When Robert Loomis joined Random House in 1957, there were only four parking spaces. The new publishing house shared an eight-space lot with a nearby church, and the company’s co-founder, Bennett Cerf, was consistently irked by one confused clergyman, who parked in a Random House space each day and left his Bible resting in the front seat.
“So one day [Cerf had] gotten in early and he was looking out the window, and he saw this car pull up, and the driver opened up the door,” recalled Mr. Loomis, in a phone call from the Hamptons on Sunday afternoon, a few weeks after he announced his retirement at the age of 84. “And Pat Knopf got out, threw a Bible on the seat and walked up the street to his office!”
Mr. Loomis was reminiscing about his five decades at Random House, during which time the small company acquired the imprint started by Mr. Knopf’s father and blossomed into one of the world’s biggest publishers.
His conversation with The Observer, he said, would “probably be his last” time publicly discussing a career that quietly molded the work of writers like Neil Sheehan, Seymour Hersh, William Styron and Calvin Trillin, and earned him a reputation as an editor’s editor, singularly focused on his own writers, even as his fellow editors found fame as celebrities in their own right. (By his own admission, he conceded to an interview primarily to plug three of his upcoming books, by Robert Massie, Lisa See and Tim Weiner, respectively.)
“The real creative work and accomplishment lies with the author,” Mr. Loomis said. “I think editors are simply trying to make the author’s work say what they want it to say or make it effective and so that it’s clear. To take credit for that in the public’s eye is a big, big, big mistake. It’s confusing.”
It is tempting to see Mr. Loomis’s understated style as a holdover from boozier, clubbier age of book publishing, back when he held court at a regular table inside Smith & Wollensky’s.
“It was the same thing, a Jack Daniels on the rocks, always a steak,” said Mr. Hersh, who praised the precision of Mr. Loomis’s book editing as comparable to the close attention his much shorter articles receive at The New Yorker. “Whatever he ate, he always ate one half of what he ordered. I was dying to eat his portion.”
Until a few years ago, Mr. Loomis used to fly his Cessna around the Hamptons, developing a reputation for a steady hand among the writers and editors who all flew together back then.
“He flew according to his personality, very meticulously, very well, very carefully, and that’s if we just flew around Long Island,” said James Salter, who was a friend, but not one of his writers. “I mean you can compare it to driving in a car. Some drivers you say, ‘I’m going go to sleep, because this is great,’ and others, Jesus, you want to bite your nails or grab the wheel.”
Mr. Loomis’s work was not so different. He considered himself a “glorified reader” more than a tinkerer, eschewing background research for his nonfiction books, because a customer wouldn’t do that. He gave manuscripts a close read, often two, marking offending sections with a pencil “X,” or a note that might say something like “Rep[etition]” or “Trite.” He then gave a copy to the author and, more often than not, they would go over it together, page-by-page.
“They say he’s an old-fashioned editor, but I’m not sure there were many of those kinds of editors even 30 or 40 years ago,” said Calvin Trillin, one of his authors.
“Bob had the ability to manage that large-scale literary passion of my father’s by not monkeying with it too much,” said Styron’s daughter, Alexandra.
The two first met through a literary clique at Duke that rallied together over “spaghetti and martinis” and developed a life-long friendship that twice enlisted Styron to serve as Mr. Loomis’s best man.
He edited Styron more lightly than some of his other writers.
“He’s horrible,” said Maya Angelou, who was convinced to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Mr. Loomis, the only editor she’s worked with. “He just won’t let you slide. He’ll call you up in the middle of the night and ask, ‘Why did you use a colon instead of a semicolon?’ Please.
“Over the years I’ve sent night letters and Western Unions that say, ‘All right you were right, I admit that, but if you mention it I’ll never speak to you again.’ I told that story once in the Hamptons … He said, ‘I’ve saved every one of the telegrams.’ He was a brute.”
“The fact is you can’t come out with everything at once or it would be overwhelming and discouraging,” Mr. Loomis explained. “It’s just like a sculpture…you shape it down, cut it down with the authors’ understanding and approval and quiet willingness, and then you get to the fingernails. The smaller things can come after that and to do those smaller things right at first always was really, to me, not a good way to go about it.”
But the book, Mr. Loomis insisted, ultimately belongs to the author.
When Shelby Foote, a novelist, finally finished a history of the Civil War that took him 20 years to write, Mr. Loomis was assiduous in carrying out the author’s instructions for the paper stock and cover design–even following Foote’s curious decision to leave out footnotes, opting for endnotes only in the third and final volume, much to the displeasure of his critics.