[In the 1950s, Harry Lerner was serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. Here’s the story—somewhat abbreviated—of how he got into publishing. It’s part of the memoir he wrote to celebrate LPG’s 50th anniversary. At left is the cover, which shows HJL sitting in the Renault mentioned below.]
GIs were importing American cars at U.S. government expense or purchasing their own European cars. I bought a 1950 French Renault for about three hundred dollars. I drove this car all over Germany and parts of France, Luxembourg, and Denmark. It was a Renault 4CV, much smaller than a Volkswagen. It had wind-catching suicide doors. The engine was in the rear. Color: green. The loose floorboard gave me a good view of the pavement. Twice I came to an abrupt halt when the engine fell off its mountings, but fortunately I found a German mechanic who could put it back together again.
Here is how my first book came about. My idea was to write a book for GIs in Germany that would tell them everything they needed to know about foreign cars and travel. I knew there was a need for such a book. It would be a sort of “blue book,” with information on car prices, as well as information on insurance, international driver’s licenses, and other topics.
At that time, all U.S. personnel, both military and civilian, had license plates with a C before the number. These plates enabled us to purchase gas for fourteen cents a gallon at post exchange
(PX) gas stations. That gave me my book’s title, C-Plate Car and Travel Guide.
The German librarian at our base library was helpful. I wrote to dozens of travel bureaus and auto manufacturers gathering information. Mail was coming from all over for Private First Class Harry Lerner. My manuscript was taking shape.
I knew the only place to sell this book was through the Stars and Stripes newsstands that were ubiquitous at army bases. I took a day off and drove up to Darmstadt, the headquarters and distribution center for Stars and Stripes. I located the person who made the purchasing decisions, Jack Label, and he liked my idea. He said he’d take ten thousand copies at a discount of 40 percent off the retail price. We determined that sixty-five cents would be a good selling price. Surely, I could get the book printed for less than the thirty-nine cents per copy I was to receive. We struck a deal.
I looked around for a printer and wound up at the local Socialist newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung in Mannheim. There I met the publisher, Herr Benz, and his assistant, Fraulein Wagner. Herr Benz gave me a quote, which I thought was reasonable, and we shook hands on the deal. All I had to do was finish the manuscript, get it legibly typed, and bring it in.
But I was still a terrible typist and didn’t have my own typewriter. Here’s what I did. I got our unit’s supply sergeant to lend me an old manual typewriter for a week. Then I searched out typing schools in Mannheim. There were many schools. Most of the students were women. But each one wanted too many deutschmarks for typing my manuscript. I thought that by hanging around the schools at six o’clock, when they usually let out, perhaps I could find a willing student who would type the manuscript on her own time using my borrowed typewriter.
I lucked out on my first try. Inga was about eighteen. She was perfect—a capable typist, likable, and living at home with her parents. She said she’d have the job done in a week. The next week, I went to pick it up. I offered forty deutschmarks, which was about ten dollars at the time.
I brought [the manuscript] to the office of the Allgemeine Zeitung. After exchanging a few pleasantries, in halting German on my part, Herr Benz said he had some bad news. In checking our agreement with his attorney, he said he couldn’t go through with producing the book because U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany could not be held liable for payment. “But,” I said, “we had a deal. We shook hands!”
Fraulein Wagner saw how upset I was and came over to calm me down. I invited her out to dinner to discuss the situation. She was very efficient in her job as assistant to Herr Benz. She spoke some English. After many meetings and dinners, she convinced her boss to show good faith; she had confidence I’d take care of the printing bill after payment from Stars and Stripes. Thank you, Fraulein Wagner!
After turning in the manuscript, I left for a vacation, leaving the proofing job to my two best army friends, John Sloan and Marty Levy. They read it, okayed it, and had it printed. It turned out, the proofing job had been lousy. But lots of errors didn’t stop the book from selling. My first check from Stars and Stripes was for five hundred dollars, which I proudly exhibited to my unit. Considering that army pay was about seventy-five dollars a month in 1956, this was a windfall. Eventually, I even prepaid the printing bill before it was due because the book sold so well. “When I get out of the army,” I said to myself, “publishing is definitely something to look into.”
[Here’s an excerpt from C-Plate Car and Travel Guide by PFC Harry Lerner]
European driving habits are different from ours. First off, they’re unaccustomed to traffic regulations, they have so few, and speed limits are practically nonexistent. One habit typically German is when the driver in front of you decides to make a right turn, he’ll first swing left, all indication pointing to a left turn, then swing his vehicle right into the next road. Why is it that those continental manners disappear immediately when a German seats himself behind the wheel? Perhaps the English are the most sensible of the Europeans, even if their traffic does flow to the left. To the English, an auto is merely transportation, not to be used as a scare machine. Perhaps the French are the most reckless. But that’s my opinion. Some say the Italian drivers are worse, and others claim the Spanish top the list. The American is still the best driver. Mox nix (macht nichts, i.e., doesn’t matter) what anyone else says.