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 while still at the office!) has died this week at the age of 86. He was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years, and only recently decided to retire; he was sad to give up his daily subway journey to the Agency’s offices in Times Square where he saw 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 – which he 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 of his vast experience and acquaintance in the publishing world. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he became 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 and novelist, 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 had, according to Nichols already sold over 11,000 copies within the first 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 remained one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever afterwards, assisting with the publication of more than 100 further books – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin-offs, story collections plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity. Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would often 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 American painter Julius Goldstein, and began to spend half her year in Greenwich Village 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 of her modern novels he wrote:
“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 Hollywood movie of the same name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s more current meaning…
Charles introduced me to the owners of Small Beer Press, huge fans of Joan Aiken, who have now published three of her story collections; here we met for the launch of The Serial Garden in 2008 at celebrated children’s book store, Books of Wonder, together with another admirer, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post. I returned to New York in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and as Joan’s daughter and literary ambassador, with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore we hosted an evening of celebration for her acclaimed classic children’s book. Rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before the truly devastating hurricane Sandy hit town, and 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 double celebration!
Joan’s father, poet Conrad Aiken died in 1973, but his work continues to be published and honoured, and her grand daughter Arabel Charlaff, therapist and literary consultant, who worked for the Feminist Press in New York, also did a spell as an intern in the offices of Brandt & Hochman. Charles kindly and ably supported us through the last fifteen years since Joan Aiken’s death, and I will miss his gracious messages, his delightful phone calls and the encouragement he has always given with the handling of the Aiken Estate. Usually I would send him these posts, for his comment and enjoyment, and it is very sad that for the first time he is not there to read this one.
So here’s a heartfelt Thank You, Dear Charles (and Brandt & Hochman!) for over fifty wonderful years, as you cared for four generations of the Aiken family.
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Charles with Gail Hochman celebrating his 80th Birthday at the New York office!
(with endless help from Charles!)