Obituary: William Targ

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WILLIAM TARG belonged to the old school of American publishers. He was modest, a rare quality today, extremely competent, and had a wide taste, both for recognising the potential of what might become a best-seller and for more recondite literature, where often he would guide the author to another publisher more suited to his need. In the latter case he would however make sure that the author remained a friend.

He was primarily an editor whose attitude to his authors was as much that of a teacher as a promoter. Any book that passed through his hands became as good as it could be. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, Targ's biggest commercial success, called him "the Godfather of editors".

In 1968 Targ, as editor-in-chief at the publisher G.P. Putnam & Sons, bought Puzo's novel about a Mafia family for a $5,000 advance after two other publishers had turned it down; published the following year, it became the the most profitable single novel ever published by Putnam and to date has sold about 21 million copies world-wide; the novel also provided the inspiration for the series of Godfather films directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Mario Puzo was undoubtedly Targ's biggest discovery, but his authors varied from popular columnists like Art Buchwald to a wide range of novelists, non-fiction writers, scholars and poets. He was primarily a bookman, and his circle of acquaintances almost made him a modern Dr Johnson.

Born William Torgownik in Chicago in 1907, the son of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine fleeing the pogroms of a century ago, Targ was brought up in a family that was loving and admired culture. As an adult, in order to obtain a passport he researched the Chicago archives to find his misplaced birth certificate and assumed that the birth of a Velvel Turgonik referred to himself, but he was always known as Willie and, later, Bill. He took the name Targ at the age of 18 when he became an office boy at the American branch of Macmillan; this was at the request of the manager, because Targ was easier to pronounce.

He wrote poems which were published in little magazines and this led to his getting to know a remarkable series of magazine editors such as Harriet Monroe and Nancy Cunard, but he also haunted bookshops and became friendly with the outstanding booksellers of his day in Chicago and New York, while his job at Macmillan gave him the opportunity to read all the authors on the shelves from Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to Tagore and Yeats, including many then out of print. It was among the stacks of books that he lost his virginity to another employee, a lustful blonde. Erotica and medical manuals of sexual psychopathology were also on the shelves, largely or partly written in Latin. In later years he was to make money for his firms by bringing out new editions of these entirely in English.

Returning to Chicago he opened a bookshop, almost next door to a famous theatre that presented classics from the international repertoire, and this became a Mecca for local authors and the intelligensia. There were few other rewards in what Targ described as "scratch, scrounge and scratch"; after 12 years he closed the doors, but not for ever. Selling erotica under the counter often helped to pay the rent, and most of the banned books of those days became literary classics with time. But his customers included many upcoming writers like Saul Bellow, who remained friends and sometimes later became his authors.

Targ continued as a bookseller until 1942, then went to work for World Publishing in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was asked to compile many anthologies for which his bookselling years were the ideal qualification. He also edited series of westerns, crime novels and reprints, as well as new work. He moved permanently to New York in 1945, still with World Publishing and now had the authority to work on special projects often requiring exceptional scholarship, such as a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer.

But after 21 years, when Times-Mirror bought World, and the drive for profit became relentless, Targ left for an independent publisher, G.P. Putnam & Sons, where he became editor-in-chief. There he had to work for a shrewd but tough Walter Minton, not the best liked of New York publishers who, when he inherited from his more erudite father, seemed likely to gamble the company into a very different image. It was Minton who published Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, not having read it, on the urging of his girlfriend of the moment. But in the event Minton and Targ managed to work in tandem in spite of different interests and personalities, and their differences were tolerated.

In Targ's rather untidy but extremely readable autobiography, Indecent Pleasures (1975), the most valuable pages are the didactic ones. He defines the role of a publisher-editor, gives practical advice to recognising talent, originality and good writing, but also describes what must be eliminated from a text and how a mediocre book can be turned into a good one. His anecdotes and pen-portraits will become part of the archival reference material of our time. Only diplomacy and decency stops the book being sharper: those who knew him thought he carried kindness and forgiveness too far.

After his official retirement from Putnam in 1978, Targ's taste for fine literature found expression in the private press, Targ Editions, he set up to produce fine editions of literature that appealed to him for its own sake.

Bill Targ had two happy marriages and both helped him to fulfil a busy and successful career. He married Anne Jesselson in 1933, renowned for her generosity and an outspokenness not always appreciated by his authors, and shortly after her death in 1965 Roslyn Siegel, a literary agent, whose ebullient and glamorous personality greatly increased Targ's circle of international friends. On her account, he spent more time in international travel and his circle of friends expanded to include on the one hand many writers and on the other the leading publishers of France, Britain, Turkey and Brazil.

His last years were extremely happy, living comfortably in central Manhattan with the ever-active Roslyn bringing a constant stream of interesting new friends, and busying himself with his small private press. He looked and behaved 20 years younger than his actual age.

William Torgownik (William Targ), publisher: born Chicago 4 March 1907; twice married (one son); died New York 22 July 1999.