George and I knew each other before either of us knew anything about children’s books. We met in the summer of 1959 on the campus of Carleton College, where George was on post-senior business and I was taking a pre-freshman course. We met again a few years later when we were both working for Western Publishing and began a friendship that lasted a lifetime. George was a terrific Anglophile, and when I was offered a job in London, it was he who encouraged me to go.
When I married Christopher and took him to the U.S. for the first time, George gave up his bed to us on our first night in New York. Gratefully we retired early, jet-lagged, while George stayed up, listened to Gertrude Lawrence and had a couple of drinks. He then went to bed as usual, forgetting we were already there. Embarrassment, confusion, laughter. Christopher said he thought maybe this unusual hospitality was an old American custom that I hadn’t told him about.
Over the years, especially when I was a children’s publisher at Collins, George and I did business together, but the business and the family friendship meshed. We had holidays together in England, Sag Harbor, Nantucket, and Provence. His son, Nicky, came and stayed with us in London. Our son, Ben, stayed with George in New York. Ben now says it was a privilege and a joy to have known “Uncle George”—this very model of a cultured man who read everything but also knew how to have fun.
Patricia Reilly Giff
My friendship with George was all about story. He’d remind me of the radio programs we listened to as children in the ’40s. “Grand Central Station,” he’d say, “crossroads of a hundred thousand lives.” Or “The Shadow knows.” There was Lux Theater and... “Can a girl from a small mining town in the West find happiness?” We’d smile, remembering.
“Why don’t you write?” I asked him once. “I’d much rather read,” he answered. And read he did, such a wide range of books. He shared with me, filling in gaps in my own reading life, mailing me books, calling, emailing: “You must read....”
He read my manuscripts right from the beginning. Occasionally he’d say, “You’re not quite there,” and talk things through with me. And in the beginning, “You haven’t made me cry yet.”
For almost 40 years I wanted my stories to be there for George Nicholson. I wanted to make him cry. He was my editor, my agent, my dear friend. There was no one like him.
George could book talk better than anyone I know. He was just so articulate and his enthusiasm was infectious. I love this story about him, which took place at Viking in the ’70s when George was editor-in-chief. Sales conference was a much more modest affair in those days, taking place in one room, on one day. On this occasion, the adult presentations had run long, so the sales director announced that there would be no time to present the children’s list. George was outraged. He rose to his feet, said, “Give me 10 minutes!” and proceeded to present the entire list without a note, within the 10 minutes. He got a standing ovation.
George was generous in every way. He loved sharing his latest book discovery with you. Once, when he was urging me to read Henning Mankell, he actually took me to a bookstore after lunch and bought me the book in question. He was a true book person.
George Nicholson loved books. I can’t think of a better thing to say about a person, or anything that would more clearly describe what he meant to me, than that—George loved books and writers and readers and the written word and everyone and everything that came together in order to put a book in the hands of a child. George knew every single thing there is to know about publishing books for young people, and he seemed, at least to me, to know everything that was going on in the industry in real time. My respect and gratitude for his support can’t be put into words, and I could never list the countless ways he fought for my books.
George was a great book man, a voracious reader, and a valiant individual. He was a visionary who created the Yearling line of paperback books for children, which soon will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. This was a contribution to the world that George was always proud of. George was a generous mentor who was supportive of those just entering the industry. He had strong opinions, a terrific sense of humor, and a rich and easy laugh. He had a wonderful way with words. Always immaculately turned out in a suit or a coat and tie, he was very much an old-world connoisseur. Those who knew him well have hundreds of hilarious stories to tell about “the time that George...”
I’ve written all of the above about George because as much as he loved to be a part of the crowd, he was also quite a private person who didn’t want the spotlight on himself. Still, we should never forget that he was truly an extraordinary gentleman.
When I worked with George at Dell/Delacorte in the 1980s, it was a time of enormous growth for paperbacks and books expanding from the school and library markets to greater representation in retail accounts. It was a thrilling time, and George was eager to lead the charge. Of course the marketplace was important, but always it came back to the books and the authors for George. We wrote memos with ideas about what might be tried, and shared long editorial letters. When someone in the group found an exciting new manuscript, we’d stand in each other’s doorways pushing the pages on the next person to read as quickly as possible.
George had a passion for people, and his enthusiasm about the search for new talent and great books was what his daily life was all about. His unabashed energy and robust desire to get things done and win every auction and find the widest audience for a project were inspirational. He was ferocious about giving authors the time and space they needed to be creative. George’s dedication to new ideas was legendary. His legend will not die, as the books he brought into existence will charm and entertain and enlighten generations to come.
Erica Rand Silverman
Over the last seven years of working with George, I didn’t just learn the history of our industry. I also learned a way of being. He taught me to be “grateful if you could” and “grateful that you did.” He taught me to always leave doors open even if someone behaved badly (his words exactly). He may have reveled in behaving badly in response—narrowing his twinkly eyes and leaning forward with a conspiratorial smirk—but only for the briefest moment. (I loved those moments). He taught me to remind artists and writers that the good ideas I might have about their work are only because of the good seeds they’ve planted there. He taught me to appreciate good books that were published many decades ago and to commit to keeping those good books alive. He taught me not to overuse exclamation points, to always be reading adult literature, to feel deeply about the state of our world, and to enjoy my children. George just wanted us all to have great fun doing what we do. And that is exactly what he did. I don’t know how I got so lucky.
I cannot adequately express the emptiness I feel, knowing George Nicholson has left us. George has been the rock beneath my feet, professionally and personally, for over 40 years. He first was my editor, then later became my agent, but was always my beloved friend. When my youngest daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was murdered, I wrote Who Killed My Daughter? to motivate informants and prevent the facts of the case from becoming buried. At that time George was the head of the juvenile department at Dell. I told him, “I know you can’t publish this, because it’s adult nonfiction, but can you guide me about what to do with it?” He said, “Don’t worry. I will get it published This was our Kait!” And he did. He did the same for the sequel, One to the Wolves, which has just been released by Planet Ann Rule. I’d like to think of our relationship as special, but I have a feeling he had the same dedication to all “his authors.” He will be missed by literally thousands of people to whom he was an icon, a friend and a mentor. How lucky we were to have had him in our lives!
I worked with George for 13 lucky years. In the late ’80s George was editor-in-chief of Dell/Delacorte Books for Young Readers and I was a senior editor. We were going through the packet of materials for the first Bantam Doubleday Dell combined sales conference, to be held at a beach resort in Florida. In the packet was a sign-up sheet for an afternoon of organized fun in the sun—a “get to meet your new colleagues” through games of tennis, volleyball, basketball, etc. George advised me to participate, so I signed up for what became the Dell all-female volleyball team. Knowing that George probably wouldn’t take his own advice, I asked what he was signing up for and he responded, “I’m signing up for the bar.”
And sure enough, there he was at the tiki hut bar on the beach, sporting shorts and a T-shirt that said “GEORGEOUS GORGE.” Although he cheered us on, the Dell women’s volleyball team was eliminated in the first round against the all-male sales reps from Canada. Miss you, GMN.
You heard the courtliness in his voice. You could see the kindness, warmth, and brilliance in his face. You felt the burn of his literary passion in the smallest conversation, and a lunch with him made you feel like your head was a different size. I could barely believe my good fortune when George agreed to be my agent. He was able to pick out one buried sentence of a 16-page proposal and say, correctly, “There’s your series. You don’t need the rest.” He taught me to print out a bad review and burn it over the sink. He called me while sniffling over an emotional passage in my manuscript. He vexed and elevated, hectored and praised. He delighted over news of my sons as if they were his own. Something about his laugh—that raspy, helpless, full-bodied “HAAA”— made you know you earned it.
In his two careers George shook the publishing world with a stealthy mix of gentlemanliness and revolutionary genius. You’d be hard-pressed to find a child today (or anyone who has been a child since the 1960s) who would know his name. But nearly every one of them has been affected by his service to ideas, to storytelling, and to the importance of children’s literature—all of which he accomplished by the devotion to the people he loved and believed in. To me, he was mentor and champion, literary father and mother, fiercely loyal friend. Work and love were inseparable to George Nicholson. I’m told he worked until the last day, the old Calvinist. So should we all.
I first met George in the spring of 1980. I was a rights associate at Viking and we were still selling paperback rights, so I called up “the” George Nicholson and invited him to lunch to go over the list. The restaurant was somewhere on Third Avenue in the 50s—Viking was on Madison, Dell was near the U.N.—and the lunch had been lovely (and liquid). On the way back, we passed a newsstand selling lilacs, and George stopped, bought a bunch, bowed, and presented me with them. For me, that has ever after been George—generous, gallant, a true gentleman.
There’s a fourth g I think of, too. Grateful. He mentored so many people, but especially my husband, Craig Virden, who succeeded him at Dell in 1992. I imagine them now, conspiring to make children’s books bestsellers in heaven.
For George business was social life by other means. He made no distinction between a well-published book and a well-planned party. And he took the party with him.
The first two times I saw George turned out to be absolutely typical of him. The first: I went to Viking to interview for a job, and George’s assistant kept popping out to apologize that Mr. Nicholson was delayed. Once I started at Viking I learned that he’d forgotten our appointment, and his assistant was desperately trying to find him.
Working with George was full of these comic moments. He could be unreliable about things like appointments, but if you had a crisis, he stood by you and you solved it together. He was warmhearted and incredibly generous. If anyone lost a job, or was ill, he offered help immediately. As a publisher and agent, he truly loved authors and illustrators, and he could envision a book or a career in minutes, and set it in motion. His range of interests was enormous; he was widely read, witty, and deeply cultured. He sometimes sounded rather British: “Splendid!” “Let’s overlook the infelicities of those pages.…”
The second time: on my first day of work, I arrived to find his department celebrating George’s birthday with champagne. George believed in celebrations and champagne. And in going to the movies on Friday afternoons, travel, offering people the use of his home, sending flowers, bringing people together at parties.
He made me feel rich in countless ways; most of all, in his friendship. O, rare and splendid George Nicholson!
George’s friendship was a gift to many, and I’m sure we all felt chosen. Ours was mostly an exchange of ideas, strategies, and some scheming. We met regularly to talk about the backlists and how we could refresh and recycle material so we could get books back in print. Discussing a book with him was a trip through the history of children’s literature. It was thrilling to sit in his office classroom; he enlarged my world and contributed enormously to my development.
George was a real gentleman and a "splendid" publisher. He was kind, supportive, and he could dance until dawn.
Leonard S. Marcus
Writing about George in the past tense is incredibly sad. He was such a buoyant, vivid man and he was always looking ahead to the next project. George had a big view of publishing, of how the industry worked and how best to navigate its sometimes troubled waters. He was endlessly intrigued by the nuances of the business but committed heart and soul to publishing as a cultural enterprise. He always focused on the long term, believing that the best negotiation was the one in which everyone came out on top. He was generous with his time and encouragement. I feel very lucky to have had the benefit of his advice, and to have known him as a friend.
I owe my career to George Nicholson. When I wanted to switch into children’s publishing, I went on a lot of informational interviews. On one of those, I met George, who told me there was an opening on the book review staff at School Library Journal, where I worked for seven happy years.
When it was time to move on, I couldn’t convince anyone that I had the needed experience. But George came to the rescue again. He had an opening, and at that interview, I didn’t need to say a word. George did all the talking: You’ve read everything! You know so many authors! You know the history of children’s lit!
He hired me, and it was an incredible job. But more than that, George taught me. And his graciousness, and generosity, and amazing wealth of experience and knowledge have served me well over the years. I owe so much to George, as a boss, as a colleague, and as a friend, and I will miss him.
George Nicholson was one of a kind. He sought out the best of everything and could have fun anywhere and anytime. I met him at Holt, Rinehart and Winston where he was an editor. I was a copyeditor working on his books and fortunate enough to enter the world of children’s books with George as my enthusiastic escort. He introduced me to the books of Judy Blume in the early ’70s and just this summer I wrote him that Judy and I were working on her new novel together, and he wrote back, pleased and generous as always.
Years later we worked at Dell together for over 10 years. Traveling with George to publishing events was always an adventure, to London for dinner with an author he was pursuing, to Bologna for the children book fair; to ALA and ABA (BEA now), to sales conferences in New Jersey, Tuscan or Boca Raton, where he would make sure a few of us took in the local sights: Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, after-hours jazz clubs in Tuscan, opera in Bologna with my husband, the musical Follies in London. Wherever we went with George meant meeting his old friends and making new ones. He was always interested in what was going on and managed to be in the middle of it... and most important, eager to share it all with you. A perfect gentleman, with old-school wit and charm. He will be missed.
Susan Goldman Rubin
I was honored to be asked to contribute to this piece. On the other hand I hate writing it because it means George is really gone. Every day I keep remembering what George said or did. I miss his witty little emails simply signed, “g.” And articles he sent from the Guardian or the Art Newspaper on subjects he thought might spark an idea for a children’s book. “This is the book that should be done,” he wrote with an article on “Latin American colonial art done largely by peasants.” Somehow my editor at Abrams didn’t agree, but that didn’t matter because another interesting article from George soon appeared on my email.
He taught me how to do many things such as saving all my receipts for a work related trip in one envelope marked with the hotel’s name. He told me to send handwritten thank you notes, even on hotel stationery, after doing an interview. He told me what to read. On my nightstand is a copy of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald that he had when it was first published in England and enjoyed so much that I sent away for it immediately. The first time I heard him speak at an SCBWI conference he said, “You want your agent to make you feel great.” He did. I miss George with all my heart. It was a privilege to be his friend and work with him for 20 years.
George was our fearless leader at Dell/Delacorte. He was also fun-loving and frequently hilarious, which was terrific for morale. His expectations were high, but he had a way of inspiring you to work harder, to be better. Part of his brilliance was his talent for making all of us want to bring out the best in each other. Sometimes he got this message across in surprising ways. One morning George raced around the office, summoning us all to an urgent meeting. Nervously we crowded into his office, wondering if we were going to find out about a corporate restructuring that might mean layoffs or hear sad news about a beloved author. Then came the announcement. As his eyes swept the room George declared, “We must all help one another to guard against mediocrity.” I think I laughed with relief at the time, but I often remind myself of these words. It just might be the best career advice I’ve ever received.
George Nicholson is in heaven. (Don’t bother me with your doubts: I know what I know.) He’s living in a charming white limestone townhouse in central Celestial City. The country is nice for the weekends, says George, but life in town holds more possibilities. As the moon rises, he sits in his bow window with a glass of champagne, dining on Beluga caviar with toast points followed by a big dish of ice cream. In heaven the toast stays hot, sturgeons are not harmed in the production of caviar, and ice cream is one of the five major food groups. After dinner George goes to a big literary party hosted by Oscar Wilde, where he meets Shakespeare. Will is so engaged by George’s enthusiastic discussion of Caliban, his deep understanding of the nuances of the character, he insists on writing a children’s book, a form that was not available in his lifetime. Immediately Milton wants in, and Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brontë, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Pushkin, and Richard Wright all crowd around voicing their ideas. Virginia Woolf shyly suggests she’d like to imagine a memoir of Farinelli and wonders if it should be middle grade or YA. It’s going to be a divine first list.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Gustav Klimt, and Rembrandt paint book jackets, and Dürer makes etchings for Mary Shelley’s new story. Books are printed letterpress on rag paper with calfskin bindings stamped in gold. The heavenly choir sings their praises. Naturally, the books sell a million copies each because after all, it’s heaven. George gives a publication party in his townhouse, and when it is almost over he sweeps the lingering guests off for a nightcap at Marie’s Crisis Cafe’s Paradise annex, where Noël Coward and Bobby Short take turns at the piano bar. He’s one of them now.
We all miss him like crazy, of course. This earth is a duller, grayer place without George in it. But he always was a thoughtful friend and a true gentleman. I hope he’ll drop us a postcard from his new location.