Tom Wallace, New York editor and agent, casts a professional eye over Boris Kachka's biography of a distinguished American publishing house
Hothouse is the best book about publishing I have read since Scott Berg's biography of the celebrated Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Hothouse is a superbly written, unforgettable account of the publishing firm Farrar Straus & Giroux, the men and women who ran it and the authors they published, as well as much of their daily lives. But, first a word about its author: Boris Kachka is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where he has written and edited pieces on literature, publishing and theatre for more than a decade.
At the centre of his tempestuous publishing story are Roger Straus and Bob Giroux. Straus, the charming, controversial, roughneck scion of the Strauses and the Guggenheims, two German Jewish dynasties, founded Farrar, Straus in 1946. Bob Giroux, the son of a Jersey City factory foreman, the sensitive, literary intellectual, joined Farrar, Straus in 1955 as editor-in-chief and became a name partner of Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1964.
Straus, who never finished college, had a cushy assignment as head of the Magazine and Book Section of the Navy's Office of Public Information in New York City during World War II. In this capacity he helped war correspondents sell articles and books to publishers. Ensign Roger Straus first met Lieutenant Giroux fleetingly in 1944 when he submitted a piece he had written on a Pacific battle to Roger Straus, who then sold it to Collier's magazine.
In 1946 Straus, who had his own money, but more importantly access to more money, started his publishing house by hiring John Farrar, a literary gent who had been pushed out of his own firm Farrar, Rinehart by the mystery novelist writing queen Mary Roberts Rinehart, who had originally underwritten him and her two sons. Farrar had the literary nous to go along with Roger's money. Straus' other backers included Barry Bingham, the Louisville newspaper magnate, Charles Taft of the political Tafts, Julius Fleischmann cousin of the New Yorker magazine backer, and his own wife Dorothea, the Rheingold beer heiress who was even richer than Roger.
In the early years, Farrar, Straus lived primarily off commercial books: Gayelord Hauser's diet and health book Look Young, Live Longer; Courtroom, Samuel Leibowitz's account as a defence attorney defending everyone from Al Capone to the Scottsboro Boys, and I, Willie Sutton, with some sprinkling of a more literary fare. This formula more or less persisted with Farrar, Straus and Cudahy and Farrar, Straus and Young (Sheila Cudahy and Stanley Young were partners brought in for their money as well as their literary backgrounds.)
All this changed with the arrival of Bob Giroux from Harcourt, Brace in 1955. Giroux felt he had often been thwarted in expressing his literary judgments, most recently when his immediate boss Eugene Reynal thought J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye would reflect poorly on Harcourt, Brace's burgeoning school list. (Similarly, years later World Publishing Company's Bill Targ told Curtis Brown's Juliet O'Hea that he could not make her an offer to publish Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet in the United States because of the opposition of World's Religious Books Department).
Giroux brought with him from Harcourt, Brace among many other authors: T S Eliot, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, John Berryman, Thomas Merton, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O'Connor, Hannah Arendt, Xaxier X Rynne. Rynne's books were masterpieces as well as runaway bestsellers. The 1970s and 1980s were the glory years for FSG. Throw in Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson and Tom Wolfe, and for a while Joan Didion, and later Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Roth, Alice McDermott, Ian Frazer, Scott Turow, Oscar Hijuelos, John McPhee, Thomas Friedman, Louis Menand, Larry Woiwode, Jonathan Franzen, and later Jeffrey Eugenides and you have an exciting, vibrant list.
And then there was the strong international component of authors. Roger Straus started by having a string of literary scouts throughout Europe (most happened to be beautiful women, except for the American ex-pat Herbert Lottman in Paris, who also just happened to be the foreign correspondent of Publishers Weekly. His companion and later his wife was the delightful Marianne Veron one of the leading translators of books from English into French). And then in the late 1960s Roger Straus began making his annual October pilgrimage to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Holding court in the small, elegant Park Hotel (after giving up on the crowded, noisy, jazzier InterContinental Hotel), Roger tied up the best Italian writers early on: Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi, Salvatore Satta and later Roberto Calasso.
Straus' regular trips to London, Paris, Rome, Munich and Frankfurt explain why FSG has published more Nobel Prize-winners than any other American publishing house and with very slender resources at that. His relationship with the Mexican Nobel Laureate Carlos Fuentes was intensely personal as well as professional. And thanks to Straus' connection to Max Reinhardt of the Bodley Head, FSG published Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward and August 1914 in the United States.
And all this took place in the seedy offices on Union Square under the benign tutelage of that gentlemanly editor Bob Giroux and the fierce and often crude competitive publisher Roger Straus, who had a rubber stamp which he used to decorate some of his more provocative correspondence: "Fuck you very much." Straus and Giroux were the most celebrated, but by no means the only publishing odd couple of the pre-conglomerate Golden Age of American publishing after World War II. Giroux was frequently asked what the difference was between a publisher and an editor. His answer: "I edit books and edit them well. In the words of Nelson Doubleday, 'A publisher publishes books but doesn't read them'." Nor was Bob Giroux the only outstanding editor at Farrar, Straus: over the years there were John Farrar and Sheila Cudahy, as well as Cecil Hemley, Henry Robbins, Michael di Capua (who arguably built up the most distinguished children's list in American publishing before moving on to HarperCollins), Pat Strachan, Aaron Asher, Paul Elie, John Glusman and Jonathan Galassi.
And then of course there were Roger Straus' "literary advisers", beginning with Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin (in an earlier day, Alfred Knopf had H L Mencken perform a similar service), Josef Brodsky and finally Susan Sontag. Straus' relationship to Sontag was partly intellectual, partly flirtatious, partly father-daughter, and partly banker-client. Although Boris Kachka gives us a marvelous (or, mahhhhhvelous, as Roger would say) account of this relationship, I doubt we will ever really know all its nuances.
In addition, it must be remembered that Roger Straus was a gambler, fearless, competitive, relentless and that he strode on to the publishing stage just as American economic and cultural ascendancy was at its height in the post-War world. (A subject for many, many articles past and future, but please just accept my bald statement of the fact.)
So what we had here was a publishing "perfect storm". A group of editors with literary taste and judgment, some of America's best contemporary authors all coming together under the aegis of a publisher who was as determined as he was outspoken, who was as driven as he was irascible, who once replied to Bob Giroux, when the latter suggested he might soften his outrage at a publisher or an author who had offended him, "Don't forget I am a vindictive Jew."
And yet the survival of FSG over the years was a cliffhanger. Even in good years, FSG's credit frequently depended on the money in Straus' personal bank account. Still Straus constantly maintained he would never consider selling FSG. However, when his son Roger Straus III, who started working for his father on summer vacation as a 15 year-old, after years of a strained relationship proved unable to work with his father , Straus named as his successor the multi-talented Galassi, an intellectual, poet, well-known translator of the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, and a superb editor who edited as well as acquired outstanding authors.
When Straus picked Galassi as his heir-intended, some saw the hand writing on the wall: Roger was ready to sell FSG, he had had many offers from American companies (or as he put it, "There have been a lot of sweaty palms on my thighs over the years"). However, what they didn't suspect was that Straus would sell FSG to a German publisher, Verlagsgruppe von Holtzbrinck, run by his friend Dieter von Holtzbrinck. In England, Holtzbrinck owns Macmillan, in the US Holt and St Martin's as well as FSG. Straus chose von Holtzbrinck's offer because von Holtzbrinck promised not to interfere in FSG's affairs. This apparently proved to be the case up until Straus' death in 2004. Since then it appears that although FSG has maintained its editorial independence, its business, marketing, warehousing and accounting units have been integrated into the American group which now has the overall title of Macmillan.
Straus' true genius may have been in promoting himself as well as his authors. Did he promote himself more than his authors? I don't think there is a clear answer to this question. But in any case, both authors and publisher benefited immeasurably. And let us not forget Roger Straus was not an ordinary publisher. He frequently said, "My definition of a good publisher is someone who can intelligently discuss his entire list with his seven best friends over dinner and a glass of port and a good cigar." Today when port and cigars are no longer readily consumed with dinner and conglomerateurs publish more than a thousand titles a year, this clearly is no longer possible.
Finally sexual affairs at FSG is one subject that Boris Kachka discusses in some detail in Hothouse which I have chosen to ignore in this review. Not because it isn't relevant but because it is a subject that would take a very long article if one wished to pursue it. And it is common knowledge sexual affairs have always been prevalent in contemporary American publishing houses. In fact one could apply the British epithet aimed at World War II Yanks as "overpaid, oversexed, and over here." Of course "overpaid" didn't apply to American, or British, publishing folk for that matter, before the age of the conglomerates.
Sex at FSG was rampant from the top down. Roger Straus was intensely attracted to women and by his own account they frequently responded to his advances. Dorothea Straus, who regularly kept lists of the women her husband was sleeping with, is quoted by Kachka as saying that Farrar, Straus & Giroux was a "sexual sewer."
One might say that intimate relations between the sexes at FSG bred the strong loyalties which characterized the house throughout its history and may have made its many achievements possible. I would like to end this review by personally tipping my hat to Peggy Miller, Roger Straus' private secretary and confidante for more than thirty years, who frequently protected Roger Straus from unhappy colleagues and authors, competitors and lawyers, and sometimes even from himself.
So by all means read Hothouse, The Art of Survival and The Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It's a perfectly mahhhhvelous book.
Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka (New York: Simon & Schuster)
Tom Wallace (above, speaking at the second Biennial Anthony Powell Conference at Balliol College, Oxford) has been in American publishing for more than 50 years, first as an editor at Putnam, Holt, and Norton, and, since 1987, as a literary agent.