Radcliffe Reflections on Lindy Hess

Publishing Expert Who Advised Hundreds Dies at 63
Photo of Lindy Hess by Benny ShiloPhoto of Lindy Hess by Benny Shilo
July 21, 2013

Cambridge, MA — Lindy Hess was a remarkable person whose passion for books and publishing contributed to many successful careers for authors and industry leaders. When she died recently, at 63, the obituary in the New York Times highlighted her leadership of the Radcliffe Publishing Course and, then, at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where it relocated. Her impact as the leader of that program was significant, and fellows and friends at the Radcliffe Institute also mourned her passing with reflections on the unique role she played as an unofficial advisor to countless scholars and artists in the Institute’s fellowship program.

“Lindy’s conversations, insights, and connections enriched the Radcliffe Institute, as did her warmth and enthusiasm,” said Dean Lizabeth Cohen, herself a fellow in 2000–2001 who gained sage advice from Lindy as she completed her book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. “She used her industry expertise and her omnivorous intellect to great result: she helped journalists write novels, she helped scientists publish artistic books, she helped assistant professors get tenure, and—overall—she helped make ideas accessible to more people.”

Cohen said that “Lindy thought it was wonderful to be involved at such formative stages of work, and we thought it was wonderful she could contribute to the Institute community in such a unique and valuable way.”

Lindy had an office in Byerly Hall, in Radcliffe Yard, where the Institute’s Fellowship Program annually brings together 50 fellows in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences to pursue individual projects in a stimulating, multidisciplinary community.

“Many fellows arrive with a book project on which they work during their fellowship year,” explained Judy Vichniac, associate dean of the Fellowship Program, who worked closely with Lindy for more than a decade. “It is not uncommon for them to make significant changes in the process of preparing their manuscript. Year in, year out, Lindy played a critical role in helping fellows achieve their aspirations and even their dreams when it came to publishing. She will be sorely missed.”

The news of Lindy’s passing created an outpouring of memories, appreciation, and respect from the Radcliffe fellows who had the good fortune of receiving her honest and helpful assessment of their work. Among the reflections:

“Lindy was always so very good to me, especially in the years when I was truly a nobody,” wrote Caroline Elkins, a professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard University and the chair of its Committee on African Studies. She wrote much of her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, at the Radcliffe Institute when she was a fellow in 2003–2004 and was a beneficiary of Lindy’s “advice and encouragement.” The book won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.

“Lindy Hess was the most remarkable person I have met in my three decades in higher education,” wrote Ellen Fitzpatrick, a 2008–2009 fellow, the author of several books, and a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, where she teaches modern American intellectual and political history. “She was a genuine altruist whose love of people and books, deep knowledge of the publishing industry, and utterly selfless desire to do good changed lives and enriched the culture around us.” Like many fellows, Ellen experienced Lindy’s enthusiasm on both personal and professional levels: “On a freezing January day three years ago, over steaming cups of coffee at a Brattle Street café, this Radcliffe fellow haltingly floated to Lindy Hess an idea I had for a book. She lit up! Her energy, enthusiasm, unflagging commitment, and unswerving belief in that project led to a New York Times best-selling book. It would never have happened without her. She was as interested in authors as she was in books and became the kind of friend that brings you back to childhood—funny and fun to be around. It was my great privilege to have known her and for that alone (as well as for many other reasons), I’ll always treasure the year I met Lindy Hess at Radcliffe.”

Benny Shilo, a professor of molecular genetics at Weizmann Institute of Science and a Radcliffe fellow in 2011–2012, had an idea for taking photographs of everyday life and using them as metaphors for complex biological processes. It was a big leap to go from being a scientist in Israel to coming to Radcliffe to focus on photography about embryonic development. Lindy helped him make a smooth transition and a publishing contract. “When she saw visually what I was getting at, she became an immediate supporter,” he said. “Her trust, experience, and advice encouraged me to do something I never considered—namely writing a book and applying to a variety of academic presses. The book is now finished and is being published. I was really looking forward to give it to her personally.”

A fund has been established in Lindy’s memory at Columbia to benefit scholarships for the Columbia Publishing Course. Donations may be sent to the attention of Arlene Morgan, Friends of Lindy Hess Fund, School of Journalism, Columbia University, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.

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