Bonnie R. Crown, 88, champion of Asian literature

Bonnie Crown 2012
Bonnie Crown. Photo by Yvonne Chen.

BY JEREMY CROWN | Bonnie R. Crown, a literary agent, writer, and lecturer who shepherded the translation of over 100 books from Asia, died of natural causes on Aug. 17 at her East Village home. She was 88.

Crown served as the Director of the Asian Literature Program at the Asia Society from 1959 to 1976. During that time she traveled to almost every Asian country — often on her own and spending months away from home — to discover new writers and books to share with the American public.

Under the aegis of the Asian Literature Program, she worked closely with James Laughlin of New Directions to broaden the audience for Asian literature and to develop cross-cultural dialogues. The effort provided grants to writers, published new works, placed writings in magazines, broadcast readings on the radio, and produced live performances.

Towering literary figures like Allen Ginsberg and W.S. Merwin considered her a great resource on Asian literature.

Some of the most popular books she worked on include “In Praise of Krishna” translated by Denise Levertov & Edward C. Dimock, Jr., the Chinese poetry collection “Sunflower Splendor” co-edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, and “The Haiku Handbook” by William J. Higginson.

Bonnie Crown giving a lecture in 1978. Photo provided by Jeremy Crown.
Bonnie Crown giving a lecture in 1978. Photo by Nancy Crampton.

Crown lectured and gave readings throughout Asia and the U.S. — focusing especially on Korea. She served on the boards of many Asian-focused organizations, and wrote reviews of Asian writings for World Literature Today.

She never sought credit for her behind-the-scenes work. Instead, Crown wanted the attention directed towards the writers and works. Still, she was often praised in book acknowledgments for her encouragement and support.

Nguyen Ngoch Bich, editor of “A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry” aptly described her role as “a great deal more than what her title implies, since she has been the guiding angel of this project.”

As a liaison between the United States and Asia, she often made an impression during her travels to far-flung regions. Indian writer Jyotirmoy Datta described meeting her in India for the first time by saying, “Meeting Bonnie Crown was like meeting the Statue of Liberty.”

Bonnie Crown and her husband James Crown seated together in the 1950s. Photo provided by Jeremy Crown.
Bonnie Crown and her husband James Crown seated together in the 1950s. Photo provided by Jeremy Crown.

Born in York, Nebraska, Crown was the fourth of five daughters born to Wilbur Arnold and Henrietta Refshauge. She earned an A.B. and M.A. in Literature from the University of Northern Colorado and moved to New York in 1952 to work in publishing, where she became a long-time Villager. Along with her interest in Asian literature, Crown was an avid supporter of the performing arts. In the last years of her life, she hosted many musical performances in her apartment on East 10th St., where she and her husband, NYU Political Science Professor Emeritus and author James Tracy Crown, lived for 51 years. She had a love of good conversation and lit up a room with her distinctive laugh.

She is survived by sisters Helen Hayes, Ilene Refshauge Gotobed, and Judith Ann Hill, as well as many nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews. James, her husband of nearly 62 years, passed away three weeks before her death.