He led University of Chicago Press

November 7, 2011

Morris Philipson, 85, the director of the University of Chicago Press whose risk-taking on monumental scholarly works and new fiction helped make the imprint one of the most prestigious academic presses in the United States, died Nov. 3 at his apartment in Chicago.

He had congestive heart failure, his son Alex Philipson said.

Dr. Philipson led the press for more than 30 years — longer than any director in the university’s history — until his retirement in 2000.

He helped make the University of Chicago Press one of the most venerated institutions in the English-speaking publishing world. He joked that while the Oxford and Cambridge university presses may have had more cachet, they also had “500 years on us.”

The thousands of volumes Dr. Philipson shepherded into print included translations of 20th-century French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Claude Levi-Strauss and decades-long projects that other publishers considered unreliable investments.

In 1976, in one of his most noted gambles, he published Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” after it had been rejected by commercial publishers. The book was a semi-autobiographical work of fiction about Maclean’s upbringing in Montana, with a heavy emphasis on fly-fishing.

The University of Chicago Press had never before published fiction. But Dr. Philipson was convinced of the manuscript’s worthiness, and Maclean was one of the most revered professors on campus.

Both men were known as exacting, and they had a famously tense relationship.

“Poor Norman Maclean had no comparable experience with a commercial publisher,” Dr. Philipson told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “He had no idea that we did more for his book than any commercial publisher would have done, under any circumstances.”

The work has sold more than half a million copies since its publication. Robert Redford directed the 1992 film version.

During Dr. Philipson’s tenure, sales at the University of Chicago Press exploded from $4 million to $40 million, according to an article in the University of Chicago Chronicle. The financial success allowed Dr. Philipson to throw the press’s support behind hulking scholarly studies.

“The Lisle Letters,” a collection of 2,000 letters from an illegitimate son of King Edward IV of England, appeared in 1981. The New York Times reported that researcher Muriel St. Clare Byrne took Dr. Philipson “in full fig” to London to receive his accolades at Buckingham Palace after publication.

Other texts Dr. Philipson presided over included John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” (1980), which won the American Book Award.

In 1982, Dr. Philipson became the first academic publisher to receive the Pen American Center’s publisher citation. It credited him with making the University of Chicago Press “the best university press in the country.”

Morris Harris Philipson was born June 23, 1926, in New Haven, Conn. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree in philosophy in 1952, both from the University of Chicago.

He served in the Army during World War II and stayed in Europe to study in Paris at the Sorbonne and, later, at the University of Munich. He received a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 1959.

Before moving to Chicago, he taught at several universities and worked as an editor at publishing houses in New York.

His first marriage, to Barbara Strauss, ended in divorce. His second wife, Susan Sacher Philipson, died in 1994 after 33 years of marriage.

Survivors include three children from his second marriage, Alex Philipson of Newton, Mass., Nick Philipson of Shelton, Conn., and Jenny Philipson of Evanston, Ill.; a brother, Robert Philipson of Rockville; and one granddaughter.

In addition to his academic publications, Dr. Philipson was the author of several novels, including the satire “Bourgeois Anonymous” (1965) and a series called the New Haven trilogy, about the professional class in his home town.

“I wish I were the kind of person who could write like Trollope, one hour every morning before he went to the office. But it isn’t that way,” Dr. Philipson told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “I’m not one of these very methodical, organized people. Not as a writer, anyway. But I am as a publisher.”

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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