Roger W. Straus Adored A Rascal-And So Did I

Roger Straus’ funeral was a dirgelike gathering at Temple Emanu El with solemn talk from the rabbi about Guggenheims and the Torah and Roger’s Calling. The newspapers have kept up a Gregorian chant as well, about the world of small publishers that is no more. Next fall, there will be some packed memorial where the Gods of Literature descend on golden wires to extol Roger’s contribution to the culture.

That is all well and good. Roger was a great publisher. Farrar, Straus & Giroux was a noble holdout. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Derek Wolcott. Etc. But to know Roger, and love him, wasn’t really about Literature and Culture. I’m trying to remember if I ever saw him wield a pen. Roger loved pleasure and fun and mischief, Roger fled bores like the plague and then told you about them. Roger never had a pious sober or correct thought in the three years that I hung around him. Why is it that the people who do anything interesting seem to take themselves so unseriously? Roger W. Straus Jr. was an elegant rascal; Roger was bad.

I met Roger in 1994. I was desperate for a father figure that I could adore, not some stuffy mentor, and Roger was desperate for what he was always desperate for- amusement, interest, the latest jellybean, as his old friend Edmund Wilson called young writers. “I’m just a truffle hunter; I like to find truffles,” Roger said, slathering his bread with butter, fixing another gob of butter to the roll with the side of his thumb. His voice in that rich dark throaty lion’s purr. Masculine, silver, vain, sexy.

Then he invited me to be a Farrar, Straus author and pulled the velvet bell rope on the whole world of fancy literature. In Paris, my publisher would be Gallimard. “In England, I am thinking, Faber & Faber.” None of that happened (my book was good, but it wasn’t all that good), and meantime Roger flirted on the phone with my wife and took me to lunch at his corner table at the Union Square Cafe, had us to candlelit dinners at his place in the East 70’s or to lunch at his Westchester dacha.

The parties were always a few writers, underpaid and serious, in dark suits cobbled together, lovingly sucking the Cubans amid this shockingly aristocratic spread. Roger in his ascots and white shoes, servants-they were white, too-greenhouses, caviar, blinis, champagne, cigars, old cognac and so forth. Roger was insensitive in the way that all men of action are. He had no problems pouring money down over himself while the writers were poor as church mice. In his golden age, Roger used to send a limo in to pick up Edmund Wilson, the dean of American literature, and bring him out to the country, and meanwhile Wilson would be itching for $2,000 here, $3,000 there to keep the furnace going.

Philip Roth wanted more than that. “That is when Philip and I got a divorce,” Roger said, pronouncing it divawce , with his Anglo catarrh. Divorcing Philip Roth! I had the impression that Roger had gotten divorces with lots of folks. He enjoyed divorces and feuds.

He squirmed when writers wanted real money, but he loved to tip them grandly, like waiters: He preferred the $2,000 or $3,000 coin-toss to the giant advance. “Don’t you need some walking-around money?” he said when I was going out West on a story. My wife shook Roger down for $2,000 for a book party, although Roger then instructed her carefully on how to throw it.

“Invite everybody and don’t get too big a room. I like a party where everyone had to breathe at the same time. Don’t spend anything on the wine. Have you ever been to a cocktail party where someone said, ‘Oh boy, this wine is good!'” Laughing his velvet laugh. “Now that is a bad party.”

The other thing he did was send us books. He was always sending over new and old volumes-Edmund Wilson, Czeslaw Milosz, Derek Wolcott-like bottles of wine. He seemed to see it as his role to cultivate me and my wife like fig trees in his greenhouse, to instruct us in the best way to

live. These are some of the true joys of life, he was saying, good books.

Did Roger read? I think in the way people who know wine drink wine. He picked around in there, found what interested him. “The punch takes longer to hit the jaw,” was his pronouncement on my latest rewrite of my first novel, and in its way that was enough; he was right. Someone in The Times wrote that Roger had excellent taste. That’s wrong. Roger wasn’t about taste; he had a deeper vision than that. It was about soul and energy.

Taste is twisted up with fashion and glamour and appropriateness, the haute bourgeoisie. Roger wasn’t interested by taste. Roger liked to grow carnations. Who grows carnations? No one in any gardening magazine. But carnations pleased Roger, so he grew them. Maybe they reminded him of his boutonnieres ….

The best example is when I asked him about the writer Deborah Eisenberg, what did she look like?

“She’s not pretty,” he said. “She’s like your wife. She’s better than pretty.” Then I felt the error of my own taste. Better than pretty. That was true discernment.

Gossiping about women is what made Roger run. “That one’s a ball-crusher,” he’d pronounce in a sly whisper. This new restaurant looks just like a bordello, he told Edmund Wilson, making him laugh. The only line-editing Roger ever did that I can think of was when, in some lone motion of discretion, he cut a description of the writer Penelope Gilliat’s red bush from Wilson’s last published diaries, The Sixties . Though of course Roger loved to tell the story: “It was very exciting-she had a flaming red bush.” There is a funny story in The Sixties where Roger tells Wilson about going out to lunch with a new Italian writer who brought her two children. The 6-year-old boy’s fly was open, and the little girl kept putting her hand in and playing with him.

“No dear, not here,” the mother said.

Naughty talk kept Roger alive. “Don’t worry, I’ll talk dirty to her,” he said, assuring me he would smooth a deal out with my agent. He used to parade around town with his mistress-that was an open secret-and he took a lively interest when I told him about an editor friend’s affair.

“So,” he said with shrewd interest. “It’s begun now in your generation, has it?”

The newspapers found Roger’s quotes outrageous, and I think that both surprised him and encouraged him. He liked taking the stuffing out of anyone. When he introduced me to the vaunted editor Elisabeth Sifton, he assured me not to worry about the fact that she was the daughter of the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. “Oh yes, and her father was-that Thing,” he said, grabbing that simple word from the air.

He took the air out of himself too: “I moved around in college. I finished up at the University of Missouri, in the West. At that time, the hand of man had not set foot in that part of the world.”

The Times obit informs me that when the war came, able-bodied Roger spent it with a playboy buddy doing publicity for the Navy-in New York, of course. Not the sort of service they talk about on Memorial Day. Which is to say that others probably paid a price for all the fun Roger had. The grim burnt air that assaulted the nostrils in the rickety Farrar, Straus offices over Union Square may have had to do with the fact that so many people were doing so much work on very little pay while Roger danced out in his white shoes to have caviar, and called the interns “darling” and “babe.” My view of Roger’s domestic scene was a sparse but sprawling Roman ruin, pillars tilted and broken, a few distant figures in togas. Roger’s one son was all but out of the picture; he’d left Farrar, Straus a long time ago for a more obscure publishing arc. If you had daddy issues as big as my daddy issues, it was inevitable that you would paint yourself into that scene of broken pillars-and sure enough, I did. I wrote an article about the dacha in this newspaper some years ago. Probably a big mistake.

But Roger could adore a scoundrel, and so could I.

“A fart in the wind, my dear, just a fart in the wind,” Roger said at first, dismissing it.

But others didn’t take it lightly. Soon I was being accused by a family member of writing anonymous letters about Roger’s mistress. Egad, things got byzantine and Iris Murdoch in a big hurry. So I had to go. So long to Gallimard and Faber and the sunny valley of Literature.

Roger regretfully announced our divorce to me at the Union Square Cafe, at his corner table. Is this because you don’t like my new book? I said. No, no, the book is fine, it’s not about the book, he said. (Although the book never did find a publisher.) I stared down at the crab cocktail I hadn’t eaten, and after that at the beautiful swordfish that also arrived, untouched, and thought of bolting then and there. I don’t have to sit still for this.

I sat still for it. Roger was my father figure, and even if he was a rascal, he was as liver-spotted as a lobster and deference was owed. He spoke lovingly to me. He said that he would always look out for me, that I should call him when I needed advice. But I should go out and find a young editor.

Someone who could grow up with me, could bring me along. He was old; he wasn’t going to be around forever. I’d never heard him speak so seriously, with a gravelly solemnity and sincerity, and everything he said was true, though I couldn’t see it then, as I couldn’t see the dark blotches under his beautiful cuffs from an IV, or some other medical procedure. No, my world went black, the curtain came down on the sun, the way it does when you lose your true love. (And for years to come, I’d command my wife not to buy Farrar, Straus books, till we had no choice-for who else was doing such interesting stuff?)

At last I couldn’t take it any more and, with a formal gesture, I stood up. We both said we’d stay in touch, but it was the last time we’d ever see one another, the last time we spoke. Oh, Roger! Then I did what you should do with a great spirit that brings you to life. I kissed him.

(Thanks to Rachel Donadio for her reporting on the funeral.)