Straus, Roger W(illiams), Jr.
Straus, Roger W(illiams), Jr.
(b. 3 January 1917 in New York City; d. 25 May 2004 in New York City), cofounder and head of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which, under his leadership, was called “one of the most discriminating and successful literary houses in American publishing.”
Straus was the middle child and second son of Roger Straus, Sr., president of the Guggenheim mining enterprise, and Gladys (Guggenheim) Straus, nutrition expert, writer, and cofounder and vice president of Gourmet Magazine. Straus’s grandfather, Oscar Straus, had served in President Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet; his great uncles owned R. H. Macy, the department store; and his mother’s family founded the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Despite his description of his upbringing as “semiformal,” Straus preferred sports to studies, dropping out of Saint George’s School in Rhode Island to become a junior reporter for the White Plains Reporter (now the Reporter-Dispatch). He attended Hamilton College in Hamilton, New York, and then transferred to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, graduating in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree in the subject. He had married Dorothea Liebmann, granddaughter of the founder of Rheingold Beer, on 27 June 1938; they had one son. After college the Strauses returned to New York City, where Straus resumed working at the Reporter. He left to become an editorial assistant for Current History, soon founding his own book packaging firm, Book Ideas Inc., in 1941.
After World War II, during which he wrote speeches and military propaganda for the navy, Straus decided to give up journalism entirely (noting that “newspapers wrap up fish”) and go into book publishing because “books are in the library forever.” He approached John Farrar, formerly a senior partner at Farrar and Rinehart, to join him in starting a new publishing house. Farrar was to supply the expertise, and Straus, with a $30,000 advance on his inheritance and another $120,000 from friends, the capital. A January 1946 edition of Publishers Weekly announced the formation of Farrar, Straus and Company, with Farrar as chairman of the board and Straus as president and largest stockholder. One of its first books, There Were Two Pirates by James Branch Cabell, came out in August. One reviewer, scandalized by the $2.95 price tag, quipped that it should have been called There Were Three Pirates, meaning Cabell, Farrar, and Straus.
The firm’s earliest publications ranged wildly in quality, and it was not until the publication Look Younger, Live Longer by Gayelord Hauser, a 1950 best seller, that financial survival was ensured. Straus found it difficult to persuade those in the industry to consider his house a literary publisher among so many already established firms. This attitude prompted him to consider non-American authors in translation, and his first real success in this regard was the publication of Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi in 1947. Over the following years, the firm also published such authors as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alberto Moravia, François Mauriac, Colette, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The house had its first name change—to Farrar, Straus and Young—in 1950, when Stanley Young became managing director; the company then became Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1955, when Young left and Sheila Cudahy became an active partner. However, as Straus himself said, “the most important addition to the firm was the coming of Robert Giroux” in 1955, first as editor in chief and then as board chairman. Giroux arrived from Harcourt Brace and Company, and in his wake seventeen authors followed, including T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, and Thomas Merton. The company became Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) in 1964. In his introduction to Fifty Years: A Farrar, Straus and Giroux Reader (1996), Alan D. Williams states that the main reason the Straus, Giroux partnership was so successful for so long was that “both men—in a publishing world increasingly canted toward marketing and accounting—regard[ed] the editorial function as the driving force of a publishing house.” That conviction clearly underlay all of Straus’s own perceptions of how to run a publishing business.
In 1976 Straus received a LittD from his alma mater and in 1978 he resigned from the Association of American Publishers in reaction to its accommodation of the growing tendency toward publishing house mergers, calling them “promoted bookkeepers [who] couldn’t care less what they actually publish.” Indeed, Straus took pains to establish a personal and continuous relationship with most of his authors, many of whom in return remained loyal to him and his firm—despite their paltry advances—for years. As a result of such nurturing, of the firm’s high standards, and of Straus’s own fine discernment of literary merit, FSG soon stood out from other American publishing houses in the number of its authors who won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, National Book Awards, and other industry honors. Even after the firm was sold in 1994—despite all Straus’s previous invectives against such mergers—to the German Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, Straus was assured by von Holtzbrinck that “nothing will be changed. Everything will remain the same.”
Straus had always concerned himself with every aspect of the firm, both editorial and financial, and had hoped to be succeeded by his son, Roger, who worked at FSG twice but left it for good in 1993. In 2002 Straus relinquished the titles of president and publisher to his editor in chief, Jonathan Galassi, whom he had hired in 1986. Straus himself became chairman.
In The Guggenheims: A Family History (2005), Irwin Unger and Debi Unger describe Straus as “craggy-faced, with wavy, combed-back hair” and the “personality of a steam locomotive—all whistles, pumping pistons, turning wheels.” His speech was elegant, drawling, and vulgar. He had forceful opinions on almost everything and wore ascots, double-breasted suits, and lilac socks. Over the years Straus served on the boards of several of the Guggenheim foundations, PEN, the Partisan Review, and the University of Missouri Press, among other organizations. In 2001 he received the Authors Guild Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community and the Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing. Straus was on dialysis when he died at Lenox Hill Hospital of pneumonia. He was a longtime member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and his funeral was held at Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
There is no doubt that part of Straus’s success was his personal charisma. The author Tom Wolfe observed, “Roger was what I think of as a motor. He would get the current running at top speed.” But what perhaps made him truly gifted was his genuine concern for his authors and his impeccable literary taste. As Straus’s son said, “If you’re an author and have an editor who’s interested in your work, you think... I’ve died and gone to Heaven. But to have a publisher... interested... that’s an aphrodisiac!”
Sources of information about Straus are Irwin Unger and Debi Unger, The Guggenheims: A Family History (2005); N. R. Kleinfield, “Roger Straus: Making It as an Independent,” New York Times (23 Mar. 1980); Doreen Carvajal, “The House that Roger Straus Built,” New York Times (23 Sept. 1996); and Ian Parker, “Showboat,” New Yorker (8 Apr. 2002): 55–65. Further materials about the firm of Farrar, Straus and Giroux are in Alan D. Williams, Fifty Years: A Farrar, Straus and Giroux Reader (1996), and Jonathan Bing, “A Golden Anniversary for Farrar, Straus and Giroux,” Publishers Weekly (9 Sept. 1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times (27 May 2004) and (London) Independent (31 May 2004). Columbia University has an oral history of Straus, dated 29 June 1977.
Sandra Shaffer VanDoren