Obituary: Seymour Lawrence

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The Independent Online
Seymour Lawrence, publisher: born New York City 11 February 1927; married (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Englewood, Florida 4 January 1994.

THERE are few American book publishers who differ much from the standard image: the businessman with a tycoon streak who likes the limelight of the book world but usually has little personal taste other than a love of best-sellers; or that other prototype, the scholar who follows a literary bent, makes his discoveries, but loses his authors to commercial publishers once their reputations are established. A few legendary figures, like Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf, managed to combine commercial instinct with a nose for talent, but their breed is almost extinct. Seymour Lawrence came close to the tradition of Cerf and Knopf, but he never had the means, or, more importantly, the good luck, to establish his imprint and reputation in quite the way they did.

'Sam' Lawrence's career really started at Harvard, when as an 18-year-old undergraduate he edited a magazine, Wake. He incurred the wrath of his Dean when he included a risque short story, was threatened with expulsion, but got around it by taking the magazine out of the control of the university, which did not take the matter further, fearing a public outcry. He went into publishing on the sales side, then became an editor in Boston at Atlantic Monthly Press, although his background was in New York, the city of his birth and childhood, where the publishing opportunities, although greater, were much more competitive. In Boston his most notable achievement was Katherine Anne Porter's best-selling novel Ship of Fools (1962), which on early evidence of her talent he commissioned, paying to keep her in a variety of small hotels while she wrote this massive work, now an American classic.

After 10 years in Boston, he moved to Knopf in New York for six months and then, back in Boston, started his own imprint, with his wife Merloyd to help him. His first publication was JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man, then subject to much controversy: it had been published in Paris by Olympia Press in 1955, but the author negotiated for rival (and expurgated) editions directly with rival publishers in the US and the UK. The uncertainty gave Lawrence the opportunity of obtaining a best-seller.

Lawrence always used his instinct about writers to acquire rights before other publishers, only happy when a finished text was on offer, were ready to move. A review of a dictionary in the New York Times by the still comparatively unknown Kurt Vonnegut attracted Lawrence's attention and he contacted him and commissioned a novel: this became Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which established both the author and the imprint. In order to ensure good distribution and the availability of capital, Lawrence entered into a co-publishing arrangement with Delacorte, and later made similar arrangements with other publishers, notably Dutton and Houghton Mifflin, making himself a kind of freelance editor subsidised by bigger firms. His most successful long-term deal, however, was with Helen Meyer of Dell Publishing, who agreed to bring out in mass-market paperback editions all his hard-cover publications, which gave him the financial backing to do what he wished. This stopped after 17 years, when Doubleday, Dell's owner, ended the arrangement.

Notable authors who appeared on the Seymour Lawrence list include Richard Brautigan, Tim O'Brien, Aidan Higgins, Pablo Neruda, Thomas Berger, Miguel Angel Asturias, George Seferis, William Saroyan and Richard Bausch. He avoided the avant-garde and the offbeat, looking for quality writing with best-seller potential.

In April last year the University of Mississippi honoured Seymour Lawrence by creating a reading room named after him to house his collection of books, manuscripts, photographs and literary memorabilia. Many of his authors were present at the inauguration. It is for his loyalty to his authors and his intelligent and continuing interest in their work that he will be best remembered.