Obituary: Publishing Course Director Lindy Hess

Photo by Lillian KempPhoto by Lillian Kemp
July 21, 2013
Joe Wrinn

Lindy Hess, who for 25 years was director of the Radcliffe and Columbia Publishing Courses, which helped thousands of young people enter and thrive in a publishing world evolving from books to blogs, died of cancer on July 13 in Cambridge, Mass. She was 63.

“Lindy Hess was the epitome of a good teacher—dedicated, passionate, inspiring, and always seeking the best for her students as their careers in the publishing industry flourished,” said Drew Faust, president of Harvard and a former dean of the Radcliffe Institute where the course was previously located. “She leaves an unparalleled legacy of literacy and leadership.”

“She was fanatically dedicated to her students, not just collectively but individually. Her ability to steer the publishing course was remarkable, and her reward was the pleasure of seeing generations of her students rise to leadership positions,” said Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, where the course is located today.

As director since 1988 of the Publishing Courses, Hess annually gathered top working professionals in the fields of book, magazine, and digital publishing to train the 100+ students each summer in an intense six-week course regarded as the finest in the country.

“She knew everybody worth knowing in publishing and she had a Godfather-like ability never to have her requests to help the course turned down, no matter how eminent and busy the person being asked was,” said Lemann.

Under Hess’s leadership, students gained unparalleled access to giants in the industry. Bennet Cerf, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Nora Ephron, John Irving, and Toni Morrison all contributed to the course. Last year’s line up continued to reflect a publishing profession in transition, with the likes of Tina Brown of the Daily Beast, as well as editors from Slate.com, Amazon.com and BuzzFeed.com.

“Lindy was terrific—filled with generous energy and smarts—when she was a young assistant at Knopf, and she was terrific in the same way when she took over the somewhat faded Radcliffe Publishing course,” said Robert Gottlieb, past editor of the New Yorker. “Not only did her 100 students learn what it was all about, but she provided an absolutely essential link between young people looking for jobs and publishers looking for young talent. The entire industry benefitted from her instincts and her know-how,” said Gottlieb.

Despite her love and core loyalty to printed books (her mother used to read TS Eliot to her at bedtime as a child), she begrudgingly accepted the new digital developments shaping the industry, adapting the course to reflect their newly found prominence.

“The industry has changed,” Hess told the New York Times in 2011. “My philosophy is for the course to reflect the industry as it is, so students graduate and they know exactly what’s happening. Students have to learn all the old stuff and get a grasp on the digital world.”

Hess’s favorite description of the course came from a previous student who described it as “the intellectual equivalent of a pie-eating contest.”

Hess’s rolodex was the stuff of legends. By the course’s 50th anniversary in 1998, over 3,500 course graduates had established careers in the publishing industry. Over the years, Hess kept poster boards in her office with pictures of each year’s students and would keep in touch with them then place a star above their picture once they were hired.

In addition to the education and placement of young publishing students in jobs, Hess’s other passion was increasing diversity in the publishing field. When she began as director in 1988, there was one black student. Ten years later, minority participation had reached 25 percent of course enrollment.

“I write to every minority counselor in America myself,” Hess told the Harvard Gazette in 1998. “It’s an incredibly white industry,” Hess said, “especially considering that publishing is a world of ideas.”

The publishing course moved to New York City in 2000. “I’ve been trying for years to persuade the New York publishing industry to move to Cambridge,” Hess told the Times’ Public Lives column in 2000. “Having failed to do that, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to move the course to New York, where I think it should be anyway.”

Hess was born in New York City and attended the Spence School and graduated from Wheaton College. Before being appointed director of the then–Radcliffe Publishing Course in 1988, Hess worked at Macmillan and Alfred A. Knopf publishers, becoming editorial director of Dolphin Books, a division of Doubleday Publishing Company. There, she published books by authors including David Bowie, Christopher Buckley, Stephen Christ, the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, and her future husband, Dr. William Appleton.

“In a taxi on a rainy day, a third person squeezed in uninvited to share the ride,” said Appleton. “It was Jackie Onassis, who seemed to want not only to keep dry but also to check this new guy from Cambridge who was stealing Lindy, her mentor at Doubleday, to become his life partner in distant Cambridge,” said Appleton.

Despite her busy schedule and constant contact with people in the industry, family always came first. When she was diagnosed with cancer, her goal was to see her daughter graduate this year from Colby College. Despite being sick, she attended numerous events, spoke to graduates, and spent a memorable evening at the Commencement Ball dancing with her family three weeks before she died.

“During the final stages of her illness, she remained hopeful and optimistic, never complaining, and always brave” said Appleton. “She never whined; she never said ‘Why me?’ She accepted the horror unflinchingly.”

Their home was a virtual visitors center for icons in the publishing industry, with hours spent sharing cocktails, music, and literary banter with the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Goodwin, and Robert Gottlieb sharing their company. It was Hess who convinced Goodwin that what he described as a “minor” section of a long work of history he was writing could stand on its own. The work became the highly successful film Quiz Show.

“He used the money he made to add a swimming pool at his home and declared an open invitation to Lindy and our family to cool ourselves without further invitation any time,” said Appleton.

“No matter whose company she kept, she never hesitated to stick in a few signature hair flips to remind us all that she was fierce, fun, and independent,” said Appleton.

In addition to her husband, Hess is survived by her son, Samuel Appleton, and her daughter, Eliza Appleton, both of Cambridge, Mass; also a brother, Mortimer “Terry” Hess III, and a sister, Elizabeth Hess, both of Manhattan; and a niece, Kate Biskind, of Raleigh, NC. Her parents, Mortimer H. Hess Jr. and Betty Ann Colhoun, are deceased.

Memorial services are being planned in New York City and Boston in the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the attention of Arlene Morgan at the Columbia University Friends of Lindy Hess Fund at the School of Journalism, 2950 Broadway, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.

Search Year: 
2013