Obituary: Helen Wolff
Wednesday 20 April 1994
HELEN WOLFF was the wife and partner of Kurt Wolff, one of the great individualistic publishers of the century, who flourished as a publisher in her own right after his tragic death in 1963, when, on his way to an important meeting of the Gruppe 47, the circle of writers who had relaunched German literature after the Second World War, he was crushed by a tram against the railings of a Frankfurt bridge.
The Wolffs had left Germany and gone into exile in the United States after the Nazis closed down his publishing house in the Thirties and although he did some publishing in New York under the imprint he founded, Pantheon Books, he never relived the heady days of Expressionism when his adventurous list of poets, novelists, playwrights and critics was the principal beacon of the avant-garde. Among many others he discovered Kafka. He also pioneered art book publishing in Germany. In New York he found the cultural climate, and the restrictions his backers put on his choice of books, uncongenial and was planning eventually to return to Germany when he died there on an exploratory visit. Helen Wolff carried on his tradition and became a leading editor, mainly of translations from German into English.
Pantheon ended up as the quality imprint of Random House. The Wolffs eventually reached an agreement in 1961 with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, previously an old-fashioned general publisher that a tycoonish entrepreneur had transformed into a personal empire, whereby they - and after Kurt's death, Helen alone - edited a specialised list as Helen and Kurt Wolff Books. Helen Wolff acquired and supervised the translation of many German books of the type that her husband would have approved, although more conservatively. Many new authors came to Harcourt Brace in this way, including Max Frisch and Heinrich Boll, and Pasternak, and she scored a particular success with Cosima Wagner's Diaries, which the family had only just released for publication, acquiring world English rights against much competition. She became one of the most respected personalities in New York publishing, where genuine knowledge and culture is much rarer than pretence and superficiality. She retired in 1986 but was still available with advice and a readiness to help on projects that appealed to her.
One of her husband's maxims was that publishing could not be learnt. When he moved into Rowohlt's Leipzig office as a young man, he found that his natural taste and enthusiasm was all that was needed, other than a little money. He was always determined to give the public what it ought to want, not what it thought it wanted, but he also believed that publishers should always be subservient to the wishes of the author and should never let their own ego and personal interest stand in a writer's way. Although Helen Wolff had to take a more commercial approach to satisfy her employers, she neverthless never departed from Kurt's basic principles, and like him she loved books.
Born in 1906 in Macedonia as Helen Mosel, the daughter of a German father and a Hungarian-Austrian mother, she had a comfortable early life and a good education which served her in good stead, both as her husband's helpmate and his successor. More practical and business-like than he was, she picked up the commercial skills necessary to survive in the cut-throat world of American publishing which, combined with her charm and knowledge, made her unique and successful in her field.
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