NAT HENTOFF: I’ve lost a hero. So has anyone who dares to write.

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The paperback edition that almost wasn't.
The paperback edition that almost wasn’t.

In 1972, when I was 25 years old, I wrote a book published by Simon and Schuster entitled “Teachers and Power: The Story of the American Federation of Teachers.” It was critical of the AFT, primarily because of the union’s efforts to destroy community control of public education in New York City.

I was sued for libel by the AFT and a number of its leaders, most prominently David Selden, then the union president.  Simon and Schuster ducked for cover and canceled the publication of the paperback edition. Selig J. Levitan, a white shoe law firm with an office atop Rockefeller Center, called me in and its associates reminded me that, under the terms of the contract I had signed with Simon and Schuster, I would have to indemnify the publisher for all of its legal fees defending the law suit. Of course, I’d have to pay for my own defense–but also that of Simon and Schuster as well. That indemnification clause, I was told,  was standard in so-called “first authors’ contracts”–contracts between a major publishing house and a first-time author.

So I would have to pay. Even if we won the case.

And then the lawyer handed me a letter and asked me to sign it. Selig J. Levitan would defend me–at its going Rockefeller Center rate–until such time as Simon and Schuster or its law firm decided a conflict existed between me and the publisher. At that point, the law firm would dump me and defend only Simon and Schuster. And I would still have to pay for it.

That was especially galling because one of the most serious counts against me in the lawsuit had nothing to do with what I wrote but  rather with a mistake on the dust cover made by the publisher after the book left my hands for the last time before publication.

I had an infant daughter and a new house with a sizable mortgage–and the AFT, in its lawsuit against me, wanted $17 million in damages. But, even if I won the lawsuit–and I knew what I wrote was true, an absolute defense against libel–Selig J. Levitan could charge me for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees that should have been paid by Simon and Schuster.

The law firm also wanted me to agree to withdrawing unsold hard cover copies of the book–which had received great reviews, especially in The New York Times (page three, Sunday Book section)–and to cancel the paperback edition.

I remember my wife Lynda, brave through it all, reminding me I didn’t have much that could be attached by liens–a mortgaged up house, a loping, drooling St. Bernard named Bernie and a 1968 Yukon yellow Volkswagen convertible.

“They can’t take away Jenifer,” she said of our then two-month old daughter, our most precious belonging.

Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff

Someone–I no longer can remember who–mailed me a clip of a column in The Village Voice written by civil libertarian, jazz critic and educational reformer Nat Hentoff. In the column, Hentoff praised my book. In the same piece–he wrote long, rambling essays–he sharply criticized the federal government and a publishing house for censoring a book by a former CIA agent.

I called to thank him and told him the AFT and Simon and Schuster–like the CIA–was trying to suppress a book. My book. Hentoff and I met. He interviewed me at length and wrote a half-dozen columns about the efforts by the union and the publisher to limit my book’s circulation. At one point, he wrote that I was a modern-day John Peter Zenger, a  bit of praise I only wish I  lived up to. I loved Hentoff’s columns–they gave me courage–but Hentoff did more than that. He was a board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union and arranged to have me defended by a team of the sharpest First Amendment lawyers in the country. He told me not to sign Selig Levitan’s letter.

The following February–I got the call on Valentine’s Day, 1973–federal court judge June Green threw out the lawsuit. My team of lawyers, led by Kenneth Norwood, had won and they didn’t charge me a dime. Not only was the lawsuit thrown out, but Simon and Schuster agreed to publish the paperback edition (they never did advertise it much, however) and the publisher never tried to get me to pay their legal fees.

I’ll skip over the details of the case–but I have to mention one set piece. I was in Norwood’s office in Manhattan when he received a call from the AFT’s lawyer, a man named Joseph Rauh, nationally known because of his leadership of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). The ADA meant liberal politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

Joseph Rauh
Joseph Rauh

I listened in on an extension as Rauh proposed a compromise allowing the AFT to write a rebuttal to my book that would appear as an epilogue to the paperback. Norwood would–as I knew he would–reject the idea out of hand, but before he could speak up, Rauh declared:

“After all, we are all liberals here.”

A liberal who wanted to suppress a book on behalf of a union that was a signatory to the American Library Association’s statement on freedom to publish? From that moment on, I have not identified myself as a liberal. I’m not a conservative–that’s for sure–but, thanks, I’ll call myself a radical and hope to live up to that. I also became a lawyer because of the good work I saw my lawyer Ken Norwood and others do on my behalf.

For all the anxiety the lawsuit caused me for a year, the outcome was a clear victory. The AFT was unable to suppress my book. Simon and Schuster–finally–had to act with some bravery and integrity.  The standard indemnification clause was replaced with one that required authors to be at fault before they would have to pay the publishers’ legal fees.

And I found a true hero in a man named Nat Hentoff. He appeared in my life when I needed him most and changed it for the better. He gave me courage and lifted my spirits. He rescued me from a financial disaster. Although we had met many times and spoke on the phone even more, I can’t dare call him a friend. He probably forgot me and my cause long ago, but I will never forget him.

3 comments

  1. booklady

    I hope our modern-day John Peter Zenger will be writing about what DJT is doing to the forgotten people he spoke of Jan 20. I.e., eliminating the .25 reduction on FHA mortgage insurance his first day in office. Thank you, Bob; we need you more than ever.

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