Abbreviated Span of ‘Penguin Lives’: Viking Pulls Out

The Penguin Lives boutique biography series-a collaboration between Viking publishing, former New York Times Magazine editor James Atlas and former deputy mayor and financier Kenneth Lipper-is kaput.

Mr. Atlas, the general editor for Penguin Lives, told Off the Record that after publishing 22 of the diminutive, handsomely designed hardcover books pairing noted authors with an eclectic range of subjects ranging from Napoleon to Rosa Parks, Viking-a division of Penguin-Putnam-has decided to pull out of the venture.

“They’re closing it down. No real explanation was given,” Mr. Atlas said. “It was a question of its place in the corporate structure. It fit well, but it didn’t always fit well.”

Mr. Lipper was traveling on business and unavailable for comment, said a representative of Mr. Lipper’s asset-management and investment-banking company. But sources with knowledge of the situation said that the financial problems incurred by Lipper & Co.-in March, Mr. Lipper closed two of his convertible-bond funds after they lost a collective $300 million in 2001-precipitated the collapse of Penguin Lives.

In the wake of the financial difficulties, sources said, Mr. Lipper opted to close his publishing company, Lipper Books, which held a stake with Viking in the biography series. Left without a partner, executives at Penguin-Putnam decided to stop further production, sources said.

Paul Slovak, a representative of Viking, declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Lipper Books. Mr. Slovak acknowledged that the Penguin Lives series was profitable, but told Off the Record that after publishing for “what will be four years, now is a good time to take a breather and to consider future projects without the demanding publication schedule.”

Both Viking and Mr. Atlas said that Viking is still responsible for publishing 12 more Penguin Lives books, taking the partnership through the beginning of 2004. But no more books will be assigned, both parties said.

Launched in 1999, Penguin Lives was a literary child of that increasingly distant era of joint ventures and cross-branding relationships, when Harvey Weinstein and Tina Brown were getting into bed with the folks at Hearst, and Steve Brill was getting money from Barry Diller, among others, to launch Brill’s Content .

The idea for the Penguin Lives series was relatively simple: famous authors profiling famous people in 200 pages or less. It was hoped that the books, in a Weinsteinesque turn, could provide Mr. Lipper with the basis for feature films and documentaries. Mr. Lipper, the author of novelizations of the films Wall Street and City Hall , won an Oscar in 1999 as a co-producer for the Academy Award–winning Holocaust documentary The Last Days.

The sudden ending also comes as a blow to Mr. Atlas, who first came up with the concept in 1996 as he struggled to make progress on his own biography of the writer Saul Bellow. Mr. Lipper came up with the idea of publishing the books as a series, and the two gave the line a public persona, a buzz and an identity that a series of books-especially biographies-would normally lack. “Ken is obviously significant in New York,” Mr. Atlas said. “But I’m a biographer; I know writers.”

From its beginning, the Penguin Lives series operated more like a magazine than a traditional publishing house, with assignments handed out to writers whom the editors wanted to use for particular subjects.

“I liked the freewheeling aspect,” Mr. Atlas said. “What would work, what wouldn’t work, what would be gripping for the writer? We wanted to tap into the writer’s obsession, creating energy. Sometimes we went to writers we admired. With some we had an idea in mind, like [Karen Armstrong on] Buddha or [Roy Blount on] Robert E. Lee.” Some writers got to pick their own subjects: When the historian Garry Wills was approached about participating in the series, he said sure, but only if he could write about St. Augustine.

But some at the company were not always pleased with the series’ eclecticism. One source with knowledge of the situation indicated that tension persisted between some executives, who wanted the series to produce biographies of bigger-name subjects, and Mr. Atlas, whose tastes tended to lean toward the tweedy.

For his part, Mr. Atlas said: “I’m happy to be commercial; I’m not some kind of highbrow drudge. If it works, it works.

“Sometimes we differed,” Mr. Atlas continued. “I like commercial ideas, too. But we’re different companies with different expectations.” Mr. Atlas says that the series was profitable for Penguin and Lipper, but that “maybe it was the degree of profitability that was an issue.”

On a critical level, Penguin Lives was a success from the start. Robert Silvers, co-editor of The New York Review of Books , said the series has been particularly good at combining narrative with critical appraisal. “In the case of, say, Martin Luther King,” Mr. Silvers said, “I think [author] Marshall Frady was able to evoke the personality of the man. He was able to make distinctions about him and what he called his ‘performance,’ his manner and success.

“I greatly admired a lot of the books,” Mr. Silvers said. “We reviewed quite a lot.”

Mr. Atlas was philosophical about the demise of Penguin Lives.

“You don’t get rich being a publisher,” Mr. Atlas told Off the Record. “People spend their lives in books because they love books. That’s never changed. It doesn’t yield great riches.”

Yet Mr. Atlas, who had famously written about wanting to join what he saw as the roster of the “sudden wealth” writers and artists in the Feb. 2, 1998, issue of The New Yorker -”Show me the money,” he lamented-does not appear ready to re-embrace a life entirely spent in the study. While he is writing a book called Life in the Middle Ages for HarperCollins, both he and Mr. Lipper had already made deals for a series on business and science with W.W. Norton. Mr. Atlas declined to comment on who might take on Mr. Lipper’s role with Norton. He insisted, however, that the Lives series will continue in some form.

“But,” Mr. Atlas said, “all that is in negotiation right now.”

Filming will begin this August on Shattered Glass , a big-screen drama about former New Republic liar-liar-pants-on-fire Stephen Glass. Hayden Christensen, currently loping around the galaxy as the teenage Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones , will play Mr. Glass, while the former chat-show host turned actor Greg Kinnear will play skeptical TNR editor Charles Lane.

An effort to locate Mr. Glass was unsuccessful, but Mr. Lane-now a reporter at The Washington Post -said he didn’t know about Mr. Kinnear until he started receiving e-mails with a June 20 report in The Hollywood Reporter . “I had no idea who Greg Kinnear was,” Mr. Lane told Off the Record. “I have two children. I don’t go to the movies.”

However, Mr. Lane said, “I did go and look up his work. He sounds like a good actor.”

Producer Craig Baumgarten said the movie was being done completely without the cooperation of Mr. Glass. “Nobody has spoken to Stephen Glass about this project or attempted to do so,” Mr. Baumgarten said.

-S.P.

On Monday, June 24, The Wall Street Journal ran a pretty standard “A-Hed”-its internal term for the quirky, offbeat piece that runs on the front page. The piece was about the booming black market in the United States for Italian chocolate eggs with toys at their center (deemed a choking hazard by the U.S.).

But the piece also included something that, even in today’s revamped, pastelized Journal , bordered on the revolutionary: an actual color photograph of the eggs within the column.

Of course, since its April redesign The Journal has featured limited photography on its front page. But Monday marked the first time in the history of the paper that a color photo appeared in its beloved “A-Hed,” which-like the rest of the front page-was once the sole domain of the paper’s signature “dot drawings.”

“In the old days,” explained Mike Miller, The Journal ‘s page 1 editor, “we’d have done a dot drawing. But a dot drawing of an egg in this case would not be satisfying to the reader, especially when you have this new option to use photographs in select cases.

“I think we’re still thinking of photos not as conventional metro-daily photos,” Mr. Miller continued, “but as graphic elements for narrower purposes.”

Asked if we might see more photos in that space, Mr. Miller said, “I don’t think we’d ever do photos of bugs or worms or people or any other things that work well as dot drawings.

“In this case,” Mr. Miller said, “we just really wanted people to see what the eggs looked like.”

-S.P.

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at spappu@observer.com.