The American Gentleman: Roger Straus in Frankfurt

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At first publisher Roger Straus was reticent to come to Germany for a book fair, but once he did, the legendary publisher made friends, struck deals, and left a lasting legacy.

By Boris Kachka

Roger W. Straus, Jr., the exuberant founder of Farrar, Straus & Giroux who died in 2004, carried himself like a born leader, a man who kept his own council for better or worse. But what finally got him to Frankfurt was peer pressure.

By the mid-1960s, Straus was throwing regular book parties in his theatrical New York townhouse, and he usually held court with the great publishers of Europe — Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Ledig Rowohlt, Christophe Schlotterer — on his home turf. “We went to the Cote Basque, with Truman Capote and all his swans,” says Inge Feltrinelli, who took over her late husband’s firm. “He took us to all of his ‘in’ places.”

Rome and London were on Straus’s annual itinerary (and Rome was where he discovered his first prestigious writers, like Alberto Moravia and Carlo Levi). But for two decades he left the world’s largest international book fair in the hands of scouts who sat in a bare booth managed by a large distributor. It was uncharacteristic of Straus, who was always proudest of those deals that came as a direct result of his personal savvy and calibrated charm.

Finally, Frankfurt

“You are the man for Frankfurt,” the Feltrinellis said, but he resisted. “Half my family was killed by the Nazis,” he said, though most of his German-Jewish family had been in the U.S. since the nineteenth century. Hanser Verlag head Schlotterer and his deputy Michel Krüger laid on some extra pressure: “He said to me that we helped him to jump over this barrier,” says Krüger, who now runs Hanser. It was Straus’s assistant, Peggy Miller — later his indispensable right hand at Frankfurt — who pointed out that he’d already broken his ban on all things German. “I said to him, ‘If you can buy a Mercedes, you can go to Germany.’” (Before the Benz he had driven Chryslers, and could never have imagined that both his company and theirs would one day be owned by Germans.)

Roger took to the fair with the zeal of a convert. Before his first Frankfurt, in 1966, he wrote a key Italian scout from a venerable Jewish family to arrange his first German breakfast: “We Jewish boys will get ourselves some lox and celebrate.” The Feltrinellis set up a meal with the heads of Europe’s most prestigious houses — Gallimard, Suhrkamp, Rowohlt and perhaps ten others — and a clique formed almost instantly. “He was thrilled with the lunch,” says Feltrinelli, “and he became the king of the book fair.”

Just a year later, Roger was already referring to “my usual suite at the InterContinental,” though he’d soon switch to the far swankier Park Hotel. He brought along Michael Roloff, a German-American scout who had just brokered a nine-book deal for FSG to publish Herman Hesse. Roloff played “introductory beagle” in more ways than one. “I knew the alternative scene in Frankfurt,” he says, and remembers taking Roger to a representative gathering. “We waited for some grass to arrive, but it never did.”

The books arrived, though, in droves. Straus’s self-proclaimed “greatest coup” in Frankfurt was beating deep-pocketed American bidders to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, thanks to a face-to-face with Swiss-German publisher Otto Walter in 1971. The following year all of the dissident’s worldwide publishers met for cocktails and toasted the author in his absence.

The American Gentleman

For a publisher who traded literally on prestige, the timing of the Nobel Prize announcement for literature — usually during Frankfurt — couldn’t be better. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s award in 1978 meant the FSG stand was suddenly swamped, and remained so throughout the week. Two years later the bonanza came for Czeslaw Milosz. And yesterday along came Mario Vargas Llosa, FSG’s 23rd Nobel and another shot at some lightning sales.

Roger’s Frankfurt admirers like to call him the most European of American publishers, but what singled him out was a meld of Guggenheim-heir hauteur and John Wayne-style brashness. His many colorful ascots clashed boisterously with gangster-striped suits (he used Sammy Davis, Jr.’s tailor); his marbled mid-Atlantic accent was spiked with a New York tang. His gossip involved the naughty frolics of deep intellectuals, and one of his favorite toasts encapsulated the crass-class duality in one breath: “F*ck the peasants!” Roger and Europe regarded each other as most lovers do, treasuring not only their shared qualities but those that contrasted beautifully.

Nowhere was Roger more perfectly the embodiment of the American gentleman publisher than at that tiny Frankfurt stand, where Peggy Miller scheduled his appointments with German precision. “Mostly people were meeting in hotel suites to discuss the money business,” says Michel Kruger. “But Roger was always sitting there explaining his authors — his babies.”

Before long, Roger was doing what always made him feel most at home: hosting. His Saturday dinner party at the close of Frankfurt became the hot American affair. Usually held at La Truffe in the Park hotel, it involved a rotating cast of favored foreign publishers, and an invite was considered a great privilege. On Sunday he dressed down: “Roger came in for cocktails in a tweed jacket and a cashmere turtleneck sweater,” says Feltrinelli, “and this was a sign that work was over and he was going on holiday.”

Providing for the Next Generation

Roger and his firm were soon mentoring the next generation of European publishers. Young scions like Carl-Otto Bonnier interned at Farrar Straus. Dorotea Bromberg and her father met Roger in Frankfurt in the wake of Singer’s Nobel, and soon found themselves Singer’s new publishers. “He was so open-minded,” says Dorotea, “and didn’t mind that we’d just started. For me, he became immediately a kind of father publisher.”

Both Bonnier and Bromberg were — like Straus himself — from distinguished Jewish European families. Roger admired another such publisher, Fischer Verlag, whose managers had found wartime refuge in New York and even published Thomas Mann there. (Their host publisher was Harcourt Brace, and their office neighbor was wunderkind Robert Giroux, Roger’s future editor-in-chief.) Fischer — which coincidentally has a three-fish colophon, like FSG — was eventually sold to the Von Holtzbrinck Group, and in time Roger made the same decision. When he became reconciled to the idea of selling FSG, in 1994, he ignored the blandishments of American conglomerates and instead called only one person: Dieter Von Holtzbrinck.

Older Frankfurt attendees like to mourn the bygone days of the fair, when deals were struck on a handshake and dashing gentlemen strutted like peacocks across the showroom floor. But the friendships Roger Straus made on that floor were about the future. They allowed him to look beyond the crimes and injuries of history. They allowed him, too, to steer his firm safely past the sirens of American corporations, and over the shoals of his own inevitable death.

Boris Kachka covers publishing, books, and theater for New York Magazine. He is currently writing a book on the unique history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to be published in 2012 by Thomas Dunne Books, and would love to hear from anyone with stories to tell about the house. Email him at boris[DOT]kachka[AT]nymag[DOT]com.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 8 October 2010. Download the complete show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.