Ronald Mansbridge

Cambridge University Press's representative in the US for 40 years and, at 100, its living archive
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The Independent Online

Frederick Ronald Mansbridge, publisher: born Sanderstead, Surrey 11 November 1905; married 1931 Georgia Mullen (died 1988; one son, one daughter), 1990 Janet Van Duyn (née Dunning; died 2003; two stepdaughters); died Weston, Connecticut 1 September 2006.

But for Ronald Mansbridge, the fortunes of Cambridge University Press in America over the last 70-odd years would have been very different. He saw it grow from a one-man office to a business that placed it amongst the largest university presses in the country. To many authors and booksellers in the United States from 1930 until his retirement in 1970 he was, in effect, the press. Today, sales through the New York branch are worth about $70m per annum.

He was born in Sanderstead, Surrey, in 1905, the fourth child of George Frederick Mansbridge, who invented the electrical condenser that bears his name. From Malvern College, Ronald went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he read Classics. In the vacation at the end of his second year, he was tutoring an American girl in Latin when he instantly fell in love with, and became engaged to, her 18-year-old sister.

After finishing his degree, he crossed the Atlantic in 1928 and found a job in New York, through his future mother-in-law, as an assistant instructor in English at Barnard College at $1,000 a year. (His teaching career had begun, he used to say, when, at the age of 12, he had been drafted in to teach the younger pupils at his school after an influenza epidemic laid most of the masters low.) Apart from brief visits to England, either on business or, after his retirement, to exchange the rigours of the Connecticut winters for the comfort of his house in Sussex, Mansbridge was to stay in America for most of his life.

He was promoted to instructor in his second year at Barnard College, but decided that teaching wasn't for him. "I looked for something where I didn't have to know anything and I found it in publishing," he recalled in an interview for his 100th birthday. He began reading manuscripts for publishers at $10 a time.

In 1930, the year before he married Georgia Mullen, he was headhunted by Cambridge University Press. Following many years of instability with one publisher and another as agent, in 1930 the press's Syndics, or governing body, decided that they needed an office with more independence. A fresh arrangement was devised with the Macmillan Company and Mansbridge was recruited as representative by S.C. Roberts, the press's Secretary - whose undemanding lectures on Samuel Johnson he had attended in Cambridge.

Roberts made an astute choice. Mansbridge became a Macmillan employee, but he could not be sacked, since this would incur the wrath of Roberts. This was an immense help through the difficult years of the Depression, and when changes in Macmillan brought unwelcome tensions amongst staff.

Yet the Cambridge business was minute. While the Macmillan part of the office strove to cope with the runaway success of Gone with the Wind (1936), Mansbridge was making the most of a primarily academic list built in England, only part of which offered obvious sales opportunities in America.

By 1945, with America in expansionist mood and with Britain short of raw materials, Mansbridge was restive. As Vice-President of the prestigious American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1940, and as a publicist of proven success, he was being courted by other publishers. When R.J. Kingsford went over from England on behalf of the press on a tour of inspection, he was met not just by a man whose loyalties were great, if sorely tried. Opinion in the New York trade was more forthright. Why did not Cambridge open its own branch, and so at a bound achieve independence?

With Mansbridge placed in charge of his own team, the American branch opened at 51 Madison Avenue in 1949. It was a risky prospect. Cambridge books were not invariably welcome. As printer of the King James Bible, the press was in a vigorously - and sometimes nastily - competitive market among several American publishers. But Mansbridge contrived to make the bible trade one of the mainstays of the business.

Seeing his success with the rest of the list, one or two other large London publishers sought, in vain, to make Cambridge their American agent. In face of the expansion of American higher education, Mansbridge quickly saw the value of paperback academic books (as distinct from the mass sales of more popular authors), and he persuaded his masters back in England of their bright future.

Extra effort was put into marketing journals, which assumed an ever- growing importance for the year-end figures. He also saw the point - and profitability - of short-run reprints from the back-list, a form of publishing that has again, more recently, come into its own. Gradually, too, he built up often warm friendships with Cambridge authors in America, and began to carve out a degree of editorial initiative. He always hated to be merely responsive.

After his retirement in 1970 he was briefly acting director of the MIT Press and then for two years managing director of Yale University Press's London office.

Not everything was for the office, though personal and professional interests often intertwined. He was a tall man, if increasingly stooped in his last decades. Naturally generous as he was, his age meant that he became a kind of living archive of the press.

With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, he held firm opinions on book design, and was forthright on some of the excesses of American trade books and advertising. The typographer Bruce Rogers was among his most valued friends, and when in 1965 his wife Georgia wrote a dissertation on Rogers he was visibly proud. (The dissertation was published by the Typophiles as Bruce Rogers: American typographer in 1997.)

With prices low, he was also able to build up a large collection of books printed at Cambridge from the 1580s onwards: from time to time he exploited it for the press's own publicity, and it is now in Waseda University Library.

In his long retirement Ronald Mansbridge became an enthusiastic advocate for William Tyndale's translation of the Bible. For years he wrote columns on bridge, latterly for his local paper, The Westport Minuteman, in Connecticut, while outside and near his house he planted dozens of narcissus pseudo-narcissus, a living memory of links with Europe.

His wife Georgia died in 1988. He also outlived his second wife, Janet Van Duyn, the author of books including The Egyptians: pharaohs and craftsmen (1971) and The Greeks: their legacy (1972); she died in 2003.

David McKitterick