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L. Rust Hills, 83; Edited Renowned Fiction Writers for Esquire

L. Rust Hills, at home in 1973, helped define the literary landscape for a generation as an editor at Esquire magazine, guiding authors such as Norman Mailer.
L. Rust Hills, at home in 1973, helped define the literary landscape for a generation as an editor at Esquire magazine, guiding authors such as Norman Mailer. (By Nancy Crampton)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

L. Rust Hills, an editor who used charm, taste and cajolery to bring many of the nation's foremost writers of fiction to the pages of Esquire magazine, died Aug. 12 of a heart ailment while visiting Belfast, Maine. He was 83 and lived in Key West, Fla.

Mr. Hills worked at Esquire on and off for almost 40 years and helped create the fictional landscape for a generation by guiding such renowned writers as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, William Styron, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Bernard Malamud. He was the author of a well-received book about how to write short stories, but he never turned his hand to fiction himself.

He was not well known to the public, but in literary circles Mr. Hills was held in almost the same regard as Maxwell Perkins, who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s and 1930s, and William Maxwell, a longtime fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine.

"I don't know anybody who had higher literary standards," said writer Will Blythe, who worked with Mr. Hills at Esquire for 10 years. "I'd go so far as to say that he made the magazine's reputation for literature."

Mr. Hills persuaded the irascible Bellow and Roth to write for Esquire and, when needed, could soothe writers' sensitive egos. After Mailer left the magazine in a dispute over editing, "it was Rust Hills who brought [him] back to Esquire, adding volume and resonance to the magazine's new voice," Carol Polsgrove wrote in her history of Esquire in the 1960s, "It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun?"

Early in his career, Mr. Hills edited Dorothy Parker, who first found fame in the 1920s. He also edited Arthur Miller's "The Misfits," which appeared in Esquire before it was made into a film with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.

Before he retired in 1999, Mr. Hills had worked with such modern literary standard-bearers as Don DeLillo and Annie Proulx. He was particularly adept at editing excerpts from novels, including Bellow's "Herzog," Styron's "Sophie's Choice" and Richard Ford's "Independence Day."

Mr. Hills's enduring influence derived partly from a refined literary sensibility -- he began his career as a college professor -- and partly from his charismatic personality.

"He had a fantastic character that he inhabited," Blythe said. "Rust seemed to be the very height of sophistication, which he combined with a devilish sense of humor and an incredibly idealistic vision of fiction. Those three aspects made him really great company."

He edited several anthologies of Esquire short stories and in 1977 published "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular," which is often used as a college textbook. It was something of a literary manifesto, in which Mr. Hills outlined his views on what made stories effective.

"Everything must work with everything else," he wrote. "Everything enhances everything else, interrelates with everything else, is inseparable from everything else -- and all this is done with a necessary and perfect economy."

Lawrence Rust Hills was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 9, 1924, and served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in 1948 and received a master's degree from Wesleyan the next year.

After teaching English at Columbia University and Carleton College in Minnesota, he had the first of three stints at Esquire from 1957 to 1964, when the magazine was undergoing a renaissance under editors Harold Hayes and Clay Felker. He spent two years as fiction editor of the Saturday Evening Post, rejoined Esquire briefly in 1969, and then returned to the magazine again in 1978.

In the 1970s, Mr. Hills wrote three quirky books of essays, which were collected in 1993 as "How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man." He wrote wryly about such topics as eating ice cream cones, cutting back on drinking and smoking and retiring at 41 -- a self-enforced idleness Mr. Hills overcame by going back to work at 53.

In his bow ties and seersucker suits, Blythe said, Mr. Hills "always seemed to me very much an F. Scott Fitzgerald character" from the 1930s. But his ideas about fiction have proved timeless and enduring.

"In a story, everything's bound together tightly," Mr. Hills wrote. "In density of language, in multiple use of the sound and sense of words, the short story is comparable to lyric poetry."

An early marriage and a second marriage to Penney Chapin Hills ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, writer Joy Williams of Key West; a daughter from his second marriage; and a grandson.


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