John Updike (1932-2009): A Publicist Remembers
Sarah Russo, Associate Director, Publicity, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://twitter.com/sarahrusso
Years ago, I started my career in publicity as an assistant at Alfred A. Knopf. It was the ultimate place to learn about books, authors, the publishing industry, the “right” way to do things in the publicity world, the civilized way.
Every day started for me at 7:30am, cup of coffee in hand, the other assistant and I divided the morning papers and got to reading: The New York Times, Washington Post, Daily News, New York Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, and several other big dailies. We read them all, devoured them is more like it, searching for mentions of Knopf books—clipping, pasting, photocopying; putting together the “clips packet,” arts & crafts for the publicity set—to circulate to sales, marketing, editorial, and the rest of the publicity department. Yes, there were that many mentions of Knopf books each day. The packet was huge, thirty, forty pages on most days, far more on Mondays when we received the Sunday papers from around the country.
The office was a rotating cast of celebrity authors and poets. Michael Crichton, V.S. Naipaul, Toni Morrison, Eli Wiesel, and celebrity editors: Ash Green, Gary Fisketjon, Deb Garrison, Judith Jones. If you don’t know Judith Jones’s name it’s only because she is the personification of a true editor: the person behind the scenes, never flashy, never usurping the true performers—the writers—she just made the books better. But you do know her work. She discovered Julia Child, and there is a story that’s told at Knopf that she is the person who discovered The Diary of Anne Frank in the slush pile as an assistant at HarperCollins Paris. She was, of course, John Updike’s editor. And their friendship was palpable.
One afternoon, I had the chance to spend the day in Judith’s office, overlooking the East River (as Knopf was then at 201 East 50th Street) with John Updike. As a publicity assistant part of my job was to help authors sign their books when they came in to the office. When they are being asked to sign 300 copies for the sales force having someone un-boxing books, opening them to the title page and packing them back up is a necessity. My job for the afternoon was to help and make polite conversation.
Learning to talk to famous people as a terribly shy, 22 year old was a painful process for me but Mr. Updike was a kind, generous person and full of conversation. And we had one thing in common: we’re both Dutch (or I am at least partly so). So we had the Netherlands to chat about. And as we were talking about Holland, Sijthoffs and Updikes, plugging through 300 copies of Gertrude & Claudius, a rainbow appeared over the East River. Truly, a rainbow. Utterly bucolic over the dingy buildings on the waterfront of Queens. And we just stood there, staring out the window, silent, surprised and smiling.
John Updike was a good man: an incredible writer, kind to the least important of publicity personnel, and a lover of words and the world. He will be missed.