NEW YORK — Sterling Lord, the unique and hardworking literary agent who worked for years to find a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and, over the next decades, arranged deals for everyone from real writer Joe McGinniss to the creators of the Berenstain Bears, is dead. He had just turned 102.
Lord died Saturday at a retirement home in Ocala, according to his daughter, Rebecca Lord.
“He had a good death and died peacefully of old age,” she told The Associated Press.
Sterling Lord, who started his own agency in 1952 and later merged with rival Literistic to form Sterling Lord Literistic Inc., was a failed magazine publisher who became, almost surely, the oldest agent in the book business. . He stayed with the company he founded until he was almost 100 years old, then decided to start a new one.
He was well-spoken and athletic, a shrewd negotiator who dressed in tweed and shunned most vices. But he was attentive to new trends and one of the first ambassadors of a revolutionary cultural movement: the Beats. With rare persistence, he endured publishers’ initial reluctance to take on Kerouac’s unorthodox narrative and later served as the longtime agent of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist Ken Kesey, and poet and bookstore owner City LightsLawrence Ferlinghetti.
His comprehensive list of clients has produced works on sports, politics, murder, and the works of illustrated animals.
Through his friendship with Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, Lord helped launch Stan and Jan Berenstain’s multimillion-selling books about a family of anthropomorphic bears. He brokered terms between McGinniss and accused killer Jeffrey MacDonald, later convicted, for the true crime classic “Fatal Vision.” He found a publisher for Nicholas Pileggi’s mob story “Wiseguy” and helped seal the deal for his famous film adaptation, “Goodfellas.”
In the early 1960s, Viking had asked Lord to obtain a blurb from Kerouac for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s first and most famous novel. Kerouac declined, but Lord was so impressed with the book that he ended up representing Kesey for his next work, “Sometimes a Great Notion”.
He represented former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Justice John Sirica of Watergate fame and often worked with Jackie Kennedy when she was an editor at Doubleday and Viking. Some of the great sports books of the 20th century, from “North Dallas Forty” to “Secretariat”, were written by his clients.
“A number of things about this business really drew me in and made it an irresistible interest,” Lord told the AP in 2013. “First of all, I’m interested in good writing. , I am interested in new and good ideas. And thirdly, I was able to meet extraordinarily interesting people.
Lord would also speak proudly of a project he turned down: the memoirs of Lyndon Johnson. The former president’s representatives informed Lord in the late 1960s that Johnson wanted $1 million for the book and that Lord should accept less than his usual commission for the honor of working with him. Lord turned them down, much to their surprise and anger.
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Johnson’s “The Vantage Point”, finally released in 1971, was dismissed by critics as bland and uninformative. Lord instead struck a chord for “Quotes from President LBJ,” a hit parody.
Lord was married four times and had one child, Rebecca.
Books and tennis were lifelong passions for Lord, born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1920. It began when his mother read to him after dinner; he later edited his high school newspaper and worked as a sports reporter around the same time for the Monks Register. He also became a tennis star at Grinnell College, and later a player good enough to rival Don Budge, among others.
His upbringing, he would later write, was the kind of “nice and orderly” world “that the Beats trampled in the fifties and sixties.”
After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Lord is co-owner of the Germany-based magazine Weekend, which quickly folded. Back in the United States, he was editor at True and Cosmopolitan, from which he was fired, before founding the Sterling Lord Literary Agency. Lord had met many agents during his magazine years and thought they failed to understand that the American public was becoming more urban and sophisticated. He was also proud of his sympathy for writers who lived far more savagely than he did.
His first marriage, he would admit, inspired him to go into business.
“Frankly, I didn’t want to deal with the situation at home,” he told the Monks Register in 2015.
Lord found early success selling the movie rights to two popular sports books, Rocky Graziano’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and Jimmy Piersall’s “Fear Strikes Out”. But Lord’s “On the Road” quest would prove more bumpy.
In his 2013 memoir ‘Lord of Publishing’, Lord recalls his first encounter with Kerouac in 1952. Kerouac had already completed a conventional novel, ‘The Town and the City’, but had no agent and had one. surely needed for his next book: “On the Road” was typed, as Lord was among the first to know, “on a 120-foot roll of architectural tracing paper.”
Lord believed Kerouac had “a fresh, distinctive voice that should be heard.” But the industry was in no mood. Even younger editors who might have connected with Kerouac’s jazzy celebration of youth and personal freedom dismissed it. An editor wrote to Lord that “Kerouac has enormous talent of a very special kind. But it’s not a well-done novel, neither salable nor even, I think, a good one.
In 1955 Kerouac was ready to give up – but Lord was not. The agent eventually sold extracts to The Paris review and the periodical New World Writing. A Viking Press editor contacted Lord, offering a $900 advance. Lord held for $1,000. In 1957 the book came out, The New York Times raved and “On the Road” quickly entered the American canon.
But Kerouac was a timid and fragile man, writes Lord. Fame amplified a drinking problem that killed him in 1969. Lord even recruited a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to have Kerouac cleansed, but the businessman eventually backed down as he was his “literary agent , not its agent of life”.
Lord attended Kerouac’s funeral, sharing a limo ride with his client Jimmy Breslin and standing by the graveside alongside Allen Ginsberg, “sunlight filtering through the trees, leaves brown after losing their Autumn colors”.
Lord oversaw Kerouac’s many posthumous exits even as he fought the author’s family for control of the estate. After years of failed attempts, a film version of “On the Road” was released in 2012. But Lord had little involvement in the project, which was directed by Walter Salles and starred Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart. He didn’t bother to attend a special screening, citing mixed early reviews, and didn’t show up to a private party for the film.
“I decided to go home,” he told the AP in 2013.
— By Hillel Italy, Associated Press