April 08, 2008

Simon Michael Bessie

  • About the author MS

Simon Michael Bessie, who in 1959 left a top editorial position at what was then called Harper & Brothers to help found Atheneum Publishers, perhaps the last major literary house to be started from scratch in the 20th century, died on Monday at his home in Lyme, Conn. He was 92.

His wife, Cornelia, announced the death.

Mr. Bessie was Atheneum’s president from 1963 to 1975, but he was also known for his strengths in acquiring manuscripts. Over his career he edited writers like Daniel J. Boorstin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Kenneth Tynan and Elie Wiesel.

His reputation as an enterprising editor was burnished by a story John Cheever often told, about the publication of Cheever’s first novel, “The Wapshot Chronicle.”

As Susan Cheever recounts it in a memoir of her father, “Home Before Dark” (1984), Mr. Cheever had offered the novel to Random House in 1954, but the publisher turned it down. In despair, he rented a house that summer on Nantucket Island, took his family there and continued working on the novel. One day, as Cheever was staring out the window, a sailing yacht appeared in the harbor and dropped anchor. A man in white flannels and a double-breasted blazer was rowed ashore in a dinghy and announced in the voice of a literate aristocrat to the small crowd that had gathered to greet him, “I’m looking for John Cheever.”

“It was Simon Michael Bessie,” Ms. Cheever writes, “a senior editor at Harper & Row, and he had come to buy ‘The Wapshot Chronicle.’ ”

The New York Times

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