Publishing legend Betty Ballantine dies in Bearsville at 99

(Photo by Franco Vogt)

Last Tuesday, on what turned out to be Lincoln’s Birthday, Betty Ballantine, editorial half of the husband/wife team who pioneered the American paperback, died — as she’d wished she might — in her home on Ballantine Hill in Bearsville. She was 99 years old.

Her husband, Ian Ballantine, the paperback evangelist who led the charge on hardcover publishing and won, pre-deceased Betty in 1995 at 79. Ian literally died with his boots on, and went out with particular gusto at the very end. Betty, on the other hand, worked on a last manuscript before stepping away from the maelstrom which had engulfed Ian and his “girl publisher” (as he first called Betty when she was 21) for almost 60 years.

In the spring of ’95 Betty gathered the family together at the very top of Ballantine hill so as to place Ian’s ashes beneath the stone his brother, David, had just carved, which would lie beside similar ones in what had been the apple orchard of their youth. Betty smiled as she dabbed away a tear. “Forgive me darling,” she said, “but I have a lot more living and a lot more laughing to do…” 

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Both Betty’s garden and her dog finally got full attention. She seemed to live half the day in her pool where family, old friends and virtual strangers were equally welcome. Classical music blared from loudspeakers, inside and out. She became a devoted board member of the Maverick Concert Hall, seldom missed a Sunday performance, and took to vacationing with some gal pals, her son Richard and his wife, Sherry, and their three children, on the island of Tortola. A lot champagne was drunk by oceans and by pools, and yes — a lot more laughter was heard.

The publishing wars she’d waged alongside the great nephew of Emma Goldman (a fact explaining much of Ian Ballantine’s character) gradually faded from her mind, even as Betty proudly told a story or two from glorious days gone by.

The truth remained, however, that Ian Ballantine could never have achieved the goal he set for himself by age 20 “to change the way America read” without the fully rational, charming, beautiful, and almost inexplicably gifted wordsmith he providentially married in England; he at 23, and Betty, 20. Immediately afterwards the newlyweds set sail for America and proceeded (in Ian-speak) “on to victory!”

But those who live a terribly long life must suffer some terrible things. In the years preceding her death last week, Betty gradually went blind. So books — her life’s work and most loyal friends — were denied her. By then the thousands of paperbacks she’d help bring into existence, which once crammed 40 or more shelves upstairs and down, were gifted to Columbia University. Her brothers were all gone, as was her neighboring brother-in-law. Her one child was dead of cancer; her grandchildren and great children were in England and could only visit so often. World events had come to resemble a bad comic book without any rescuing super-hero in sight. Finally, Betty came to depend upon good-natured health-care workers who, themselves, had no idea exactly what this salty-tongued old lady had been. Of course, a few intimates remained who remembered, but for an editor who’d spent her life “keeping the narrative moving,” the story had suddenly frozen solid. Worse, what little she could remember of her own history, had so very little to do with how the story must end. And yet? What a story it had been…

 

Betty Norah Jones was born on September 25, 1919 on a small farm in the north of India, the fourth child and only daughter of Hubert Arnold Middleton Jones and his Irish wife, Norah (née McNally.) Hubert was an overseer of medicinal opium crops for the East India Company at the tail end of The Raj. Accordingly, his entire family spent entire months every year living in tents in the bush, assisted by servants doing their utmost to protect the Jones’ from snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts. As a tiny child Betty vividly remembered throwing a pebble into the jungle pool her father was just about to dive into for a refreshing dip. A second after the pebble rippled the water its entirety seemed to rise up in the form of a gigantic crocodile (known as “an undertaker”) — sure to have eaten her father whole. Not surprisingly, little Betty proved to be Hubert’s favorite child.

The future editor of Ballantine Books learned to read on her father’s lap at the age of three by following “Dad’s finger” as it traversed the page while he slowly read aloud. An early and eerily prophetic trait found Betty unable to clearly differentiate between living characters and those who leapt from books. With little else to entertain her, Betty Jones had already read much of Dickens, Stevenson, and Kipling, by the time she was sent off at age eight to school in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Mussorie. She also cherished the fantastic mythical tales spun nightly by her Indian Ayah, while the household’s male servants squatted just outside the door, listening.

When she was 13, Betty’s father retired and the family traveled by train across India and boarded “the boat home” which steamed through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean, on its three-week journey back to England. The Jones settled in the Island of Jersey which, until the Nazis commandeered it as a vacation spot for German officers, proved idyllic. At nineteen, while working the summer as a bank-teller, Betty met Ian Ballantine, a self-assured British-born American, nearly four years her senior, who’d been invited to Jersey for the weekend by a cousin. Back in America, Ian’s uncle, Saxe Commins, was Eugene O’Neill’s editor at Random House, and had earlier edited his favorite nephew’s undergraduate paper on “The Potential of Paperback Publishing.” The radical ideas within, in turn, insured Ian’s acceptance into the London School of Economics. From there one of Ian’s professors sent that fully elaborated thesis to Allen Lane of Penguin Books, “the father of the modern paper-back.” So when Ballantine came a’courting Betty in Jersey he had a strong wind at his back. 

Ian’s father, EJ (Teddy) Ballantine played Laertes to John Barrymore’s Hamlet on Broadway;  also a sculptor and “gentleman race-car driver,” Teddy sprang from a wealthy Edinburgh family. But upon Ian asking for Betty’s hand near Christmas, Hubert Jones puffed his mustache sharply and replied, “I don’t care who you are — you’ll not marry my only daughter without a proper job!”

This answer hastened the professional courtship between Ian and Allen Lane, who promptly hired Ballantine to represent Penguin Books in America. And so it was that over a single weekend on the Isle of Jersey: Betty Jones prepared to be married, to set sail for New York City, and to become the Vice President of “Penguin USA.” By then, we trust Ian had also confided his goal of forever changing the way Americans read.

While German U-boats discouraged transatlantic crossings Lane seemed satisfied with his American subordinates until, upon visiting New York in the early 1940s, he amicably severed relations with the Ballantines (who had summoned the audacity to place illustrations on Penguin’s famously unadorned covers.) By then, however, Penguin USA had supplied the American fighting man with dozens of Armed Services Edition paperbacks, and so — if such a soldier came home at all — it was as a confirmed paperback reader. Ever more confident, Ian and Betty organized a consortium of magazine and hardcover publishers which in 1945 unveiled “Bantam Books,” a paperback reprint house, whose first titles included The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. 

Never one to rest on his laurels, Ian sought to do original publishing in paperback, pioneer new genres, and sponsor a fresh generation of less conventional authors. A glimpse at Ballantine’s guiding Masters thesis, in fact, reveals him repeatedly railing against “the best seller” as the proper aim of future publishing. Because 1. “the famous author” of such a book would require a large advance. 2. That advance would require ever-more expensive publicity to protect it, and 3. dozens of deserving young writers would be denied publication so that such a heavily encumbered investment would succeed. 

This simple if revolutionary logic soon sentenced Betty Ballantine to almost a half century of guiding an untold number of fledgling writers through their first book. Added to which, she and Ian fully agreed to lose money on a green writer’s initial efforts, while gambling that an eventual “breakthrough book” would additionally prompt reprints of the earlier works and so reward writer and publisher alike. Not surprisingly, Bantam’s Sunday-golfer board of directors disagreed with all such pseudo-Communist hogwash and Ian was fired as publisher in 1950. But by then the Ballantines had earned the unwavering loyalty of Bantam’s best employees. So it was that from six p.m. to midnight (after having already completed a full day at Bantam) a skeleton crew appeared at Ian, Betty, and twelve year old Richard’s, New York City apartment, where this band of revolutionaries quietly forged “Ballantine Books.” 

With back-to-back capital B’s for an emblem and a breakthrough #1 best-selling novel for a first title, Ian and Betty hit back hard against conservative publishing and in coming decades never let up. Other paperback companies opened throughout the U.S and all over the world, but none would compete with the brilliant, brainy, and increasingly outrageous Ballantine Books. 

Although it doesn’t seem so extraordinary today, when women dominate both paper and hardback houses, Betty Ballantine was indeed the very first woman vice president/managing editor of any such company, as her astounding contributions fully justified. (In looking back, since she was without any previous experience or degree, Betty’s “vice presidency” of Penguin USA at age 20 in 1939, appears to have been something of a titular title.)

Ian had long since commanded the creation of the revolving paperback rack, which brought the paperback revolution into drug stores, bus stations, and airports. Next, Ballantine covers (the first to use the same artist to unify a given author’s books) fast emerged as the best in biz. Yet it was Betty who pioneered what would prove to be Ballantine Books’ signature literary achievement. With the assistance of writer/agent Frederick Pohl, she created the famous STAR anthologies, which propelled a nerdy community of Science Fiction writers from the fringes of pulp magazines into a world-wide market at warp speed. Many of the seminal Ballantine Sci Fi novels which followed began as just such short-story germs, including “The Fireman,” drafted on a coin-operated typewriter in the New York Public Library by a young Ray Bradbury, which fully bloomed into Ballantine’s l953 game-changing Fahrenheit 451. (Ian created a hundred copies of Bradbury’s novel for salesmen which featured an asbestos cover, worth many thousands of dollars today.)

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Betty and Ian (photo by Gary Green)

Meanwhile, Ian — whose speech is fairly described as one of the strangest collections of warbles, bleets, and nasal whelps to ever spring from a human head — knew by first name something very like one third the bookstore owners in the country and literally all the national sales reps. He was dearly loved by this often hard-drinking bunch (and bringing Mad Magazine into paperback didn’t hurt.)  

Betty, on the other hand, found her best friends among, first off: her dogs, her authors, devoted employees, and Woodstock folksingers, among whom she was known as a top-notch performer and song-writer, herself. 

In public and in the boardroom both, Betty grounded, smoothed, and almost normalized Ian’s enigma, since any visionary married to so brilliant and beautiful a star in her own galaxy had to be saner than he seemed. Ian, indeed, knew the treasure he had in Betty, and never wrote more than a paragraph nor addressed a group of strangers without her assistance. More than once his tireless promotion of “paperbound books” would unearth a potential author. “Don’t worry,” Ian would reassure the astounded stranger, “writing isn’t as hard as they say. Especially when we have a secret weapon in Betty Ballantine, girl publisher!”

Unlike Ian’s uncle Saxe, who worked ‘til he fell over as William Faulkner’s last editor, Betty found her greatest joy in “bringing along” an unvarnished writer. And she certainly performed this task brilliantly among her own family. But except in Science Fiction, in which she worked with the very best (Sir Arthur C. Clarke she deemed “the cleanest writer of the bunch”) Betty often found herself performing the duties of a therapist as much as an editor. 

“What is this writer trying to get at…?” she mumbled over dozens of different manuscripts for generations on end, until in hindsight she once decided: “Often — they didn’t even know the answer themselves. But if they had any talent, sooner or later, I’d be the one to know, and then we’d take that amazing journey together…”

So it was that a daughter of the Raj — sans college degree — rose to become, arguably, the most important editor in the vital new field of paperback publishing. For fast after birthing the modern Sci Fi novel Betty expanded “The Western.” Throughout the sixties and beyond, Ballantine Books became the publisher of environmental titles, including an idea Betty grabbed in pamphlet form (and at a bargain) before providing it the wings of an international best seller. This was Diet For a Small Planet, recently declared by The Smithsonian “one of the most influential political tracts of the times.” In 1992 that book’s now-famous author, Francis Moore Lappé, sent an extraordinary two page letter thanking Betty on her 75th birthday, within which appeared: 

“In 1970, at 26, I was the proverbial confused young person…anguished over how to make sense of the world and my place in it…I still remember as if it were yesterday when you arrived in Berkeley to talk to me about Ballantine’s publishing my work. I felt sure that I would be intimidated by a slick, New York publishing powerhouse…You broke all my stereotypes. I still remember what I served you for lunch out of my growing “diet for a small planet” kitchen…(Wasn’t it your idea to actually include recipes?)…Your warmth and generosity put me completely at ease. I recall your last words were, ‘Well, whoever publishes your book, I’ll read it.’”

This description equally applies to Ballantine’s 3 million copy seller,  whose author, Paul Ehrlich, remembered “Betty sat up all night in bed editing The Population Bomb…”

By then Betty had long since discovered the overlooked novels of an Oxford don who proceeded to cast a spell over the entire world. “Tolkien!” she once recalled, “Wonderful man! Perfectly dressed! Beautifully spoken! We met him for tea…” Following the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings Betty sought out other modern Fantasy authors while republishing classics from George Meredith to HP Lovecraft, thus creating the “Sci-Fi & Fantasy” genre. 

Betty and Ian with J. R. R. Tolkien

During The Golden Era of American Paperback Publishing, Ballantine Books pioneered over-sized paperbacks with a hugely successful poster tie-in. (In Wildness Is The Preservation of The World — today, the most poignant.) Simultaneously Ballantine spawned a menagerie of wildly original titles with bizarre advertising campaigns to match, the entirety of which won Ian and Betty Ballantine the undying loyalty of young people everywhere. Aside from reprinting everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Raymond Chandler, Ballantine also published the first works of Hunter Thompson, Carlos Castaneda, Edward Abbey, Frederick Exley, Tom Robbins, and Elmore Leonard (who started out writing Westerns for Betty). Of course, Sci-Fi authors were Betty’s bread and butter, her favorite being Woodstock’s own Theodore Sturgeon. However, producer Gene Roddenberry also knew he had to work with Betty to help launch an embattled television show he called — of all things — Star Trek. 

Our local John Baker, former editorial director of Publishers Weekly, who knew Ian for many years and met Betty in ‘83, recently stated that the pair “probably did more than anyone to change the face of American publishing in the latter half of the 20th century.”

Though Ian and Betty’s partnership became publishing legend, it was never an easy one. Ian’s demands upon everyone around him proved as limitless as his own restless imagination, and Betty was granted only partial immunity. However, the trade secret remained that the bizarre workings of Ian’s mind were all but indecipherable without Betty’s ever-ready translation, and so without Betty “to explain him” Ian Ballantine could never have achieved his lofty goal. Along the way, though arguably the most important publisher of the last century, Ian made enemies among the powerful throughout his career, and sooner or later such men invariably had their vengeance.  

As with “Penguin USA” and “Bantam Books” before it, Ian eventually lost control of Ballantine Books. Random House then nobly rescued Ian and Betty, allowing them to forge on. Notably, the duo created The Peacock Press, a trade paperback art book publisher, guided by the superb eye of David Larkin. However, the Ballantine’s last, if most subtle contribution, involved a deal they eventually struck upon returning as “founders, Emeritus” to Bantam Books. The concept was simple: Ian and Betty would offer Bantam right-of-first-refusal on a book “packaged” by themselves. This, then, finally formalized the idea which essentially represented “Ballantine publishing” from the first, namely: “Don’t wait for a book to find you. Figure out what the world needs next and then find the writer to write it.”  

Betty at work

Among the recollections culled for Betty’s 75th birthday, Ballantine Books sub-editor Bernard Shir-Cliff eloquently concluded a page long list of accolades thus: 

“But if it comes to counting coups, there are many more you could claim: the concern for our abused and exploited planet long before ‘ecology’ became a politician’s buzzword; the rescue of science fiction from its cult niche…And of course, the basic idea behind Ballantine Books — the publication in original mass market paperback of a list that aimed at more than mere diversion, and often served as a mighty force in focusing attention on the real problems of our times.” 

The Ballantines were both inducted (Ian posthumously) by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008, with a shared citation.

Yesterday John Baker concluded his remembrances of the Ballantines by noting simply, “I don’t see anyone quite like them in publishing today.” Silence followed the observation and it seemed to echo through contemporary publishing, like the ripple once made by a pebble dropped into a pool by a tiny genius named Betty, who — back then anyway — saved the day.

Betty is survived by her grandchildren Danielle, Shawn and Kathy Ballantine, and by Danielle’s children, Norah and Alexander, all of whom reside in England; and by great nephew Hugh Jones in Jersey, Jim Jones in Australia, and her niece Lucy Ballantine, who grew up on Ballantine Hill, now living in Kingston. 

Betty will be remembered in a local memorial in the spring in Woodstock and by a Maverick Concert honoring her this summer.

There are 2 comments

  1. Melissa Pierson

    What an amazing life. Every death in some way represents “the end of an era,” but hers does in many and important ways. I didn’t come here primarily to post my own banal observations, though. I came to say: Exceptionally beautifully written obit.

  2. Candace Falk

    Incredibly elegant and eloquent… fitting tribute to a grand woman, creative pioneer, with whom you had the honor of being family, and we now have the honor of reading her incredible story, written by someone (you) for whom those literary sensibilities and talents have transmitted.. with love.

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