Wolff, Kurt, 1887-1963Variant names
Kurt Wolff had been Franz Werfel's publisher from 1912 to 1923. Helen Wolff (née Mosel) was Kurt's second wife. Helen and Kurt were good friends of Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel. The Wolffs, together with their son, Christian, emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 or 1941.
From the description of Correspondence to Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, ca. 1941-1963. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 155864842
Kurt Wolff, publisher, was born in Germany; he established Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1913 and Pantheon Books in 1942.
From the description of Kurt Wolff archive, 1907-1938. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702131707
In writing about Kurt Wolff shortly after the purchase of his early papers in 1947, Curt von Faber du Faur, curator of the Yale Collection of German Literature, had this to say about his old friend:
"Not every literary generation enjoys the privilege and the benefits of
being fostered by an ideal type of publisher, who in one person
combines great business acumen with broad scholarship and the requisite
love of the fine arts; who carries in his heart a great spiritual
tradition which enhances his judgment and sharpens his skills to detect
the true values in the present and preserve them for the future. In
the Germany of recent years this ideal was personified by Kurt Wolff.
During the second and third decades of the present century he gathered
about himself virtually all the leading spirits of the younger
generation of authors. Most of the outstanding names of this period
passed through the portals of his publishing house to recognition and
fame; or at least felt themselves honored to have gained the renown of
his imprint for one or more of their works. There was scarcely an
author who failed to correspond with this keen-visioned publisher who
so soon gained for himself the reputation of a tried and true sponsor
to his literary friends. It is for this reason that the literary
archives of the firm Kurt Wolff, recently acquired by the Library,
contain in fact the epistolatory heritage of the spiritual center of
the Germany of that period. (YULG 23:1, 1948, 25)
Kurt Wolff was born in 1887 in Bonn, into a musical household where Brahms was a frequent guest. His first activities as a publisher date from around 1909, when he was studying German literature at Leipzig. There he joined Ernst Rowohlt's fledgling publishing firm, which had been founded the year before. Office space was rented from the Offizin W. Drugulin, well-known for its bibliophile productions. A close relation quickly sprang up between the two firms; the Drugulin Drucke series was in fact overseen by Kurt Wolff.
Rowohlt left the firm in 1912; he joined the S. Fischer Verlag and subsequently established his own publishing house after World War I. In 1913 Wolff changed the name of the old Rowohlt Verlag, of which he was now sole proprietor, to the Kurt Wolff Verlag. When Wolff was called up for military service during the war, the operation was capably run by Georg Heinrich Meyer, many of whose letters will be found among the Yale papers. Wolff returned in 1916.
These early years of the Kurt Wolff Verlag were marked by rapid expansion, undoubtedly due to Wolff's ability to seek out and attract interesting authors and Meyer's genius for advertising. There were highly successful series, such as Der jüngste Tag, 86 volumes of which appeared between 1913 and 1921. A close connection was established with the Verlag der weissen Bücher, which published the influential literary periodical Die weissen Blätter . In 1917, both the Verlag der weissen Bücher and the Hyperion Verlag were acquired by Wolff. A survey of the author list in this register will demonstrate the truth of Faber's statement, cited above, that Wolff was able during these years to gather to himself the leading spirits of the day. There were Expressionists (Benn, Heym, Toller, Trakl), Dadaists (Ball, Hülsenbeck, Tzara), and, presaging Kurt Wolff's interest in art publishing, a number of artists (Gauguin, Grosz, Klee, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Kubin, Masereel). Correspondence with numerous prominent literary figures is to be found in Kurt Wolff's files: Gerhart Hauptmann, Hesse, Kafka, Karl Kraus, Else Lasker-Schüler, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Rilke, Werfel, and Wedekind, to name just a few. Nor is the list strictly German, for the collection contains letters by such writers as Gorky, James Joyce, Rabindranath Tagore, and H. G. Wells.
After the war, Kurt Wolff turned more and more toward publishing collected editions rather than new works, toward art publishing, and to the pursuit of his bibliophile interests. In 1920 a close connection with the Ernst Ludwig Presse in Darmstadt was established, and in 1924 Kurt Wolff founded the Pantheon Casa Editrice in Florence, with Hans Mardersteig of the Officina Bodoni as guiding light to the new enterprise.
In 1930, in the wake of personal stress (overwork and divorce) and business difficulties, Kurt Wolff withdrew from publishing. Between 1933 and 1935 he lived in Nice, where a son, Christian, was born to him and his second wife, Helen Mosel. In 1935 the family acquired a farm outside Florence, where they began an experiment in self-sufficiency. In 1939 they moved to Paris. Although the ensuing political events split the family temporarily (Kurt Wolff was incarcerated briefly, the child was sent to the safety of a convent school at La Rochelle), they managed to reunite themselves, escape across the Spanish border, and immigrate to the United States in 1940.
One of Kurt Wolff's principal advisors and supporters in the United States was the curator of Yale's German Literature Collection, Curt von Faber du Faur. Faber offered Kurt Wolff $7,500 as a kind of matching grant: Wolff was to raise an equal amount in order to establish himself anew in business. This he did: Pantheon Books was founded in 1942, at first on the proverbial shoestring but soon attaining a large measure of success. Kurt Wolff had the good fortune to meet Paul Mellon, for whom he published the well-known Bollingen Series. Best-sellers followed: Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea and the American edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1958), for instance. Books like Broch's The Death of Virgil (1945), while undoubtedly not financial successes, showed Wolff's continuing dedication to what he deemed to be worthwhile and timely literature.
In 1959 Helen and Kurt Wolff moved to Locarno. By 1961, however, it proved too difficult to manage the firm from abroad, and they resigned from Pantheon Books, which was acquired by Random House. William Jovanovitch subsequently proposed to the Wolffs that they should oversee a special imprint within Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch. The proposal was accepted, but not long after the launching of Helen and Kurt Wolff Books, Kurt Wolff was tragically run down and killed by a truck during a visit to Germany in 1963. Helen Wolff continued with Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovitch until her retirement, overseeing Helen and Kurt Wolff Books until her death in 1994.
From the guide to the Kurt Wolff archive, 1907-1938, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
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