Oscar Dystel, Bantam Books executive who published paperback phenoms, dies at 101


Oscar Dystel, president of Bantam Books, at right, with Mark Jaffe, senior vice president and editorial director, in 1971. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

Oscar Dystel, who as head of Bantam Books rescued his company and helped revolutionize the publishing industry by bringing paperback editions of “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Jaws” and other top sellers to mass-market audiences, died May 28 at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 101.

His daughter, Jane Dystel, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Dystel began his career in magazine publishing and joined Bantam as president in 1954, about a decade after the imprint’s founding. By that time, U.S. publishing houses had perfected the use of printing-press technologies that enabled the quick, cheap and massive production of paperback releases.

For fans of romance novels, detective mysteries, thrillers and even the classics, the paperback offered a lightweight, money-saving alternative to the sturdy but costly hardcover.

Softcovers made their way from grocery aisles to shopping carts, from airport bookstores to travel bags, and from newsstands to nightstands, providing consumers with the pleasures of reading without burdening their bank accounts or back muscles.

As a company, Bantam stood on the edge of failure when Mr. Dystel arrived. It was losing half a million dollars a year, he recalled in an interview with the New York Times. He was so confident that he could resuscitate the operation, he said, that he accepted the job on the condition that he would receive a share of the profits he brought in.

Mr. Dystel proceeded to run Bantam “like a wizard,” according to the book “The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors” by Al Silverman.

The year after Mr. Dystel took over, Bantam was turning a profit. When he retired in 1980 as chairman of the board, the Times reported, business reached $100 million annually.

The heart of the enterprise, Mr. Dystel once said, “was a good book that people enjoyed reading.”

Mr. Dystel jump-started Bantam’s revival with the paperback release in 1954 of “Battle Cry,” Leon Uris’s drama set in the Pacific during World War II.

Other authors include Louis L’Amour, whose Westerns sold tens of millions of copies, and James A. Michener, the author of enduringly popular sagas. He published paperback copies of Jacqueline Susann’s steamy runaway hit “Valley of the Dolls” and E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.”

In the nonfiction category, he published the findings of the Warren Commission that investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy — days after the report was released.

Mr. Dystel seemed to have a knack for identifying books that would make good movies. He printed a paperback version of “Jaws,” Peter Benchley’s beach thriller that became a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, and published William Peter Blatty’s“The Exorcist,” which also was adapted for the screen. Box office success naturally begot book sales.

When paperback rights became available for “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book read by millions of adolescent schoolchildren every year, Mr. Dystel discerned that the deal might require special handling. He cheerfully submitted when J.D. Salinger, the book’s reclusive author, asked to design the cover — an unusual request for a writer to make.

“No problem!” Mr. Dystel replied, according to Silverman’s account. “We’ll publish it in a brown wrapping paper cover if he wants that, just as long as the title is legible.”

By the time Mr. Dystel retired, the book had gone through dozens of printings.

There was at least one author who got away. She was Helen Gurley Brown, and Mr. Dystel turned down her manuscript for “Sex and the Single Girl.” When the 1962 book, a bestseller, was eligible for a reprint, she then turned him down.

“If you were the last man alive,” she said, “you’d never get the rights to that book.”

Oscar Dystel was born Oct. 31, 1912, in New York City. His parents worked for a tailor and later were shopkeepers. He graduated from New York University in 1935 and received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1937.

Before joining Bantam, he worked for Esquire and edited the magazine Coronet, whose circulation reportedly skyrocketed under his leadership.

During World War II, he served overseas for a psychological warfare unit that developed and distributed leaflets designed to demoralize the enemy.

After leaving Bantam, Mr. Dystel worked as a consultant and sometimes expressed his displeasure with what had become of the publishing industry. He told the Times shortly after his retirement that there was “a repelling look about the paperback racks today.”

His wife of 65 years, Marion Deitler Dystel, and his son, John Dystel, died in 2003. Survivors include his daughter, a literary agent, of New York City; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

It was said that besides his business acumen, Mr. Dystel had a keen eye for art. He rejected an early cover design for “Jaws” — the book’s title in white text on black background, according to The Washington Post — because he said readers were not interested in buying a book about a dentist.

The final image, recycled for the movie poster, showed a woman swimming in a clear blue sea, unaware of the giant shark beneath her. The design had been spurred by an admonition from Mr. Dystel: “I want to see that fish.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.

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