Years ago, when he was publishing my first novel, Charles Scribner III told me a joke: "How do you make a small fortune in publishing?" The punch line: "Start with a large fortune."
The joke came to mind while reading "Hothouse," Boris Kachka's juicy history of the venerable publishing house Farrar Straus & Giroux. Roger Straus Jr., the man at the center of the firm, was a Guggenheim on his mother's side and a Straus — as in Abraham & Straus and Macy's department stores — on his father's. His wife, Dorothea Liebmann, was an heir to the Rheingold brewing fortune.
This legacy provided "just enough of a personal financial cushion," Kachka writes, to enable the black sheep of the Straus family to pursue the precarious occupation that became his passion.
In his first book, Kachka, who writes about literature for New York magazine, makes the case that FSG, home to more Nobel Prize-winners than any other publisher in the world — 25, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elias Canetti, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky and Mario Vargas Llosa — is "arguably the most important publisher of foreign works in the United States." More broadly, he contends that FSG "arguably set the intellectual tone of postwar America."
Despite the careful "arguablies," Kachka is unafraid to dish dirt in this solidly reported, lively chronicle. Making it clear that the company's moral tone was flabbier than its intellectual muscle, he writes that the office was "a cauldron of adultery," which "Dorothea Straus was perfectly justified in calling … a 'sexual sewer.'"
"Hothouse" is bound to be irresistible to anyone working in publishing and enticing to readers intrigued by how literature is cultivated — or was, in the days when the bottom line wasn't the dominant force that it's increasingly become. As with A. Scott Berg's "Max Perkins" and Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker," it's a delectable story about the intersection of art, commerce, passion and personalities.
Founded in 1946, FSG managed to buck publishing's trend toward conglomeration until 1994, when Straus, 77, unwilling to cede control to his only child, Roger Straus III, finally relented and sold his company to German publisher Holtzbrinck Verlagsgruppe. Before that, the firm went through numerous permutations, which often involved buying smaller companies in pursuit of their editorial or authorial talents. Kachka tackles the complicated history of this illustrious emporium largely through portraits — which are by no means hagiographies — of its changing cast of editors and writers.
Of these, Roger Straus Jr. is by far the most colorful. Kachka mentions his regular visits to FSG author John McPhee's writing classes at Princeton. Having attended one of these at age 19, I was shocked — shocked! — by the stream of four-letter words that punctuated Straus' swashbuckling tales of publishing crusades.
What I didn't know then was that Straus was as famous for his obscenity-laced speech, dapper pinstripe suits and silk ascots, beige Mercedes convertible, lunchtime affairs with women on his staff, fiscal chintziness and gregarious charm as he was for the beautiful books he published.
Kachka captures the flavor of Straus' outsize persona, "a meld of Guggenheim-heir hauteur and John Wayne brashness," by sprinkling a few of his profanities and his characteristic "and so on and so forths" throughout the book. Some of Straus' most outrageous, politically incorrect remarks were aimed at homosexuals, though Kachka notes that the office is actually tolerant of gay men, including editors Robert Giroux, Michael di Capua and its current editor in chief, Jonathan Galassi.
If Straus was the driving force of FSG, Giroux provided its literary fuel. Where Straus came from rich German-Jewish families and flunked out of multiple schools, Giroux was the reticent — but by no means ego-less — Catholic son of a Jersey City factory foreman. While attending Columbia on scholarship, he befriended classmates John Berryman and Thomas Merton. He cut his literary chops at Harcourt, Brace, and when he left there in 1955 to become editor in chief of what was then Farrar Straus & Cudahy, he brought along many of his writers, including Edmund Wilson, Bernard Malamud, Hannah Arendt, Jean Stafford and her husband, Robert Lowell.
Giroux's name was finally added to the company masthead in 1964, two years after Sheila Cudahy's departure. He and Straus shared a pact never to retire, and they died within four years of each other, in 2008 and 2004, respectively.
In the many trade-offs inevitable in a book that aims to cover so much ground, partner John Farrar gets short shrift, while Jonathan Franzen's 2001 gaffe with Oprah Winfrey (in which Franzen expressed unease with being Winfrey's book club selection) occupies more narrative real estate than it deserves. Still, the list of extraordinary writers Kachka manages to discuss — Flannery O'Connor, Tom Wolfe, Carlos Fuentes, Susan Sontag, Jeffrey Eugenides, to name a few — makes reading "Hothouse" feel like a party where you're surprised to discover that you know — and admire — most of the other guests.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org and the Washington Post and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.
The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux
Simon & Schuster: 432 pp., $28