When Jane Friedman stepped out onto the roof deck of a glorious neo-Gothic building off Central Park West yesterday evening, she saw herself in the faces of dozens of the most powerful people in publishing. Literally. At the semi-official party for the recently departed CEO of HarperCollins, everyone greeted the Once (and Future?) Queen of Publishing wearing identical Jane Friedman masks. Gary Fisketjohn, Michael Pietsch, David Young — most of the big names at most of the big houses had donned the mask of Jane. It was a surreal twist on the surreal midnight departure of one of publishing’s most charismatic and powerful corporate heads, both a gentle bit of mockery and a subtle confirmation that the cult of Jane endures.
The festive mood carried with it a slight undertow of regret: at the harsh circumstances of her dismissal, at the fact that her former employer maybe should have been throwing this party, at the conspicuous absence of Brian Murray, her longtime protégé and replacement as HarperCollins’s CEO (he happened to be on vacation).
HarperCollins’s number two, Michael Morrison, was in attendance and came with a prepared speech. A low murmur went up as he ascended the deck stairs. What would HarperCollins’s highest-ranking delegate at the party say? “Bear with us, because I know how you hate to be the center of attention,” he told Friedman (in fact, at least four reporters had been invited), and he assured her he’d save the juicy stuff for her “real retirement party.” Much praise was showered on her status as an industry cheerleader, and there was much ribbing of Jane’s claims of inventing the author tour, the audio book, and maybe even the alphabet.
Friedman’s own speech was classic Jane: effusive, full of reminiscences of her publicist days at Knopf (making Robert Caro read in Rochester on Yom Kippur!), and a little bit defiant. She didn’t know if she’d be asked to speak, but wrote a speech down just in case. She was delighted that at a time when everyone is on vacation, “we have la crème de la crème here on this wonderful, wonderful deck.” Then she turned serious. “Books mean civilization, and we need books, and you’re all here as part of that group,” she said, and urged them to stay atop the barricades. “I am not done. I am not done by a long shot!” Cheers all around.
This morning, HarperCollins announced that, notwithstanding a very weak third quarter, it had managed a 3 percent sales growth for the recently ended fiscal year — putting the lie to at least one purported reason Rupert Murdoch might have decided to let Friedman go as abruptly as he did. At the party, Hachette CEO David Young advised us not to sweat it. “Don’t try to make sense out of nonsense. You’ll just go mad.” —Boris Kachka