On a recent afternoon, a high-ranking editor at Random House Inc. was asked to discuss the Applebaum brothers, the two most powerful siblings in New York publishing.
“I’m hanging up the phone in five seconds unless you change the subject,” the editor said.
Stuart Applebaum, 53, the corporate spokesman for Random House Inc., the world’s largest trade publisher, and his younger brother Irwyn Applebaum, 48, president of Bantam Dell Publishing Group, the biggest mass market publisher (John Grisham, Danielle Steele) and most lucrative division of Random House-have earned a distinction for themselves among their colleagues. In a time of economic turmoil and soft book sales, they represent the hard nosed, highly commercial, post-literary future of the Bertelsmann-owned company, and, in some ways, of American publishing itself.
“We don’t ask our readers to pass an IQ test to buy our books,” said Irwyn Applebaum. Literary and commercial, he said, were “not terribly meaningful terms.”
After the ouster of Ann Godoff as president and publisher of the Random House Trade Group on Jan. 16, the brothers have fended off the accruing perception-including reported stories in The New York Times -that they helped orchestrate a coup, ushering out the decidedly “literary” Ms. Godoff and inserting their protégé, Gina Centrello, as head of the newly formed Random House Ballantine Group. The new group is a publishing centaur in which the commercial head, Ballantine, sits atop the literary body, Random House.
Those who posit an Applebaum coup make this construction: Irwyn Applebaum, the star breadwinner for Random House chief executive officer Peter Olson, resented Ms. Godoff’s whiff of elitism and her large payments to authors and agents. And Stuart Applebaum penned the press release from Mr. Olson in which the CEO bluntly rebuked Ms. Godoff for “failure to meet the company’s financial targets.”
Publishing staffers within and outside the company have been gripped by both awe and resentment. One longtime executive at Random House Inc. told The Observer, “There’s no question that they manipulated the Gina and Ann Godoff thing. They’re the two most influential people on Peter’s thinking. Stuart is very influential. And Irwyn is influential because he’s the business role model: Bantam is extremely profitable and extremely uninteresting. That’s what Peter likes.”
Stuart Applebaum laughed at the whole idea.
And he laughed for Irwyn, too.
“He would get a good laugh out of that,” said Stuart Applebaum. “Influential? I doubt whether Irwyn ever discusses anything in the company other than the Bantam Dell business.
“That theory,” he went on, “suggests that Random House is run like a high school sorority, with an in-crowd and a concern for who’s popular, which is absurd. The notion that Peter made the decision he made because of the personalities involved makes for lively reading but is pure fiction. Pure fiction.”
Nevertheless, Stuart Applebaum’s press release on Ms. Godoff’s departure was as direct and unambiguous as a belch in a cathedral nave. Mr. Applebaum wrote it but said, “Mr. Olson knew exactly what was being said in the press release and its potential impact on the world.” The company has not yet found a new editor in chief.
Irwyn Applebaum refused to discuss Ann Godoff, other than to say that theories of his own involvement in her firing are “preposterous.” And he denied that he had anything to do with the rise to power of Gina Centrello, the woman he worked with for seven years at Pocket Books and who reportedly delivers pizza to his desk on his birthday each year. Mr. Applebaum was president and publisher and Ms. Centrello was a managing editor. Ms. Centrello jumped to the publishing side of the business soon after Mr. Applebaum’s arrival and reportedly began to shape Ms. Centrello’s identity, and she his.
“She steadied Irwyn and made him a little more palatable to the world,” said one former associate of Irwyn Applebaum. “He doesn’t really impress agents or authors-so you need someone in between who can put a better, more appealing face forward. At Pocket, Gina was that person.”
“I learned as much from her as she did from me,” Irwyn Applebaum said, taking issue with the mentor-protégé construction. As for Ms. Centrello, she said that Irwyn Applebaum “was my mentor,” then agreed with him, “but I like to think we learned a lot from each other.”
But might Irwyn, by virtue of his kinship with Stuart, have had at least a little inside influence on the appointment?
“I don’t feel the need to discuss that,” said Irwyn Applebaum. “You can safely surmise that if both of us were not the soul of discretion, we wouldn’t have our high level jobs.”
Stuart Applebaum, an extrovert and sound-byte expert dubbed “the consiglieri ” by insiders, has been the media mouthpiece for CEOs dating back to Alberto Vitale, the Random House chief in the 1990’s. Irwyn Applebaum is a self-described shut-in who eats tuna melt sandwiches at his desk and avoids cocktail parties. He is so married to Bantam Dell he married a fellow Bantam employee.
Stuart Applebaum, a lifelong bachelor, an avid dater, “cuts a wide swath” with the ladies, according to a former girlfriend, and lives on the Upper East Side. Irwyn Applebaum, a family man with a daughter, lives in the northern Westchester town of Golden’s Bridge. They both stand over six feet tall and, like Harvey and Bob Weinstein, suck up a lot of oxygen when they enter a room.
While the Applebaums have attracted the resentment of many in publishing, little of it is noted outside their realm.
“I would say they’re both sociophobes and have really bad social skills,” said Fran McCullough, a former senior editor at Bantam Books, who left after her cookbook program was terminated by Irwyn Applebaum in 1996. Ms. McCullough, who now writes cookbooks for Scribner, called Irwyn “very smart” and a “good writer.” She said “he can be very moving.” But she also said she was amazed that he and his brother had “come into power,” considering their personalities.
Those who know them say the Applebaums are polar opposites of celebrity publishers like Sonny Mehta, the chain-smoking, swashbuckling head of Alfred A. Knopf.
“They’re very unassuming,” said Elisa Petrini, a former senior editor who worked with Irwyn Applebaum at Bantam Dell for four years and once saw Stuart Applebaum romantically. “They’re never going to step up and grab the spotlight. They keep their heads down.”
Both Applebaum brothers would say that that’s how they prefer it. Irwyn said he had recently seen “Harrison Ford on TV complaining how terrible it is to be popular-it’s not something I’ve ever sought out. On the other hand, if I had his looks and talent, perhaps it would be different.”
But the Applebaum brothers make up for it in other ways. “Their focus is constantly on business, so they catch people off guard,” said one former Bantam associate, who declined to be named. “The stakes are not that high in book publishing, but to them it’s life and death, every day, and they wage their business like war.”
Ms. Petrini called the Applebaum brothers “absolutely fascinating.” She cited their sense of loyalty. “They are a little Sicilian in that respect,” said Ms. Petrini. “I think if you piss off Irwyn, the door is going to be shut, that’s it. You could get back in his good graces, but it wouldn’t be easy.”
The brothers are pop culture junkies. They achieved huge success with movie tie-in books and celebrity biographies at Bantam Books in the late 1970’s. In 1984, Irwyn Applebaum wrote The World According to Beaver , a fan book for Leave It to Beaver devotees. Nevertheless, said Fran McCullough, “he believes very strongly that he has very amazing literary gifts, that he can run with the big boys on the literary stuff.”
The Dial Press, a literary imprint that is a division of Bantam Dell, is seen as Irwyn Applebaum’s pet literary patina project-a sort of personal hedge against the crass commercial material he makes so much money on. It is run by editor in chief Susan Kamil.
“He’s been extremely careful about making Susan happy, letting her have her head,” said Ms. McCullough.
“He was supportive of me, and continues to be,” said Ms. Kamil, a former Simon & Schuster editor who, like Ms. Centrello, met Irwyn Applebaum at Pocket in the mid-80’s.
But Irwyn Applebaum doesn’t believe in losing money simply for the cause of literature. As Ms. Petrini put it, “As long as you’re making money, you don’t argue with success. I think it is the loyalty thing he trusts.”
Would Irwyn Applebaum trust a woman like Ann Godoff? “I don’t think Irwyn is into any kind of snob,” Ms. Petrini said.
“I think he’s a populist at heart,” Fran McCullough said. “He’s very thrilled to have Stephen Hawking on his list; at the same time, he wants all his editors to read People magazine. His time is coming. This is what publishing is turning in to.”
“I can never remember encouraging anyone to read People magazine. Magazines, yes,” said Irwyn Applebaum. “I certainly read People every week.”
As a result of Irwyn Applebaum’s sense of publishing as a business and not a cultural foundation-and his stated distaste for the sort of high pay outs that Ms. Godoff was accused of making-he’s not popular with high-profile agents. “If we can do business, great,” he said, but “I don’t know of any responsible editor or publisher who would make a deal because they were friends of the agent. It’s not about the agents, it’s about the authors.”
Without invoking her name, Irwyn Applebaum seemed to be referring to Ms. Godoff, who worked closely with Suzanne Gluck, a William Morris literary agent, and Esther Newberg, senior vice president of ICM. Irwyn Applebaum then added, “I believe that all the publishers within the Random House group who have survived are putting most of their energy behind books and not into some social pecking order.”
Esther Margolis, a Bantam executive from 1963 to 1980 and now the president of independent publisher Newmarket Press, may be the person most responsible for conjuring up the Applebaum brothers. Ms. Margolis hired them at Bantam Books: Stuart in 1974, Irwyn in 1976. They all served under Oscar Dystel, the patriarch of Bantam and godfather of the modern paperback business, who retired in 1980.
Ms. Margolis recalled Stuart as a bright if “rough” kid, who had been reading Publishers Weekly and Variety every week since he 16. He had worked under Jane Friedman at Alfred A. Knopf in 1971, then did a stint in the movies, at MGM. “Stuart was very smart and very focused and his goal was to be the best publicist in New York,” she said. “I tried very hard to induct him into a more socially acceptable way. He had a socially awkward characteristic. Irwyn was a very different personality.”
Early in Stuart Applebaum’s career, said Ms. Margolis, he instilled a certain wariness among his colleagues. “People…would say to me, ‘You hired Stuart Applebaum ?'” she said. Her colleagues had the same reaction when Ms. Margolis brought Irwyn into the mix. “I suggested Irwyn to [associate publisher] Rena Wolner. Her first reaction was, ‘You want me to see Stuart’s brother ?’ No, no, he’s nothing like Stuart!”
Irwyn Applebaum, graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 1976, then started off as a temporary secretary to the publisher, eventually editing the westerns of Louis L’Amour. He did 21 of L’Amour’s books, with Stuart as publicist, before jumping to Pocket Books, the mass market division of Simon & Schuster, in 1985. During the Applebaums’ early years at Bantam, Ms. Margolis said she made it her job to steam and press the Applebaums’ image.
“I would hope they would give me some credit for their careers,” said Ms. Margolis, who said she remains friendly with Irwyn-they recently saw each other at the 90th birthday party of Mr. Dystel. But Stuart, she said, terminated their friendship after he took over her job as head of publicity at Bantam in 1980. “It saddened me, it really saddened me,” she said. “What I didn’t realize until after I was gone and people said different things to me, I didn’t realize how mean he was. So that upset me. I had basically given him an opportunity to hurt people. That made me feel bad. He’s a singular talent. I’m sure he’s a very lonely person.”
Said Stuart Applebaum: “I appreciate Esther’s having hired me. We’ve gone our separate ways. I prefer not to discuss it.”
Later, he added, “I have no animus and only appreciation for my work under her a long time ago. I know those who see life as an extended Camus novel would take issues there, but there are none in my mind.” As for Irwyn Applebaum, he said of Ms. Margolis, “I would not say we’re friends-we’re not enemies-we just don’t have much to do with one another.”
Both brothers were probably influenced more by Alberto Vitale, one-time CEO of Bantam Dell and eventually the CEO of Random House Inc., often called “The General.” “Alberto would call you into his office,” said one of his former employees, “and say, ‘Keep your eyes open and if you think there’s anything of interest to me’-in terms of behavior of people, something undermining to him-‘tell me about it.’ That was the way the company started to evolve.”
Mr. Vitale said that “input from the rank and file was very important to me,” that “the people in the trenches know what’s going on in the company.” But former associates said Stuart Applebaum took to that quasi-paranoid style-keeping his eyes peeled for palace intrigue-and flourished.
“Stuart has operated from behind the scenes and put on this face, ‘Oh, I’m only a PR guy,'” said the former Bantam associate. “But he’s been involved in every, every decision.”
In 1982, Stuart got involved in a very public book acquisition, nabbing Lee Iaccoca for the best-selling memoir, Iaccoca: A Memoir . He had met Mr. Iaccoca through their mutual barber, Gio Hernandez, a man who eventually threatened to sue Bantam for an agenting fee, but backed down when a company attorney turned on the heat. Regardless, the affair embarrassed Stuart and he never branched out from his job as spokesman again. Still, he looked back wistfully on the book’s sales: seven million copies.
“I wish I could find a few more books like that,” he said. “I wish the business had a few more books like that.”
The Applebaums’ loyalty has varied over the years. Steve Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday-Broadway Publishing Group, had been part of the close-knit early years at Bantam Dell, working with Oscar Dystel. And at Doubleday, Mr. Rubin had cut a deal with Irwyn Applebaum to publish the mass market paperback version of The Program, by Stephen White. According to a Random House executive familiar with the situation, Irwyn stole Mr. White away to Bantam Dell.
Mr. White “wanted to change publishers and we had a hard-soft deal with him,” said Irwyn Applebaum, “it was his decision to request that he go hard-soft with the Bantam Dell group. And Doubleday agreed.” Mr. Rubin declined to comment, but the Random House executive said Mr. Rubin “was livid. It caused much bad blood.”
And Alberto Vitale was said to have been stunned by his cold treatment by the Applebaums-particularly Stuart-when he departed the company in 1998. Reached for comment, Mr. Vitale called both brothers “extraordinarily talented.” But he also said the Applebaums rarely spoke to him again after his departure.
“When I left, during all my tenure at Random House, I had a very close relationship with Stuart Applebaum,” Mr. Vitale said. “After that, it was reduced to a trickle, if that much.” As for Irwyn Applebaum, Mr. Vitale said they were still friends, but “we never saw each other for lunch or breakfast.
“What it says about them,” Mr. Vitale said, “is they are either very, very busy or they only pay attention to the business or they are not very smart at keeping relationships even after one is with the company-take your pick.”
But starting in 1999, the year he turned 50, Stuart Applebaum may have begun making some efforts to reform and rekindle old relationships. That year, he donated $100,000 to the Queensborough Public Library, and later another $100,000 to the library at Queens College, from which he graduated in 1971. He dedicated the latter gift to the memory of a third Applebaum brother, Edward, who died in the late 90’s.
That same year, on his 50th birthday, Sept. 19, Stuart threw himself a party. Irwyn booked the restaurant-Quatorze on East 79th Street-and Stuart put together the 50-head guest list, a who’s who of publishing: Mr. Olson; Phyllis Grann, then-CEO of Penguin Putnam; Ms. Centrello; Mr. Rubin; and Mr. Vitale.
At the end of the evening, Mr. Applebaum handed each of his guests an envelope: Inside was a note that declared that $1,000 had been donated to their favorite charity in their name.
It was a powerful expression of what he wanted to be, and wanted to be seen as.
“Over the months that led up to it,” said Stuart Applebaum, “I discreetly asked them what were some of the charitable endeavors in which they participated.” He invited “people who had made a difference in my life over the years. I wanted to give something on their behalf to a larger world.”