You are hereNewspapers 1970-1979 / Thomas Congdon
On a well-kept street in the west 80's there is an imposing,. four-story red-brick Brownstone built in 1877. Its owner, Thomas Congdon, is equally imposing, but in a different way. Not only is he a very successful editor-publisher at E.P. Dutton-the man' responsible for "discovering" aws-author Peter Benchley but he is also the owner of his own bee hive.
"Everyone enjoys having one little pleasure, one eccentricity all his own," Congdon remarks matter-of-factly, "and the bees are mine." He has tended a thousand bees in New York for a number of years, and before that raised them in Connecticut. where he still has thousands more.
In addition, he has his own publishing imprint-appropriately trademarked with a beehive -– under which he selects, develops and publishes "books that 1 am in love with -that 1 really feel 1 was born to be the publisher of."
He is a medium-sized man. with gray sideburns and sandy brown hair. He speaks softly -almost suavely-and seems slightly embarrassed to be talking about himself. "Editors don't like attention," he explains. "The author is the one who should get the at-
Nonetheless, Thomas Congdon deserves notice. The imprint arrangement-which is bestowed on very few editors-came about partly because of his Jaws success, but also because of the energy and independence which have been a part of his-whole life.
As a youth he was fascinated with Japan, which he first encounte~ed after leaving the Navy. "I loved Japan and was dying to go back there," he remarks. He won a scholarship at a Tokyo University, but then had second thoughts, feeling that a life of leisurely study in the Orient might be a waste.
''I'm not a scholar," he says, "and going to Japan would have been an idle:' His alternative was the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His interest in Japan continued, however. A flowered, oriental rug decorates his living room floor, Japanese prints hang on one wall. and delicate China lamps perch on the tables.
Graduate school gave way to writing, and then to an editor's position at the Saturday Evening Post which Congdon held for 12 years before moving on to Harper & Row, Doubleday, and finally Dutton. In the process, he dealt with such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Robert Kennedy ("he would have made a great President"), Richard Nixon ("a quivering mass of insecurities"), and a man named Peter Benchley.
"I was an editor at Douhleday,' publishing rather specialized kinds of books," he remembers. "public affairs, political science-that sort of thing-when I met this guy who had an idea for a novel." That "guy" was Benchley, and Congdon took the then unusual step of putting up $1,000 for the young author to write a IOO-page sample. "Benchley had to have money because he was broke," explains Congdon. "He was doing magazine pieces one after the other and couldn't afford to stop doing that to write a book."
Since Benchley had never written fiction before, Congdon was taking a risk,something which he downplays. "I spotted a good idea," he asserts, "and gave Benchley the capital to develop it." The success of Jaws gave its editor a lot of. visibility and was partially responsible for Congdon Books, a situation, which allowed Congdon to publish 12-14 volumes a year, "not the 20, 30 or 50 that most editors do. 'I'm very interested in story-telling," he says, "whether in fiction or nonfiction. "
As an example, Congdon cites Midnight Express, a non-fiction adventure, soon to be a movie, that he published last year. The story deals with an American youth sentenced to life imprisonment in a "horrible" Turkish prison who made a "fabulous escape" after five years captivity. "I like non-fiction that has a strong storyline," he says.
Congdon will also soon be publishing a biography of editor Max Perkins ("a great literary biography and a great middlebrow read") and a book about the possible beneficial effect of bee stings on arthritic joints called Bees Don't Get Anhritis. When the subject of bees comes up, the editor-publisher becomes more animated. "I've always been fascinated by bees," he remarks. explaining that he had been interested in bees ever since childhood when his mother refused to let him have a hive. "So as soon as J grew up and had a place of my own," he continues, "I got bees."
Living with the bees has taught Congdon a lot. "They're yery practical," he says. "In the winter, they cling together in a ball and do exercises like crazy:' That generates heat at the center where the Queen is, he explains, and allows her to live a "sort of Floridian 92 degrees all winter." And when the bees on
the outside of the ball find their temperature dropping, they . exchange places with ones at the center, going in to warm up. "They've got it all worked out," he adds.
DON'T GET STUNG
The bee-hive is located at the top of an ornate, Henry Jamesian staircase in a little room which also houses the television set. It is an "observation" hive-smaller than normal ones, flat and resembling a medicine chest.
"It's meant to produce interest, not honey," asserts Congdon. There are a number of different levels that can be viewed through the glass front, and on each level, brownish catacombs reminiscent of chicken mesh, can be seen.
According to their owner, the bees are usually very mild-mannered, and "only get testy if you do something wrong, like move fast or knock 'em around."
Congdon's family-a wife and two daughters-have accepted and seem to enjoy the bees as "part of my weirdness. The girls take their friends up and show the bees when the friend makes a first visit to our house."
He smiles and points to the rear. "We also have a big frog,' he says. "and goldfish." Behind the house, there is a little jungle: a pond for the fish, a garden for the frog, and seats for tile family to watch them. One gets the feeling that Tom Congdon enjoys observing and learning from life. "The bees have an interesting system of communication," he continues. "If the little scout bees 'have found a flower within a hundred yards, they'll dance a circle. But if Ws further than a hundred yards, they'll dance a figure eight. And a fast figure eight means it might be 120 or 150 yards away, where as a slow figure eight might be two or three miles.
How the bees relate direction is more complicated, but to Congdon, all the more fascinating. "When they do a circle. they'll suddenly do a diameter and then resume the circle. and then do a diameter again. "What"s happening. is that when you go to the front of the hive, find the sun and fly 30 degrees to the right of it:
"So when I see my bees dancing a circle 45 degrees to the left of the top of the hive, I look where the sun is, and if it's 10:00 A.M., 45 degrees to the left means Central Park. He points to a plastic tube extending. from the hive through the wall, explaining that that is how they exit and enter. "Their homing abilities. are incredibly accurate," he says. "I f you' were to move the hive as little as three feet, they would return to the hive's old location .and circle that spot until they died." Congdon seems as unimpressed with this as he is unimpressed with himself. Although he is able to accurately evaluate his own abilities ("energy, promotiye flare. a good crealn'e sense"), he is more enthusiastic about others and about new ideas. He talks excited;ly about the Max Perkins biography, and when the idea of his bees flying to New Jersey is brought up, he remarks, in half-excited abstraction, "I guess they could-God, I wonder if they do do that? I'll have to see ... "
He doesn't gesture much and, for air he's done, seems modest, relaxed and almost self-deragatory. Having the bees, "is fun. It sort of freaks people out. "When I talk about them," muses Congdon, "and there are editors around, they invariably ask me if I'd like to write a bee book. But I probably won't ever write any books, I'm an editor." He pauses. ''I'm not willing to lead that lonely, hard life that a writer does in which you gamble two, three years on one book. "I love to be among people all the time and have lots going on and lots to do, whereas the author just has to keep focusing on that book:' He pauses. "I'm not willing to lead that lonely, hard life that a writer does in which you gamble two, three years on one book.
"I love to be among people all the time and have lots going on and lots to do, whereas the author just has to keep focusing on that book." He smiles in his casual, understated way. "It's a matter of temperament, I guess, or choice."
THE WESTSIDER, June 8, 1978