The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963
The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency, who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 (probably at the office!) has been Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years. He has finally decided to retire and give up his daily subway journey to their offices in Times Square where he has seen the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he has become practically an institution himself.
As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on. Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!” and which according to Nichols had already sold over 11,000 copies within a few weeks and gone into a second edition.
Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and has been one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever since, and has assisted with the publication of more than 100 further books since then – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin offs, plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity. Even since her death, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”
In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, ( and by airmail!) as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:
“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!” It certainly did.
Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:
“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ). If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome. Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”
Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA. When in 1976 Joan married the American painter Julius Goldstein and began to spend half her year in New York, they all became close friends.
Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American. For example of one novel he writes:
“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!” For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted – but since the movie of this name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s other meaning…
Sadly Joan was not there in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but as her daughter and literary ambassador I was in New York with Charles that autumn and with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore hosted an evening of celebration – rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before hurricane Sandy hit town! So it was not until some time later , when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a triple celebration!
So here’s a heartfelt Thank You Charles! (and Brandt & Hochman!) for fifty wonderful years, and wishing you many more Happy Birthdays! x
Celebrating his 80th Birthday at the office!
with help from Charles