Ms. Young was well known in the publishing industry, but her death from cancer received little initial attention. Beyond publishing a paid notice in the New York Times, her family said it had trouble finding anyone to report on her death because of the quickly spreading coronavirus.
Ms. Young entered the publishing business in the early 1950s, when there were few female editors and even fewer Asians.
“She was a pioneer, and not just in her working life,” said a nephew, Douglas Hsieh. “She was one of the first women in an editorial position in the publishing industry, and she was with my uncle Gordon [Parks] at a time there were not that many interracial couples.”
Known to her friends as “Gene,” Ms. Young started in publishing in 1952, soon after graduating from Wellesley College. She rose from being “Stenographer No. 2” at Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) to editorial director of Bantam Books. Her notable projects included Nancy Milford’s acclaimed biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Stephen Birmingham’s popular social history “Our Crowd” and the novelization of “Love Story.”
Segal’s 1970 melodrama inverted the usual formula for books and movies: It wasn’t a film based on a novel, but a novel based on a movie at the time in production. Segal had been writing the screenplay for Paramount producer Robert Evans and wanted to turn his work into a prose narrative. The Yale classics professor had released a previous work, “The Death of Comedy,” through Harper but was considering a different publisher for the more commercial “Love Story.”
Ms. Young persuaded Segal to stay with Harper by offering what seemed like an extravagant advance, $7,500, and even got the author to promise he would return the money if he couldn’t finish the book. She then talked him into changing the structure of the plot about two college students who fall in love. Segal had wanted to wait until the end to reveal that young Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri, played on screen by Ali McGraw, would die of cancer. Ms. Young disagreed.
“I said to him, ‘You can’t work up to her dying at the end. That’s like grand opera. You’ve got to kill her off in the first paragraph,’ ” Young told Al Silverman for his publishing history “The Time of Their Lives,” released in 2008. “He’d say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, you can.’ He finally did that famous sentence, ‘What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?’ It took him three weeks to write the first paragraph and about another three weeks to write the rest.”
Reviewers mocked the movie “Love Story,” but it was among the biggest box office hits of its time and became a cultural touchstone, especially for the catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The novel had a similar fate, selling millions even as critics despised it. Author William Styron, a judge in 1970 for the National Book Awards, labeled it “a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.”
Cancer was also at the center of a nonfiction bestseller Ms. Young edited: Rollin’s “First, You Cry,” the NBC television correspondent’s memoir about being treated for breast cancer. Several publishers turned down the book before Ms. Young agreed to take it on. Published in 1976, “First, You Cry” has been credited with encouraging others to discuss their experiences with cancer and was adapted into a television movie starring Mary Tyler Moore.
“She really changed my life. She went to town for my book when nobody else would,” Rollin told the Associated Press. “I remember she told me that she liked it because it was about cancer, and it was funny. And I remember her saying, “I love it because it’s not in-spi-ra-tion-al.’ She said it with a certain kind of loathing that made me laugh out loud.”
Ms. Young’s own life had the trauma and adventure of a Hollywood epic. A diplomat’s eldest daughter, she lived around the world as a child, from her native Geneva, to Shanghai and Andover, Mass.
Her father, Clarence Young, was the Chinese consulate general in the Philippines at the start of World War II and was captured and executed by the Japanese within months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her mother, Juliana Young Koo, fled with her three daughters to the United States near the end of the war and worked at the United Nations in its early years. (She was 111 when she died in 2017.)
Besides working at Harper and Bantam, Ms. Young was a senior editor at Little, Brown and Co. and a vice president at J.B. Lippincott. Other authors she worked with included Henry Kissinger, Craig Claiborne and Mimi Sheraton. In retirement, she continued to edit on a freelance basis and was an adjunct professor at New York University’s publishing program. She also participated in ballroom dancing competitions into her late 80s.
Survivors include a sister.
Ms. Young met Parks in the early 1960s when she was an editor at Harper, helping with his novel “The Learning Tree.” Parks later adapted the book into a film, becoming the first Black director of a major Hollywood studio release.
They were married in 1973. (Her previous marriage to Cedric Sun ended in divorce.)
Life magazine photographed the couple reading together in bed, a carefully staged shot that Ms. Young called a “disaster” and wished she could have destroyed. She and Parks divorced in 1979, but they remained close. He died in 2006. That year, Ms. Young helped establish the Gordon Parks Foundation, which will launch a fellowship in her honor this year.
“It’s because of Gene that there is a foundation,” said the foundation’s executive director, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. “When you have an artist like Gordon Parks, there are a lot of voices and a lot of decisions that need to be made. Gene was the consistent voice that kept it all very clear.”
— Associated Press
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