesting project—Muhammad Ali’s autobiography” and that she would be able to work on it if she went there. Bob Gottlieb, recently installed as Knopf head, told her, “I’d rather be your editor than your boss.” So in the end that is what happened; Morrison went to work at RH and Gottlieb became her editor. Morrison was one of 10 RH editors and the first black woman there. She often smoked a pipe with fellow editor Albert Erskine and cigars with her author Angela Davis.
Morrison said she “liked book making” and would “sneak down to plot with the designers” about her books, skirting the rules. But publishing was still “a boys’ club,” and being a woman, her full-time job “never paid a living wage.” She had extra gigs teaching in colleges to make ends meet.
But there was some help within the company. Morrison and Donald Klopfer—RH’s other cofounder, who she said was “serious, elegant,” and, for her, “the man”—used to talk often and deeply. When he heard she was having a problem, “he’d appear with a $5,000 check.” It was a personal loan; “he knew I wouldn’t take a gift.” And when she needed to buy a house for her boys, she saw Bernstein, and he phoned RH’s bank. It gave her a mortgage—not an easy thing for a divorced black woman with two kids to get.
There were good things: no committee deciding what Morrison could publish; accomplishing her goal of building a list of black authors that made her very proud. But sometimes she didn’t get the support she felt she deserved from certain departments, as in 1974, when she edited The Black Book, a compendium of documents and images charting the course of the black experience in America, which became a major success despite lukewarm backing from some at RH.
Three years later, after Morrison published Song of Solomon, Bernstein, whom she said was “a good boss for me,” asked, “If you had it like you want it, what would it be?” He agreed to let her come in only one day per week. A half-dozen years passed that way, but she became “less interested in being in publishing,” feeling that “the work I liked was less and less valued.” In 1984, with Gottlieb’s encouragement “to just be a writer,” she gave up the job. ■
Gayle Feldman has written for PW and the Bookseller for 30 years. She is currently writing a biography of Bennett Cerf for Random House.