Horace B. Liveright

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Horace B. Liveright

In 1916 ad agency employee Horace B. Liveright (1886-1933) and his office-mate decided to go into the book publishing business. With pooled assets of $16,500, they planned to reprint modern classics by British and European authors in inexpensive editions. Calling their venture The Modern Library of the World's Greatest Books, the two entrepreneurs eventually ranged further afield, publishing works by up-and-coming writers such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, by 1930 the firm would find itself on hard times—the result of financial mismanagement and competition from other publishing houses—and Liveright was forced out. Three years later he would be dead of pneumonia.

Horace B. Liveright was born on December 10, 1886, in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania, to Henry and Henrietta Liveright. By the time Liveright was 14 he had left school and taken a job as an office boy in Philadelphia. When he was 17 he penned the text and lyrics for a comic opera; although the opera went into rehearsal on Broadway, it never opened due to lack of a financial backer.

Entrepreneurial Aspirations

Eventually Liveright found work in New York City as a securities and bond salesman. In 1911 he married Lucile Elsas, daughter of the vice president of the International Paper Company, with whom he would have a son Herman E. Liveright in 1912. With his father-in-law's backing, Liveright started his own company to manufacture and sell toilet paper. He called his product Pick-Quick Papers.

By the end of 1915, the toilet paper venture failed, Liveright took a job at an advertising agency owned by Alfred Wallerstein. Liveright hoped to use the ad agency as a temporary base while he looked for something else to manufacture and market; his father-in-law, meanwhile, said he would back his son-in-law in only one more business venture.

Liveright's co-worker at the advertising agency was Albert Boni, who had recently run a small publishing business with his brother. After Liveright asked Boni's opinion about some of his manufacturing ideas, Boni in turn began telling his office-mate about his experience in publishing. The conversation led to a business partnership, with Liveright putting up $12,500 borrowed from his father-in-law, and Boni contributing $4,000 and the idea for the publishing business.

Boni & Liveright

By the beginning of the 20th century, most of the large publishing houses—among them Dodd, Mead & Company; E. P. Dutton; Harper & Brothers; Henry Holt; G. P. Putnam's Sons; and Charles Scribner's Sons were located in New York City rather than Boston, where most of the classics of the 19th century had been published. Nevertheless, in the 1910s the publishing industry was still dominated by New England Brahmins—intellectuals of the upper classes—and the opportunities in established publishing houses were few for young Jews like Liveright. As a result, many Jews established their own publishing houses. Without the contacts with established writers the older houses had, these Jewish-owned firms often took on unknown writers whose works dealt with protest or rebellion. By the 1920s several Jewish-owned publication houses—including Alfred A. Knopf; Simon & Schuster; and Viking Press—would be well on their way to commercial success.

Coincident with the startup of these new houses was the dissatisfaction among many avant-garde writers with the older publishing firms. Young writers of the time resented the power of these traditional houses, where radical or experimental ideas were routinely refused in favor of historical fiction, westerns, religious tracts, and the happy tales of contemporary life.

In the spring of 1917 Boni and Liveright announced the first titles to appear in their Modern Library. Liveright assumed the roles of president and business manager of his new publishing company, handling advertising campaigns and sales and arranging loans. Once the publication of the Modern Library classics built up a backlog of capital, Boni and Liveright planned to venture into publishing more controversial works.

Early Titles

In 1917 the initial Modern Library selections included Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray; August Strindberg's Married; Rudyard Kipling's Soldier's Three; Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island; H. G. Well's The War in the Air; Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, The Enemy of the People, and Ghosts; Anatole France's The Red Lily; Guy de Maupassant's Mademoiselle Fifi; Friedrich Nietsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra; and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Poor People. Each book sold for 60 cents. Demand for the first set of titles was so great that Boni & Liveright immediately added six more. Boni & Liveright's publication of the works of Russian writer Leon Trotsky, Frenchman Henri Barbusse, and Hungarian Andreas Latzko would be less successful.

End of Publishing Partnership

While Boni and Liveright were temperamentally suited as business partners through their mutual sympathy for radical ideas, they frequently failed to agree on editorial matters and financial affairs. Liveright wanted to publish more unknown Greenwich Village writers as well as some writers with large followings, while Boni preferred sociopolitical works and European novelists. Eventually the two reached an impasse concerning the future direction of their firm and since neither was willing to sell out to the other, the partners decided to settle the matter over the toss of a coin. Liveright won the toss and in July 1918 became the majority owner of Boni & Liveright. Free to lead the company in whatever direction he chose, Liveright turned his attention to writers in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, Boni departed for Europe in 1919 and eventually made his way to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). There he was imprisoned in 1920 on charges of spying. Upon his release, he returned to the United States where he re-entered the publishing business with his brother.

Liveright showed himself to be a quick study of book promotion and, until 1921, he handled the editorial side of the business. By 1921 the Modern Library consisted of 104 volumes, with each priced at 95 cents. It was clearly the most prestigious offering of Liveright's firm at this time. Later in the decade Liveright banked on the income from the Modern Library when, realizing the demand for books dealing with sex, he began publishing the works of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Already criticized for his association with radical political works, Liveright achieved additional notoriety after he began publishing books considered out-spoken in their treatment of sex.

Loved and Hated

When Liveright further expanded his publishing activities by releasing play scripts in 1924, he removed one of the walls in his office and added a false bookshelf that slid away to reveal a second room in which he hosted lavish—and not infrequently bacchanalian—parties. He gained a reputation for being alternately an exhibitionist, crude, or charming. According to Walker Gilmer in Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties, Liveright was "tall, lean, and well-tailored with a shock of long (for the times) black hair, piercing eyes, and a John Barrymore or Mephistophelean profile." He also acquired a reputation for treating his employees well: his staff received annual bonuses and never had to ask for raises. Liveright called his publishing house the only socialistic firm in New York, a reference to the fact that he wanted his employees to share in its profits.

Promoted Contemporary Writers

Liveright published the writings of Eugene O'Neill between 1918 and 1930 in 13 volumes, each containing one or more of O'Neill's play. He also published limited editions of the playwright's works, as well as reprints of his plays. During each year of the 1920s, except 1923, Liveright published at least one new play by the dramatist. In addition, by 1925 he had published or was about to publish works by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Roger Martin du Gard, Francois Mauriac, Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, and Dorothy Parker. For most of these still young writers, this would be their first publication in the United States.

Sold Modern Library

In 1925 Liveright sold the Modern Library to Bennett Cerf for $200,000. There is a story from that time that tells how Liveright's associates were furious upon learning of the sale, but that before they were able to dissuade him from going through with the deal a gunman appeared at the offices of Boni & Liveright with the intention of shooting Liveright because the publisher was having an affair with the gunman's wife. By the time the crisis had been managed, the sale had gone through. Cerf later changed the name of the Modern Library to Random House.

In 1928 Liveright's wife, Lucile, sued for divorce. However, long before this, as part of a separation agreement Liveright had agreed to repay his wife and father-in-law the large sums of money he had borrowed. Although the sale of the Modern Library averted the potential financial crisis sparked by his divorce, the loss of the Modern Library meant that the company's foundations would no longer be strong. Over the next few years, Boni & Liveright was dependent on the sales of popular best-sellers, and its fortunes eventually suffered.

In 1927 and 1928 the firm posted the highest gross profits in its history. Encouraged, in 1928 Liveright decided to change the name of the firm to Horace Liveright, Inc. Unbeknownst to Liveright at the time, more changes than the corporate name were in store for him.

Financial Collapse

By 1929 Liveright was having trouble finding new writers. The crash of the stock market that same year sent the firm into a tailspin and by the summer of 1930, Liveright had lost control of his company as a result of his continual borrowings against his majority share, and he was forced to leave.

In July 1930 Liveright left for Hollywood, after announcing that he was taking a leave of absence from the firm. His motivations were entirely financial. The firm's releases for 1929 and the first half of 1930 had not sold. There was also a book war raging among publishers in which books were sold for ridiculously low prices in attempts to recapture audiences. In setting out for Hollywood, Liveright, who had also suffered major losses in the theatre and stock market, hoped to sell the movie rights to the books he still had an interest in to recoup his fortune.

In Hollywood Liveright found himself dependent on Paramount for a salary. Meanwhile he took to drinking heavily. When his contract with Paramount was not renewed in 1931, the publisher returned to New York with the intention of launching some Broadway plays, but the backing for his show-business ventures did not materialize. After he took to hanging around his old office, he was asked to leave because, he was told, it didn't look good to have him there.

In 1931 the publishing house of Horace Liveright changed its name to Liveright, Inc. Unfortunately, it never equaled its former successes, and in 1933 the company filed for bankruptcy.

On December 8, 1931, Liveright married Elise Nartlett Porter, an actress who had appeared in several Broadway plays and movies, but by 1932 the marriage was floundering. In January 1933 Liveright was hospitalized for pneumonia and later emphysema. On September 24, 1933, he died at the age of 46 of pneumonia in an apartment on West 51st Street in New York City.

In an article published after Liveright's death, colleague Cerf attributed Liveright's failure as a publisher to changes in the publishing industry that Liveright had no control of. In tribute to Liveright, writer Sherwood Anderson was quoted in Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties as writing that "Horace was a gambler and if he believed in you would gamble on you. I have always thought, since the man's death, that too much emphasis has been put on the reckless splendor of the man rather than on his never-ending generosity and his real belief in men of talent."


Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1 to 2: to 1940, American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958.

Gilmer, Walker, Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties, David Lewis, 1970.


New York Times, September 25, 1933.

New Yorker, October 10, 1925.

Publishers Weekly, September 30-October 7, 1933.


"Modern Library History," http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/aboutus.html February, 2003). □