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August 12, 2020 5:13 am

Remembering a Jazz Age Jewish Publisher

avatar by Harold Brackman


New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Photo: Wikipedia.

Horace Liveright (pronounced “live right”) was born in 1886 to German Jewish parents who anglicized the previous family name. Leaving school at 14, Liveright graduated from office boy in Philadelphia to bond salesman in New York. In 1911, he owned a toilet paper company. Then, however, he used money from his first wife’s father, a paper mill owner, to bankroll his start in publishing. He partnered with Albert Boni (also Jewish) to form the Modern Library and Boni & Liveright.

Specializing in modern European and American authors, Liveright published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals, and Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His company, which boasted six of the ten bestsellers in 1928 and seven Nobel Prize winners in six years, also published Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Eugene O’Neill, and many more.

Unconcerned about antisemitism, he not only published T.S. Eliot but hired Ezra Pound as a scout in Europe. Hemingway, Eliot (who ultimately switched to “a decent Christian publisher”), and Theodore Dreiser all disliked Jews.

Liveright subsidized struggling authors, many of them Greenwich Village rebels. He also supported African-Americans such as Jean Toomer during the Harlem Renaissance. Noted for his notorious womanizing and high-profile divorces, Liveright used a hidden room in his West 48th Street brownstone office to host lavish, bacchanalian parties reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels.

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Biographer Walker Gilmer describes him as “tall, lean, and well-tailored with a shock of long (for the times) black hair, piercing eyes, and a John Barrymore or Mephistophelean profile.” The closest Liveright came to Zionism was publishing Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s historical novel about Samson and “the seductress” Delilah.

Liveright died bankrupt in 1933 after failing to reinvent himself as a Hollywood producer. Ben Hecht wrote the novel A Jew in Love (1931) satirizing Liveright. He also wrote the screenplay for The Scoundrel (1935), partly modeling the scandal-ridden protagonist, played by Noel Coward, on Liveright’s life.

Why does Liveright still matter today? Not only a picaresque character, he was a pioneer when Jewish publishers were still being shunned by the old school, neo-Puritan publishing industry.

He influenced the Jazz Age’s “raging youth,” despite being 36-years-old in 1920. He successfully crusaded against censorship laws at a time when the words “banned in Boston” still doomed plays and novels, and won court victories over the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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