New York – Sterling Lord is a uniquely enduring literary agent who spent years looking for a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and spent the next few decades working on everything from True Crime. Writer Joe McGinnis to all of the creators of Berenstein Bear who arranged the deal, he has died. He just turned 102.
Lord died Saturday at a nursing home in Ocala, Florida, according to his daughter, Rebecca Lord.
“He died well, died peacefully,” she told The Associated Press.
Sterling Lord started his own agency in 1952 and later merged with rival Literistic to form Sterling Lord Literistic Inc., a failed magazine publisher who is almost certainly the longest-serving agency in the book industry. He stayed at the company he founded until he was nearly 100 years old before deciding to start a new company.
He is articulate, athletic, and one of the most capable negotiators in tweed who avoids most vices. But he was wary of new trends and was an early ambassador of the revolutionary cultural movement: Beats. With rare perseverance, he endured publishers’ initial reluctance to embrace Kerouac’s unorthodox narratives, and later became poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist Ken Casey and poet and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferringhetti’s longtime agent.
All of his clients have produced work on sports, politics, murder and the suffering of illustrated animals.
Due to his friendship with Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss), Lorde helped launch Stein and Jan Berenstein’s multi-million anthropomorphic bear family this bestseller. He negotiated the true crime classic “Deadly Vision” between McGinnis and accused killer Jeffrey MacDonald (who was later convicted). He found a publisher for Nicholas Pileggi’s gangster tale “Wiseguy” and helped arrange a deal for his famous film adaptation “Goodfellas.”
In the early 1960s, the Vikings had asked Lord to obtain a brief from Kerouac about Kathy’s first and most famous novel, “Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Kerouac declined, but Lord was so impressed with the book that he ended up doing his next work on Kathy’s behalf, “a great idea at times.”
He has represented former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Judge John Silica of Watergate fame, and frequently worked with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her tenure as editor for Doubleday and Viking Cooperation. Some of the great sports books of the 20th century, from The North Dallas Forty to The Secretariat, were written by his clients.
“A lot of things about this business really appealed to me and made it a compelling interest,” Lord told The Associated Press in 2013. “First, I’m interested in good writing. Second, I’m interested in new good ideas. Third, I’ve met some really interesting people.”
Lorde will also speak proudly about a project he turned down: a memoir by Lyndon Johnson. The former president’s representative informed Lord in the late 1960s that Johnson wanted $1 million for the book and that Lord should accept a smaller than usual commission to work with him. God rejected them, to their surprise and anger.
Johnson’s “Vantage Point” was eventually published in 1971, and was dismissed as lackluster by critics. Instead, Lord found a deal for “Quotations from the LBJ Chairman,” a best-selling parody.
Lorde was married four times and had a son, Rebecca.
Books and tennis were lifelong hobbies for Lord, who was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1920. It started when his mother read to him after dinner. He went on to edit his high school newspaper while working as a sports stringer at the Des Moines Registry. He also became a tennis star at Grinnell College and later became a good enough player to compete with the likes of Don Budge.
He later wrote that he grew up in “the kind of “happy, orderly” world that the Beats trampled on in the ’50s and ’60s.
After serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, Lord co-owned Germany-based Weekend magazine, which soon went out of business. Returning to the United States, he worked as an editor at True and Cosmopolitan before being fired before founding the Sterling Lord Literary Agency. Lorde has encountered many agents throughout his magazine career who he believes fail to understand that the American public is becoming more urbanized and sophisticated. He also prides himself on empathizing with writers who live wilder lives than he does.
He admits that his first marriage helped inspire him to start his own business.
“Frankly, I don’t want to deal with this situation at home,” he told the Des Moines Chronicle in 2015.
Lord quickly found success by selling the film rights to two popular sports books, “Somebody Up There Likes Me” by Rocky Graziano and “Fear Strikes Out” by Jimmy Piersall. But Lord’s “on the road” exploration will be more bumpy.
In his 2013 memoir, “The King of Publishing,” Lord remembers meeting Kerouac for the first time in 1952. Kerouac has already completed a traditional novel, Town and City, but without an agent, his next book will definitely need an agent: “On “The Road,” as Lord first knew on architectural tracing paper”.
Lorde believes Kerouac “deserves to hear a fresh, unique voice.” But the industry is not in the mood. Even the young editor, perhaps connected to Kerouac’s fanatical celebration of youth and personal freedom, rejected him. One editor wrote to Lord saying: “Kerouac does have a very special and enormous talent. But it’s not a well-made novel, it’s not a bestseller, and I don’t think it’s even a good novel. .”
By 1955, Kerouac was ready to give up — but Lord wasn’t. The agent eventually sold excerpts to the Paris Review and New World Writing journals. An editor at Viking Press contacted Lord with an advance payment of $900. Lord insisted on $1,000. In 1957, after the book was published, the New York Times was full of praise, and “On the Road” quickly entered the American classic.
But Lord wrote that Kerouac was a shy and vulnerable man. The fame magnified the alcoholism that killed him in 1969. Lorde even recruited a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to get Kerouac to clean up, but the businessman eventually backed off because he was his “literary agent, not his life agent.”
Lord attended Kerouac’s funeral, in a limousine with his client Jimmy Breslin, and stood by the grave with Allen Ginsberg, “the sun shines through the trees and the leaves turn brown after losing their autumn colors.”
Lorde oversaw Kerouac’s numerous posthumous releases, even as he battled with the author’s family for control of the estate. After years of unsuccessful attempts, the film version of “On the Road” was released in 2012. But Lord was barely involved in the project, which was directed by Walter Salles and starred Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart. He didn’t bother to attend the special screening, citing mixed early reviews, and didn’t appear at the film’s private gathering.
“I decided to go home,” he told The Associated Press in 2013.