The King of Frankfurt and the Rise of FSG

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

Boris Kachka’s book, Hothouse, examines the people who turned publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux into the US literary powerhouse that it still is today.

By Dylan Foley

Hothouse by Boris KachkaFor 35 years, Roger Straus would swagger into the Frankfurt Book Fair, going through the neo-Baroque gates of the Festhall, wearing his bespoke wide-pinstriped suits and an ascot, a mixture of high-born privilege and gruff John Wayne attitude. Straus had founded the great American literary press Farrar, Straus and Giroux and made himself into the sailor-mouthed prince of New York publishing. Straus’ triumphant return every year to Frankfurt was an event in its own right. He was known as the King of the Book Fair.

At Straus’ side was Peggy Miller, his longtime secretary, gatekeeper, and confidant. For Straus, Frankfurt was five days of hard-driving deals, trading bawdy publishing gossip and going to parties in his chauffeured Mercedes with his friends and admirers from the major European publishing houses, including Siegfried Unseld of Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag and Matthew Evans of Britain’s Faber and Faber.

Straus forms the ribald center of Boris Kachka’s new book Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Simon and Schuster), an in-depth look at the creation and ascendancy of FSG in the New York book world and its championing foreign novelists, Nobel laureates and great literature and poetry, from Susan Sontag to Edmund Wilson, to Tom Wolfe  and Jonathan Franzen.

Hothouse also focuses on Robert Giroux, the legendary editor, who joined FSG as editor in chief in 1955, and who was tremendously influential in shaping the vision of the initially struggling press, bringing writers like T.S. Eliot, Jean Stafford and the American monk-philosopher Thomas Merton to FSG.

Straus was the product of a marriage between the Guggenheim and Straus families, two great Jewish manufacturing and business dynasties. Straus dropped out of high school and later dropped out of college. After a stint in the U.S. Navy Office of Public Information in World War II, he founded FSG with an investment of $360,000 in 1946.

An Interesting Lack of Intellectuality

Boris Kachka says the sex and gossip are not the point — what FSG represents is.

Boris Kachka says the sex and gossip are not the point — what FSG represents is.

“Roger Straus Jr. was a hard person to understand, because of the milieu he came from,” said the 37-year-old Kachka, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, in a coffee shop near his Brooklyn home. Kachka has been covering the publishing world since 2007. “Who knows what it is like to grow up a Guggenheim? I found his lack of intellectuality very interesting. There is no point in writing a book where all the answers are obvious. You have to ask some really confusing questions to start. How could this person who didn’t seem to want to finish anything — a play, a book, a story, how did he wind up standing for all that was good in literature? A lot of it had to do with Giroux, but Straus was supple and adaptable when he was younger.”

From the founding of the press in the late 1940s, Straus turned his attention to Europe, buying translation rights for great Italian and French writers like Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia and Marguerite Yourcenar at bargain rates. Straus also developed a reputation as a hard bargainer, and as publisher was known for his low salaries for his staff and paltry advances for his authors. The “Straus discount” became shorthand for low pay for rewarding work by both editors and writers.

The heyday of FSG started when Straus hired Robert Giroux, an extremely talented editor who was being mistreated at Harcourt Brace, where the publisher had blocked Giroux’s purchase of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Where Straus was a wealthy and flamboyant publisher who loved his extravagant publishing lunches with writers and agents, Giroux was a self-made editor who had come from a poor French-Canadian Catholic family. Giroux ate the same lunch everyday — a turkey sandwich and Jello at his desk for the four decades he worked at FSG. Giroux championed such writers as Flannery O’Connor and Bernard Malamud.

In writing about FSG, Kachka found that the historical memory was split into to camps. “I would talk to people and see that there were Giroux partisans and Straus partisans,” said Kachka. “Usually, the Giroux partisans said that it wasn’t worth writing the book because Straus would be the hero. There were other people who didn’t exactly dismiss Giroux but thought Straus was the interesting one.”

Sex and Gossip: Low Hanging Fruit

One of Straus’ main legends at FSG was his prolific sex life and many adulteries. His socialite wife Dorothea referred to FSG as “a sexual sewer,” and there were numerous office affairs and stories of after-hours sex in the mailroom.

“There’s been a lot written about the gossip and the sex in the book,” said Kachka, “but for people who knew Roger, it was low hanging fruit.”

When it comes to comic sex, “Hothouse” does not disappoint. At one point in the 1960s, Straus was sleeping with three women at the same time, including a switchboard operator and publicity director. On another occasion, two women friends who were working at FSG and both sleeping with Straus bought matching bathrobes for him, so he would be comfortable at their apartments.

“Sex was the first subject that people brought up when I asked them about Straus,” said Kachka. “His brother’s widow wrote me recently. She liked the book but said without prompting, ‘Roger was a sexual predator. We all knew Roger was a sexual predator.’”

In 1960, the young writer and budding essayist and critic Susan Sontag published her first book with FSG. For Straus and Sontag, it was egocentric love at first sight. Straus and Sontag were known to wear matching leather jackets for nights out on the town and there were rumors that he was sleeping with the bisexual Sontag.

How to Keep a Publishing House Alive

Hothouse is great fun to read, with much inside baseball information about the publishing industry, with stories like Roger Straus saving Edmund Wilson from jail and the IRS in the early 1960s by buying Wilson’s gossipy diaries and by “prepaying” Wilson’s advance money to payoff IRS debts. There is also much about the mechanics of building a great American press from scratch and FSG’s survival during times of anemic profit margins.

S&S’s promotion of Hothouse plays on the publishing industry appeal of the book. In a pre-pub mailer sent to 5,000 industry professionals, the copy said, “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT ASKING US FOR A FREE COPY.”

Kachka’s book, however, should hit a larger audience outside of New York publishing because it is a rip-roaring tale of American intellectual culture after the war, and how this culture changed as independent publishing houses were sucked up by corporations and when writers like Philip Roth and Ian Frazier realized they were worth more money for their books.

Hothouse is beautifully researched. Kachka waded through the 850-box FSG archive at the New York Public Library. He interviewed Tom Wolfe and the late Carlos Fuentes, as well as the interview-adverse John McPhee. He also spoke to Jonathan Galassi, the wary publisher of the present FSG. “Galassi was very magnanimous,” said Kachka. “He thought, at worst, he’d be portrayed in a slightly unflattering way, but it was an opportunity to talk up FSG. He really believes in FSG.”

A major breakthrough in Kachka’s research was gaining the trust of Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’ confidant of 40 years.

“As far as Peggy Miller,” said Kachka, “a part of her wants this story to be told. She loved Roger Straus and all he stood for. Peggy knew that she was the conduit for his point of view.”

In a humorous aside, Kachka noted that Straus had given permission to Miller to throw out the occasional letter or document with content that might be damaging to FSG. Thus, Miller threw out Sontag’s blistering letter to Straus when she left FSG over money issues.

Publishing as Hazing

The old offices of FSG on Union Square, a part of Manhattan then filled with junkies and derelicts, were famous for their dingy, crowded conditions, with observers comparing FSG to a Dickensian sweatshop.

“The cheapness of staff salaries and book advances was almost part of the psychology of the place,” said Kachka. “It’s a sort of hazing. ‘Do you really want to work here? If so, this is what you have to put up with.’ In practical terms, it made sense, too, because they had razor-thin margins.”

The commitment to FSG authors in the Straus-Giroux era was unparalleled. The New Yorker writer John McPhee published 13 books with FSG with tiny advances and modest sales, before his 14th book, Coming into the Country, sold 140,000 copies, finally putting him on the publishing map.

In the mid-1970s, Tom Wolfe was trapped at FSG, owing a $21,000 advance for a novel he couldn’t finish. When Wolfe had trouble ending his book on the U.S. space program, he was referred to in the office as “egg bound,” meaning a chicken who couldn’t get the egg out, but Strauss was loyal to him. Published in 1979, The Right Stuff became a major FSG hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 25 weeks.

Money Changes Everything

FSG’s clubby atmosphere of low advances and coddled intellectual writers received a major shock to the system in the 1980s. Enter “The Jackal,” the superagent Andrew Wylie, who started poaching FSG writers for larger publishers. Suddenly, there was a  mindboggling jump in author advances. As an unknown but promising writer, Susan Sontag was paid $500 for her first novel The Benefactor in 1961. By 1989, Sontag was one of America’s leading intellectuals. Straus’ advance offer for four books by Sontag of  $850,000 was not enough. She left FSG.  Wylie also snatched up the novelist Philip Roth, getting him a $1.8 million advance for three books from Simon & Schuster.

Over the first five decades that Straus ran FSG, he styled himself as a champion of the independent presses. As iconic publishing houses like Knopf, Random House and Simon & Schuster were acquired by corporations, Straus crowed that FSG was still an independent publisher.

Straus also engaged in epic battles with Dick Snyder, the publisher of S&S, over authors. When FSG editor Henry Robbins left for S&S for a major salary bump, Straus fought tooth and nail to prevent Robbins from taking any of his writers, such as Joan Didion and Donald Barthelme, to his new house. After many brutal phonecalls, Straus succeeded. Straus often reveled in his street-fighting skills. At one point he told a colleague over another fierce battle he’d picked, “I’m a vindictive Jew.”

Eventually Straus sold FSG to the German conglomerate Holzbrinck in 1994, surprising his staff.  but managing to secure a large amount of autonomy for the press from its new corporate overlords. Straus died in 2004 and Giroux died in 2008.

Kachka briefly covers the FSG of the present under Jonathan Galassi, where the literary hits keep coming. There is a nuanced exploration of Jonathan Franzen’s  2001 screw up with the Oprah Book Club. After 10 years of writing The Corrections in a metaphorical cave, Franzen was painfully ambivalent over the inevitable massive book sales the Oprah Winfrey pick guaranteed. To the horror of FSG publicists, Franzen tossed off awkward lines like “The Oprah selection will probably not sit well with the writers I hang out with or the readers who have been my core audience.”

Other bestselling authors do not always portray themselves in the best light. Thomas Friedman, during the 2005 race up the bestseller charts with The World is Flat, marked himself as a jerk. First, Friedman had an inordinate obsession with goosing his Amazon rankings and made FSG send more books to the online retailer. Friedman also screamed at an FSG publicity assistant, “Do you know who I am? I’m Thomas f—ing Friedman, and I pay your f—ing salary!” The book sold 1.5 million in hardcover.

“What’s the definition of journalism?” asked Kachka, referring to the Friedman episode. “It’s something that people don’t want you to know. What you see is the contrast of Friedman as ‘the Mustache of Understanding’ and the way that Friedman is with people.”

The Charismatic Publishers of Today

During the interview with Kachka, the subject of charismatic publishers came up. In 1950’s New York, the publishing world had three major characters — Straus, Barney Rosset at Grove Press, who bankrupted his family fortune fighting the noble anti-censorship battles, and James McLaughlin at New Directions. Was there any publisher of a small or midsized press who had the charisma of a Straus and the possibility of becoming a major publishing player, like FSG had become?

“Both Melville and Europa are midsized presses,” said Kachka. “Europa has a business model that really works, mainly because it caters to an underserved market. You take entertaining, literate books that no one else is looking to translate. You do those and you are going to have some big hits. The publisher Kent Carroll comes from old school publishing. He used to be the editor in chief at Grove Press and then founded Carroll and Graf. He’s very distinguished. He’s probably about 70…he thought Roger was too crass. You still have Peter Mayer at Overlook. He’s still very much in charge…his daughter works there, so it’s a family firm. And then there is Denis Johnson of Melville House, who is always the guy vocally defending the independents.

“It’s a different era,” said Kachka. “It’s hard to compare The Atavist,” the online publisher, “to the independent presses because they have all this corporate tech funding. There is McSweeney’s, which does experiments with interactive books. One thing a growing house needs is energy. It’s hard to look ahead into brave new formats when you’re devoted to old values and to a specific niche like Europa. They’re going to keep doing what they are doing, but I don’t see them growing into an FSG at this point. I think this is going to have to come from someone solving all the problems that publishers are going through, like distribution.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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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.