“Fuck the peasants!”
That ancient cry off the Russian steppe was the trademark toast of Homer Stern, founder, president, and publisher of the tony, impecunious independent publishing house Purcell & Stern. He raised a glass with it often at dinners celebrating his authors’ victories or, better yet, defeats, after the numerous award ceremonies that punctuate the publishing year. Homer’s salute to his warriors divided the world cleanly into us and them—or maybe it was me and them—a spot-on reflection of his Hun-like worldview.
Homer was a womanizer, and he made no particular effort to hide it. It was part of the broad advertisement of self that some found disarming and just as many detested. To his fellows, his frank appreciation of female horseflesh jibed with his loud, nasal upper-class New York accent and loud, expensive clothes—“On him they look good,” Carrie Donovan allowed in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar—and his taste for Cuban cigars and Mercedes convertibles. It had taken him years to buy a German car after the war, but his fondness for luxury and display eventually won out over any lingering historical or religious compunctions. Homer exuded a kind of leftover, gently down-at-the-heels German Jewish droit du seigneur that was only slightly put on. He’d inherited it from his father, the grandson of a lumber baron who’d made a fortune out West when the First Transcontinental Railroad needed ties by the boxcar. That was a long time ago, though, and the Stern family coffers were nowhere near as full of dollars as they had been, after three generations of dilution without replenishment. As with many who live on inherited wealth, Homer’s sense of what money can buy hadn’t kept pace with inflation. He was a famously chintzy tipper.
Still, he reveled in the bella figura that let him give the impression of being much better off than he was. He once told his son Plato that looking rich made it easier to put off paying his printing bills; his printer of choice, Sonny Lenzner, would always assume he could pay up when he got around to it. As his wife, Iphigene Abrams, likewise an heiress, to a faded Newark department store fortune, was quoted as saying, not without pride (they had married almost in arranged fashion at twenty-one and were to remain together through thick and thin for sixty-three years), “Homer likes nothing better than walking a tightrope over the abyss.” Iphigene published a series of neoProustian memoir-novels in the seventies and eighties that had been highly regarded by some. Many were amused by her Edwardian-era bluestocking affectations—billowing chiffon gowns and garden hats, or jodhpurs and riding crop—as if she wanted it to be known she was a throwback and proud of it. She was the perfect foil to Homer’s Our Crowd Mafioso showiness. They made quite a pair.
Stern was the last of the independent “gentlemen” publishers, scions of Industrial Revolution fortunes of greater or lesser magnitude who’d decided to spend what remained of their inheritance on something that was fun for them and perhaps generally worthwhile, too. College right after the war—he’d attended a series of institutions of descending degrees of seriousness, always managing to get himself thrown out before graduation—was followed by a stint in the army’s public relations branch, where he’d done his damnedest to sell enlistment via jingle and poster to a conflict-weary public. He’d also acquired a penchant for inventive profanity, which, combined with the Yiddishisms he’d picked up later on, when he and Iphigene got interested in their Jewish roots, made for a delicious idiomatic goulash all his own.
When Homer set out, in the dark days of the fifties, to start a publishing house with Heyden Vanderpoel, a wealthy WASP tennis buddy of his, he’d invited Frank Purcell— “Like the composer,” he invariably said on being introduced, in case someone might mistakenly put the accent on the second syllable—to join them. Frank was a once-celebrated editor from an older generation who’d been unceremoniously cut loose from his previous job while he was off in Korea. In the end, Vanderpoel’s mother had objected to his linking his impeccable name with a Jew’s, and Heyden hadn’t wanted to work nine to five anyway, so it was just Homer and Frank: Stern and Purcell. Or Purcell and Stern, as Frank had insisted, reasonably enough. They set up shop and waited for something to happen.
Eventually something had. The fledgling company struggled along for a while on the occasional commercial best seller: nutrition bibles and the collected speeches of various governors and secretaries of state—remember, this was the fifties—with now and then a high-toned foreign novel recommended by one or another of Homer’s European scouts, pals from his army days now working, some muttered sotto voce, as undercover operatives for the CIA. It wasn’t until the mid-sixties, though, that Homer convinced Georges Savoy, a French émigré with a genuine feeling for writing and a well-stocked stable acquired during a productive but turbulent career at Owl House, to come work with him and Frank that Purcell & Stern jelled. Soon enough, through the alchemical fusion of Georges’s taste and connections with Homer’s salesmanship—not to mention the contributions of a series of young staffers who slaved twelve or fourteen hours a day at abysmal wages for the privilege of being associated with Greatness—P & S emerged as a force to contend with in literary publishing, a kind of rocket of originality.
It wasn’t just Pepita Erskine, the taboo-smashing firebrand African American critic and novelist, who set the tone at the firm. There was Iain Spofford, the pernickety New Journalist who ruled at The Gothamite, known to many as “The Newer Yorker,” which had recently emerged as America’s premier cultural weekly. There were Elspeth Adams, queen of the icy sonnet, and Winthrop Winslow, the confessional Brahmin novelist, and the scholarly, subtly subversive critic Giovanni Di Lorenzo—writers who were defining a generation in letters and who introduced Homer and Georges to a gifted younger generation, among them the trio of eventual Nobel Prize–winning poets whom Homer dubbed the Three Aces.
And there was Thor Foxx. Thornton Jefferson Foxx was a not-so-good ol’ boy from the hills of Tennessee with a Colonel Sanders goatee who swore like a trucker and whose irreverent debunking of New York literary pretension had won him instant fame in the pretension-strewn canyons of Gotham. Thor and Pepita were the proverbial oil and water, and it was a tribute to Homer and Iphigene’s Fred and Ginger–like social skills that these two cornerstones of the P & S list could show up simultaneously in the crush of one of the Sterns’ coveted at-homes in their stylishly moderne East Eighty-third Street town house and not bump into each other.
So P & S surprisingly quickly became a legend in publishing circles. And that was where the trouble between Homer and Sterling Wainwright began. P & S came to be regarded as the smallest, scrappiest, and most “literary” of the “major” publishers, while Wainwright’s Impetus Editions, for all its cultural impact and influence (Sterling had had half a decade’s head start on Homer, to be fair), was considered the largest and most esteemed of the small presses, another world altogether. And though Homer was stingy with author advances, Impetus was cheaper still— much, much cheaper. Even so, there was significant overlap, and when the cocky young Jewish American writer Byron Hummock left Impetus for P & S after the publication of his prizewinning book of stories, All Around Sheboygan, war was declared. And it had never ended.
Wainwright, a card-carrying WASP from Ohio whose inheritance (ball bearings) trumped Stern’s by a factor of ten (some said much more), regarded Homer as a crass and ill-mannered upstart opportunist, not a man of his word— a time-honored defense for someone who’s been bested in the rough-and-tumble of business. Homer derided Sterling as a playboy indulging his literary pretensions without any practical acumen or publishing savvy. Which was kind of rich when you thought about it, given Homer’s own background. No, the trouble was not what separated Sterling and Homer; it was how alike they were. Both were spoiled, handsome, charming ladies’ men with a nose for writers. You might have thought they’d be natural pals, but you’d have been dead wrong. They cordially detested each other, and greatly enjoyed doing so.
Something else Sterling and Homer shared was an obsession with the poetry and person of Ida Perkins, arguably the representative American poet of their era. To each of them she was the embodiment of writerly—not to mention feminine—desirability. Sterling, of course, adored, revered, and published his cousin Ida; but Homer had his own attachment to her. They’d been introduced by one of Homer’s writers, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who’d had unrequited feelings of his own for Ida, and predictably enough, Homer had been dazzled by the fatally brilliant redhead. The rumor, which he was capable of putting about himself, was that they had shared their own “moment in time,” as he liked to call his affairs. Nobody knew for sure, but the frequency and tenderness of Homer’s allusions to Ida were an index of something for those with ears to hear. Ida, as both an attention-grabbing literary star and an alluring female, was a kind of Holy Grail for him, not dissimilar to, though if anything more fetishized and coveted than, “Hart, Schaffner, and Marx,” as he called the leading Jewish American novelists of the late sixties, Abe Burack, Byron Hummock, and Jonathan Targoff, of whom he never managed to capture more than two at any one time, try as he might.
Authors were to Homer what paintings or real estate or jewelry were to his richer relations: living, breathing collectibles, outward and visible signs of his inward and spiritual substance. To publish Ida would in some sense be the capstone of his career, more even than Pepita, or the Three Aces, or Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, because he already owned, or had owned, all of them at one point or another, even if some had eventually managed to pry themselves loose. But Ida was the one he hadn’t managed to bag, as he graciously put it. She belonged to his gnat of a rival Sterling Wainwright, who was related to her, after all, and for Homer too, blood mattered. There was simply nothing he could do about it—not that he hadn’t made one frontal assault after another, only to be genteelly put off time and again. No, Ida was Homer’s bird in the bush. And it rankled like an unscratched itch.
“Fucking Ida Perkins gets all the headlines and wins all the prizes, and what do we get? Bupkis!” he’d grumble, as if it was their fault, to Georges Savoy and anyone else he could buttonhole on his editorial staff, a raggle-taggle gatherum of talented misfits, many of whom he’d scooped up “on the beach,” always at a considerable discount, after they’d been let go by more hard-nosed mainstream houses—starting with Frank and Georges. Each had succumbed to Homer’s spell in one way or another: portly Paddy Femor, an exceptionally gifted editor whose perfectionism made it nearly impossible for him to let go of the manuscripts he noodled over, sometimes for years; cadaverous Elsa Pogorsky, known around the office as Morticia, invariably dressed in black from head to toe and forever scowling through forbidding black glasses, one of Homer’s “nuns of publishing,” who sat resentfully at her desk all day correcting the numberless translations of unsalable story writers and poets from the “other” Europe that Abe Burack and others were constantly pressing on Homer; crotchety, heart-of-gold copy chief Esperanza Esparza, renowned for her way with a red pencil, who seemed never to leave her desk surrounded by its array of scraggly avocado and spider plants that leached all the available light from her grimy office window.
Homer’s team was united in subservient loyalty to their larger-than-life leader, whose paternal insouciance made them feel sunned-on for once in their lives: essential players in an enterprise of unquestionable significance. His allegro benevolence was like catnip. Why, it was nearly as good as money! So they beavered away while he sat back with his feet on his desk like an overdressed Tom Sawyer, smiling his toothy smile and entertaining himself placing troublemaking calls to agents and journalists.
“Who do I have to blow to get Burack’s new book reviewed, baby?” he’d jaw to his sidekick Florian Brundage, affectionately known as Chowderhead, The Daily Blade’s chief book critic and, perhaps not entirely incidentally, a P & S novelist, picking his teeth all the while. “Your piece on that cow I’m too refined to mention, Hortense Houlihan”—to tell the truth, Homer made use of a coarser, unprintable epithet—“was shit and you know it.”
Miraculously, books emerged from P & S’s Augean stables. Usually they won kudos, often they won prizes, and now and again they sold reasonably well. Sometimes working for Homer was peaches and cream, occasionally it was infuriating, but mostly it was kind of fun. All you had to do was accept that it was Homer’s shop, 100 percent. There were no office politics at P & S, because he decided everything. So people—those who lasted—relaxed and homed in on their work, endlessly complaining about the peremptory, ungrateful, self-involved authors whose writing they idolized. They were utterly mad, of course, but they did their level best to ignore one another’s foibles since they were the same as their own. And to many of them the cramped, filthy offices on Union Square were a mind-bending, topsy-turvy little heaven on earth.
From MUSE. Used with permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Galassi.