Jon Beckmann died peacefully at home in Sonoma, on Jan. 9, 2013, after a long illness. Born on Oct. 24, 1936, in New York City, Jon’s journey through life was creative and productive.
He attended Colby College in Maine for two years and received a BA degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1958, and an MA from New York University in 1961. His love of literature led him to a career in publishing that began in 1964 as an editor with Prentice-Hall in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. He married Barbara Efting in 1965 and moved with her to rural Massachusetts, where he became an editor, then vice president, at Barre Publishers in 1970.
In 1973, Jon was hired by the Sierra Club to direct its book-and-calendar publishing program, which had entered the popular book world in the 1960s with the Exhibit Format Series of photographic books created by David Brower. Jon would lead Sierra Club Books for the next two decades, presiding over its growth from a small, special-interest imprint to a publisher of national repute. His vision extended beyond what most people considered “environmental books” to encompass fiction and poetry, personal narratives about nature and mountaineering, titles on gardening and healthy lifestyles, and, of course, books that celebrated the natural world through images. Notable works acquired by Jon during his tenure at the Sierra Club include Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” Galen Rowell’s “Mountain Light,” Robert Bly’s “News of the Universe,” Rosalind Creasy’s “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping,” and Timothy Ferris’s “Galaxies.”
With Scribner’s as partner, Jon also built Sierra Club Calendars into a leading national brand and, in the late 1970s, began publishing children’s books, including “The View from the Oak,” by Judith and Herbert Kohl, which won the National Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1978.
According to Danny Moses, who served as editor-in-chief under Jon from 1979 to 1991, “To an editor, Jon seemed an ideal publisher because he matched his business acumen with an unwavering commitment, in threatening times, to books and their authors as a potential source of art, wisdom, and compassionate understanding of our world.” Other staff members also remember Jon with affection and respect, noting his intellectual and moral leadership, his active and generous encouragement of their professional growth, and above all his large and humorous spirit.
To fulfill his vision for Sierra Club Books, Jon recruited staff from a network of people with East Coast publishing experience who had settled in the Bay Area – editors as well as experts in marketing, publicity, production and financial management. He nurtured relationships with distributors, book packagers and literary agents; exhibited Sierra Club’s list at trade shows; and made sure his staff had opportunities to connect with the wider publishing world. This included bringing the wider publishing world to San Francisco several times each year for gatherings of an advisory board, the Sierra Club Publications Committee, that Jon built with volunteer leaders and publishing notables from around the country – including, at various times, Jim Clark, then of University of California Press; Paul Gottlieb and Michael Loeb, then of Abrams; Anthony Schulte, then of Random House; William Shinker, then of HarperCollins; independent publishers Esther Margolis and David R. Godine; and bookseller Michael Powell of Powell’s Books in Portland.
On leaving the Sierra Club in 1994, Jon founded Millennium Press in Sonoma, which provided writing, agenting and editorial services to the publishing industry. He also pursued his own writing projects, including a book that drew on his considerable gifts as a chef and host: “After-Dinner Drinks: Choosing, Serving and Enjoying,” which was published by Chronicle Books in 1999, and subsequently in a French language version.
Jon delighted in travel and good meals with friends and his wife, Barbara Beckmann, an internationally acclaimed textile designer. In recent years, he had been a fixture at weekly lunches often at the Swiss or Hopmonk, usually accompanied by his dog, Rackie.
He was predeceased by his brother, Ricky; and his parents, John L. and Grace Hazelton Beckmann; and is survived by his wife of 47 years; a sister, Claire Beckmann, in Ardmore, Pa.; and many good friends.
Jon was a gourmet cook, an appreciator of both subtlety and boldness in things literary as well as gastronomic, a great storyteller and writer, and helpful and supportive to the many talented people whom he encouraged and mentored.
He will be greatly missed by his family and friends and by the many who appreciated the intelligence and nuance he brought to any conversation or critical endeavor.
Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice By The Bay, Sonoma.