Wolff, Helen (1906–1994)

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Wolff, Helen (1906–1994)

U.S.-German publisher and partner with Kurt Wolff—responsible for publishing many of the best-known books of this century such as Doctor Zhivago, The Tin Drum, and The Leopard—whose influence on publishing was incalculable . Born Helen Mosel in Üsküb (Skopje), Macedonia, in 1906; died of heart failure on March 29, 1994, in Hanover, New Hampshire; father was an engineer with Siemens; mother was a cultivated Viennese of Austro-Hungarian descent; had one brother and two sisters; educated at Schondorf School as the only female pupil; married Kurt Wolff (the publisher), in 1933 (killed in an accident on October 21, 1963); children: son Christian Wolff (b. 1934).

After the Balkan War, family left for Berlin (1915) where they remained until 1916; went to work for Wolff Verlag (1927); sent to Paris when Pegasus, part of Wolff Verlag, was sold (1929); lived in exile in Italy (1935–37) and in France (1937–39); interned with husband as enemy aliens (1939); left for U.S. (1941); founded Pantheon Books (1942); published Gift from the Sea (1955), Doctor Zhivago (1958), Born Free (1960); established "A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book" imprint (1960s); after Kurt's death, continued as publisher for Konrad Lorenz, Amos Oz, Stanislaw Lem, as well as many other distinguished European writers.

In 1941, as they headed for a boat out of Lisbon, Helen and Kurt Wolff were only one step ahead of the Nazi juggernaut. "I deliberately packed the kind of clothes that one would need in a concentration camp," said Helen, "including overalls and sturdy boots for my husband, our son, and myself." The Wolffs knew their fate was sealed should they be caught. They had already been interned in France as enemy aliens. Although she was Catholic and he was Protestant, both were viewed as enemies of the Third Reich and destined to be eliminated in Nazi-occupied France. Fortunately, the Wolff family was able to board the Serpa Pinto bound for New York. As they sailed westward, the American shipping lines closed down this last remaining passenger service for the duration of the war. They were among the last to escape the Holocaust which would consume many of their friends and relatives.

Helen Mosel was born in 1906 in Macedonia and grew up in the town of Üsküb (formerly Skopje), where the inhabitants were a mixture of Turks, Greeks, Albanians, and Serbs. The town boasted a fortress, the Vardar River, and a predilection for earthquakes (a severe quake partially destroyed the city in 1963). Young Helen recalled a piece of nursery ceiling falling on her bed during one quake. Fortunately, it was unoccupied at the time. Helen's father, who was from Bonn and an employee of Siemens, was in Macedonia as part of a program to electrify Turkey. Her mother was Austrian and Hungarian. The family lived in Üsküb ten years, and her brother and two sisters were also born there.

Wolff's colorful childhood prepared her for an adventurous adult life. Living conditions were primitive. Although her father had come to electrify the area, their home was lit by kerosene lamps. Automobile traffic was unheard of. The children's favorite time of year was known as a "cholera vacation." During the annual epidemic, all lessons stopped, which they viewed as a great treat. Daily walks were another event she and her siblings anticipated. Before they left the house, however, her mother took out her binoculars to check if any bodies were hanging from the town gallows. If this were the case, the walk had to be terminated at the railroad tracks, as their mother felt this sight would be too traumatic for her children. Despite such gruesome sights, the inhabitants were friendly and kind to children, and invitations into homes for sweets were common. The young children had a sense of safety and moved about with a great deal of freedom. Even in remote Üsküb, Helen, who began reading at age four, was surrounded by books, as her parents had a decent library. She spoke German at home, but learned Turkish and Serbian as well. Her parents were regular contributors to German newspapers, and her mother wrote especially notable reports on events in Turkey.

When the Balkan Wars broke out (1912–13), shortly before World War I, and the Serbs took over the town, the Mosel family had to flee. Mother and children went to Vienna where they stayed with family while Helen's father went to Samsun, on the Black Sea in Turkey, as a member of the German consular service. The family was separated throughout the war. Food shortages in Vienna forced them to move to Berlin in 1916. Here conditions were only slightly better, and at the end of the war they moved to Oberammergau in rural Bavaria where more food was available.

Despite much moving about, Helen was well educated, largely because her parents emphasized learning. She was taught by a series of tutors and when the family left Berlin, her mother brought along Fräulein Albrecht to school the two girls. "When you get private tutoring," said Wolff, "you learn nothing or a great deal. I owe a lot to Fräulein Albrecht." Among other subjects, she learned English, French, and piano. Later, the family moved again to be near the Schondorf School where her brother was enrolled as a day student. Enrolled in the all-boys' school as well, the 15-year-old Helen discovered her private tutoring in French and English had stood her in good stead, though this was not the case in geometry and mathematics. Being the only girl was harrowing at times, but she enjoyed Schondorf where she excelled in German composition.

Wolff was gifted with languages and an avid reader. Even as a teenager, she wanted to enter the world of publishing. She was offered a trainee position without pay, thanks to the intervention of Leila von Meister , a classmate's mother. Having heard of Helen's aspirations, von Meister spoke to the one publisher she knew, Kurt Wolff. Thus it was in 1927 that Helen Mosel went to Munich armed with von Meister's advice, "You have three months to make yourself indispensable." Helen's language skills were immediately required, and she plunged into work on an international art series which involved translating French, German, Italian, and English.

Helen had unknowingly joined one of the most innovative publishing firms of that or any era. In 1913, Kurt Wolff decided to publish the best work of his generation. Born into a highly cultured family in Bonn in 1887, Kurt had systematically collected German books from different styles and periods. His father, a Protestant, was a professor of music, while his mother, who loved books, was from an old, assimilated Jewish family. Uninterested in the financial aspects of the book trade, Kurt wanted to distribute the works of new authors in editions of high quality for relatively little cost. He published unknown authors such as Franz Kafka, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel, and Joseph Roth and produced prize-winning German translations of Emile Zola, Maxim Gorky, and Sinclair Lewis. Kurt Wolff Verlag books had bold and colorful jackets. Striking design also characterized the firm's advertising, rendered by such contemporary artists as Paul Klee, Alfred Kubin, and George Grosz. New thematic series with open-ended lists such as the "new novel," the "European novel," and "modern poetry in translation" were introduced. Kurt combined old and new in an interesting manner; for example, he reissued Voltaire's Candide with drawings by Klee.

Helen threw herself into this unique publishing venture with great enthusiasm and by the end of the trial period had, indeed, become indispensable. In 1929, currency problems forced Kurt to sell the Pantheon series on which Helen was working to a Parisian firm. "I was part of the deal," she said, "because I had been with the series almost from its inception. So I can only say that I was sold with it." In Paris, however, the venture continued to struggle so she soon found work in a branch of the League of Nations on the strength of her fluent French. Though he was married to his first wife at the time, she and Kurt remained in touch. It wasn't until 1933 that they were married, after he had been divorced for two years.

I never felt that I was in my husband's shadow; I always felt that I was in his light.

—Helen Wolff

Kurt had been brought up a Protestant, but he failed the "racial purity" test. According to Nazi guidelines, because his mother's maiden name was Marx, he was "half-Jewish." A Roman Catholic, Helen's mother was extremely cosmopolitan. She had leanings toward Islam and read the Koran to her children. The racial intolerance sweeping Europe was difficult for Helen Wolff to comprehend. Though France was accepting foreigners in the early 1930s, the Wolffs moved to Italy in 1935 to be in a safer, cheaper environment. They soon realized they would never go back to Germany. For two years, they remained in Italy until they felt impelled to return to Paris, as Florence by then was full of Gestapo agents. When war broke out in 1939, France no longer seemed a safe haven: concentration camps were already well known and Paris was full of Jewish refugees. One of their friends, Paul Ludwig Landsberg, went underground but was picked up, tortured, and died in a concentration camp in the south of France. The outlook was grim. Two professors who were friends offered to shoot the Wolffs if the Nazis occupied Paris.

The Wolffs' first thought was to save their small son, Christian. In May 1940, the six-yearold was sent to a convent school at La Rochelle. Shortly thereafter, Kurt was rounded up by the French and sent to an enemy alien camp at Le Cheylard in southeastern France. Then, the French began to round up alien women, and Helen was shipped south to Gurs, near the Pyrenees. When an armistice was declared between Germany and France in June 1940, Helen Wolff walked out of the camp (no one stopped her) and hitchhiked toward southeastern France where her husband and son were located. She ended up at Saint-Lary-près-Lach where she stayed with Berthe Colloredo-Mansfeld , an Austrian countess who hated the Nazis. While there, Wolff learned that Kurt had managed to leave the internment camp, and she joined him in Nice. They knew they must get Christian out of the convent school and leave Europe. But how? La Rochelle was under German occupation.

Tina Vinès , a friend who worked at the Louvre, retrieved their son from the convent and smuggled him out of town in a peasant's cart. As a French-born citizen, Christian was an enormous asset to his parents. The Wolffs were convinced that the reason they were allowed to leave France was because French authorities reasoned that a French child needed his parents. Once reunited with Christian, Kurt began to assemble documents to travel to America. These included an exit visa from France, a transit visa through Spain, and an American entry visa. It was almost impossible to get one document without the others. Thanks to the efforts of Varian M. Fry, an American scholar and editor who set up an American Aid Center in Marseilles, the documents were procured. Eleanor Roosevelt aided Fry by expediting paperwork through the State Department. Dr. Thea Dispeker obtained a sponsor in the States, asking Robert C. Weinberg, an architect and regional planner, to vouch for the Wolffs. The family's assets were traded in for two bars of gold.

Thus, the Wolffs—at great risk because of the U-boats patrolling the Atlantic—finally became passengers on the Sera Pinto, a ship over-loaded with 600-plus passengers and makeshift bunks to accommodate everyone. The ship had to stop first in Bermuda where, for three days, the passengers were questioned before going on to New York. Despite all this, Helen termed the voyage "uneventful," and the family finally docked on March 30, 1941, at Staten Island. The Wolffs arrived penniless. Having paid $2,600 for the trip, they had exhausted most of their cash reserves. Dr. Dispeker met them at the dock and set them up in two rooms in a hotel on Columbus Avenue. Though they were free, they were now refugees from an enemy country in a new land with a new language. English was more a barrier for Kurt than for Helen. But the Wolffs were determined to rebuild their lives.

Kurt set out immediately to raise money to begin a new publishing firm. Though their assets in Europe were frozen, Barclays Bank in London lent them money based on those accounts. Then Kurt persuaded three investors—Weinberg, Gerald Neisser, and George Merke—to fund this new publishing enterprise. Thus, Pantheon Books was founded in February 1942 and run out of their apartment at 41 Washington Square. The venture required an enormous effort from both Wolffs. In the beginning, they decided to publish books already in the public domain, so many hours of research in libraries were required. They brought out Jakob Burckhardt's Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, Erich Kahler's Man the Measure, and Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil among others. Many of the books chosen had not yet been translated into English. After a year, they were doing modestly well. Their first success was The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales translated by Margaret Hunt with illustrations by Josef Scharl, which was issued in 1944. When word got out that the Wolff firm was publishing again, Paul and Mary Mellon asked the Wolffs to publish the Bollingen Series—handsome volumes on the arts, humanities, and psychology. Because of the beauty of the volumes and the prestige of its backers, this series marked a turning point and provided a steady income.

In 1949, Pantheon moved to offices at 333 Sixth Avenue. Helen's job was editing, copy editing, proofreading, advertising, and publicity; she also typed her own letters and ran the juvenile department. In the 1950s, only 12 people worked for the firm. Expanding into new areas, historical novels were added to their list. Mary Renault 's The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea were all bestsellers. The firm branched out into Zen Buddhism, publishing Allan Watts' Behold the Spirit and The Way of Zen due largely to Helen's influence as she was interested in Oriental philosophy. The Wolffs also brought out two phenomenal bestsellers, Anne Morrow Lindbergh 's Gift from the Sea in 1955 and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago in 1958, as well as Günter Grass' The Tin Drum, and Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Their authors included Max Frisch and Georges Simenon. At this point, Pantheon was "awash with money." (The Wolffs had struck up an epistolary friendship with Pasternak, thus they felt genuine anguish when the Soviet government forced the author to refuse the Nobel Prize for literature. Helen was responsible for the phrase which summed up the Russian author's situation: "Boris Pasternak rejects the prize, retains the honor.")

Helen Wolff's gifts as a linguist brought the firm another bestseller in 1960, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. After reading the book in Italian, she had been determined to have it translated and published. The couple were living in Switzerland at the time, and success was beginning to take its toll. Because of Kurt's heart trouble, they sold their shares in Pantheon, though they kept their affiliation with the firm. While in Switzerland, they also acquired the rights to Joy Adamson 's Born Free. The Wolffs had published a great deal of Carl Gustav Jung's work in the Bollingen Series and wanted another volume, though Jung was now in his 80s. He dictated large portions of Memories, Dreams, and Reflections to Aniela Jaffé before his death in 1961. Helen helped bring the book to final form, and it was published in 1963. In 1961, the Wolffs resigned from Pantheon altogether, considering this more or less the end of their publishing career.

This was changed by William Jovanovich, president of Harcourt, Brace, who offered them the opportunity to be co-publishers under the imprint "A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book." The Wolffs' many contacts proved useful to the venture. The special relationship with Harcourt, Brace continued for three years with productive results. Anne Morrow Lindbergh brought the Wolffs Dearly Beloved, while Günter Grass delivered Dog Years. Their close friend Hannah Arendt delivered Karl Jaspers' The Great Philosophers. Then on October 21, 1963, while attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, Kurt was struck and killed by a truck, and a productive partnership was abruptly ended.

Two months later, Jovanovich asked Helen to continue the Wolff imprint, and she agreed. Noting that Konrad Lorenz's book On Aggression had not been published in the United States, she began publishing his works. Joy Adamson's The Peoples of Kenya, a follow-up to her bestselling Born Free, appeared under the Wolff imprint. Increasingly the best writers, agents, and editors decided that their books should be published only as "A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book" because of the excellent editing, literary translations, and artistic typography. Helen Wolff became a historic figure in publishing in her own right. Throughout a long and adventuresome life, she maintained high standards, and countless books published since 1963 were the result of her work alone, including Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. She maintained a presence at the Wolff imprint even after her retirement in 1986, and at the time of her death at her home in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1994 was the undisputed grande dame of literary publishing in the United States.


Bruckner, D.J.R. "The Prince of Publishers," in The New York Times Book Review. January 5, 1992, p. 12.

Ermarth, Michael. Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays & Letters. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Mitgang, Herbert. "Profiles. Imprint," in The New Yorker. Vol. 58, no. 24. August 2, 1982, pp. 41–73.

"Obituary," in Publishers Weekly. October 28, 1963, p. 34.

"Obituary," in Publishers Weekly. April 4, 1994, p. 16.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia