Above: Roger Straus, Jr. (wearing an ascot, naturally), Tom Wolfe, Scott Turow, Oscar Hijuelos, Susan Sontag.
In January 1992, I was selected to intern at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which had gained legendary status in the publishing world as the home of multiple Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. FSG epitomized a true literary powerhouse where authors like Tom Wolfe, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Susan Sontag, among others, set the pace for excellence in the world of books.
And who was I to invade this hallowed institution? Just a transplanted Sarah Lawrence College undergrad from Texas with a head full of aspirations and only a general sense of what I wanted to do as an adult. Even then, I wanted to be involved in books and the written language and to take advantage of being in New York where I could pay my dues.
It was intoxicating.
The head boss, Roger Williams Straus, Jr., often roamed the halls. We had been introduced at the time of my interview and to me he was the most incredibly polished and refined man I’d ever met. He punctuated his wardrobe with colorful ascots and spoke in a refined Thurston Howell III-like manner. At the time, I didn’t know about his pedigree as a scion of the Guggenheims and the family that owned Macy’s, but he had the air of someone dignified and important. Well into his 70s, he was always welcoming to me and had a way of looking right into me, unapologetically analyzing me as if trying to figure out what made me tick. I figured it was his way of being friendly.
My tasks as an intern were mostly limited to collecting tearsheets (reviews and articles about FSG and its authors) and organizing contracts. The contracts were spellbinding. Although I didn’t really understand the legalese, I looked for signatures, imagining that my hands were touching the same documents once held by Joseph Brodsky, Philip Roth, Oscar Hijuelos, Susan Sontag, and of course, Tom Wolfe, and Scott Turow.
In 1992, we had no Internet. I didn’t have a computer or a phone of my own. Everything at FSG was simple and scaled down, which I realize today, was as a means of reducing costs so that the company’s real effort would shine on the printed page, where it belonged. The aura of efficiency and thrift did not diminish the grandeur of those spaces.
I always wore a blazer to work. I did this less to make a fashion statement but more to make certain everyone there knew I took my role there seriously. It was a job and I wanted to respect that. I am sure somewhere deep down, I hoped Roger Straus, always in a suit or blazer himself, would approve.
The best part of my internship was working for Peggy Miller, Roger’s personal assistant, who was instrumental in the day to day operations of FSG. I’d venture to say nothing happened within those hallowed offices that she didn’t know about. Peggy would hand me manuscripts from the slush pile, and ask me to take them home to evaluate them, a task I relished. In my mind, I thought I would be the first to discover the next great FSG author. But mostly I was reading unsolicited manuscripts bound to very specific genres. Those manuscripts may not have amounted to anything, but they gave me a chance to form an opinion and to develop skills that I’ve used ever since.
In an age before email and PDFs, submissions were sent only in hard copies. I sometimes lugged a couple of manuscripts home after a day at FSG, reading them on my commute. Alas, I never found anything in the slush pile that I felt merited special attention. Peggy always appreciated my typed-up one-page assessments and I imagine she handed them off to the editors who presumably sent rejection letters to the writers.
With duties in subsidiary rights, publicity, and editorial, I managed to stay pretty busy. I was even invited to meetings where titles were “launched”, when all the editors, publicists, rights, and sales staff got to know new titles before they were added to FSG’s seasonal catalogues. That spring, Daryl Pinckney’s High Cotton was one of the titles we were heavily promoting. No one was paying much attention to another book on that season’s list, Strong Motion, written by a little-known Jonathan Franzen whose next book, The Corrections, would not be published by FSG for nearly another decade.
As much as I participated in life at FSG, there’s plenty of stuff we interns didn’t get to do. We weren’t invited to book parties or to mingle with the authors. I’d love to say I knew all the authors who were in and out of those offices, that I ran into Tom Wolfe in the lobby or ran contacts over to Susan Sontag but I didn’t really have that access. The FSG staffers were all very sophisticated and well-spoken, grown-ups with kids and families and very adult responsibilities. Although they weren’t as glamorous as Roger Straus or Peggy Miller, they were still passionate about books, about reading, about finding audiences for their writers.
The early ‘90s were a boom time for FSG. Scott Turow’s mega-successful legal thrillers were carrying the company, with Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof selling hundreds of thousands of hardcover copies. Additionally, future Pulitzer-prize winners Michael Cunningham and Jeffrey Eugenides were already on the radar. Nadine Gordimer and Derek Wolcott had just won successive Nobel Prizes. But success can be fickle.
I didn’t know at the time, but I was working at an FSG that would very soon vanish. In 1994, Roger Straus sold the company to German media conglomerate Holtzbrinck, which later acquired MacMillian and folded FSG into its larger MacMillan banner. Roger Straus would pass away in 2004, leaving the FSG to Jonathan Galassi, whom I used to see in some of the editorial meetings. FSG re-located to offices on W. 18th Street, abandoning Union Square altogether.
Under Galassi, FSG remains a force in the world of publishing although he has had to adapt to a new world of vanishing bookstores and digital media. I recently learned that Peggy Miller, who retired after Roger’s passing, sometimes still dines in the Union Square area. I’d love to see her again and tell her thank you for opening a door for me that gave me my first glimpse into the world of publishing.
I don’t think I’ve been the same since that semester. The FSG where I spent my Fridays over (gulp!) 20 years ago might now seem quaint, maybe comical by today’s hi-tech publishing standards, but for a blazer-wearing undergrad who needed to feel a sense of belonging, it was heaven.