Remembering Susan Tifft

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Have you ever had someone make a major impact on your life without fully realizing it? Mangesh and I were saddened to hear about the death of one such person, Ms. Susan Tifft. Susan died yesterday after a 2.5 year battle with cancer.

Much of the publishing world will remember Susan as the coauthor of two critically acclaimed nonfiction works, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. Others will remember her as an incredibly gifted writer and editor for Time Magazine, as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, or as a passionate and always-approachable professor at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke.

But Mangesh and I will remember her as the professor who was crazy enough to believe that what we were doing 10 years ago was worth supporting.

In the spring of 2000, shortly after Mangesh and I finished celebrating the release of the very first issue of mental_floss as a campus publication at Duke, we decided we were ready to take on the publishing world. How a couple of kids with no publishing experience were going to break into such a challenging industry was not something we knew the answer to. But we were fortunate to be introduced to a few successful alums in the magazine industry to help us figure that out. One of them was Susan, who was then teaching a couple days each week at Duke and spending the rest of her time in New York.

I can remember so vividly the first meeting with Susan, where I pitched the magazine's concept to her. Looking back, I have no idea why she decided we were worth betting on, but she did. As the first official member of our advisory board, Susan helped us reach out to some of her closest friends in publishing, and just a few years later, we could trace some of our most significant breaks back to her. From adding other key advisory board members to establishing partnerships with companies such as AOL and Reader's Digest, Susan was frequently the initial door opener. But she never wanted credit for playing that role.

I have no idea what to think about the afterlife, but it's at least fun to think that maybe Susan's pulled out a notepad and has started work on her third behind-the-scenes book on a publishing company. Hopefully she's documented all the times Mangesh went back for multiple samples at the Manchu Wok in the mall foodcourt, or my ongoing battle with Diet Sunkist addiction. Scandalous!

To Susan's friends and family, our thoughts go out to you.

See Also: Susan Tifft, co-author of classic newspaper book, dead at 59 [Boston Globe]

April 2, 2010 - 4:20am
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