Longtime Old Mill resident Richard Marek died yesterday of esophageal cancer. His wife, Dalma Heyn, children Alexander Marek and Elizabeth Marek Litt, and 4 grandchildren were by his side.
During his half-century in book publishing he published the final works of James Baldwin; The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; the first 9 books of fellow Westporter Robert Ludlum, and many other bestsellers.
Marek began his publishing career at Macmillan, refurbishing its backlist, but soon moved to acquiring original titles and to another house, World Publishing. There he edited Ludlum’s first thriller, The Scarlatti Inheritance, which sold to Dell paperbacks for the highest price ever paid at the time for a first novel.
He was quickly hired as editor-in-chief of the Dial Press by publisher Helen Meyer. “I turned down The Scarlatti Inheritance when I first read it in manuscript,” she said, “but wound up paying $155,000 for the paperback rights. I figured I’d better hire its editor, too.”
At Dial Marek, working with his lifelong colleague editor, Joyce Engelson (“The hottest Platonic relationship in publishing,” a friend called it), published 4 bestsellers in 1974. Among them was James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.
His relationship with Baldwin began disastrously. On Marek’s first day at Dial, Meyer told him that Baldwin had signed an unauthorized contract with a different publisher. It was Marek’s job, she said, to make sure that no Baldwin book would be published by any house but Dial.
Baldwin was living at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. Marek wrote him every day for months. He never replied.
Marek was sent to track down the author in person, first in Paris where Baldwin never showed, and then to the Negresco Hotel in Nice, where he did — flanked by a lawyer, an agent and a lover.
“This nigger ain’t never goin’ to pick another bale of cotton on Helen Meyer’s plantation,” he announced. A drag-out fight ensued, and the two men fled to the hotel restaurant.
There, oiled by several bottles of wine, they became friends. At the end of the night Baldwin handed Marek some words scribbled on a napkin, guaranteeing him free passage from New York City on the day the Revolution took over. Meyer got her author back, and Marek and Baldwin remained friends the rest of their lives.
Impatient with the stodgy ways of publishing, Marek took chances. On receiving the first novel brought in by Joyce Engelson about 4 doctors going through their residencies at a mythical hospital called, as was the book, The House of God.
Marek’s sales manager at Dial said it was so bad, he’d have to give it away.
“Terrific idea!” Marek said, and did the unthinkable. He printed 10,000 copies with their jackets stamped so they couldn’t be returned, and gave them away to booksellers. In exchange, they had to agree to display the book in their front windows.
The industry was aghast. Marek was accused of trying to bankrupt Dial. But the promotion cost far less than a full-page ad in The New York Times, and people began to rave about the book. It sold to paperback and, while Marek promised not to try such a stunt again, the book has now sold over 2.5 million copies.
Marek was a novelist himself. His 1987 Works of Genius concerns the psychological takeover of his literary agent by a great (and narcissistic) modern writer. Readers suspected the writer character was based on Ludlum, but Marek denied any such association.
Marek was born on June 14, 1933. He married Margot Ravage in 1956, and had 2 children, Elizabeth and Alexander. Four years after the death of his wife in 1987, Marek married author Dalma Heyn. They maintained joint offices in their Westport home. Together they wrote How to Fall in Love: A Novel, which was published last year.
“Love is more important than anything else in this world,” Marek said shortly before he died. “If you’re lucky enough to have it — and write about it — you will have a happy life.”
(Hat tip: Pam Barkentin)