Andre Schiffrin, independent former editor of Pantheon Books, dies at 78

Mr. Schiffrin promoted works by Sartre, Chomsky, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Mr. Schiffrin promoted works by Sartre, Chomsky, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, and Simone de Beauvoir.Credit: Micheline Pelletier/New Press

NEW YORK — André Schiffrin — a publishing force for 50 years whose passion for editorial independence produced shelves of serious books, a titanic collision with a conglomerate that forced him out to stem losses, and a late-in-life comeback as a nonprofit publisher — died in Paris Sunday at 78.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter Natalia Schiffrin said.

The son of a distinguished Paris publisher who fled Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Mr. Schiffrin grew up in a socialist New York literary world and became one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social, and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

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Taking risks, running losses, and resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R.D. Laing, and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S.I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line. Mr. Schiffrin was conspicuously silent, his severance package barring him for a time from discussing the issue publicly.

But Vitale and others in publishing called his dismissal an inevitable result of Pantheon’s losses, which reached $3 million in Mr. Schiffrin’s final year, and his refusal to adjust his list to turn the imprint around.

While Pantheon accounted for a small percentage of Random House’s revenues, it had always had a special place within the company. Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, regarded it as a vehicle for distinguished, rather than lucrative, books. But mounting losses in the 1980s had eroded the corporate magnanimity.

In 1992, Mr. Schiffrin and Diane Wachtell, a former Pantheon editor, founded the New Press as an independent, nonprofit publisher of books “in the public interest,” funded by major foundations. The enterprise flourished, and Mr. Schiffrin, its editor in chief for more than a decade, remained as founding director and editor at large until his death.

The author of several books of his own, Mr. Schiffrin offered a gloomy assessment of publishing in his polemical memoir, “The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read” (2000).

“Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds,” he wrote. “The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society.”

André Schiffrin was born in Paris. He grew up in a multicultural household, immersed in languages and literature and a milieu of Jewish socialist intellectuals. He worked summer jobs at Pantheon, and knew the book list “the same way another boy would know the stock of his father’s candy store,” a Book World profile said.

After graduating with high honors and a degree in history from Yale in 1957, Mr. Schiffrin studied at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he became the first American to edit Granta, then the school’s literary journal, and earned a master’s degree in 1959.

In 1961, Mr. Schiffrin married Maria Elena de la Iglesia, known as Leina. Besides his wife and daughter Natalia, he leaves another daughter, Anya Schiffrin, a journalist married to the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz; and three grandchildren.

Since 2005, he and his wife divided their time between homes in Manhattan and Paris.