Sterling Lord, literary agent who ran ‘On the Road’, dies at 102


Sterling Lord, the literary agent who worked for years to find a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and, over the following decades, secured deals for a list of clients ranging from writer Joe McGinniss to the creators of the Berenstain Bears. , died Sept. 3 at a nursing home in Ocala, Florida, on his 102nd birthday.

His daughter, Rebecca Lord, confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Mr Lord, who started his own agency in 1952 and later merged with rival Literistic to form Sterling Lord Literistic, was a failed magazine publisher who became, almost surely, the oldest agent in the book business. He stayed with the company he founded until he was almost 100 years old, then decided to start a new one.

He was on the lookout for new trends and one of the first ambassadors of a revolutionary cultural movement: the Beats. With rare persistence, he endured publishers’ initial reluctance to take on Kerouac’s unorthodox narrative, and he later served as the longtime agent of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist Ken Kesey, and poet and owner of the City Lights Lawrence Ferlinghetti bookstore.

Through his friendship with Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, Lord helped launch Stan and Jan Berenstain’s multimillion-selling books about a family of anthropomorphic bears. He brokered terms between McGinniss and accused killer Jeffrey MacDonald, later convicted, for the true-crime classic “Fatal Vision.” He found a publisher for Nicholas Pileggi’s mob story “Wiseguy” and helped seal the deal for his famous film adaptation, “Goodfellas.”

In the early 1960s, Viking had asked Mr. Lord to obtain a blurb from Kerouac for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, the first and best known of Kesey’s novels. Kerouac declined, but Mr Lord was so impressed with the book that he ended up representing Kesey for his next work, “Sometimes a Great Notion”.

He represented former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Justice John Sirica of Watergate fame, and he often worked with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when she was an editor at Doubleday and Viking. Some of the great sports books of the 20th century, from “North Dallas Forty” to “Secretariat”, were written by his clients.

“A number of things about this business really drew me in and made it an irresistible interest,” Mr. Lord told the AP in 2013. “First, I’m interested in good writing. Secondly, I am interested in new and good ideas and thirdly, I have been able to meet extraordinarily interesting people.

Mr. Lord spoke proudly of a project he turned down: the memoirs of Lyndon B. Johnson. The former president’s representatives informed Lord in the late 1960s that Johnson wanted $1 million for the book and that Mr. Lord would have to accept less than his usual commission for the honor of working with him. Mr. Lord turned them down, much to their surprise and anger.

Johnson’s “The Vantage Point”, finally released in 1971, was dismissed by critics as bland and uninformative. Mr Lord instead struck a chord for ‘Quotes from President LBJ’, a hit parody.

Books and tennis were lifelong passions for Mr. Lord, who was born in Burlington, Iowa on September 3, 1920. He edited his high school newspaper and was a sportswriter around the same time for the Des Moines Register. He also became a tennis star at Grinnell College in Iowa and was later a good enough player to take on Don Budge, among others.

His upbringing, he would later write, was the kind of “nice and orderly” world “that the Beats trampled in the fifties and sixties”.

After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Mr. Lord was co-owner of the German magazine Weekend, which soon closed. Back in the United States, he was editor at True and Cosmopolitan, from which he was fired, before founding the Sterling Lord Literary Agency.

Mr. Lord had met many agents during his magazine years and believed they failed to understand that the American public was becoming increasingly urban and sophisticated. He was also proud of his sympathy for writers who lived far more savagely than he did.

His first marriage, he would admit, inspired him to go into business. “Honestly, I didn’t want to deal with the situation at home,” he told the Des Moines Register in 2015. (He’s been married four times in all and had one child, Rebecca.)

Mr Lord found early success selling the film rights to two popular sports books, Rocky Graziano’s ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (written by Rowland Barber) and Jimmy Piersall’s ‘Fear Strikes Out’ (written by Al Hirshberg ). But Mr. Lord’s “On the Road” quest would prove more bumpy.

In his 2013 memoir, ‘Lord of Publishing’, Mr Lord recalled meeting Kerouac in 1952. Kerouac had completed a conventional novel, ‘The Town and the City’, but he had no agent and had one. surely needed for his next book: ‘On the Road’ was typed, as Mr. Lord was among the first to know, ‘on a 120-foot roll of architectural tracing paper’.

Mr. Lord believed Kerouac had “a fresh, distinctive voice that should be heard”. But the industry was in no mood. Even younger editors who might have connected with Kerouac’s jazzy celebration of youth and personal freedom dismissed it. An editor wrote to Mr. Lord: “Kerouac has enormous talent of a very special kind. But it’s not a well-done novel, neither salable nor even, I think, a good one.

In 1955, Kerouac was ready to give up – but Mr. Lord was not. The agent ends up selling excerpts to the Paris Review and the New World Writing periodical. A Viking Press editor contacted Mr. Lord, offering a $900 advance. Mr. Lord held for $1,000. In 1957 the book came out, the New York Times praised it, and “On the Road” quickly entered the American canon.

But Kerouac was a shy and fragile man, Mr. Lord wrote. Fame amplified a drinking problem that killed him in 1969. Mr Lord even recruited a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to have Kerouac cleansed, but the businessman eventually backed down as he was his “literary agent, not his life agent”.

Mr Lord attended Kerouac’s funeral, sharing a limo ride with his client Jimmy Breslin and standing by the grave alongside poet Allen Ginsberg.

Mr Lord oversaw Kerouac’s many posthumous releases even as he battled the author’s family for control of the estate. After years of failed attempts, a film version of “On the Road” was released in 2012. But Mr. Lord had little involvement in the project, starring Sam Riley. He didn’t bother to attend a special screening, citing mixed early reviews, and didn’t show up to a private party for the film.

“I decided to go home,” he told the AP in 2013.


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