Charles Scribner III, SCRIBNERS: Five Generations in Publishing

Charles Scribner III, SCRIBNERS: Five Generations in Publishing

Zibby welcomes Charles Scribner III to discuss his book and family history in publishing. Charles shares anecdotes about living in Zibby’s childhood apartment, the origins of Scribner as a religious publishing house, and the fascinating evolution of the family business over 170 years. The conversation delves into memorable authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the loyalty between Scribner and its writers, and what it was like to narrate his audiobook. Charles reflects on the changing landscape of publishing, emphasizing the enduring value of written words and the special experience of reading.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Charles. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Charles Scribner III: Thank you, Zibby. It’s such a treat to be here.

Zibby: I know we have this funny history together with you living in the apartment I grew up in, which is amazing. How is the apartment, by the way?

Charles: I wish we had stayed in it because it’s next door to my wife’s best friend’s daughter’s apartment and her sister, Alexandra Andrews, who was on your show.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right.

Charles: You were our first trick-or-treater back in 1987.

Zibby: I was? Oh, my goodness. Here we are just after Halloween many years later. Very funny.

Charles: Your parents moved out of it. My wife eventually said she couldn’t stand the bus stopping below the bedroom every day, so we moved to 72nd Street, Mayor Lindsay’s old apartment. Guess what they did? They rerouted the bus.

Zibby: No! You can’t get away from it.

Charles: This is New York. We enjoy it.

Zibby: I should get you a framed photo of a Metro card or something like that. Anyway, tell listeners about your book.

Charles: This was the book that I never expected to write. I’d written art books as an art historian. I had an idea for a book about walking tours of Rome with Caravaggio and Bernini. I mentioned it to my editor, Michelle Rapkin. She had edited my last four books. Two of them were journals. Then there was a very short book I wrote on an iPhone in Florida called Sacred Muse about religious art and music. If you want a short book, write it digit by digit on an iPhone. It’s guaranteed to be short. Then she said, “No, no, no,” I think remembering my father’s oral history. He had lost the ability to read and write later through a neurological problem. He spoke better than most people can write, so it was fine. It was edited by the great Jacques Barzun, whose grandson was on your podcast. I think remembering that she said no.

She said, “You should write the story of the whole family history of the publishing business.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because if you don’t, all those stories you’ve told me over the years will be lost.” I was down in Florida in exile, as I called it. You stay in New York. I stay in New York. Your dad stays in New York. Some of us still do. There’s this flight to the tropics, or Florida anyway, but that’s not for me. I have to be down there two months every winter because my wife likes the warm weather. I call it Florida exile. The last year, I wrote the art book on the iPhone. This year, I decided, okay, I’ll bring my laptop. I just started writing each day. I thought, well, I’ve got two months. I think I can do that. I wanted a fairly short book. I was not going to do Barbra Streisand, a thousand pages over ten years. As Scott Berg, the great biographer, said to me way back at Princeton, he said, “Charlie, I’m a marathon runner. You’re a sprinter.” Yes, I like short books. Your book, Bookends, is perfect length. My feeling is The Great Gatsby sort of set the standard for me. Anyway, I got so into it. I had a puppy to look after, but I don’t play golf. I don’t play bridge. I don’t drink. What am I going to do in Florida?

Zibby: Tennis?

Charles: I do play a little tennis.

Zibby: That’s only an hour.

Charles: I went to the gym, but that leaves a lot of the day. I would sit at the little dining room table in the cottage we rented for two months. I started in the morning. I got so into it that I thought, after I feed the puppy lunch, I’ll write in the afternoon. Then I’d go to the gym. Then I’d write in the evening. Seven pages a day times thirty days is why it’s a 210-page book. Then it’s done.

Zibby: Wow, but you had two months.

Charles: The second month was really a luxury because I would send it to former colleagues, their sections. I’d say, “Please read this and tell me, did I remember this correctly? Does this correspond to your memory?” I really wanted it to be accurate. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with our alumni, so to speak. I’ve been out of publishing for twenty years, almost, nineteen years. I thought, this is great. My last sentence in the book really summed up the experience. It was my father’s favorite quotation from Montaigne, who wrote, “I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” That was the experience of writing this. The book really created an experience.

Zibby: It just had to come out.

Charles: It had to come out, and I think because I had in mind I was writing it for the three grandchildren. I also had in mind — we wife and I listen, going back and forth to Long Island, we listen to more books than we read, which is why your podcast is so enjoyable.

Zibby: Thank you.

Charles: I had in mind having been, as a schoolboy, wanting to be an actor, I thought, I’d really like to narrate this book. Actually, the narrated book, the Audible book, was set up before I had a publisher for the printed book.

Zibby: That’s interesting.

Charles: I ran into a Scribner alum who had come to work with us as a very young man in his early twenties right out of Harvard. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. Now he’d had three children. The youngest and his wife were at the pool. He is a big executor at Audible, Matthew Thornton in Newark. He lined the whole thing up. It was the greatest experience. They gave me the best director and the best sound engineer. As you know, the facilities are magnificent. It was an easy book to narrate, or to read, rather. They wouldn’t let me narrate it. As you know, they’re so strict. It has to be word perfect to the text or they’ll stop you.

Zibby: Oh, I know. Let’s try that passage again. Let’s do that one again. I’m like, okay.

Charles: Most writers out there listening are not going to be prepared to do this, but the ultimate proofreading is reading your book out loud. Every once in a while, they’d stop me. They’d say, “Oh, no, you got that word wrong.” I’d look. I’d say, “No, I made a mistake. I said it right. I’ll have the text corrected.” That is the ultimate proofreading because your eyes can glaze over errors. You see the word you expect to see when you’re reading, especially if you’ve written it. Even an editor, once they’re reading, they kind of know where the sentence is going. If you leave out a “the” or you put in a second “the,” they’re going to miss it. If you say it out loud, you catch it. That was a wonderful experience. I must say, granted, she’s a superstar, but my book took eight hours to record. Yours was probably close to that. Probably a little less, right?

Zibby: Actually, for Bookends, they were like, “You’re going to have to block out a whole week of time.” I was like, “No, no, it’s not going to take me a week.” They were like, “No, I’m sure it will.” They made me block out a whole week. I did it in a day and a couple extra hours.

Charles: Did you really? Wow. I took more than that. I think I did it in three days. I’ve lost my train of thought.

Zibby: You were doing the fabulous audiobook. You were saying it was easy to narrate. The way you wrote the story was so conversational, in fact.

Charles: I think maybe in the back of my mind I had it that I wanted to record this book for the grandchildren. I think that affects the style of writing. You cannot write like William Faulkner. You cannot write those complicated, convoluted sentences and hope to narrate it. Maybe Sir Laurence Olivier could narrate it.

Zibby: I don’t think he was thinking about the audiobook.

Charles: No, he wasn’t. It made for a much more conversational text, I hope.

Zibby: It did. You conveyed so much history through not that many pages, as you said. It’s a nice, short — every chapter, everything had a really interesting anecdote or story or piece of history I didn’t know. I was like, huh, no way. That’s impressive.

Charles: I wanted to make it clear that — nobody these days — who’s going to want to read 170 years of company history, even if it’s got interesting authors? This sort of heavily researched, footnoted — if I’d given myself ten years, yes, I could’ve written nine hundred pages, history of Scribner’s, but nobody would read it. They might look in the index, but nobody would read it. I wanted to mix personal memories, experiences with the history. I wanted to tell the story but also make it clear this is a personal history. I am not Walter Isaacson or Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s not that kind of book.

Zibby: What would people who have heard the name Scribner’s not know that you share in the book? What do you want them to know?

Charles: It took off, really, in a very different direction from where it started. The founder, who was my great-great-grandfather, set it up in an unused chapel of the Brick Church. It was later The New York Times building and is now Pace University near Wall Street. He really intended it to be a religious publishing house, but he had his first best-seller, a biography of Napoleon, about a generation after Napoleon had died, called Napoleon and His Marshals. That went through many, many printings. Then he had a best-seller by a nonstarter author who did two books that went nowhere, but his third book was called Reveries of a Bachelor. That took off. I think the title probably helped. Then later on, he loved magazines, so he started a little magazine, Hours at Home, which we’d call today, a family values magazine. It included an article on missionaries unsuccessfully trying to get the king of the Hawaiian Islands to give up drinking. The magazine was successful. The missionaries weren’t.

That was followed by a really important magazine, which came out the year he died at the ripe age of fifty, called Scribner’s Monthly. That went on for many, many years, eventually was sold by his son who took over the company, my great-grandfather Charles, the second Charles. He wanted a magazine, but the magazine was out of his control. It had other partners. He didn’t want a magazine being controlled, that had his name on it, by somebody else. It was sold and became The Century Magazine, which had a history of its own. There was a children’s magazine we started called St. Nicholas with Mary Mapes Dodge as the editor, who wrote Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, which I put in my book was a very key book for me as a child because my mother was a professional figure skater. That book was important on the shelf. The clock had to tick for five years before he was allowed to create a competing magazine. He did it big time, Scribner’s Magazine. That went for fifty years.

That brought in talents. Henry James. Edith Wharton’s first story was in Scriber’s Magazine. Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote lots of books for us afterwards, especially when he became president. Scott Fitzgerald had stories published in it. Ernest Hemingway. Those are the writers that are going to be more familiar to the readers, the twentieth century, which was really Max Perkins’ era of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, and then some oddball books like the autobiography of Benito Mussolini in 1928. There was no such thing as cancel culture back then. Today, we’d be canceled. 1928, nobody really quite understood yet what this was all about. To balance the scales, within a couple of years, we published the Bolshevik communist leader Leon Trotsky’s autobiography. He signed all his letters in red ink to his publisher. He was, of course, later murdered by Stalin. We covered the waterfront. On a brighter note, I would point out that during his years out of office, we published and really kept afloat Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, his best-selling books came after the Second World War. He had not earned back the vast royalties that he got from Scribner’s, so he was kind of in our debt. To get fresh money, he went to another publisher. There was no hard feelings. We look back on it, and I say in the book, if we didn’t have best-selling books by Winston Churchill, we had one really fantastic memoir called My Early Life, which I studied as a schoolboy at boarding school. We had the conciliation of knowing that we helped keep this man afloat in the manner to which he was born until he became prime minister and, I think it’s fair to say, won a war through the power of words.

Zibby: Wow, beautiful. Keep going. What else? Scriber’s, what does it mean to you? What does it mean to the reader? What is the reputation? What is something that we don’t know?

Charles: I mentioned children’s books. One of the early children’s books that everybody would know through the films or Disney films or videos if nothing else, Wind in the Willows. My great-grandfather wanted to turn that down. He turned Fitzgerald, later, down twice. Max Perkins kept the faith, and Fitzgerald finally was published. Anyway, Wind in the Willows was turned down, except President Roosevelt, who was an author, said to him, “Absolutely not. You must publish this book. It’s going to be a classic.” He did. You don’t turn down the president of the United States if he’s your author. Another book, Peter Pan, was an all-time favorite. Let’s see. What else? My own personal, and something my wife and my parents shared in, personal delight was an author much later on in the sixties, seventies, eighties we really launched as a best-seller, and it took a dozen years, was the mystery writer P.D. James, the English crime writer. Then she was later Baroness James. We did her first nine books. Then after we merged into Macmillan, a larger company, her agent took her to another publishing house, but she remained a close family friend. We loved her.

Actually, my wife and I had dinner with her on our honeymoon in London. It was a slightly awkward moment because at dinner, Phyllis, as we called her, turned to this bride of two weeks and said, “You know my dear, you’ve married a very complicated man.” Just what a new bride wants to hear, right, from the queen of crime? Let’s think. What else? The first author I met, I suspect — I never met Hemingway. My father was his last publisher. I did know his widow, Mary. I didn’t meet Hemingway. Fitzgerald was dead before I was born. The first author I met was the first man to fly across the Atlantic, the year my mother was born, 1927, Charles Lindbergh. He won a Pulitzer for his book, The Spirit of St. Louis. I said I met him. I was four years old. I don’t remember, but he came to dinner in Darien, Connecticut, where we had a summer house, a rental, for one month. My mother later said, I put in the book, that — she was twenty-eight years old. She had to entertain this author who’d flown the Atlantic, and his wife. He was impossible. He never said a word at dinner. His wife, though, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, utterly charming. My father said that publishing him, he would measure with a ruler the space between the letter and the period or the semicolon as if each piece of type was like a moveable part in his airplane. That was kind of unnerving.

Zibby: Having seen the scope of publishing from the beginning of Scribner’s and the old partnership and everything to today, and the acquisition, everything, what have you learned about publishing? Where do you see it going? I’m a publisher now. What should I be thinking about? What did you take away? Where do you think publishing is? If you want to weigh in on any of that.

Charles: I think publishing is always going to be changed by technology. It will create as many challenges as opportunities, but in the end, the opportunities are greater. For example, recorded books, they’re not going to put the printed book out of business. Well, I say — yes, recorded. We don’t listen to them on tapes anymore, but online. I was asked recently, do I think that books are going to be displaced? I honestly don’t because sixty years ago, my dad was concerned in the sixties with when film strips and audio visuals were entering the elementary schools. He thought, are books going to be displaced? He was having lunch with the head of RCA, General Sarnoff. RCA then owned Random House Publishing. He was worrying about the future of books. The general said to him, he said, “Look, don’t worry about it. Just remember there are more candles sold annually now than a hundred years ago.” Electricity did not put candles out of business. There’s something special about reading the word on the page, the silent experience. It’s wonderful to listen to a book, but there’s something about when you’re reading it silently at your own speed, not the narrator’s speed. You can stop, and you can start. There’s an interior dialogue that takes places that cannot be replicated in any other medium, film. I talk a lot about films in this book because so many of our best-selling books were made into famous films.

I think there’s something special about reading and, I would go a step further, writing. I remember when I was a student, my dad used to say to me, he said, “Just remember writing clarifies thinking.” You think you know something. You think you know what you want to say. You think you understand something. You will find that in the process of writing about it, you will make new discoveries or the problem will be simplified or appear with more clarity. I found that to be the case writing this book. I grew up in this family, and I’d heard all these stories. I thought I understood what it was all about, but it was only, each day, writing it down that things would fit together or an event would hark back to something that happened a century earlier. I’ll give you a better example. One of my favorite parts of the book is talking about my father’s last visit to Hemingway when Hemingway had lost his place in Cuba because of the Bay of Pigs and Castro taking over. He was kind of at wit’s end. He had a rental apartment in New York on 62nd street. He was working on two books, the book about bullfighting, which was later published, The Dangerous Summer, and my favorite Hemingway, the book about Paris, A Moveable Feast, which had yet to have a title. It was referred to as the Paris book.

Zibby: I loved all the insights into titles in the book. I loved that. Oh, my gosh, that was so, so fun. Anyway, keep going.

Charles: Hemingway’s titles for what was later A Moveable Feast — Hotchner and Mary Hemingway came up with that. He had terrible titles. The Way it Was. How it Was Then. To Write One True Sentence. Can you imagine that being a classic?

Zibby: And The Great Gatsby.

Charles: The Great Gatsby had worse titles. Trimalchio and West Egg. Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires was one title. Gold-Hatted Gatsby, The High-Bouncing Lover, and so forth.

Zibby: Crazy.

Charles: And then the one he wanted in the end, which fortunately, was too late, Under the Red, White, and Blue. Perkins, his editor, was right. The Great Gatsby was the title.

Zibby: It’s perfect.

Charles: A Moveable Feast was a wonderful title. Anyway, my father, on his last visit to Hemingway had left with his editor, Harry Brague. Hemingway handed him a valise. He said, “Please lock this in your office cabinet or safe. Please don’t lose this. It’s got my will in it, my last will.” My father, not thinking, said, “Oh, if I lose it, I’ll shoot myself.” Hemingway replied, ironically now, “That wouldn’t do me any good.” He took it back to the office. Then the next day, Hemingway appeared pretending he needed to look up something in the valise. My father knew full well that all he wanted to do was make sure my father hadn’t lost the will. It was in the safe. Hemingway was happy. He comes out smiling. He sits down in his publisher’s desk, in his chair. My father had no place to sit in his own office. He says, “Would you like some coffee?” Hemingway says yes. My father comes in. He said, “Would you like some cream?” He says yes. Dad says, “How much?” Typical Hemingway, he says, “Just enough to change the color.” What other person would describe putting cream in coffee that way? That was pure Hemingway. That’s not my discovery. That was the story. After writing that story, the discovery in writing it was my father never mentioned to me or anyone else, to my knowledge, the whole point, not the point of the story, but the conclusion, which was really quite a shocking one, which was Hemingway entrusted his handwritten last will not to his lawyer, who served as his agent, Alfred Rice, not to a close member of the family. He gave it to his publisher to keep for him.

That spoke volumes about the relationship between them. My grandfather, he called him his best friend. There were two things in the book that I had to do retakes again and again at Audible. One was a letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was one of our most loyal authors. When he was trying to be lured away by Harper, he wrote this wonderful letter to a friend who was involved in it. He said, “You know, the Scribners treated me so well. I think they’ve done well by me. There is no amount of money that would make me repay them evil for good.” When I would read this letter, I would start choking up. Today, authors change publishers like they change accountants. That was a degree of loyalty that really moved me. The other part that I had to read over and over because I would start choking up was the condolence letter that Hemingway wrote to my dad when his father died suddenly at age sixty-two. It was so moving and so loyal. He said, “You don’t have to worry about me or money or anything. You’ve got my complete loyalty.” In fact, it’s such a beautiful letter, it has been anthologized in eulogies and so forth. That summed up a relationship that I think is unusual these days.

Zibby: It is. Wow. It’s a model to aspire to. All of it, the partnership between publisher and author and all of the great works that came out of Scribner, it’s amazing. It’s really amazing. I just have to say thank you. Thank you for writing all the stories down, even though they weren’t intended for random people like me, and they were for your grandchildren. Still, it was wonderful to read and to have. I can savor and go back and all of that. Thank you. Thanks for sharing with our listeners as well.

Charles: It’s been such a delight to be here. Zibby, you were my first trick-or-treater at your old family apartment when we moved in. Now here we are twenty-nine years later. No.

Zibby: I can’t believe it. Crazy. No.

Charles: No, not twenty-nine. It’s not that long. It was 1987. I can’t do the math. Thirty-five years later?

Zibby: Thirteen and twenty-three?

Charles: Thirty-six years later.

Zibby: Thirty-six years later. Yeah, I’m forty-seven now. Quite a long stretch.

Charles: The years have just vanished.

Zibby: They have. They really have.

Charles: This book was about people. I hope the listeners can appreciate. I wasn’t interested in company history. It’s all about the personalities.

Zibby: Absolutely. Amazing. Thank you so much.

Charles: Thank you.

SCRIBNERS: Five Generations in Publishing by Charles Scribner III

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