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Alumni Profile: Jill Kneerim ’56

Boston literary agent Jill Kneerim continues launching the careers of heavy-hitting journalists, novelists, poets, scholars and short story writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize and other major awards, but she remains an active alum in the BFS community.

“BFS and all other schools in the ’50s were pretty dull places by comparison to what’s happening these days. I often think wouldn’t it be fun to go to school now?” Class of ’56 alum Jill Kneerim knows what she’s talking about, having attended eight different schools before landing here in sixth grade. “Not only was nobody talking about anything real in those days, it was unheard of to deviate from the standard curriculum. You learned Hamlet, you learned punctuation, European history. Everybody did the same thing. Within those strictures, Friends was a wonderful dish.”The 1950s were indeed a different era; a time when Jill’s father didn’t think twice about placing his 13-year-old daughter aboard an ocean liner to travel by herself to Europe to attend a boarding school for a year in a land where she didn’t speak the language. “I went to Friends from sixth grade all the way through graduation except for taking off the ninth grade, when I sailed alone to Europe on the SS Liberte, a French line ship, and spent a year in a Swiss boarding school called Prealpina, near Vevey,” she recalled. She wrote long letters to her father, a WW II Navy veteran, detailing her friendships, challenges and adventures at the school. Her mother had died when she was eight and she had no siblings, so her father was her lifeline to home.

When she returned to New York and BFS a year later she got her first taste of the publishing business. “We negotiated the sale of rights in those letters to a writer with the pen name Betty Cavanna, who wrote very popular romances for young teenage girls,” she said. Cavanna wrote a novel inspired by Jill’s adventures. Three years later the royalties helped pay for Jill’s first year at Radcliffe. “Clearly, I was born to be an agent, but didn’t become one ’til I was 51.”

Jill was born in New York City and lived up and down the East Coast before she got to Brooklyn. “My mother, by the way, was a professional,” she said with pride. “She started and ran a film library at NYU. Extremely unusual for a woman of her generation, born in 1902.” After her mother’s death, she and her father settled down in a historic carriage house on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. “Brooklyn Heights was my first really stable home,” she said.

Stable but admittedly quirky, her early life reads like a 1930s screwball comedy. “Not anyone’s typical childhood,” Jill said. “I lived an oddball bachelor life with my marvelous, funny, sophisticated father. At age 12 I could mix a perfect martini. Not for myself!” She and her father were close, and he made sure she absorbed all the culture New York City had to offer. They frequented museums, spent evenings at the theatre, read poetry together, walked the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights and played chess there on Sundays.

She started BFS with some apprehension. “I hadn’t moved schools in three years and now I was coming to a new and strange environment with no mother to shield me. Not only was I traumatized by her loss two years earlier, I was also horribly embarrassed to be motherless. This seems grotesque now, doesn’t it? The girl next to me, Judy Koota, who later became a close friend, was kind and friendly, so things got off to a good start.”

Before long Jill was fully immersed in all the school had to offer. “Part of the reason the school was great for me is that it was so small,” she said. “I got to do a lot of different things. I got to co-edit the literary magazine and the yearbook, both with my good friend Judy Leopold (now Kantrowitz). We tried to deviate from the routine yearbook. It was fun. We felt like flaming radicals.”

She holds many other laser-sharp memories of her years here. “What I loved Friends for was its dignity. Benjamin Burdsall was the head of the Upper School. He was hardly a ball of fire,” she quipped. “He was a deliberate kind of person, a fussy guy in lots of ways, but he was such a good man. His values were kind-hearted. True blue all the way, very supportive of the students.”

Similar to today, the students began every morning with a homeroom period, now called morning advisory. Back then, they also had a morning reading presented by a student. “Whoever was appointed for the day or the week would stand up and read something very short; a little text, often a psalm,” she said. “It didn’t have to be religious but it was thoughtful. Then we’d have silence in the Quaker tradition. What a wonderful way to start the day. If we could all do that today still we’d be better off.”

She elaborated further on the continued importance of silence in her life. “I guess none of us should ever underestimate the importance of silence. Life is such a bedlam. What silence does is give us a chance to rest, to feel present. You know, the Buddhists have interesting things to say on this. Quiet down that noise in your brain and just be. Be there. For 17-year-old-kids it’s a very ripe age, I think, at which to realize you don’t have to be racing every minute.”

After BFS, she attended the school she had spent her girlhood dreaming about: Radcliffe College at Harvard. “I was in the big time. I just felt very lucky with that.” She was not alone in her graduating class. “We all went on to good schools. We went to Brown and Vassar and Harvard and Yale. For a class of 26 kids it was surprising.”

After college she had no real career goal in mind. “I went back to New York and lucked into publishing.” She makes it seem like happenstance, and in some ways it was so. “I didn’t plan. People didn’t plan very far ahead in those days. People weren’t thinking of their mortgages when they were 15. We were allowed time to daydream.”

So at a leisurely pace she got a job working as a copy editor and proofreader when a friend from Radcliffe called out of the blue and told her about a job at Simon & Schuster. “I said, ‘I have a job, why are you calling me?'” With some cajoling she went in for the interview. “Of course I had to take the job. Simon & Schuster was a glamorous place,” she recounted. “They were just publishing a book that my college roommate’s father had written, and it turned into a #1 best-seller — The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. So that was fun, the big-deal author coming into the publishing office, and the kid who was nobody was the one he came to see.”  She still chuckles about it today. “My boss said, ‘Hi, Bill; have you come to see me?’ And the company’s number one best seller said, ‘No — I came to say hello to Jill.”‘

Although she didn’t become a literary agent until much later in life, she had embarked on a career in book editing that was for her as dazzling and enchanting as working in Hollywood. “What could possibly be more exciting than easing the way of people who write books?” she said. “All my life I had been star-struck about writers…I just wound up so happy to be in the profession. It was a good match for me.”

Late in the tumultuous ’60s, however, Jill reached a breaking point and decided the time had come for meaningful change, both in her own life and in the world at large. “I left publishing when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both killed,” she said. “I was an editor in the book division at American Heritage and suddenly I couldn’t stand it. It seemed like the barricades were burning and society was falling apart. We were in the middle of this ghastly, stupid war. Social standards were falling by the wayside and I thought, what the hell am I doing editing coffee table history books? I went to work for causes for a long time.”

In 1990 she returned to books and started a literary agency with a friend. Today her company, Kneerim, Williams & Bloom, has offices in Boston and New York. Last year its authors won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Malamud Award and the George Washington Prize. “Being a book agent is the most exciting career in the world,” Jill said. She’s proud to represent prizewinners, best sellers, and just fine writers delving into interesting things. “My writers are all heroes to me,” she reflected.

One of her favorite career highlights concerns her representation of short story writer Edith Pearlman, whom she considers a good friend. “She writes these gemlike stories,” said Jill. “She’s in her 70s and she had published all of her stories over 50 years in small literary quarterlies. A circle of very select readers loved her work, but all of a sudden she got her big break” when a small press published a collection of her short stories, Binocular Vision, and it was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. “All of a sudden her name was on everybody’s lips. She was a finalist for most of the country’s biggest literary prizes — the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Story Award. She won the PEN Malamud and the National Book Critics Circle Award.”

“I represent so many famous, famous people and that’s thrilling, of course, but to represent someone like Edith who was not super-famous, who is really, really good, and to watch her becomefamous, was possibly the biggest thrill I ever had.” Her passion for her career is palpable. “It’s a position of enormous privilege. You’re in a position to be important, to be useful, to someone with a lot of talent, sometimes genius.”

Another client she cites, a writer of nonfiction, is Stephen Greenblatt, a Pulitzer-winning Renaissance scholar who teaches at Harvard. “He could write about his shoelaces and make you want to read it,” she bragged. “I had the time of my life working for such a genius.” In turn, Greenblatt was interested in the sources of Shakespeare’s genius. “That’s what his first book for the general reader was about, really. Not about Shakespeare’s life — almost nothing is known about that. I had a blast watching Greenblatt shape his book proposal — and then, what fun we had selling the book, Will in the World. Every publisher in America was vying for that one!”

When Jill’s not storming the gates with her clients’ highly regarded works, she takes time off to read fiction for pleasure. And, “I love to hang out with friends, with my husband Bill, with the kids in the world I care about.”

In 2005 she traveled to China and made a special trip by herself to Yantai, where her mother grew up in a boarding school run by the China Inland Mission. Jill and Bill, an electronic artist, also enjoy their little house in the country, which she literally built herself by hand in the 1960s. “It was tiny! Hardly more than a shack. Lots of life went on there, though. Friends, children, grandchildren, all in one room with no electricity. We finally tore it down and now it’s been rebuilt by a normal builder,” she joked. “I like building things. I’m probably building a table this fall.”

She enjoys building books, too. “Just taking someone’s life story and making it into a single-copy book,” she explained. “I spent two years writing a book for my father for his 90thbirthday. It was a homemade effort published in spiral-bound Xerox form, maybe 50 copies, a hundred pages long,” she said. “The story of his life, brimming with anecdotes. You’d take one look at it and say, well that was a labor of love, and that’s exactly what it was. I’ve done quite a number of things like that. I would be happy if you locked me in a room with paper and scissors and glue and some good stories to tell. Every person has a good story.”

Today she remains an avid supporter of BFS. “The bonds,” she added,” feel still there. I had lunch this summer with classmate Jay Romm, whom I hadn’t seen in 56 years. I adored visiting with him. I felt like nothing had changed!”