In 1952, six years after publishing its first book, Farrar, Straus & Company nearly failed. Founded by Guggenheim heir Roger Straus with $360,000 from his family and friends’ interests in department stores, mining, and brewing (the former Rheingold Brewery in Brooklyn served as the warehouse for its books), the firm had printed one hundred thousand copies of <em style="font-size: 10pt;">Mr. President</em>, a quasi-official selection of President Truman’s papers and photographs. As Truman’s reelection campaign began, the book looked to be a hit, but a couple weeks after its publication, Truman reversed course and announced he wouldn’t run after all—and the book sank. Straus described it as the time “success almost bankrupted me.” But the firm quickly rebounded, and the episode is perhaps best captured by a Straus saying that years later a business associate had emblazoned for him on a rubber stamp: IT’S JUST A PIMPLE ON THE PRICK OF PROGRESS.
Hothouse is New York magazine contributing editor Boris Kachka’s roaring chronicle of Straus’s illustrious firm, and of his passions, grudges, imprecations, and machinations in building it. For anyone with a sweet tooth for the book world or a thought and a care for American culture after the Second World War, the book is a brightly lit, well-stocked candy store. Its pages are stuffed with tales of book parties and Nobel Prizes, of Edmund Wilson meeting Susan Sontag at a dinner with Straus, of former employees looking back on their time there (“Tennis is to Scribner’s as sex is to Farrar, Straus,” wrote one, in a postcard to the office in the mid-’70s), of good ideas gone to the remainder bin and surprising ones to the best-seller list, of advances written off and royalties piling up for some of the best books of our time.
Early on, one senses Kachka’s task in trying to fit Straus to the page. He describes Straus as a “man of style, brio, and ego”; a “man who could be cheap, vulgar, classist, and sexist all in one gratuitously cruel remark”; a “meld of Guggenheim-heir hauteur and John Wayne brashness”; and a “born jock who ingratiated himself with bookworms by dint of his quick wit . . . and magnetic personality.” Whatever the nature of Straus’s character, Kachka reveals how truly he was to the publishing house born. He spent the Second World War doing PR for the Navy from an office on Fifth Avenue, and before long was running its branch magazine and book section. It was perfect preparation for his later role as a publisher, as Kachka makes plain. “He wanted to be near the action, but not in it. He loved spreading stories, but not writing them. He couldn’t make the art, but he could make the deal.”
In late 1945, Straus formed the publishing company with John Farrar, a well-known editor almost a generation older. Though Farrar was responsible for “everything of quality” on the first list, it wasn’t long before he was spending more time at his club than at the office. Straus, meanwhile, was cutting first-look deals with MGM and 20th Century Fox, cooking up a hit diet book (Look Younger, Live Longer, the best-selling book in America in 1950), keeping the banks at bay, and publishing André Gide and Shirley Jackson. It’s wind-in-your-hair stuff, but Kachka is quick to point out when the Straus legend melts into air. Widely lauded for his cosmopolitanism, Straus never graduated from high school, spoke no foreign languages, and didn’t make it to Europe until 1957, more than a decade after his firm was founded.
Happily, Kachka gives the third fixture in the firm’s name his rightful due, declaring that the publisher “became itself around the time Giroux was made partner, in 1964.” Where Straus was a rich college dropout without religious convictions, Giroux was the Jesuit son of a factory worker in Jersey City who attended Columbia on scholarship and kept the faith. “The most remarkable thing about the partnership,” Kachka writes, “is that their paths crossed at all.” In the years Straus was setting up the firm, Giroux was climbing the editorial ladder as what Kachka calls the “Golden Boy of Publishing,” culminating in his work as editor in chief of the distinguished house of Harcourt, Brace. There he edited T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and Virginia Woolf as well as younger lights like Jack Kerouac and Randall Jarrell. But he bristled at decisions made by Harcourt’s new leadership, which included rebuffing his efforts to sign up J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In the spring of 1955, Straus hired him away to Farrar, Straus, where for all his deskbound sandwiches, Giroux identified, cultivated, and championed some of the most lasting writers of the twentieth century, including John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, William Gaddis, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. One revels in Straus, FSG’s “restless gut,” as Kachka puts it; but one cheers for Giroux, its “quiet brain.”
Were Hothouse just the story of Straus meets Giroux, it would be a lot of fun, the basis for an odd-couple movie for eggheads. But it’s also a superb business story, revealing how an enterprise became an institution “whose cultural value deserves its own column on the balance sheet.” This is not a facile tale of a business plan and a brand, but one deeper in the American grain, of making a go of things and playing the angles. (Let the record show that the company’s first book was Inside Your Home, a guide to interior decorating.) Later in his life Straus would decry the tendency of corporate publishers to consume other firms, but FSG’s success and stability are built on just such “strategic expansion,” as Kachka calls it. Straus recognized the need to scale up pretty much right from the start. In its first quarter century, the firm gobbled up Creative Age Press, Pellegrini & Cudahy, L. C. Page, Noonday, Octagon, and Hill & Wang. Straus even pursued the possibilities of buying Grove Press, Everyman’s Library, and Oxford University Press; none of these acquisitions panned out, but the effect of the publishers he did buy was galvanizing. Those wonderfully iconic three fish piled head to tail on the spine of every FSG book? That was Noonday’s logo, which came along with the purchased company. The FSG Books for Young Readers list, featuring Madeleine L’Engle and William Steig? That was built on Ariel Books, a leading children’s imprint that arrived as part of the acquisition of Pellegrini & Cudahy. The echt FSG authors Isaac Bashevis Singer and John McPhee? Signed up by the editor Harold D. Vursell, who had “proved to be the best thing about the Creative Age acquisition.”
Given all this expansion, it’s no surprise that FSG was seen as a bit of a “hodgepodge” even into the 1960s. Hothouse reveals how it became a publisher not just of distinction, but a distinctive one. “What Roger Straus and his company did with the logo as well as with its defining editors and writers,” writes Kachka, “was to absorb them into its DNA.” In time, almost all of Giroux’s writers joined him at FSG, including Lowell, Bishop, and Berryman. Later, a new generation of authors, such as Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and Ian Frazier, coalesced, and during the Latin American boom, FSG published Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Camilo José Cela, and Pablo Neruda. (Though as Kachka reveals, the firm passed on the Latin American writer who ended up making the biggest boom: Gabriel García Márquez.)
One of the delights of Hothouse is in learning how some of the firm’s hits came to be published. In 1965, Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography, Yes I Can, went through several editors before Straus handled it—a rarity—and had the good sense to preserve its “easy colloquial flow.” It became a No. 1 best seller, and Straus was soon using Davis’s Madison Avenue tailor. As exciting as the hits are, some of the misses—the book gone to a competitor, the author lost to grievance or grudge—linger most in the mind. “It is the damnedest book,” Straus said of the manuscript of Nabokov’s Lolita, which Edmund Wilson had arranged for him to consider. “As I walk down Madison Avenue I can now see a nymphet or a juvenile nymphet or an overage nymphet at least three blocks away.” Then he turned the manuscript down, saying, “Nobody will dare touch this.” Or Giroux, having published Kerouac’s first novel at Harcourt and then missed out on—through either misunderstanding or folly—On the Road, finally publishing him at FSG, with Big Sur in 1962, only for Kerouac to go on a wild bender once again. “I drink and drink like a maniac,” he wrote Giroux in abject apology, but it was the last time they would work together.
It takes nothing away from the firm’s continued distinction and success to say that Kachka’s book inevitably loses a little steam as Straus dithers about turning the firm over to his son, finally selling it instead to the German publisher Holtzbrinck in 1994. But Kachka convincingly shows how its DNA—a blend of the “high-minded and scrappy, aggressive and refined, quintessentially American but thoroughly international” that resulted from the combination of Mr. Giroux, Mr. Straus, Mr. Farrar, and many others—endures.
Whether done at a hot house like FSG or a humbler one, a publisher’s work can seem simple on the face of it—choose sellable books, and sell them well—but everybody in the book business knows, as another of Roger Straus’s rubber stamps had it, that this is HORSESHIT PIE. Beyond the holy trinity of taste, moxie, and dumb luck, a thousand things go into making a book, and a publisher, successful: a copy chief’s acumen, an art director’s eye, a production manager’s know-how, a publicist’s savvy, a sales rep’s suasion. Like other essential books about publishing (Diana Athill’s Stet, Michael Korda’s Another Life, Jeremy Lewis’s Penguin Special), Hothouse is a rousing reminder that, virtually alone among the professions and trades, a publishing firm is called a “house”—and, to paraphrase Le Corbusier (a rare midcentury cultural grandee that FSG didn’t publish), what a wonderful machine for living a publisher can be.
Matt Weiland, a senior editor at W. W. Norton & Company, has worked in publishing since 1989. He is also the coeditor, with Sean Wilsey, of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco, 2008).