This article by Rachel Felder appeared in The New Yorker.
At six-thirty on a recent muggy morning, Luke Ives Pontifell, dressed in pleated trousers belted a few inches too high, suspenders, and a slouchy tweed blazer with a handkerchief peeking out of its breast pocket, left his Upper East Side apartment to begin his long daily commute. In Harlem, he boarded a train bound for Newburgh, New York, home to the cavernous headquarters of Thornwillow Press, the publishing and printing business that he founded almost thirty years ago. The project that morning was to start the print run, on a vintage German Heidelberg cylinder press, of “1963,” a book by the singer Harry Belafonte about the March on Washington. The book was recently published, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the march.
Belafante’s book expands on several sections of his 2011 autobiography, “My Song,” that discuss his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a close friend who frequently stayed at the singer’s Manhattan apartment. His scraps of memory—Dr. King’s fondness for Harvey’s Bristol Cream, calls to Lena Horne and Tony Curtis, the buzz backstage, and then onstage, during the March—make the volume feel more like a collection of 8-mm. home movies than like a historical reminiscence. For his part, Belafonte, who is eighty-six, is happy to get people thinking about the march again. “I just felt in what I have left in life, any chance I get to put forth an idea or a thought that might provoke interest is something that I should do,” he said in a phone interview recently, his voice sinewy but emphatic.
Thornwillow might seem like a surprising choice of publisher. The press has an outpost in the lobby of the St. Regis New York, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where clients are offered a gin and tonic or porcelain cup of Lapsang souchong as they decide on archival fonts for engraved stationery. (Thornwillow has created personalized papers for people from Hilary Clinton to John Updike to Elton John.) But the press has long been in the business of making books, too: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and John Adams have all been subjects of Thornwillow publications. Thornwillow also sells an edition of President Obama’s first Inaugural Address, which the press distributed at the event, the day after Martin Luther King Day in 2009.
Typeface, printing, and books have been a fascination for Pontifell since he was a child, stuck indoors while recovering from recurrent operations for infantile glaucoma, which some of his doctors thought would eventually leave him blind. The treatments left him with no depth perception, so he had to hold books right up to his eyes to read them (he still does). This got him thinking about the shapes of letters on a page. “It was about looking at forms, not about the words or what the words meant,” he explained recently at the St. Regis, over a cup of Lapsang souchong. “It was about looking at the shapes, and the spaces between the letters, and the shapes of the letters; how thick the letters were. That close attention to detail was something that was just natural to me because of the way I saw.”
He made his way through many of the thousands of books in the library in his parents’ western-Massachusetts home (which the family had named Thornwillow), growing especially attached to a volume from 1560 the way another boy might hoard a favorite comic book. Years later, his Harvard University dorm room became a makeshift publishing house; immediately after his graduation ceremony, he was huddling with the commencement speaker, the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who’d agreed to let Pontifell publish his speech.
Pontifell, who is now forty-five, looks out of place in rough-and-tumble Newburgh in his tweedy outfit. Ironically, the depressed state of the town has yielded great real estate: majestic turn-of-the-century buildings that use to house clothing and fabric factories were left empty when manufacturing moved elsewhere. “One of the things that attracted us to Newburgh was the architecture and the history of the buildings,” Pontifell explained. “In other places, these buildings would have been plowed under and something new would have been built over them, but because they didn’t have the financial wherewithal to destroy their past, so much of it survived.” Thornwillow employs a locally based staff of thirty-five, most of whom who work traditional machines that look like they belong in an antique-locomotive museum.
Last year, Thornwillow created a series of booklets it calls librettos: short books letterpressed in a font called monument. One tracks the history of the Bloody Mary, another tells the story of the Titanic disaster from the perspective of a survivor’s son. The journalist Michael Shnayerson oversees the project. As it turned out, he was working with Belafonte on “My Song.”
“It was through Michael that I learned all these inspiring things about Belafonte,” Pontifell recalled. “When he was working on the book we’d meet for a drink and he’d tell me yet another story, and it was always, ‘Oh my god.’ ”
Earlier this year, with the anniversary of the March on Washington approaching, those stories gave Pontifell the idea of asking Belafonte to reëxamine that period.
Well into his eighties, Belafonte is still active in various causes. He was recently one of the grand marshals at New York’ City’s annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride March, and he is a working with Martin Scorsese on a project drawn from Adam Hochschild’s award-winning book “King Leopold’s Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.” He’s grateful his ideas still have an audience. “At this time in my life, when my artistic career has long since folded its tent and slipped away into the delights of oblivion, that I should still be here, having an opportunity to write and reflect on things that people still express an interest in knowing about, is a far greater reward than being able to sit on a beach watching the beautiful ladies go by,” Belafonte said, his voice growing hoarser as he spoke.
For the original report go to http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/harry-belafontes-memories.html