Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lunch with Nina

A friend sent an email yesterday telling that Nina Bourne had passed away the night before. The news was not a shock. After all, Nina was quite old, in her nineties, and quite frail. The last time I saw her, maybe a year ago, she was walking down 55th Street on the arm of Ann Close, coming from lunch at Nocello, headed back toward the Random House building on Broadway. They walked very slowly on a bright cool day, Nina bundled up to twice her size. She was still going to work.

The first time I had lunch with Nina was in 1998, her thirtieth year at Knopf. She was one of the publishing wizards Bob Gottlieb had brought with him from Simon & Schuster when he joined Knopf in 1968. We ate at a little place on Second Avenue and 50th Street called La Mediterranée. It's still there. Nina began lunch with a drink, holding her Manhattan in both hands so she wouldn't spill any. She took a long sip and called me "lovey" and held me in thrall for the next hour. I listened to her stories of the fifties and sixties at Simon, of Joseph Heller and Michael Korda, of great books and not-so-great books, of the seventies and eighties at Knopf, of Alfred and Blanche, of the poetry and politics of publishing, and of why every word matters, always, whether in a single-column quote ad or an 800-page book by someone named Caro. At the time I knew next to nothing about publishing except the selling side of things. But I knew this was an education I was getting, so I hung on her every word.

Tiny, wizened Nina possessed enormous eyes. They missed nothing. She needed no loup to find the jewel in a page's worth of second-rate prose. She was a genius at extracting the essence of a review and using it to her advantage. If she didn't like a book, or a title, or a quote, you questioned your own judgment as to its value. Ninety-nine times out of hundred you admitted to yourself that Nina was right. Her ads were masterpieces of concision and wit. Anyone could recognize a Knopf ad from ten paces -- the exceptionally clean typography, the subtle alteration of the book jacket so as to make each word legible, the use of quotes to create a selling narrative, and the one spot-on adjective: "glorious," "extraordinary," "celebrated," even, at times, "sensational."

From the first, she treated me as a valued colleague, which, of course, raised everyone else's valuation of my bookish skills and bolstered my confidence. Through her I felt connected to Publishing -- the enterprise, its traditions, and its revolutions, so many of which she'd founded, fomented, or borne witness to. Nina maintained that publishing is simple and that too many non-publishing types had added needless levels of complexity to the business. She emphasized that it's all about the book and getting the word out, knowing your audience and delivering your message with clarity and grace. She would look up and make a playful face, "It's simple, lovey, really." Nina knew how to giggle and, more importantly, what to giggle at.

The last time we had lunch I asked her about computers and how they'd changed her job and whether or not she liked them. The answer was pure Nina. "I'm having more fun now than I've ever had. Why? Because computers have made it so easy to test ideas, to try things out. In the old days, I would have to lay everything out with pieces of paper and glue. It took a long time. Nowadays, we can just move things around on the screen to see different versions of an ad. I wish we'd had computers years ago." After lunch with Nina, you knew in your bones that being able to work at a job you loved till the end of your life was a great gift.

Nina had a glorious career and lived an exemplary life, both worth celebrating. Yet I am sad this morning, staring out the window at the beginnings of another day. The book business is no longer what it was.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this lovely reminder of Nina's grace and intelligence. For many years under the guidance of Nina, and my employer, Liza Bennett, I did my best to make Knopf ads sparkle through photo retouching and typography. I treasured the occasional but generous words of praise from Nina when an ad printed particularly well. The real treat for me was the annual winter holiday luncheon where I was privileged to witness the strength, wisdom, sweetness, and fragility of this dear woman.
    I will always hold delightful Nina very tenderly and respectfully in my heart.