Oh, to be young, in love, living in Paris and publishing groundbreaking literature. Richard Seaver lived that dream, and his new memoir, “The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ‘50s, New York in the ‘60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age” has just come out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, receiving glowing reviews. Seaver died in 2009 at 82, but his wife Jeannette, 79, who edited the book, still lives in the Central Park West apartment they shared. The flat is full of photographs of the striking couple, shots by noted photographers and works of art, including a remarkable Ellsworth Kelly unlike anything else the artist has ever shown, which Kelly, a longtime friend, constructed as an impromptu birthday gift for Richard using food from a dinner party he attended.
Seaver was born in Watertown, Conn., and enlisted in the Navy at 17, but never saw action, and got a B.A. from the University of North Carolina. In 1951, he went to Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship to write his Ph.D. thesis on James Joyce at the Sorbonne. He also founded a literary magazine, Merlin, with several like-minded friends. “Dick was hungry for literature; he read and read and read, and made a point of being only with French people to absorb the culture,” his wife says. He eventually translated more than 50 books, among them works by Marguerite Duras, André Breton and the Marquis de Sade, along with “The Story of O.”
Jeannette — née Medina — and Richard Seaver met in Paris and married after a brief courtship in 1953. “There was no affluence of any kind, but there was a sense of liberation, of being free,” she recalls. “Everything was possible in those days.” (She does regret that, when Samuel Beckett, whom Richard had translated and published in Merlin and who had become a friend, asked him to translate “Waiting for Godot” into English, he said that he couldn’t, because he was behind in his work on his thesis.)
Richard was soon being wooed by Grove Press owner Barney Rosset. When he joined Grove in New York in 1959, the two men published the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” John Rechy’s “City of Night,” Hubert Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers” and many other then-scandalous books. They also got involved in a number of court battles. “It was a very important moment in the history of publishing,” Jeannette says. “Those were big activist days. Barney and Dick were on the barricades. They were romantic. Barney was a passionate publisher, discovering new voices.”
One of the great set pieces in the book takes place in 1952. Richard was suddenly awakened at midnight by Brendan Behan, who had seen his article praising Beckett in Merlin, and was trying to get Beckett’s address. Richard didn’t provide it, but an epic night of drinking ensued, and Behan invited himself to stay at Seaver’s apartment, which he did for many eventful days.
Another good story concerns the time Esquire magazine sent Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jean Genet to report on the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. As a convicted felon, Genet was denied a visa to enter the U.S., so he flew to Montreal and found a student who would sneak him across the border. He insisted that the Seavers accompany him to Chicago to interpret, where they all had a grand time, except when Genet began getting into bed with the couple at six in the morning, ostensibly to read them his latest dispatch. Finally, Dick had to ask him not to do it again.
One of the few harsh notes in the reviews thus far has come in Choire Sicha’s article on Slate.com, in which he accuses Richard Seaver of being a sexist because he didn’t like Duras; said little about Rosset’s ex-wife, Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, and opposed in no uncertain terms the women of Grove who led a labor strike. One of the last group, Robin Morgan, went on to become a noted feminist. Jeannette says now that she will probably add to the passage about the strike in the paperback version of the book a description of Morgan’s later accomplishments.
Jeannette was a gifted violinist when she married, and she continued to perform on the concert circuit until the birth of her third child, Nicholas. At that time, she sold her Stradivarius and “learned a new instrument,” as she puts it, going to work with her husband at Viking, where he was given his own imprint in 1971. Richard later went on to head Penguin USA and Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s trade division, and the two had their own imprint, Arcade Press at Little, Brown, which they bought from Time Warner when it absorbed Little, Brown. After her husband died, Jeannette sold Arcade to Skyhorse Publishing, and she still works for the house. She is currently translating a book called “La Cuisine de la Republique,” which is a roundup which Françoise Branget, a French deputy from Doubs, solicited from her fellow parliamentarians of favorite recipes from their regions. “The French peasants had nothing to eat, so they had to invent gastronomy,” Jeannette notes. “It’s so interesting. So many of the great dishes were invented simply to make do.”