NEW YORK - A small, pointed nose and a pair of shining eyes peer out between two towering piles of book, making Judith Jones look for all the world like the City Mouse, eyeing a tempting morsel of cheddar.
Granted, Jones has been asked to pose with her books by a photographer in the Manhattan office of Alfred A. Knopf, where she is a senior editor and vice president - but not until after the shutterbug had listened to her talk for nearly two hours. There is something about her small, neat presence, her blend of modesty, inquisitiveness and boldness, that makes the analogy to Aesop's fable fit.
During her 46 years in the publishing business, Jones has become the mouse that roared. If any single human being possesses unerring taste, it is possible that she is that person. Her publishing "finds" include a manuscript by an unknown teen-ager named Anne Frank, a cookbook by an unknown chef named Julia Child and a book of poetry by an unknown scribe named Sylvia Plath.
Katherine Hourigan, Knopf's managing editor, wishes she knew the secret of Jones' impeccable taste. "It's a certain, wonderful instinct," she says. "She can see how a particular manuscript can be worked into something fabulous, and I'm not talking about appealing to the masses. Her critical judgment is superb.
"It's hard to imagine what the world would have been like without Anne Frank's diary. You can say, 'Oh, someone would have published it,' but that's not necessarily the case."
Jones has edited all 16 of Anne Tyler's novels, including The Amateur Marriage, which was published earlier this year. Who but Jones would dare to argue with Tyler about her titles and endings, to tell John Updike that some of his sentences are too complicated, or to discreetly suggest to Arthur Rubinstein that in the rough draft of his autobiography, he came across as pretentious?
Over Jones' busy and interesting life - she will turn 80 in March - she dated a former fighter in the French resistance, briefly ran an unlicensed cafe in Paris and befriended such luminaries as the poet Ted Roethke and the French surrealist painter Balthus.
While fostering the careers of other writers (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for whom she edited the English translations), she also has written three cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones.
Authors say that part of Judith Jones' success is that she understands the intimate and fraught relationship between author and editor. Writers have to trust editors to see the secret flaws that lie outside their own field of vision, the bald spots on the back of their heads. But because editors have individual responses to what they read, it can be difficult for writers to sort out which comments are valid, and which arise from that particular editor's world view.
Tyler is struck by Jones' gentleness and diplomacy, her willingness to swallow her ego and become an invisible collaborator. "I can't imagine that there's anyone else out there with anything like her combination of perspicacity and tact," Tyler writes in an e-mail.
"She reads critically and very, very intelligently, but she never forgets that the book is, finally, the author's. Whenever I hear someone say something like: 'John Doe is such a good editor; you can always tell a John Doe book,' I shudder and say a little prayer that Judith will never, ever take it into her head to retire.
"That isn't to say that she doesn't voice strong opinions. She and I have disagreed several times about titles, and she once persuaded me that a female character with, I believe, seven consecutive husbands might better be restricted to three. But she has unfailingly been so delicate about it - another word that comes to mind when I think of her. You know how delicate she is physically - like a ballet dancer, I've always thought. That same quality shows up in her editing."
Jones, for her part, says that the very best writers (Tyler and Updike included) are such consummate craftsmen, are so particular about every word and rhythm and shade of meaning, that their first drafts require just minor changes to be ready for publication. For that reason, these writers do not necessarily welcome an editor's suggestions, however light her touch.
"With Anne, it's very small things," Jones said. "I have come to understand that she so creates her characters in a specific world that when she lets them go, it's hard for her to go back in. I've told myself, 'She really can't do it, so leave well enough alone.'"
Jones says that Updike is so protective of a fledgling book that he won't even discuss it with his editor. But fortunately, he occasionally drops clues.
"He'll never waste paper," she says, "so he'll write me a note on the back of a manuscript page that he's thrown away, and I'll snatch it up and get a glimpse of what he's working on.' "
Jones' family hails from New England on her father's side and Old England on her mother's, so naturally, she became a devout Francophile. In truth, she finds commonalties between her relatives in Vermont, where she still summers, and the French. Her father's people, the Baileys, "liked food, liked to drink, and were raucous as opposed to the reserved British side of my family."
One of the three cookbooks that she co-wrote with her husband draws on this hearty heritage: The L.L. Bean Book of New England Cookery. (The other two books written by the Joneses are The Book of Bread and a book for children called Knead It, Punch It, Bake It!)
After graduating from Bennington College, where she became a student and friend of Roethke's, the young woman went to work for Doubleday in New York. She took an extended vacation to Paris (staying 3 1/2 years), and discovered virtually all the reigning passions of her life.
She began her food apprenticeship while dating the former resistance fighter. They and a third friend ran a tiny restaurant called Le Cirque du Cirque in the apartment they were borrowing from an elderly relative. The resistance fighter knew how to cook. Jones and their friend "were his little slaves," chopping and sauteing away under his supervision.
Alas, the apartment's owner found out about the bistro and shut it down. But the neophyte chef's taste for ingredients and flavors had been whetted, and she furthered her education when she met her future husband. Together, they scoured the local markets and practiced in their kitchen. The couple married in 1951.
It was at Doubleday, when she was working as a secretary in the Paris office, that Judith Jones was given a pile of books and told to send rejection letters to the authors. One was Anne Frank's The Diary of A Young Girl. A limited run of 1,500 copies had been published in Amsterdam in 1947, but now Otto Frank wanted to tell his daughter's story to the world.
"There was something about the face on the cover," Jones says. "I picked it up. I read it all afternoon and into the evening. My boss was so surprised. He walked in the door, and I was still there. I said 'We have to get this to New York!'"
Jones' boss disagreed. So the secretary went over her supervisor's head and wrote to her contacts in the Manhattan office, arguing as hard as she knew how that the diary must be published. Needless to say, Doubleday is glad that she succeeded.
A memory that still moves Jones is her meeting with Otto Frank, who asked hesitantly if he could retain the movie rights to his daughter's story.
"He had tears in his eyes," Jones recalls. "He said: 'I just want to be sure that I will have the right to approve anybody who plays my Anne.'"
Shortly thereafter, the Joneses returned to the United States and settled in New York, where Judith went to work for the then-husband-and-wife publishing team of Alfred and Blanch Knopf. It didn't take long for her to prove that the Anne Frank diary was no fluke.
One day, a cookbook that had been rejected by Houghton Mifflin landed on her desk. Jones knew immediately that it was a winner.
The author "had this wonderful, analytical mind, and she knew how to translate all the techniques: how to dry the meat, what to brown it in, that you couldn't have too many pieces in the pot," Jones says.
"I wrote a rave review, and said, 'We must buy this! Alfred said, 'What? Publish a cookbook by a Smith College woman?' Finally he said, 'Oh, all right, let Mrs. Jones have her chance.' Afterwards, he was very gracious about it."
He should have been. The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child was a phenomenal success.
Jones went on to edit all of Child's books, plus works by such revered food writers as James Beard, the so-called "Father of American cooking," and Marion Cunningham, author of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Still, Jones shows no signs of being burned out. "Judith looks and acts younger today than when I first came to work for her 20 years ago," says Hourigan, Knopf managing editor. "She's going to be 80, and she just started weight training."
As she begins her ninth decade, Jones also continues to work part-time. If anything, her relationships with the writers whom she has nurtured have become even more important and sustaining in the eight years since she was widowed.
"It's like having a family, your writers. You take care of them. You want to be there for them, and not say goodbye."
Besides, who knows what choice, neglected manuscripts are lying in the reject pile, just waiting for the City Mouse to sniff them out?
Who: Judith Jones
Education: Bennington College
Professional: Editor to such literary lights as Anne Tyler and John Updike. At one time, ran an unlicensed cafe in Paris.
How she would have scandalized her proper British ancestors, had they been alive: "They would have been appalled if they'd known that I'd started a little restaurant with a Frenchman. Not because of the Frenchman; they'd be upset that I was cooking."
Living with luminaries
By luck and by pluck, Judith Jones has known some of the leading artistic lights of the 20th century. Thankfully, she's not too high-minded to dish:
Theodore Roethke: The famed poet taught at Bennington College. Jones was first his student, and later, a good friend.
He was extraordinary, a big Northwesterner who used to carry old books of poetry in his pockets. He was very awkward, but had a beautiful voice. He would encourage us to write about what we really saw and observed. We'd bring him things we were working on, and he'd say: "Ohmigod, here comes the female self-pity."
Balthus: For a time, Jones and a friend shared a large flat with the elderly French surrealist painter.
He was extremely touching. He'd had malaria, and was not well. I'd make supper or tea and take it to him in his room.
Sylvia Plath: The Collossus, Plath's first book of poetry, was being published in England, and Knopf bought the rights for the U.S. publication.
I wrote to her and said that a few poems seemed derivative of Theodore Roethke. She knew immediately which ones I meant, and she dropped them from the book.
We [Knopf] ended up taking a pass on The Bell Jar, which was published right before she died. First, I didn't think it was a very good book. Second, she didn't want her name on it.
Arthur Rubinstein: Jones was hired to edit the memoirs of the legendary pianist, but found an early draft full of self-importance.
I had heard what a wonderful raconteur he was. I tried to make very gentle, delicately worded notes in the margins, in pencil. But when I went to discuss them, the Maestro was in a fury. I tried to make him see that the pomposity made him look ridiculous on the page.
I went home in tears. But when I came back the next day, he covered my hand in kisses and said, "Thank you, thank you. I look like a damn fool. Now, let's get to work."
- Mary Carole McCauley
One of Judith Jones' favorite passages comes from Anne Tyler's Celestial Navigation. Tyler describes an agoraphobic artist's panic as he tries to walk to a grocery store with the woman he loves:
"Dread rose in him like a flood in a basement, starting in his feet and rapidly filling his legs, his stomach, his chest, seeping out to his fingertips. Its cold flat surface lay level across the top of his throat. He swallowed and felt it tip and right itself. Nausea came swooping over him, and he buckled at the knees and slid downward until he was seated flat on the sidewalk with his feet sticking out in front of him. 'Jeremy, you silly,' Darcy said, but when he couldn't smile at her or even raise his eyes, she said, 'Jeremy? Jeremy?' She went screaming into the grocery store; her voice pierced all the cotton that seemed wrapped around his head. 'Mom, come quick, Jeremy's all squashed down on the sidewalk!' Then he was surrounded by anxious feet nosing in upon him - Darcy's sneakers, Mary's sandals, and a pair of stubby loafers almost covered by a long bloody apron. 'It's the heat,' the apron said. Mary said, 'Jeremy? Are you ill?'
'Sick,' he whispered."