● Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
By Boris Kachka
Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $28
Descended from the influential Straus and Guggenheim families, Roger W. Straus Jr. bestrode the publishing company he co-founded in 1946 with “a sui generis blend of vulgarity and refinement.” So writes Boris Kachka in “Hothouse,” his compulsively readable tale of the creation, triumphs and tribulations of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Straus emerges as a hugely magnetic and rakish personality, with enough charisma to have his way with potential lovers and aspiring authors alike. A rich man, he lived large, but he kept FSG’s headquarters ramshackle, and used the publishing house’s growing prestige to pay lower advances for writers.
Working alongside John Farrar, Straus exhibited sufficient business acumen to keep FSG independent through the industry’s many 20th-century convulsions before finally selling a majority interest to Germany’s Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group in 1993 for $30 million.
“He was fond of letting a suitor buy him lunch,” Kachka writes, “before returning to the office, calling in a few editors, and gossiping viciously about the bastard. ‘I had a marvelous lunch,’ he’d say. ‘I lied to him and he lied to me.’”
In 1955 he hired the more reticent and dignified Robert Giroux, a renowned editor with impeccable literary taste. Both Catholic and discreetly gay, Giroux was the confidant of such writers as T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, John Berryman and Flannery O’Connor. “FSG really became itself around the time Giroux was made partner” in 1964, Kachka writes.
FSG championed European and Latin American novelists, poets, and Catholic and Jewish writers. Its authors, from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joseph Brodsky to Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen, transformed the house into a literary Olympus, publishing the works of Nobel Prize-winners. Kachka, a contributing editor to New York magazine, skillfully tells the story of the charmed partnership between Straus and Giroux, along with their many talented associates. He names names (and nicknames) and gives numbers (the stingy advances grew over time). Re-creating the literary culture of midcentury Manhattan, Kachka describes how overlapping friendships and interests drove writers to embrace FSG and the patina of highbrow celebrity it conferred.
“Their company exploited a glorious middle place — geographically, culturally and historically,” Kachka writes. “Overlooking Union Square, FSG had one foot in Knopf’s midtown, another in Grove Press’s Greenwich Village, and both arms reaching out to Europe.”
Kachka himself combines a fluid, often elegant prose style with mass-market instincts. (It’s notable that his book is published not by FSG, but by its more commercial adversary, Simon & Schuster, toward whom Straus was both rivalrous and disparaging.) By plumbing the FSG archives — sanitized, Kachka notes, but still productively detailed — and interviewing an impressive number of FSG employees and authors, past and present, he delivers a scintillat-ing potpourri of literary and sexual gossip.
Kachka’s key sources include Straus’s son, Roger “Rog” Straus III, who worked on and off in FSG’s marketing department and is astonishingly candid about his father’s professional and personal foibles. He also persuades the writer and onetime FSG editor David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s son, to describe his mother’s passionate friendship and later feud with Straus.
Straus died in 2004, at 87, and Giroux in 2008, at 94. But it seems as though everybody still alive with a stake in the publishing house talked to Kachka, including FSG authors Franzen and Scott Turow, super-agent and Straus nemesis Andrew Wylie, and FSG’s current president and publisher, Jonathan Galassi. (Kachka calls Galassi “adventurous and open-minded, but cautious in the long-term.”)
Kachka also interviewed Straus’s devoted longtime secretary, Peggy Miller, who invariably accompanied her boss on his annual month-long jaunt to the Frankfurt Book Fair and other European destinations. Many foreign publishers assumed Miller was Straus’s wife. (He was actually married to the former Dorothea Liebmann, who tolerated his peccadilloes and had a lover of her own.) Kachka writes, “Peggy will not deny that she was Straus’s mistress, but she won’t discuss it.” Others do, convincingly, with one friend saying on the record, “She was quite surprised… that he wanted her.”
As for Straus, a truly indelible character of giant ego and enthusiasms, Kachka writes: “He was not exactly sexually repressed…. By the turn of 1960, he was probably sleeping with three of his female employees… at the very least… the switchboard operator and the publicity director.”
The liaisons were impressively cordial. “These two mistresses, who were good friends, went shopping together and bought Roger matching bathrobes so that their boss would feel equally at home having ‘lunch’ in either of their two apartments,” Kachka writes.
“Hothouse” is crammed with similarly delicious anecdotes. Dorothea Straus referred to FSG as a “sexual sewer,” and Kachka affirms that the place was “a cauldron of adultery” involving numerous intra-office pairings.
To the contemporary eye, this all looks distressingly antique, a vestige of an era before sexual-harassment guidelines, not to mention big publishing conglomerates. But this “hothouse” atmosphere also bred loyalty — or so Straus thought — and it may well have helped foster FSG’s unique culture. Certainly, it contributes to this book’s allure.