Jacques Schiffrin, a Publisher Between Two Worlds

Founder of the renowned Pléiade collection, which publishes French and international literary classics, Jacques Schiffrin (1892-1950) twice found himself in exile. First in Paris in the 1920s, then in New York, where he moved in the 1940s to escape the war in Europe and the persecution of Jews. This prolific publisher and friend of André Gide contributed to the American publishing house Pantheon Books, which is still going today. The French release of Jacques Schiffrin: A Publisher in Exile, by historian Amos Reichman, offers an opportunity to look back over his life and the golden age of publishing.
Translator, publisher, and cultural go-between Jacques Schiffrin in New York, shortly before his death in 1950. © Schiffrin Archives/Gallimard Archives

He was a man of an old world, the World of Yesterday depicted by Stefan Zweig in one of his most melancholic books. Born in imperial Russia, Jacques Schiffrin was unbreakably connected to old Europe and never really adapted to the New World – despite playing a key role in American publishing and working to bring the two continents together. His life was a series of separations and uprootings, confrontations with new cultures and languages, and “a mixture of success and suffering,” in the words of American historian Robert O. Paxton, who prefaced Amos Reichman’s book.

On May 15, 1941, Schiffrin, his wife Simone, and their son André, almost six at the time, left Marseille for the United States on the Wyoming liner. At the port, the dockers hurled insults at them, calling them “dirty kikes.” The political and social climate in occupied France had become unbearable for Jews, and all those who were able fled the country. Thanks to his friend André Gide, the future winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Schiffrin was able to contact Varian Fry, the American journalist who worked with the Emergency Rescue Committee to save thousands of Jews and anti-Nazi activists by helping them reach the United States. On November 5, 1940, the publisher had been fired by Gallimard in line with Nazi directives, which demanded that all Jews be dismissed from jobs in the economic and intellectual fields. His possessions and apartment in Paris were confiscated and he was unable to work. “The departure from France could not have been more humiliating, though everyone was vastly relieved to be on their way at last,” wrote his son, André Schiffrin, in A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York (2007). “Such a betrayal by our countrymen seemed unthinkable and deeply hurtful.”

The France that Schiffrin loved, the nation that had naturalized him in 1927, turned its back on him. The idyllic life in this country he had dreamed of, whose Enlightenment literature and philosophy he had admired, lasted just twenty years. After arriving in Paris in the early 1920s, having lived in Russia, Switzerland, and Italy, Schiffrin spoke several languages, had read the Russian literary canon, and trained with American art historian Bernard Berenson. He came up with the name for Les Editions de la Pléiade, his first publishing house, while thinking about the French Renaissance poets and a 19th-century Russian poetry society. Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, which he translated himself with André Gide and Boris Souvarine, was released in 1923. In 1931, he decided to create the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, a collection designed to make the leading texts accessible to the general public. With its thin paper, leather cover, elegant font, and compact format, these editions were sleek without being luxurious. “I wanted to create something useful and practical,” he said. “And since I also loved books, I was determined that they be as beautiful as possible.”

Jacques Schiffrin and German publisher Kurt Wolff, “his double from the world of yesterday,” at the Pantheon Books office, 1940s. © Kurt Wolff Family Collection/Schiffrin Archives
Jacques Schiffrin (left) and his wife Simone with Jean-Paul Sartre during his visit to New York, 1945. © Schiffrin Archives

Dismissed by Gallimard

Between 1931 and 1940, the collection grew to 61 volumes with authors such as Baudelaire, Poe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Tolstoy. André Gide was the first writer to be included while still alive. Despite his success, Schiffrin struggled to find new investors and decided to sell his company. “On July 31, 1933, several months after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, a contract was signed,” writes Amos Reichman. “Was Jacques Schiffrin fully aware of what he was giving up in the middle of the summer? He sold the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade to Gallimard. In doing so, he probably also saved it. But at what cost?” Reduced to a mere collection director, Schiffrin continued to work for Gallimard until a fateful letter in 1940 informed him that his services were no longer needed.

When he arrived in the United States after a long and difficult journey, the aesthete and visionary publisher began his third and final life. After a three-month adaptation phase during which his wife Simone supported the family by making fashion accessories, he founded a new American publishing house, Jacques Schiffrin & Co, in 1943. According to Robert O. Paxton, “several qualities allowed Shiffrin to excel among publishers: He was remarkably creative in identifying literary opportunities. He never compromised the taste or quality of his work. And he had an extensive range of friends among the major writers and intellectuals of his day.” In 1944, he started working with German publisher Kurt Wolff, “his double from the world of yesterday” and the founder of Pantheon Books.

While working in this publishing house created to build bridges between Europe and the United States, he directed French Pantheon Books, a collection of works in French. In New York City, André Schiffrin, who was a member of the Gaullist organization France Forever, published the leading texts from the Resistance, including Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows, Vercors’ The Silence of the Sea, as well as Gide, Denis de Rougemont, and, after the war, Camus’ The Stranger. “Unlike the French publishing initiatives, which developed in the context of war and exile, flourishing in a wider Francophone market without ever really appealing to American readers, Pantheon Books became a longstanding figure in the contemporary American publishing landscape,” writes Emmanuelle Loyer in Paris à New York : Les intellectuels français en exil (2005).

As shown by letters sent by Schiffrin to Gide and his other good friend, novelist Roger Martin du Gard, life in New York City was hard. Despite feeling nostalgic for Paris, he spent little time with the local French community. He had also suffered from emphysema since his military service, which made it difficult for him to breathe. Although viewed as an avant-garde publisher by French intellectuals such as Sartre, who visited him in 1945, he remained a man of the past. Unlike other exiles who returned to Paris after the war, he “feared the return he dreamed of, scared of what awaited him,” and eventually refused his old position working for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. His son André, who became a publisher at Pantheon Books, crossed the Atlantic in 1949, “symbolically completing the trip that Jacques Schiffrin was no longer able to take.” He died in November 1950 in New York, exhausted and emaciated, “a ghost of publishing,” in a world that was no longer his own.


Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.