Bob Loomis Talks Cerf And Turf Ahead Of His Retirement

The book–any book–is still a work of art to Mr. Loomis, who collects first editions, and doesn’t entirely understand the fuss about Kindles any more than he understood the fuss about paperbacks. (He recounted an old first-edition prank, in which Random House co-founder Donald Klopfer commissioned a few upside-down copies of a new Cerf joke-book, sending his proud partner tearing down the hall screaming, “This book is ruined! Stop the presses!”)

“He would hand me the first one off the press,” said Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review who has done two books with Mr. Loomis, one on Whittaker Chambers. “I remember when I got the Chambers book he said, ‘Can you believe it? Here it is.’ Because it was the physical book and that mattered more than anything else, it mattered more than ad campaigns and sales figures and publicity.”

It’s an approach that has inspired considerable devotion.

Pete Dexter, who won the National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout the same year fellow Loomis author Neil Sheehan won it for A Bright Shining Lie, once defended Mr. Loomis’s honor when a slightly less loyal author told a South Dakota audience how her big-city, New York editor had pushed for a sex scene on page 84. Mr. Dexter challenged the story on the spot.

“Bob Loomis is never going to tell someone what page to tell sex on, that was so far out of the ball park.” Mr. Dexter balked. “It’s much easier to see her throwing in some gratuitous sexual scene and his saying, ‘I don’t like that that, it really doesn’t make sense.'”

Looking back, Mr. Loomis is still trying to make sense of a few of his own missteps.

“There are books that I turned town that I wished I hadn’t,” he said on Sunday. “I turned down King Rat, for instance. I turned down West With the Night, Beryl Markham’s wonderful book about flying across the ocean. I should have recognized that book; I read it since and it was absolutely marvelous. I don’t understand what got into me.”

To inform Mr. Tanenhaus of his retirement, Mr. Loomis took him to Trotteria Del Arte, where he keeps a table now. Mr. Tanenhaus wanted to pass the news along to the Times‘s book reporter, Julie Bosman, and while Mr. Loomis couldn’t understand the fuss, he agreed.

“He said, ‘Well, you know I’m always ‘the legendary Bob Loomis,'” Mr. Tanenhaus said. “And I said, ‘You know what? Sometimes people actually are the legendary whatever-people-call them, and this is one of those cases.'”

Mr. Loomis has pledged to finish all the books he currently has under contract, even after he departs Random House next month.

“I’ve always felt that I was really working for the authors rather than for Random House,” Mr. Loomis told The Observer. “If you’re just a company man you’re not going to be a good editor.”

dduray@observer.com

 

Correction 6/1, 11:30 a.m. An earlier version of this story misstated the title of West With the Night. The Observer regrets the error.

Bob Loomis Talks Cerf And Turf Ahead Of His Retirement