About Ellen Knowles Harcourt
ELLEN KNOWLES HARCOURT
1889 - 1984
Founder of the Alfred Harcourt Foundation
ELLEN KNOWLES HARCOURT pursued excellence throughout her life; she not only achieved it herself, but also helped others to attain it. Her career as a publisher and as a philanthropist had roots in the character of the woman herself.
She was born in St. Louis before the turn of the twentieth century, when that city was alive with both political and cultural liberalism owing mainly to the German immigration following the 1848 Revolution. When quite young her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her mother hoped Ellen's educational opportunities would expand - as indeed they did. She attended Vassar College.
Of Vassar, Mrs. Harcourt has written that women's suffrage was not then an issue. "Women, if they had to work, were supposed to become teachers. Typing and stenography were frowned upon. When I took a job with Henry Holt, it was considered quite daring."
At Henry Holt and Company, Ellen Knowles Eayres became the secretary of a bright and daring man, Alfred Harcourt. When Mr. Harcourt and another Holt employee, Donald C. Brace, decided to start publishing books on their own, Miss Eayres accompanied them to their new offices - the basement of a brownstone at One West 47th Street in July of 1919, when according to Mrs. Harcourt, "It was a time of great literary ferment, one auspicious for publishers, with tremendous artistic and creative thought everywhere; people were clamoring for new ideas."
The tiny company was too busy - and too risky - to assign titles. Miss Eayres became an executive by day and a secretary by night while other executives were wrapping books to go to reviewers. She became Harcourt, Brace and Company's first editor for children's books and manager of library sales promotion, in which position she arranged publicity for some of the firm's early authors who became world famous: Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, Walter Lippmann, and others.
Miss Eayres became a Director of Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1921, and she risked her savings - and a loan from a dear college classmate - to buy stock in the young company. When Alfred Harcourt's first wife died, they were married and she continued to work in the company, remaining an employee until about 1930 and a director until 1939. On Mr. Harcourt's retirement they lived in California at Santa Barbara.
Mrs. Harcourt's roots in the creative life of America were too deep for her to prune back the growth in herself. She never retired. When she was over the age of 40, she began the study of music and continued as a student for more than 25 years. She read more widely than before and became an excited talker on issues of education and art and music.
When Mr. Harcourt died in 1954, she stayed on in California for a few years before returning to Connecticut, finally selecting New Milford as her home - it being a town she and Alfred often passed through on their way to visit Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher in Vermont. In 1959, William Jovanovich invited her to become a director of Harcourt, Brace and Company during a crucial period: the company had made its first large acquisition of another company (World Book Company); and it was preparing to "go public," whereby shares would be sold on the New York Stock Exchange and the corporation would in effect cease to be a "family" enterprise.
With brilliant perception and typical generosity, Ellen Knowles Harcourt gave money to form The Alfred Harcourt Foundation in 1962 and to administer it herself. The Foundation gives grants to students throughout the country. The Foundation has also made a grant to Columbia University (the alma mater of her husband) to establish two awards to writers of memoirs and biography.
That Ellen Knowles Harcourt began as a serious and eager young person is not remarkable perhaps, but that she never lost the vigor and openness attributed to youthfulness and in her last quarter century that she constantly encouraged youths to read, to listen, and to act with conviction -that is truly remarkable. She enjoyed life because she put so much into it. Her dividends were far more than monetary, of course: they were the affection and respect of those she knew and of those she helped, far too many to count.
Director of the Foundation
1962 - 1988
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