Our Founder and Visionary
Ellen Knowles Harcourt, 1889-1984
Throughout her long life, as a publisher and as a philanthropist, Ellen Knowles Harcourt pursued excellence for herself and others.
Ellen Knowles Eayres was born before the turn of the 20th century in St. Louis, when that city was alive with both political and cultural liberalism. Her family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which enriched her education further.
At Vassar, she later recalled, "Women's suffrage was not yet 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."
From Henry Holt and Company, Miss Eayres followed two of the company's executives, Alfred Harcourt and Donald C. Brace, when they decided to found their own company in 1919.
"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," she noted.
At the small company, everyone did a little of everything. She became Harcourt, Brace and Company's first editor of 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: among them Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, and Walter Lippmann.
After 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. Upon her husband's retirement, they moved to southern California.
Mr. Harcourt died in 1954 and she stayed on in California for a few years before returning to the Northeast.
In 1959, William Jovanovich, CEO of Harcourt Brace, invited Mrs. Harcourt to become a director once again. It was another crucial period for the company, which had just made a major acquisition, World Book Company, and was preparing to go public.
With her typical generosity and enthusiasm, in 1962 Ellen Knowles Harcourt not only provided funds to establish the Alfred Harcourt Foundation, but also administered it herself. Initially, the Foundation gave grants to students throughout the country. It also made a grant to Columbia University, her husband's alma mater, for awards to writers of memoirs and biography.
As William Jovanovich wrote upon her death in 1984, "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 those she helped."
When Mrs. Harcourt died, the Foundation had a new mission: to put her $7 million bequest to good use. In her 22 years at the helm of the Foundation, Mrs. Harcourt had directed the giving in a variety of causes, but there was no overarching course.
The Foundation's chairman, William Jovanovich, considered various plans, including creating a scholarship program for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich employees. In the end, he decided to devote all the Foundation's resources to providing college scholarships, in a memorable phrase, "to 'B' students from underserved high schools."
Mr. Jovanovich's own experience engendered the new directions. Having grown up poor, but having benefitted from scholarships, he felt the most neglected students were those of average intellectual ability who were unlikely to be courted by the top colleges, victim of the premium placed on helping the best and brightest.