A few months before the publication of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch was distressed to learn that the book’s author, literary agent Bill Clegg, had never properly apologized to the business partner he abandoned while in the throes of his crack habit. That business partner, Sarah Burnes, now an agent at the Gernert Company, had not spoken to Mr. Clegg at all since he informed her in a drug-fueled email that he was leaving the boutique agency they’d opened together four years earlier.
It was an issue that would have been good to square away before the memoir’s publication. The fact that amends were never made would surely leave Mr. Clegg—who has been an agent at William Morris since his return to publishing four years ago—vulnerable to some pretty bad PR, when reporters writing potentially helpful fluff pieces started calling around asking questions.
So, in a meeting at Little, Brown offices with Mr. Clegg and agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Mr. Pietsch brought up the question of apologizing to Ms. Burnes. The expectation after that meeting was that Mr. Clegg would reach out to Ms. Burnes.
But the years-long silence from Mr. Clegg continued for at least a while longer, say two sources close to the situation: In a subsequent conversation with Ms. Burnes, Mr. Pietsch expressed dismay upon learning that Mr. Clegg still had not contacted her.
Ms. Burnes received an email from Mr. Clegg shortly afterward.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which Little, Brown published this week, recounts Mr. Clegg’s double life as a literary golden boy and drug addict: His world of book parties and supportive relationships includes periodic breaks for crack and Ketel One in the high-end hotels of Manhattan. This balancing act falls apart over the course of an extended binge, wreaking both personal and professional havoc.
In the book, Mr. Clegg describes dissolving his business with Ms. Burnes—pregnant at the time and preparing to go on maternity leave—via email: “Before I press Send, I look out the window at the thick flakes of snow coming down in slow motion between the buildings and think I am doing her a favor. Giving her permission to get out and move on. I feel next to nothing as I end our partnership, our business, my career.”
Burnes & Clegg, the boutique agency that the two had founded, shuttered. Their authors scrambled for new agents, and the new agents scrambled to make sense of Mr. Clegg’s deals. Ms. Burnes went to the Gernert Company. After rehab, Mr. Clegg took a job with Ms. Walsh at William Morris Endeavor.
“Bill welcomed the opportunity to make amends,” said Ms. Walsh, who is Mr. Clegg’s agent as well as his boss. According to her account, Mr. Clegg only learned it was a possibility in the meeting, from Mr. Pietsch. She said that Mr. Clegg’s previous understanding had been that Ms. Burnes wanted no contact with him, a wish that her lawyer had conveyed in the aftermath of their company’s dissolution.
“It was unbelievably sympathetic,” said Ms. Walsh of the conversation that took place with Mr. Pietsch. “It was not a ‘you should do this’ by any stretch of the imagination.”
Mr. Pietsch was on vacation and could not be reached. Neither Ms. Burnes nor her colleagues and the Gernert Company would comment; and in an email, Mr. Clegg declined, as he has every time anyone has asked, to speak about Ms. Burnes.
Mr. Clegg touches on the subject of amends and forgiveness only delicately in his memoir.
“There is a time, much later, when I imagine what it was like for everyone else, those who were by blood, accident, or inclination involved,” he writes. “At first I’m consumed with shame and guilt and regret, but slowly, with the help of kindred spirits, these feelings evolve, are still evolving, into something less self-concerned.”