Hmmph. Wagner. No Melodies.

I served as Jacques’s editor at Harper & Row (and HarperCollins) from 1983 through our publication of From Dawn to Decadence. I took over from his previous editor when A Stroll with William James was in galley proof and we got off to a rocky start. When Jacques saw the proofs he complained that the type was too small and commanded (as only Jacques can) that the book be reset in a larger size. Fortunately with computer typesetting this could be done with the flick of a finger and I was happy to agree, not that I had much choice. In the next few years we did revised editions of Simple & Direct and A Catalogue of Crime.

Jacques liked to have lunch and we fell into the habit of lunching every six months. He would invite me to the Century Club and then I would take him to the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue at 83rd St., not far from his apartment. We discovered that we shared a number of interests: classical music (especially opera), history, and the British detective story. At that time I was editing a series of paperback reprints of British mysteries and freely confessed to Jacques that most of my ideas came from his great Catalogue which he wrote over many years with Wendell Taylor. He encouraged me to continue and took a fatherly interest in the little series. At one lunch I mentioned that I had just read Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade, which had been published in England in 1933. Jacques proceeded to give me an exact plot summary and a précis of its narrative virtues — a remarkable feat of memory, even for Jacques. At another lunch I happened to tell him I was seeing a Wagner opera a few nights later. Jacques’s only comment was, “Hmmph. Wagner. No melodies.”

At some point in each of these lunches (which went on for fifteen years until Jacques moved to San Antonio) I would ask what he was working on (out of native curiosity and to fulfill my role as his editor). I knew he had no contract for a future book, which seemed odd for someone so prolific. But Jacques would deflect the question and change the subject. He did once say, “Oh, I am working on my masterpiece!” but immediately went on to another subject. He once said, in reply to my persistent query, “I am deep in 18th-century philosophy,” but would enlighten me no further.

Shortly before moving to Texas, Jacques called to ask me if I would recommend a literary agent (since he had never had one). I was happy to do so and this naturally whetted my editorial appetite even more keenly. Then, a month or so after he left for San Antonio a package from a literary agent arrived with the first 200 pages of From Dawn to Decadence. It was being sent, as is usual, to a number of editors at the same time. A vigorous auction ensued within a week or so and, to my great relief, Harper emerged as the winner. The book became a bestseller and must have been a gratifying experience for Jacques, who devoted so many years to planning and writing it.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial