Roger W. Straus Jr., 87, a Guggenheim heir who co-founded one of the 20th century's great publishing houses, died May 25 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. He had pneumonia.
The longtime head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mr. Straus -- blunt, profane, theatrical, fond of wearing ascots -- was among the last of the truly old-fashioned publishers. He ran his own company for more than half a century, holding on as the book world evolved from a small, clannish community to an increasingly impersonal, money-minded business.
In 1945, Mr. Straus and fellow publisher John Farrar formed Farrar, Straus & Co., Inc., which eventually became known for emphasizing literary quality over commercial success. It often achieved both. Its reputation became all the greater in 1955, when editor Robert Giroux was hired from Harcourt, Brace, bringing with him many major authors, including T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Bernard Malamud and Robert Lowell.
"The single most important thing to happen to this company was the arrival of Bob Giroux," Mr. Straus said later.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux published a number of Nobel laureates, including Eliot, Nadine Gordimer, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Seamus Heaney.
Mr. Straus believed it necessary to be "an international publisher, at ease in the world of letters," and he had great success attracting authors from around the world. In 1971, for instance, he acquired American rights to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's classic novel "August 1914." Because of the publishing house's prestige, the author's agents accepted a lower advance, $500,000, than competitors had offered.
Mr. Straus disparaged corporate influence, vowing not to be "a division of Kleenex, or whatever," but his company sold controlling interest in 1994 to the German publisher Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck.
Still, the company kept up a near-annual tradition of publishing award-winning novels. Recent works included two Pulitzer Prize winners (Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" and Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex") and three National Book Award winners (Susan Sontag's "In America," Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire").
"Many people have accused me of being an elitist," Mr. Straus once said. "I'm guilty. I am an elitist. I like good books."
Although known for being tight with money, Mr. Straus didn't need to worry unduly about profits. He was a member of one of the country's wealthiest families.
"Roger always acted like he was living off me," Eugenides said. "That was the joke. He acted like he was waiting around for my book to get himself out of hock. He acted like this, whether your book sold well or sold poorly. . . . He cloaked his real, true literariness behind a screen of greed."
Roger Williams Straus Jr. was born in New York City, the son of two prominent Jewish German families. His father was a member of the RH Straus family that owned Macy's department store, and his mother was of the Guggenheim family. His paternal grandfather, Oscar S. Straus, became one of the first Jewish Cabinet members when he served as President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of commerce and labor.
Roger Straus Jr. was a 1939 journalism graduate of the University of Missouri and became a reporter and feature writer for the White Plains Daily Reporter in New York. During World War II, he served in the Navy, doing public relations work.
After the war, he did not want to continue in journalism.
"Newspapers wrap up fish," Mr. Straus told the New Yorker magazine for a 2002 profile. "Books are in the library forever. I decided to start a book publishing house of my own."
He reportedly borrowed $30,000 against his future inheritance and $100,000 more from acquaintances to launch his publishing house. He went into business with Farrar, who died in 1974.
In 1946, the fledgling company's list of books included such titles as "Yank: The G.I. Story of the War," a collection of articles from the Army magazine Yank; and "Francis," David Stern's comic novel about a talking Army mule.
But in time, the company earned a reputation as one of America's most distinguished literary publishers.
Mr. Straus was married in 1938 to Dorothea Leibman, a childhood friend and descendant of the Rheingold brewing family. Their child, Roger III, worked for years at the publishing house but left in the early 1990s because of "philosophical differences."
Survivors include his wife; his son; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.