Robert Giroux; Publishing Maverick Discovered and Edited Great Writers

Robert Giroux edited T.S. Eliot and George Orwell and published the first books of Jack Kerouac and Bernard Malamud.
Robert Giroux edited T.S. Eliot and George Orwell and published the first books of Jack Kerouac and Bernard Malamud. (By Arthur W. Wang)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

Robert Giroux, 94, the editorial mastermind who brightened the words of some of the foremost writers of the 20th century and helped make the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux one of the most respected in the world, died Sept. 5 at an assisted living facility in Tinton Falls, N.J. The cause of death was not reported.

In his nearly six decades in publishing, Mr. Giroux edited Nobel laureates and discovered dozens of new writers who now form the backbone of modern literature. His taste was considered impeccable, and he engendered such loyalty among his writers that they followed him en masse when he left Harcourt, Brace & Co. to join Farrar, Straus in 1955.

Mr. Giroux's editorial hand -- largely unseen by the public -- stretched from the 1940s, when he edited poet T.S. Eliot and novelist and essayist George Orwell, to the late 1990s. He published the first books of Jack Kerouac, Flannery O'Connor, Jean Stafford, Bernard Malamud, William Gaddis, Susan Sontag, Larry Woiwode and Randall Jarrell and edited no fewer than seven Nobel laureates: Eliot, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, William Golding and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Novelist and short story writer Peter Taylor -- one of Mr. Giroux's many discoveries -- called him "the best publisher there is." In a 1980 profile of Mr. Giroux in the New York Times Book Review, poet Donald Hall wrote, "He is the only living editor whose name is bracketed with that of Maxwell Perkins," the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

In addition to his subtle editorial hand, Mr. Giroux had a remarkable gift for literary friendship. He advised an impecunious Eliot to raise his speaking fee from $100 to $1,000 a reading. Eliot immediately became a sensation on the lecture circuit, and Mr. Giroux served as his unofficial and unpaid booking agent.

On occasion, he pulled his writers out of drunken scrapes and visited poet Robert Lowell in a padded cell at an asylum where not even Lowell's mother could be admitted. At St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where poet Ezra Pound was institutionalized for years, Pound glared at Mr. Giroux when he learned that he was a publisher. "What in hell are you doing here?" Pound asked.

"I have come to pay homage to a poet," Mr. Giroux replied, prompting a deep bow from the irascible Pound.

With his unflappable demeanor and unfailing reliability, Mr. Giroux built an informal network as writers brought their friends to him. Novelist and short-story writer Stafford, for instance, introduced Mr. Giroux to her husband, Lowell, who in turn brought Taylor and poet Jarrell into Mr. Giroux's stable.

Describing his manner of nurturing promising authors, Mr. Giroux explained: "Patience is a large part of it, and judgment and loyalty. You have to have a commitment to the author. If you believe in the author, you are willing to wait."

Mr. Giroux was born in Jersey City on April 8, 1914, and dropped out high school in his senior year to work at a local newspaper because of the Depression.

Without a diploma, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he met poet John Berryman in a Shakespeare class taught by the influential professor Mark Van Doren. He and Berryman edited a literary magazine in which Berryman's first poems were published.

After graduating in 1936, Mr. Giroux worked for CBS radio for three years, then found his first publishing job with Harcourt, Brace. He was a Navy officer in World War II.

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