Judith Jones, a towering icon of book publishing, died yesterday at the age of 93. New York Times reporter Kim Severson broke the news on Twitter; the Washington Post reports that the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Jones was most famous as the editorial engine responsible for Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and with it, the creation of Julia Child, titanic celebrity — and also worked with culinary luminaries like James Beard, Lidia Bastianich, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, and Edna Lewis. Jones refused the idea of herself as a “cookbook editor,” however, and was always quick to point out that she also had her hand in the work of writers like John Updike, Anne Tyler, Langston Hughes, John Hersey, and Sharon Olds.
“I'm not sure that I'm that conscious of what I'm doing when I edit,” she told writer Charlotte Druckman in a 2015 Eater profile, one of the last major interviews she gave before largely retreating from public life due to health concerns. “I'm just happy when it comes out right and it's written with conviction.”
Jones began her career at Knopf in 1957 as assistant to Blanche Knopf, and used her proficient French (she and her husband, Evan, met in Paris and lived there for several years) to translate Sartre and Camus. She officially retired in 2013, but remained deeply ingrained in the life of the company. Before settling in at Knopf, she spent a few years at publisher Doubleday, where she was famous as the woman who saved the English edition of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl from the rejection pile.
Jones’s interests outside the culinary sphere were directly connected to her successes within it. Her writers would uniformly speak of her in raptures, whether her hand on their prose was firm or soft; under her influence, a manuscript that might begin its life as a mere collection of recipes would become, inevitably, a work: witty, readable, full of life and story, and never, ever condescending to its readers. “Absent Judith, cookbook publishing as we know it today would not exist,” said Knopf chairman Sonny Mehta when Jones received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation.
"You know she can do anything, and she doesn't think our [cookbooks] are less than those of great writers," said Madhur Jaffrey, the iconic Indian cookbook author and actress, in an unpublished 2015 interview. "She was living proof of somebody who can edit a masterpiece of fiction and can edit a cookbook, and she's not discriminating and saying one is a higher form of art and one is lesser."
Jones was an elegant and fearsome champion of the idea of the editor as supporting player, espousing a philosophy that held above all else the uniqueness of each author, and the essentiality of his or her voice. “The most important thing an editor can do is be a diplomat,” she told Eater. “It's not your book, but you can subtly try, and it usually ends up that the writers express themselves so much more clearly. At least, that was my experience.”
Kathy Hourigan, who started working at Knopf in 1965 and is now managing editor, adopted that lesson: “She taught me a lot, from the very beginning: We are here for the author. We wouldn't be without the author. We are here to represent the author and make the book the best the author can make it.”
“Her notes were always in green,” said Jaffrey. “They were always very careful edits. Some people just take a green pencil and work their way through it and make it something else. She leaves the author's voice completely there. And the idiosyncratic spelling or thinking, she leaves so that the book is an individual kind of creation rather than a commercial project.”
Jones found an exhilarating challenge in both sharing her own words and nurturing others’, telling Eater, “If you want to write, write. It has to be a passion. When you edit, you're willing to stay up all night and then be slapped in the face.” Later in her life, she was not just a revered editor, but a successful author, publishing a guide to cooking for one and a book on cooking for one’s dog — her Havanese, Mabon, was a fixed character in her final years. Most famously, she wrote The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, a 2006 memoir of her decades shepherding American cooking from austere postwar kitchens churning out open-and-dump canned-good casseroles to a flowering of global-minded technique, artistry, and above all, pleasure.
“They were about being easy — short and easy,” Jones said to Eater about the food editors of the 1950s. “I think that tells you all. Because that's not the goal of cooking. The goal is making a delicious dinner.”