Giroux a giant among publishers

Robert Giroux, a distinguished master of 20th-century publishing who guided and supported dozens of great writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac, Bernard Malamud and Susan Sontag, died in his sleep early Friday. He was 94.

Giroux, who helped create one of the most notable publishing houses — Farrar, Straus & Giroux — had been in failing health for a couple of months and died at an assisted living facility in Tinton Falls, N.J., Jeff Seroy, a Farrar, Straus spokesman, said.

Known throughout the industry for his taste and discretion, he began in 1940 as an editor at Harcourt, Brace & Co. and had so great a reputation that when he left in 1955 to join what was then Farrar, Straus, more than a dozen writers joined him, including Flannery O'Connor, Malamud and Eliot, a close friend.

“When I faced a difficult decision about my own career, his support and encouragement saw me through a crisis,” Giroux later said of the poet.

Giroux joined Farrar as editor-in-chief and was made a full partner in 1964, his reserved demeanor in contrast to the company's boisterous founder and president, Roger Straus. Straus and Giroux thrived together even as they endlessly complained about each other, with Straus regarding Giroux as a snob, and Giroux looking upon Straus as more a businessman than a man of letters.

During Giroux's 60-year career, some of the world's most celebrated writers published works for FSG, including Nobel Prize winners Isaac Bashevis Singer, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney. Authors were known to turn down more money from competitors for the privilege of being signed by Farrar, Straus.

“The single most important thing to happen to this company was the arrival of Bob Giroux,” Straus, who died in 2004, once said.

Even after FSG sold controlling interest in 1994 to German publisher Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, it retained the reputation as an upholder of old-fashioned standards, more attuned to lasting quality than to instant profit. Sometimes, it achieved both, with such works as Jonathan Franzen's “The Corrections,” Jeffrey Eugenides' “Middlesex” and Marilynne Robinson's “Gilead.”

Giroux was an author himself, writing “The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare's Sonnets.” He also contributed introductions to “The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor” and to anthologies of Malamud, John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop. But a planned memoir was never completed.

Able to work with relative freedom, Giroux was still a strong critic of contemporary publishing, which he believed had become too money-minded. “Editors used to be known by their authors,” he observed in a 1981 lecture. “Now some of them are known by their restaurants.”

In 1987, Giroux received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for his “distinguished contribution to the enhancement of American literary and critical standards.” In 2002, he received an honorary prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Giroux was married to Carmen de Arango in 1952. They divorced in 1969.

A native of New Jersey, Giroux was a star student at Columbia University, where his classmates included Berryman, Herman Wouk and Thomas Merton. Among the debut novels he worked on were Malamud's “The Natural,” Jack Kerouac's “The Town and the City” and O'Connor's “Wise Blood.” Giroux also edited Susan Sontag, Robert Lowell and Hannah Arendt.