Words were more real than the world. I'd been an avid, sheltered reader since age 6, long on facts and fancies and short on ideas. So in 1965, when it came time to make a living, I thought words. As in the business of books. Back then, publishing was still a gentile – make that gentleman's – profession. Maxwell Perkins had shaped Thomas Wolfe's refulgent prose; Joe Fox made Truman Capote a celebrity. Bennett Cerf absorbed William Faulkner's scorn and consummated his triumphs. Those days are mourned by modern book lovers, who knew them not.
They keen that all the sweet little publishing houses have been folded into big impersonal corporations, which drown us in terrible books. But this isn't a new development; it had been going on a long time when I was there. Too many books were being published in the late 1960s, and not enough of them got sufficient attention from publishers; too few editors knew what they were doing. And little publishers were already being absorbed into big houses.
When I went looking for a job, my only connection was a high school classmate's brother. Short, round, very Harvard, David had a creamy editorial cubicle in the famous chocolate-mousse-colored Random House Mansion. He was brusque with me. He pointed across town toward Eighth Avenue, where Random housed its non-editorial operations – in a dull, gray building called “Fulfillment.”
I was quickly hired to fill book orders and was soon helping with publicity. I fell in love with publishing. Random was (and is) as prestigious as the business gets. It had absorbed several illustrious smaller houses – Knopf, Bollingen, Pantheon – and its author list included Truman Capote, Andre Gide, Carl Jung, James Michener and Peter Matthiessen. But it was also as hieratic as the sultanate of Brunei. You never went from Fulfillment to the Mansion, even literally. I went over to buy some books there once – not done, apparently – and everyone in Fulfillment was memoed to henceforth stay the hell out of the House of the Holy.
Random's acquisition this year by the German communications giant Bertelsmann evoked many pseudo-nostalgic yowls about the old days of wood-paneled, man-to-man publishing – mostly from those too young to know better. Few recalled that Random first lost its independence to RCA in 1966. But the new ownership didn't change the sultanate's protocols. After four months of searching, I found a PR niche minus the concrete ceiling at the nation's then-largest trade-book publisher: Doubleday & Co., a firm with a longer history, but far spottier reputation, than Random.
As a facile publicity writer (my old flap copy still disfigures certain reprint covers), I showed promise right up until that important company soiree where I drank too much '59 Taittinger and must have been too convivial for some of the great writers of our century: John Cheever, Langston Hughes, Babbette Deutsch, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, Louis Zukovsky, Marianne Moore. Not to mention the publicity director who was serving as the hostess.
She banished me to the bowels of editorial, where I'd wanted to be all along. When you think about it, being a good editor requires a rare combination of talent: ample literary resources, good business sense and abundant tactful toughness. As with writing itself, no license was needed to edit. Many male Doubleday editors were book salesmen come in from the cold. Woman editors (then few) were mostly former secretaries. Pretense outranked qualification. One scholarly editor had skipped college. One was a high school dropout. What we shared was our love of books and our doubts that we could earn a living elsewhere or otherwise.
While individually no worse than any other clutch of humanity I've ever known, we editors were also the hirelings of coarse profiteers. So our books were often – like those of today, and maybe most books always – underadvertised, underedited and badly produced, and what we paid per average manuscript wouldn't feed a lean bachelor through a fat summer. No wonder writers tended to despise us, not that we didn't somewhat patronize them in return.
Though Doubleday was the last of the big-family publishing firms, its diffuse, bureaucratic management was years ahead of its time. Just like today's corporate bookworks, it poured out a river of print, some of which was noticed, most of which was not. “The trouble is, we don't publish books, we print them,” said Sam Vaughan, my affable sometime boss. Right, and he never found a remedy.
It seemed to me then that Vaughan preferred good deals to good books; he openly mourned that we'd missed the hefty CIA subsidies which – according to an April 1966 N.Y. Times expose – benefited certain other houses no more unscrupulous than our own. Not quite true – there was a rumored intelligence connection to the Doubleday Cold War best-seller The Penkovskiy Papers. We usually settled for openly subsidized projects, however, such as the official histories of the University of California and of merchant bankers Brown Brothers and Harriman.
This kind of business grew. But by the late '60s, many big-name writers and agents stopped taking us seriously. Even though we published isolated distinguished works by respected authors like John Barth and Wallace Stegner, we were seldom a major presence at the National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes. That literary-professional aversion, however, stemmed more from our lurid fiscal successes. Doubleday best-sellers included many books like Jess Stearn's table-thumping spiritualist tomes, or Richard Garvin's The Crystal Skull, which object was allegedly “found in a lost Mayan city during a search for Atlantis.”
We weren't the only publishers flogging such tripe; it just tended to dominate our list. Some editors took this hokum quite seriously – Stewart Richardson touted John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which maintained Christianity had originated as a hallucinogenic cult. Others called them “kook books.” They made us big money, but their success fostered an in-house impression that responsible publishing was a career-killer.
If Doubleday increasingly invested in mediocrity, it had little choice. The firm had a growing problem retaining A-list authors because of its antique paperback-reprint policy: Doubleday demanded 50 percent of all reprint profits. But modern mass publishing was already coming of age: Paperback reprint – along with the film deal – was becoming the real money in books, and some of our authors fled directly to aggressive little softcover houses like Dell and Bantam, who paid them a far more generous share. Or to the many wiser hardcover firms who also better spread the wealth.
To Doubleday, however, the 50 percent excise remained, like the Holy Trinity, a sacred mathematics. So for want of choice, our firm increasingly extended multibook contracts to low-profit authors no one else really wanted. Or to a shrinking handful of best-selling writers – Arthur Haley, attorney Louis Nizer, right-wing political fantasist Allen Drury (whose increasingly loopy books, I was told, we were contractually forbidden to edit) – with personal loyalties to individual editors.
By 1968, the world beyond Doubleday had blown apart. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, the bloodiest phase of the Vietnam War, with 30,000 Americans dead in combat that year. Hubert Humphrey's liberal establishment had sloughed off its credibility. Campuses were in lockdown. Hundreds of new voices were heard in the land: Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Eldridge Cleaver, Leonard Cohen, Ramparts magazine, Lou Reed. With my long hair, pale suede boots and sky-blue suits, I thought I was the only editor who noticed. But this wasn't altogether true. One young colleague also saw that the times they were a changin'; he proposed books attacking Darwin and unveiling Atlantis. Another, apprehending that it might appeal to all those hippies with their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, wanted to reprint the Nazi SS dress-code manual. On the other hand, Doubleday's most brilliant editor, Betty Prashker, then contracted for some early-'70s feminist classics – Kate Millett's Sexual Politics was one – which the more “respectable” houses were simply too chauvinistic to buy. She also took chances with important, then-unknown writers like novelist-poet Marge Piercy and Israel's Amos Oz.
I had my own big-book brainstorm. Shortly after the 1968 Chicago Convention riots, as enraged as if I'd been clubbed myself, I got a Chicago columnist to consider doing a book about Mayor Richard Daley. This one would be a stampede success, I told my betters. I was exactly right, sort of. Boss, a smashing success for Dutton publishers by Mike Royko, was a late-1960s publishing bombshell. Not for my firm, where editorial responses ranged from “Chicago books never sell” to “Daley would suppress it,” but for New America Library. It was one of the most successful books of the decade.
It took me decades to realize just how badly I'd prepared our arid corporate ground for my idea, or how its lack of acceptance was the point at which my editorial career turned into just another job. As a consolation, another young editor and I developed a small line of fast-selling trendy paperbacks – not Thomas Pynchon, but not Edgar Cayce either. We imagined, as John Hartford and Mason Williams sold their hundreds of thousands of copies, that these books might solidify our positions – even get us raises – by earning Doubleday considerable multiples of our salaries. We were, of course, mistaking private-sector bureaucracy for venture capitalism: Our careers stayed flat. And the lure of dropping out grew apace.
Instead of haunting Elaine's for a glance at Philip Roth like my aspiring peers, I danced to Janis Joplin at the Filmore East. Instead of weekending at the office, I went to Woodstock. The anodyne effects of lunchtime and after-work drinking were enhanced by my secretary's homemade hashish munchies, kept in the belly drawer of my desk. I smoked five packs a day. I put on 30 pounds. Then I lost 50. Once a friend asked me why I'd been crying in the lobby that morning. Recalling the Valium and the fifth of booze I'd downed before bedtime, I said I had no idea.
I excused my self-destruction as revolutionary behavior. But I was obviously emulating certain male superiors: heavy smokers and drinkers as only gainfully employed men could be in those days. It's sobering to realize now how many senior editors whom I used to match, Negroni for Negroni, died off in their 50s. This dismal attrition had one positive effect: Along with the renaissance of feminism, the industry's widespread male dipsomania vitalized the woman editorial assistants who had to make the decisions while their superiors were at lunch or recovering from same.
To the best of my knowledge, of all my Doubleday contemporaries, only certain woman junior editors – Alice Mayhew, Lisa Drew and Diane Reverand, for instance – had the talent and endurance to develop into major industry leaders. Mayhew is today Bob Woodward's editor; Drew and Reverand have their own imprints at Scribners and HarperCollins, respectively. The only male compadre I've heard of since then was running a movie theater.
While considerable editorial talent passed through Doubleday during the next few years, none of it changed the culture: The firm just kept taking on water. Finally, in the late 1970s, Doubleday was bought out by the same Bertelsmann giant that's just acquired Random. But Doubleday's was more of a salvage operation: What the Germans reportedly most wanted were the firm's many book clubs and huge backlists of cookbooks and coffee-table furniture. The old company is now, ironically, the cheese slice in the Bertelsmann-acquisition sandwich known as Bantam Doubleday Dell – those bread slices being the profitable little paperback houses that ate our lunch years before.
Well before this takeover took place, management realized that, whatever my earnings, I didn't fit. I tended to agree. About then, I read a new translation of Maxim Gorky's Mother, submitted in manuscript. I didn't know Gorky – he wasn't in the academic canon – so I was ambushed by his rush of emotion, color and feeling, savoring, as editors so rarely do, each word. I'd edited some good books. But nothing like this. I knew suddenly that there was fulfillment out there that I'd never experienced. It was called literature. And it had little to do with working at Doubleday.
I paid $3.98 from my first unemployment check for the Grateful Dead's new American Beauty, stuffed my Dunhill churchwarden pipe full of Haiphong gold and played that LP until midnight. I was both richly depressed and strangely elated. I'd lost the only serious job I'd ever had. But thanks to Gorky, I'd discovered a fulfillment in words beyond publishing:
You could sit down and write them.