Don’t have time to read this tribute? That’s okay; Cliff Hillegass probably wouldn’t mind. He’d likely think it’s too long anyway. After all, this is the man who boiled down War and Peace from 1,444 pages to 114.
When he died on May 5 of complications from a stroke, Hillegass, 83, left behind generations of grateful high school and college students who’d made it through English Lit only because of his Cliffs Notes, the ubiquitous black-and-yellow-covered abridgments of everything from A (Absalom, Absalom!) to, well, W (Wuthering Heights).
Born in Rising City, Neb., Hillegass, the son of a rural mail carrier and a homemaker, was a traveling book salesman when a Canadian publisher gave him the idea of whacking down the great books for students. The company he started with a $4,000 loan in 1958 sold 40 years later for $14 million.
Throughout his life Hillegass was adamant that his study guides—most written by graduate students—weren’t cheat sheets. “I used Cliffs Notes as they are supposed to be read,” says Kimberly Newton, 36, the youngest of his five children. “I’d read the book first and then read the Cliffs Notes for insight.” Still, she concedes that not every student played by those rules—to the dismay of teachers. As a student at Northeastern University in Boston, “I had one prof who said, ‘I don’t want any of you using Cliffs Notes,’ ” she says. “I never told him who I was.”