Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Richard Seaver, who was responsible for such controversial publications as William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, died Jan. 5. He was 82. Last summer, he and his wife Jeannette posed with novelist Todd Komarnicki at the launch of Komarnicki's book War.
Richard Seaver, who was responsible for such controversial publications as William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, died Jan. 5. He was 82. Last summer, he and his wife Jeannette posed with novelist Todd Komarnicki at the launch of Komarnicki's book War. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Jane Sobel Klonsky for NPR
Novelist John Irving says Richard Seaver was not just "a good friend" but a "constant inspiration."
I regret that I met Dick Seaver after some of the more famous episodes in his ground-breaking and sophisticated life as an editor, translator and publisher were history. I didn't know the young Richard Seaver who went to work for Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, in 1959. Dick Seaver became editor-in- chief at Grove, where he published such literary and censorship-defying works as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Nor did I know Dick Seaver when he translated The Story of O, which Grove published in '65. The translator's fetching pseudonym was Sabine d'Estree, but "she" was long believed to be Dick Seaver; Dick kept quiet about it.
As his wife of 55 years — Jeannette Seaver, also his colleague at Arcade Publishing for the past 20 years — said after his death this week (of a heart attack, at 82), "He wanted people to guess. But yes, he did it."
Richard Seaver left Grove in '71 and established his own imprint at Viking; he was then president and publisher of Holt, Rinehart & Winston's trade division before starting Arcade, whose backlist features 500 titles from authors in more than 30 countries.
Dick Seaver was an international man. He published my collection of short fiction and nonfiction, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, in '96, but I had finally met the suave and handsome mystery man (as I fondly thought of him) in the early '80s, when we were both already "older" men.
When I met Dick and Jeannette, I was recently divorced and spectacularly unreliable; I envied the obvious strength of the Seavers' marriage and Jeannette's superb cooking. Their youngest son, Nick, and my middle son, Brendan, were friends. In my wrestling room in Sagaponack, Dick and I wrestled together. I was younger, and more technically trained; he was bigger and stronger. (Few people know that Dick Seaver wrestled — probably because he was such a sweet and gentle man.)
My new wife and I stayed with Dick and Jeannette in their house in France, at a time when my youngest son, Everett, was going through a crisis in his diet — to Jeannette's horror, Everett would eat only pommes frites. Everett has outgrown this limitation, and — for the most part — it is fine dining I remember most of all with the Seavers. In that house in Velleron, in their house in Southampton, in their apartment on Central Park West, we ate very, very well — all the while not talking about books but shouting about them. There are a few publishers who are as passionately opinionated about literature as most writers I know, and Dick Seaver was one of them. (And because of everything he had read, you could talk to him about anything.)
When I remarried — to the relief of just about everybody — Dick and Jeannette came to my wedding in Toronto. The last time the Seavers visited me in Vermont, Jeannette cooked a pheasant in my kitchen. I had failed with pheasant before, and have failed since; I now know enough to leave pheasant alone.
Dick and I agreed that most critics were awful — "the good- taste police," we called them. It was heartening for me to be in the company of a man more than a decade older than I was; yet, with more conviction than I had, he believed that conventional literary standards were (and had always been) abominable. Some publishers are writers' good friends; this one was also a constant inspiration.