Issue 155, Summer 2000
Robert Giroux has been described as an editor, a publisher, and a lifelong common reader—in short, a bookman. After fifteen years at Harcourt Brace and Company, he has been associated with Farrar, Straus and Giroux since 1955 and has worked with some of the most esteemed writers of the day, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag, Jean Stafford, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Walker Percy, to name just a few. He is perhaps the only editor whose name is often bracketed with that of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe) at Scribner.
Giroux was born in Jersey City (where he now lives) in 1914. He attended Regis High School, the Jesuit academy on the Upper East Side of New York City, and spent his college years at Columbia University on a part-time scholarship. To supplement his income he wrote film criticism for The Nation (preceding James Agee, he likes to point out), did publicity for a downtown movie house on Fifth Avenue that featured French films and, for ten dollars a week plus two cartons, distributed samples of Phillip Morris cigarettes, then a new product. He tried to smoke up the two cartons, but disliked the product so much that he became a confirmed nonsmoker. At the same time he was the editor (along with John Berryman) of The Columbia Review. A sure sign of his eventual prowess as a bookman, he published Thomas Merton’s first prose and was able to solicit essays from R.P. Blackmur and Kenneth Burke. He graduated in 1936 and for four years worked at CBS in the sales/promotion department, where he proposed and helped with the publication of two booklets, Vienna and Munich Crisis, culled from the scripts of broadcasts by various celebrated CBS newsmen—William Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, and H. V. Kaltenborn—documenting the political crises leading to World War II.
In 1940, Giroux took a job in publishing. He joined Harcourt Brace, to which he returned after three years of war service as an intelligence officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. In 1955, Roger Straus and John Farrar asked Giroux to join their company (formed in 1946) and nine years later made him a partner of the firm. Providentially enough, the first publication that bore the imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux was a book of poems, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead.
He himself has written two books—A Book Known as Q, a consideration of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and A Deed of Death, about the murder of William Desmond Taylor.
In the R. R. Bowker Memorial Lecture of 1981 (“The Education of an Editor”) he stated some of the more salient of his views about editing: “Many elements go into the regular editor’s making, starting with the accidents of background and schooling. But there are three qualities that cannot be taught, and without which a good editor cannot function— judgment, taste and empathy. Judgment is the ability to evaluate a manuscript and its author. Taste is subjective and difficult to define, but we all recognize it when we encounter it. Empathy is the capacity not only to perceive what the author’s aims are, but to help in achieving their realization to the fullest extent. The Pygmalion role, a desire to reshape the writer in the editor’s image, is anathema. . . . To the three basic qualities of judgment, taste, and empathy, all the rest will be added by time and experience, except (let me quickly add) that a little luck never hurts.”
Giroux is very much a traditionalist, with a profound dislike for what he calls “ooks,” publications that are almost but not quite books (“You have trouble remembering them two weeks after they come out”), and is especially disparaging of so-called acquiring editors who often, in his mind, serve as talent scouts rather than editors. “Editors used to be known by their authors,” he has said memorably. “Now some of them are known by their restaurants.”
It is difficult to get Giroux to talk about the present state of publishing, almost as if to lean on it hard would imply that he was just an old fogy mouthing off. Blessed with a warm and infectious laugh, and a remarkable memory, he is known for his storytelling. Better to talk about his writers. Seated in the Gramercy Park Tavern, coffee at hand after a pleasant lunch, he is doing just that. He is talking about Robert Lowell . . .
Lowell was a wonderful fellow, but his head was up in the clouds somewhere. He once said, Bob, I’ve got to open a checking account. Can you tell me how to do it? I asked, Don’t you have one? No, I don’t. So we went over to the Chase Bank at Union Square. He didn’t know what to do!
I remember a story about Lowell arriving at the Allen Tates unexpectedly. The house was full so he set up a pup tent on the lawn.
There’s a memorable phrase of Marianne Moore’s about Allen Tate. T. S. Eliot or somebody asked her, What do you think of Allen Tate? And she said, That man is freckled with impropriety like a trout. Allen Tate was a Southern gentleman with impeccable manners. Who knows what she meant? She was a colorful talker, an original.
You published many books of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Did you acquire their work around the same time?
No, they were years apart. Berryman was my classmate in the thirties and I used his early stuff in the college literary magazine. After he won the Shakespeare Oldham prize at Cambridge, he started publishing books at New Directions, Viking, William Sloane, and elsewhere. I did not contract for his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet until 1956 after I read it in Partisan Review and learned his regular publisher was baffled by it. I published Lord Weary’s Castle in 1948 after Jean Stafford, Lowell’s wife, showed me the manuscript. Tabloid editors seem to have been much more literate in those days. Jean showed me the Daily Newsheadline of their divorce: weary of lord lowell’s castle, jean ends boston adventure.
Did Lowell’s schizophrenia and Berryman’s drinking make them “difficult” authors?
Both poets had problem mothers, who caused difficulties greater than their sons’ illnesses. When we contracted for Lord Weary, Mrs. Lowell phoned and asked, Is Bobby—she never called him Cal—any good? When I said first-rate, she asked, Will his books make money? It takes years to get established, I told her, and ordinarily poems made little money at the start. Her comment was, I thought so. But then Lord Weary had immediate success, including a big spread in Life with intelligent comments on poems like “Quaker Graveyard,” and later the book won a Pulitzer. In fact, his photo in Life was so attractive that a Hollywood agent asked if he would agree to a screen test. Lowell was amused but I advised him not to tell his mother about movie-star possibilities.
What was Berryman’s problem with his mother?
Jill, as everyone called her, was a campus mother who haunted him daily, from his undergraduate days at John Jay Hall to his wintertime suicide in Minneapolis in 1972. She was so theatrical that when she phoned the news of his death, I didn’t at first understand what she meant. One of his suicide poems used the words “going in under the water,” so, instead of telling me he had killed himself, she said, Bob, John has gone in under the water. I yelled, For God’s sake, Jill, what do you mean?
At the university funeral service she had an unexpected request: I want you and Saul Bellow —his colleague on the faculty— and the university president to form a committee. Why? Because it was an accident. John did not commit suicide. But Jill, you told me yourself that he jumped off the bridge. Her idea was that we would take photos of the covered bridge and show the window on the side of the bridge that John opened for air. When he sat on the icy railing, he slipped. That was Jill’s new explanation. Fortunately Kate, his wife, said, It’s all right, Bob, it’s just that Jill has decided the children must not think it was suicide. Forget the committee.
When did you start in book publishing?
Frank Morley, who had worked in London at Faber and Faber, was the new head of Harcourt Brace, and he hired me to start in 1940. The early years at Harcourt were wonderful. Almost my first assignment was Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. Being a neophyte, I was amazed when Mr. Brace handed me the British proofs, until I realized why—there was nothing to edit. I was honored to be involved, even mechanically, with an author whose work I admired. She had less than a year of life left. One of her previous books had been a collection of essays; George Davis, the editor of Mademoiselle, who had used her short pieces, berated me on the phone for not sending him early proofs. I asked how much they paid and he said, Twenty-five dollars an essay. I was so shocked that I blurted, That’s chicken feed. From now on it’s at least one hundred. Between the Acts is set in Sussex between 1914 and 1939. It is a brilliant novel and a neglected one. Soon after, Mr. Brace called me into his office and handed me Leonard Woolf’s letter reporting his wife’s suicide. She had been distraught about the war and the sight of Nazi planes overhead put her over the edge. One March morning she put on her boots, sweater, and heavy coat, and took her walking stick. When she reached the Ouse, which flowed not far from their house at Rodmill, she put heavy rocks in her pockets and walked into the river. He missed her at lunchtime, ran to the Ouse, and found her stick floating in the water.
Your reputation as a poetry editor in publishing is well-known. How did it start?
At the top, with T. S. Eliot. I met him after the war and a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier (the Essex) in the Pacific. Frank Morley came into my office and said, Bob, Mr. Eliot wants to take you to lunch. The poet had arrived that morning on a Cunard liner (he preferred ships to airplanes) and had expected to lunch with Morley, who wasn’t free. Of course I was petrified but he easily put me at ease. We went across Madison Avenue to the old Ritz Carlton and, as we sat down, Eliot said, Mr. Giroux, tell me—as one editor to another—do you have much author trouble? Of course I laughed and then he laughed. That broke the ice, which completely melted when he asked me to call him Tom. This wasn’t easy at first—in 1948 he was the greatest living poet, had just won the Nobel Prize, and so on. But “one editor to another” gave me the courage to ask him whether he agreed that most editors were failed writers.