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Judith Jones, biography, ‘The Editor’, by Sara B. Franklin review

In 2007, at the age of 83, the great book editor Judith Jones published a slim, sparkling memoir that danced over the key events of her life and her publishing career, especially relating to cooking and cookbooks. Jones is best known – if editors are known at all – for her memorable collaboration with Julia Child. “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food” was created with all the economy and finesse you would expect from a professional. Jones depicted her life in a series of bright, evocative vignettes: she told her prim mother that, indeed, she really liked garlic; lunch on calf brains and cocotte with pianist/memoirist Arthur Rubinstein; arguing with an imperious Marcella Hazan over the fat content of a recipe (they weren’t friends); skinning and frying a beaver’s tail (“I put a glistening piece in my mouth and was delighted”). The book captured Jones’ wit, moxie and appetite perfectly.

Culinary scholar Sara B. Franklin picked up a copy of “The Tenth Muse” as a college student and “liked” it, but suspected there were shadowy corners of Jones’ life that had gone unexplored. A few years later, Franklin met and befriended Jones, confirmed that suspicion, and began taking notes about their conversations. In her discreet and deeply respectful new biography, “The Editor: How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America,” Franklin recovers the “disappointments, difficult choices, mistakes and pain” that Jones left out of her sunny memoir. At the same time, she tries to give a notoriously modest woman what she deserves. As Franklin puts it, “Nowhere could I find an image of Judith that even suggested the range of her curiosity and sophistication, her complexity and sagacity, her knowledge and her cunning.” With this book she has corrected that injustice.

Jones was born in 1924 and grew up in a genteel Manhattan family where the women, Franklin writes, “prepared all their lives to climb the social ladder and become ladies of society.” Judith was a bookworm from an early age and never adapted. She wanted a career, she wanted varied experiences, she wanted to eat garlic. Probably the most spicy revelation in the book comes early: Jones studied at Bennington College in the 1940s and fell in love with one of her professors, the poet Theodore Roethke. In Franklin’s strange verbiage, Jones was attracted by the “workings of his intellect and his great, hulking body.” The pair would later “tangle in the sheets.”

The confusion stopped after Jones moved to Paris in 1948 and came into contact with café life Meunière and her future husband, Evan Jones. (“I just wanted to spend my life with this person!” Judith told Franklin decades later.) She began working in Doubleday’s Paris office and made her first contribution to literary history. It was a dead one. Tasked with typing “polite pass” Letters for books in the rejection pile, she instead read one of them over the course of an afternoon and convinced her boss he was wrong about “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” He sent the book to New York with an endorsement that did not mention Jones.

When she returned to New York, Jones took a job at Alfred A. Knopf, where she would work for the remainder of her career. Franklin walks us through the many knockout hits, as well as a few misses. Jones pushed for the publication of Sylvia Plath’s first collection, ‘The Colossus’, although inexplicably ‘The Bell Jar’ was rejected. (Ironically, she was jealous of Plath’s apparently cozy home life.) She had long, enduring professional relationships with John Updike, Anne Tyler—with whom she corresponded on a range of topics from garden pests to circulation—and the poet Sharon Olds, who appreciated her ‘judgments, which were never unkind’. Her editing style, according to Tyler, was “very delicate and graceful, almost weightless.”

Naturally, Franklin spends a lot of money on Jones’ work in cookbooks, especially her relationship with Julia Child, which began in 1959. Knowing that Jones enjoyed cooking, a colleague handed her a “thick, unwieldy stack of paper” that he assumed she would do that too. reject. Jones took it home in pieces and followed the recipe for boeuf bourguignon, made the best version of that dish she had ever tasted. She went to work on the book – and the rest is really history. What Franklin is arguing here is the context: at the time, cookbooks in the United States were “favored, written off, or completely ignored.” Jones has changed that. She and Child both saw “cooking as a gateway to the wider world and a richer, more autonomous life,” and so do many of us now. Jones went on to nurture writers whose works remain on the shelves of American chefs to this day: Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, and Edna Lewis, to name a few.

So what were the struggles that Jones left out of the memoir? Franklin describes Jones’s conflicts with her boss, the legendary Robert Gottlieb, who comes across to her as a jackass. He appears to have scorned Jones’ modesty, belittled her contributions, taken credit for her work and rejected her only request for a raise. But the overarching sadness of Jones’ life, according to Franklin, was her infertility. Although she was close to her stepdaughters and later adopted the older children of family friends, she had desperately wanted children of her own. None of this is unusual or dramatic, except insofar as it shows that Jones, like everyone else, had demons to battle and obstacles to overcome. That friction – absent in her memoir – makes her achievements all the more impressive.

While Jones’s memoirs are quicker and more vibrant to read, Franklin, a loyal amanuensis, has filled in the gaps, restored cultural context, and discussed the triumphs in an extraordinary life.

Jennifer Reese, the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” is a freelance writer and critic.

How publishing legend Judith Jones shaped culture in America

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