It Was Stuffed With Unforgettable Co-workers
New York magazine|April 26 - May 9, 2021
WORKING WITH: TONI MORRISON, 1960S–1980S
Dana A. Williams

1970: Toni Morrison at Random House.

The Person Scribbling Next Door May Be a Future Nobel Laureate

Toni morrison the author woke early, long before dawn. Toni Morrison the editor worked eight-hour days in a dark glass tower at 201 East 50th Street. The door to her office was always open, and conversations about everything from railroads to Chinese silk screens flowed into the hallway.

At Random House from the late ’60s through the early ’80s, Morrison worked to publish loud and quiet books alike. In publishing, big voices have always ruled the day, but Morrison had an uncanny knack for hearing potential at rest on the page. Sitting at her desk, pencil in hand, marking up onion skins and parchment paper, she took the same level of care with the drafts of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali as she did with Gayl Jones. “I am continually reimpressed with things I am discovering in the manuscript,” Morrison wrote to Leon Forrest, whose There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden was one of the first novels she edited. On another section of the manuscript, she wrote, “This has to be drastically cut. It is quite out of hand.”

She made the quotidian work of correspondence dance, showcasing both her personality and her genius as an editor and advocate. Morrison wrote to a sculptor, Barbara Chase-Riboud, who had decided to try her hand at a collection of poetry: “I astounded myself by getting some overwhelming support for your book at a sales presentation yesterday. I went in hoping for a 1,500 print run and well—I was brilliant! Now I have a very severe problem—how to get all those thousands to actually buy your book. If it comes back after we advance it, I will slit my throat.” From Memphis and Peking did not sell anywhere close to the 5,000 copies Morrison convinced Random House to print—an unheard-of number for an unknown poet. Of course, she survived the fallout.

WORKING WITH: GEORGE STEINBRENNER, 1970S

Red Phones Are for Nuclear Crises. And a Certain Baseball-Club Owner.

# Marty Appel, New York Yankees PR director: I get asked often, “What was it like to work for George Steinbrenner?” And I always say that Seinfeld made it so much easier to respond because it was very much like that.

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