Remembering the Extraordinary Judith Jones
The legendary book editor Judith Jones died on August 2 at her summer home in Walden, Vermont, at the age of 93. Numerous paeans to this esteemed figure — who introduced the world to everyone from Anne Frank to Julia Child — have already appeared (including this one); this is an intimate remembrance by her longtime friend Christopher Hirsheimer, a writer, editor, photographer, and co-founder of Saveur.
It was my lucky day, 20 years ago, when the phone rang and at the other end was one of those famous Mid-Atlantic accents that you hardly ever hear anymore, saying "Hello, Christopher. I’ve seen some pictures you took and I’d love to have you come and meet with me at Knopf. I am working on a book." It was Judith Jones, and the book was Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, a collaboration between two culinary legends, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin.
I remember Judith's book-lined office, her Chanel suit, her pretty legs, her little dog, Madoc, under her desk — straight out of Central Casting for a New York book editor. We clicked.
Here is what I know about Judith, things she revealed to me during long drives and, mostly, over lunches and dinners (that’s the beauty of the table):
She still lived in the same Upper East Side New York City building where she was born. When she was growing up, the whole building was filled with her aunts and uncles and cousins. After she married Evan Jones, they lived there, too, and had a little writing room up on the roof above their sixth-floor apartment. The apartment had walls of books, a record collection of jazz and classical music, interesting paintings and photographs, and a kitchen with a commercial stove and butcher block counters full of tools and spices. No granite countertops, no stainless steel appliances — those aren’t what make you a good cook.
Judith once told me that after she'd gone to Paris to work in publishing (she edited translations of Sartre and Camus) and when it came time to return home, she sat on a bench in the park pondering her future — whether she should stay or should go. She was so sad to be leaving that she distractedly walked away, leaving behind her purse, complete with her passport — and walked into the rest of her life. While she was waiting for her papers to be replaced, she met Evan Jones, who was publishing a weekly magazine for American tourists. They got married in Vienna in 1951.
She was responsible for so many discoveries, like the manuscript of The Diary of Anne Frank, which she saved from the translation reject pile while she was working at Doubleday in Paris — maybe her greatest gift to posterity. She also championed Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking after it had been turned down by everybody else, and edited culinary legends like James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, and Claudia Roden — as well as, in another world, authors like John Updike, Anne Tyler, and William Maxwell. She had that rare gift of being able to recognize talent and knowing when people had something important to offer. And as an editor she would give and give until "you got it right.”
Whenever we were photographing a book — I shot six for her — she would sit on a stool or a chair right in the kitchen, with her famous green pencil poised over the pages of the manuscript, keeping track of any changes in preparation. Nothing escaped her. She was tireless and rigorous. And she was fun. She had a sparkling sense of humor — crisp, surprising, and delicious. She never missed a thing.
Late in life and career she wanted to write a book (which she did) about cooking for one person. She lived alone after Evan died in 1996, but she never ate cheese and crackers at the sink; she really cooked — boeuf bourguignon, things like that. She'd set the little table in her kitchen, light a candle in a candlestick, and play a classical record to keep her company as she savored her meal. Enjoying a good dinner, she once wrote, made her "feel that I am honoring the past." She wouldn’t hear of anything less.
It was quite amazing that a person with such an evolved sense of self ended up making so many other people famous. Without imposing herself, she could coax out a writer’s voice — a writer's essence — and make the message clearer, with more substance. Just being in her presence made you want to be better.