I’m glad I had the pleasure of meeting Judith Jones, the brilliant editor who helped make best-sellers of both “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Hearing that she passed away today at age 93 brought back the memories that Jones shared with members of the Association of Food Journalists in Houston in 2008.
Judith Jones was a young assistant editor for Doubleday in Paris when she rescued “The Diary of Anne Frank” from the rejection pile and convinced her bosses to publish it in America. Her editor went off to lunch, and left her with a pile of submissions the he wanted rejected.
As she made her way through the pile, she was drawn to a young girl’s face on the cover of a book. It was the story of a Jewish girl who lived in hiding with her family during World War II. Anne’s family was eventually discovered, and Anne died in a concentration camp. But a family friend found the diary and gave it to her father, Otto Frank, after the war.
“I started reading it — and I couldn’t stop,” Jones recalled. “All afternoon i remained curled up on the sofa, sharing Anne’s life in that attic, until the last light was gone and I heard Frank’s key at the front door. Surprised to find me there, he was even more astonished to hear that it was Anne Frank who had kept me. But he was finally persuaded by my enthusiasm and let me get the book off to Doubleday in New York, urging them to publish it.”
The book, published in English by Doubleday in 1952, gave a human face to the Holocaust. It became a best-seller and was made into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and a movie.
So, Jones already had a track record for picking winners by the time Julia Child’s French cookbook landed her desk at Alfred A. Knopf in 1959. The book had already been rejected by many other publishing houses.
But the book was a godsend to Jones, who missed good French cooking that she enjoyed while living in Paris.
“I was desperate for a really good cookbook that showed me the technique,” she said. “When this huge tome landed on my desk, I took it home and tried many of the dishes. I knew the book had been turned down by the Boston publishers. They said, ‘No woman in America wants to know this much about French cooking.’ Well, I did, and I wasn’t going to let it go.”
It helped that Mr. Knopf was a gourmand. When she told Knopf she was going to call the book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” he said, “If a title by that name ever sells, I will eat my hat!”
“Think of how many hats he had to eat,” she concluded.
Other cookbook authors that she worked with include James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, Madher Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden and Marion Cunningham. She was also the longtime editor of literary authors such as John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, Peter Taylor and William Maxwell.
I enjoyed reading Jones’ memoirs, “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food,” (Anchor Books, $14.95 paperback) with its vivid descriptions, lively sense of humor and 50 of her favorite recipes.
When Jones spoke with the food editors in Houston, she brought giggles from the audience of foodies when she mimicked Child’s warbly voice, saying that famous TV cook used to tell her, “Judith, you and I were born at the right time.” Jones then added, “But you have to grab the moment.”
Jones certainly did that. As a young college grad, she moved to Paris in 1948 and tried to find a job. She overheard someone talking on the hotel phone with the editor of Weekend magazine. As soon as the conversation was finished, Jones grabbed the phone and wangled a job interview. She ended up getting the job and the editor, Evan Jones, as well. The food-loving couple cooked, wrote and traveled together until his death in 1996.
As an editor, Jones didn’t merely correct grammar and insert commas. She tested many of the recipes herself. She and Child spent hours cooking the recipes together in Child’s Cambridge, Mass., kitchen, and then went over every detail to make sure it was clearly explained.
Jones’ book mainly dishes up food instead of celebrity dirt. But she did write of Child throwing a tantrum over a condescending letter from her French co-author, Simone Beck. Julia threw the letter on the floor and stamped on it, crying, “I will not be treated like a dog tray anymore!”
When her husband died in 1996, Jones said she doubted that she would ever find pleasure in making a nice meal for herself and sitting down to eat it all alone.
“I was wrong. Instead, I realized that the ritual we shared together for almost 50 years was a part of the rhythm of my life, and by honor it it I kept alive something that was deeply ingrained in our relationship.” And by the time she had cooked and sat down at the table, “The place across from me is not empty.”