Two weeks ago the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was sliced out of first place at theaters by The Chain Saw Massacre, and thus the forces of good once again seemed in a terrible spot. True, there was some comfort knowing Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy raked in roughly three billion worldwide, but actual solace even today can only be found in one place. It’s a tiny hamlet called Bearsville, bordering the anomaly of Woodstock. Yes, it’s Bearsville, for only there might be found the one surviving pioneer of the Tolkien phenomenon.
Betty Ballantine is 93 and was just declared legally blind. As “Ian Ballantine’s better half,” she could, if she wished, lay claim to co-creation of the American paperback. Widowed since 1995, she lives today in the same large, drafty, hillside house she shared with Ian and their son Richard, which was recently emptied of a complete collection of Ballantine Books — or at least the 1200 titles its founders published under the name.
When the father of the modern paperback, Allen Lane of Penguin, entrusted Ian Ballantine with the responsibility of bringing his brainchild to America in 1939, he also fulfilled conditions allowing the 23-year old Ian to marry Betty, just 20. Six years later, in New York, the stormy relationship with Penguin ended. Borrowing money from a consortium of hardcover publishers, the Ballantines opened a paperback reprint house they called “Bantam Books,” its emblem, a crowing cock. Ian — who reinvented whatever he touched — eventually ran afoul of his board of directors, and though retaining the fierce loyalty of an inner sanctum, found himself fired as president of Bantam in 1952. Seeking sanctuary in Bearsville, he promptly broke his leg skiing. Convalescing within reach of the phone, Ian now put together the John Paul Jones of paperback houses in three weeks, using savings, their city apartment for an office, and a staff of five, most of whom appeared promptly at 5:15 p.m., having completed with their “daytime duties” at Bantam. Once again, Ian was President, with Betty Vice President, and this time out they used the family name. Their logo: two capital B’s back to back, as a couple would stand with little choice but to take on the world. Their very first title went to number one on the best seller list, which was a good thing — the Ballantines had five dollars left in savings.
In 1961 Betty was personally responsible for five of the 25 or so titles Ballantine Books published monthly. She had, by then, single-handedly created “The Western” and — with Fred Pohl’s guidance — pioneered Science Fiction originals. One from each of these categories, plus an original novel, plus two of Ian’s ideas and/or discoveries — often with a first time author — such were her duties. “Besides that,” she states with obvious enjoyment, “I was quite busy explaining Ian Ballantine to a company which was both afraid and in awe of him, on top of which few people but myself really understood what he was saying half the time. So, yes, I was a busy woman.”
Cooking breakfast by touch and memory, in a modest kitchen overstuffed with five sets of china, Betty, once seated, seems to stare out a large kitchen window, guessing at the vague shapes of birds and squirrels.
“Tolkien!” she responds to prodding, brushing crumbs from a vivid turquoise sweater. “Wonderful man! Perfectly dressed…beautifully spoken. We met him for tea at a very distinguished establishment in London, where — he soon informed us — he’d prepared a ruse through which he might call the meeting short if we proved to be…well, you know, afterall, we were Americans! But he warmed to us and soon seemed to appreciate our…I suppose you’d call it, ‘reverence’ for his books. And well he should. For by then we’d made him a very wealthy man!”
Asked how The Hobbit came to be published by Ballantine, Betty raises her head of tight, snowy curls and inhales as if smelling something burning.
“Her name was Mary — or was it Miriam? — our receptionist at the front desk. She stopped me as I came in one morning to say: ‘Betty — I’m just reading this lovely little book.’”
Betty Ballantine recognized the title, for The Hobbit had by then become a fixture in English parlors of the discerning elderly. But for adolescent children? Never! First published by Allen & Unwin in 1939 in a run of 1500, and illustrated with a cover drawing by its author, the novel, together with its sequels, became a cottage industry for that small, careful English publisher. What greeted Betty this Manhattan morning, however, was an American hardback edition published by Houghton-Mifflin.