Robert Giroux; Publishing Maverick Discovered and Edited Great Writers

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.

One of the first books he edited was critic Edmund Wilson's monumental study of 19th century collectivist thought, "To the Finland Station."

At Harcourt, Mr. Giroux developed a reputation for spotting the young and talented. Among the first novels he published were Kerouac's "The Town and the City" (1950), O'Connor's "Wise Blood" (1952) and Malamud's "The Natural" (1952). He published Hannah Arendt's first English-language work, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951) and Lowell's second book of poems, the landmark "Lord Weary's Castle," which won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Giroux also had a few missed chances, most notably J.D. Salinger's coming-of-age novel, "The Catcher in the Rye." He had accepted the book and passed it along to other editors, only to have the project sunk by Harcourt's textbook department, which considered it objectionable.

"I was never more outraged or humiliated in my life," he said. "It was the biggest blow of my publishing career."

Kerouac once came to Mr. Giroux's office bearing the manuscript of "On the Road," written without paragraphs on a 120-foot scroll of paper. Kerouac said that his novel had been divinely inspired and that not a word could be altered.

"Even Shakespeare, who they say didn't blot many words, blotted some, after all," Mr. Giroux said. "And Jack, you ain't Shakespeare."

An indignant Kerouac called him a "crass idiot," stormed out and published "On the Road" with Viking.

In 1955, Mr. Giroux tired of the strictures at Harcourt and joined the informal but high-minded Farrar, Straus. At least 15 writers followed him to his new publisher, giving it a reputation for quality it has maintained for more than 50 years.

The ebullient Roger Straus, who died in 2004, was the public face of the business, but the quiet Mr. Giroux -- whose name was added to the company's masthead in 1964 -- wielded the sharpest pencil and held the hands of temperamental authors.

His marriage to Carmen de Arango ended in divorce. There are no immediate survivors.

"What's publishing all about?" he said to Saturday Review magazine. "If it isn't about what you like and believe in, you might as well manufacture sausages."

Staff writer Joe Holley contributed to this report.

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