“Look at this book, would you?,” said George Braziller, pulling an art title off a bookshelf in his Upper East Side living room. “Look at the quality. Look at the binding. I’m so damned proud of all of them.”
Here, on E. 74th Street, there is lots to be proud of. Books spill from the office to the living room to the kitchen, on bookshelves and couches and in boxes on the floor. Many of them — hundreds of them — were published under the George Braziller imprint, a groundbreaking independent publishing company run for 60 years by Braziller himself.
The range of Braziller’s backlist is staggering, from Picasso and Miro art books to Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre and Orhan Pamuk. Most of the books came into being through the relentless, scrappy efforts of their globetrotting publisher. (Ask him about dinner with Picasso in Antibes or his summer with Arthur Miller on Martha’s Vineyard.)
Yet Braziller will tell you that the hardest book to pull off — by far — is the one sitting on a pile on the table: Encounters: My Life In Publishing, the memoir Braziller has just finished at the age of 99.
“The feeling of loneliness is amazing. I understand why writers drink,” he said. “If I had lived in the country, I would have blown my brains out.”
Braziller has spent the last four years sitting at a desk in this apartment, filling hundreds of small yellow legal pads, retelling the story of his life. The result, wrestled to the ground on an old Apple Macintosh computer that has since died, is a 150-page remembrance of one of the great golden eras of New York publishing, long since swallowed up by ebooks and global conglomerates.
Braziller writes of growing up in Brooklyn at a time when there were still cows in Canarsie; of being raised by a mother (his father died before he was born) who supported the family by selling clothes from a pushcart; of not finishing high school and shipping off for the Spanish Civil War and, later, World War II.
In 1955, he started his own publishing company, and worked there until the day he retired at age 95. (His two sons now mind the shop.) “That place was everything to me,” he said.
Most of Encounters consists of brief profiles of books and people he met along the way. Taken together, they paint a picture of a curious, self-made businessman who cared as much about politics — he took heat for publishing a collection of essays by Muslim writers in support of Salman Rushdie — as beauty (his book on Matisse’s cutouts is considered a landmark).
The night we met, Victoria and Si Newhouse hosted a book-signing party for Braziller at their art-filled apartment near the United Nations. About 70 people turned out, most of whom “could be euphemistically described as mature,” Victoria Newhouse said. She worked for Braziller as a translator in Paris in the late 1960s, then in New York.
More recently, she talked him through the writing process. Though he spent his career in publishing, Braziller found the notion of writing about himself daunting. After friends convinced him his story was worth telling, he went out, at age 96, and bought up every book about writing he could find. “He had never even written flap copy,” Newhouse said. “He had other people do that for him.”
Today, with the long days of writing behind him, Braziller is satisfied with the result. “I don’t give a damn if I sell 100 or 10,000,” he said. “This is the best I could do. And it’s there.”
The last chapter of Encounters is called “Looking Back” and includes a black-and-white photo of Braziller as a boy. “I find myself looking over and over again at this early photograph of myself at the age of 12,” he writes. “I surprise myself when I say, ‘I love that boy.’”
“The boy looks so pleased with himself,” Braziller writes of himself, “so at ease.”