Each time Bob Loomis peers over his half-glasses toward a visitor, he glimpses a black-and-white photograph directly in line with the computer screen on his desk. It hangs in a niche of his Random House office, a private corner unseen from the visitor's chair. Two young men smile down at him with the impossibly sophisticated glow of 1930s stars. Like tutelary gods, they seem to bless the room with echoes of laughter, intimacy and a certain civility from a world long gone.
Part of the distance between that world and ours is captured in a small, slim book Loomis has edited and will publish in March. Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, with an introduction by Loomis himself, reprints wartime correspondence between those two remarkable young men, Donald Klopfer and Bennett Cerf, the founders of Random House. It conjures up an extraordinary partnership and friendship, and is being published to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the company they started and stayed with for life. Cerf died in 1971; Klopfer in 1986.
When you say "Random House" now, you don't think of the meaning of the individual words; they have transmuted into the entity the company has become. By showing what it was 60 years ago, the book speaks volumes about how that entity has evolved, about publishing then and now. It also provides a rare opportunity to listen to a very private editor speak about the founders he knew and the changes he's seen.
In 1925, Cerf and Klopfer, two bright young Jewish New Yorkers possessing college educations, a little family money and larger dreams, bought the reprint cash-cow Modern Library from its brilliant, self-destructive, cash-strapped owner, Horace Liveright. Cerf had started out on Wall Street, but after a few years was beguiled by the book business during a stint with Liveright.
Klopfer was an escapee from his family's firm.
By 1927 their investment seemed almost to run itself. With too many free afternoons on their hands, the young men gambled on starting a frontlist operation. Cerf hungered for the fizzy excitement he had tasted under the Broadway-obsessed Liveright, whose talent for publishing important books with a showman's flair was new to the business.
It is a fine serendipity that in 1926, sandwiched between those two beginnings, was another: Robert Duane Loomis was born in Conneaut, Ohio, far away from the flashy lights of Cerf and Klopfer's magic metropolis, but close enough for them to beckon to the young man he would become. The year 2002 marks Random's 75th, but it also marks Bob Loomis's 45th anniversary working under the Random House roof, an uncommon tenure by any measure.
When you call on Loomis, you notice the manuscripts rising like paper skyscrapers all around the different neighborhoods of his office floor, and the prize-winning books and bestsellers with names like Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, William Styron, Neil Sheehan, Shelby Foote, Jonathan Harr, Pete Dexter, Daniel Boorstin on their spines. What is bound within the spine now bearing Cerf and Klopfer's names was in many ways unexpected by all concerned.
"The Random House papers are archived up at Columbia University, and most people didn't know what was in them," Loomis explains in his quiet, discreet voice. "Some were used for At Random [Cerf's posthumous 1977 memoir, compiled from oral history interviews], but the extent of the papers even surprised Phyllis," Cerf's widow.
Loomis, fellow Random editor Scott Moyers and Cerf's son Christopher began going through the boxes in preparation for the anniversary. "We were really quite astounded when we found a separate set of wartime correspondence," Loomis recalls as a wisp of a smile crosses his face. "We didn't realize until we read them, passing them back and forth with glee, how delightful and unusual they are." Loomis eventually selected about a third of the wartime letters for inclusion in the book.
In the spring of 1942, Klopfer, then aged 40, enlisted as an officer in the air force and in October 1943 was sent to a British base where he worked in intelligence until the German defeat. In one respect, reading his letters to Cerf, three years his senior, is like reading your father's or grandfather's letters from the war. They evoke the uncertainty, tedium, excitement, exhaustion and longing for home any soldier feels.
Cerf's replies are full of news about wives, friends, children, vacations—the usual home mix. They also sparkle with the not-so-usual wit of a bestselling jokester, as well as the Broadway, Hollywood and cafe gossip of a very social man-about-town.
But for anyone in the book business, the correspondence comprises a uniquely candid publishing history. The letters show how the war helped the industry and this particular house to grow. Reading them is like listening in on private conversations about the Random House cast of characters, the competition, the booksellers; the jockeying for BOMC selections; the financial, acquisition and reprint decisions; the bestsellers and bombs—not to mention the wartime dilemma of finding enough paper to print them on.
Beyond that, there is the closeness of the two men, their mutual respect, hopes and fears, interdependence and love. And for a little light relief, the very politically incorrect but agelessly innocent running jokes (in Yiddish, no less) about the most cushioned part of their secretary Pauline Kreiswirth's anatomy. Cerf dictated the letters in which he expresses a desire to "potch her fanny" or the like, and her reactions are duly noted, typed of course by herself.
For Loomis, "the letters say so much about the kind of company it was and the kind of men who founded it, such marvelous men, each distinctive: the wit, inventiveness and energy of Bennett, the serene, sure and human side of Donald. The attitude they had and atmosphere they created was honored by everybody and cast a long shadow."
In wartime or peacetime, Loomis continues, "they ran it like a family. They resisted the trappings of business and made it work without them. When Bennett died, Bill Styron called him a 'life-giver,' and that's exactly what he was. People remember What's My Line? and the joke books. They didn't see how astute, imaginative and creative he was."
It is astonishing to read his letters and realize that Cerf was simultaneously running the company, writing bestselling humor books for arch rival Simon & Schuster, contributing a regular column to the Saturday Review, living with a wife and very young son, and keeping up a social life that was a job in itself. He could bring an aura of boyish fun even to the most serious meeting. One letter describes a Saturday afternoon in his backyard in 96-degree heat when he, Harry Abrams and a couple of others put on bathing trunks and alternately discussed publishing an Illustrated Modern Library and hosed each other down to cool off.
For Loomis, "he was the best kind of person to work for. He cared if you were well and happy, never asked when you were going on vacation or coming back. And there were no meetings. Bennett hated meetings. If you wanted to buy a book, you went to Bennett to get it signed up. If the money was larger than usual, he and Donald would discuss it together. We only paid what we thought the book would sell in hardcover, not including book club sales. I don't think any of us ever heard of budgets or p&ls.
"Bennett also dealt with advertising, which was very important then. There were no talk shows or tours. We did co-op with the stores; we paid half and the store paid half. Now we pay it all." The letters show Cerf's uncanny promotional instincts, "goosing" Walter Winchell for radio plugs and the like. They also show his honesty. Of one long-forgotten title, he writes: "I am sorry to report it's probably the worst piece of garbage that we ever brought out."
Klopfer "was in charge of manufacturing and production as well as the sales force," Loomis recalls. "Donald was a marvelous listener. You'd have a problem and walk in to see him and I swear, just being in his presence, you knew the answer." The letters show how much he cared about everything from type size to the overlong hours he feared some editors were working. They convey much modesty and very little self-importance.
It was a different time and place. A senior editor would go down to the mailroom and lick stamps himself. The entire sales department would decamp to the warehouse to help pack shipments. It was a time when women were automatically relegated to subsidiary roles, but the old boys of the Random House club were special indeed.
Loomis acknowledges that the letters and the memory-portrait of his early days seem almost impossibly lovely from today's perspective: "We remember our childhoods as terrific unless we come from an awful family. I think back and ask, am I just fooling myself? God knows there were plenty of problems and disasters, but they were not of the magnitude or frustrating kind they are now.... Today, if somebody left a company for three years, it would close ranks. There would be no return. That wasn't the case with Donald.
"It was a lot easier then. There were no multiple submissions, and authors weren't bought away from you. My greatest satisfaction has been in trying to keep publishing some writers for a long time, but it's getting more and more difficult."
He manages far better than most. Perhaps it is because, as former Random publisher Harry Evans put it at a dinner five years ago to honor Loomis's 40th anniversary, he is "a risk-taker for quality." Jonathan Harr added, "Bob is one of the most patient and philosophical of men." That night, Daniel Boorstin called him "an ornament to Random House and a solace and inspiration to authors." Maya Angelou simply said, "I'd follow Bob to a university press. He is my tie to Random House."
The Random House he entered in 1957 began to change in the 1960s. Cerf and Klopfer had already bought Alfred A. Knopf, after Pat Knopf, the obvious successor to his father, started Atheneum. The partners began to worry about what would happen when they in turn could no longer manage on their own or died, and they also needed more capital to fund more growth.
Their answer was to issue stock, and eventually that led to RCA's purchase of Random House.
Loomis recalls, "RCA had plans to create teaching machines. They wanted a house that had a textbook list that wasn't big and vital and had to be kept the way it was. But teaching machines never worked and RCA found themselves stuck with a trade house, which was not at all compatible with their huge business. Sometimes they made us sell all our paper in December and buy it all back in January because of how it looked on the balance sheet. You can't run a publishing house that way.
"Then, fortunately, it was bought by two companies that themselves were independent, Newhouse and, later, Bertelsmann. If you have to be owned by a large conglomerate, you don't want to be with one whose primary interest is not books."
Bob Loomis's longevity is made up of many different parts: talent, dedication, patience, but also discretion. "I don't think talking about writers and what they do is anybody's business; my relationship with them is one of confidentiality," he told Brian Lamb in his one and only television interview a few years back. That confidentiality extends to much about the internal workings of Random House today.
What he does say is that "the business is really complicated now. It's so much bigger. That makes a hell of a difference in running a company. Business people have become publishers because their knowledge is valuable in trying to keep houses of this size going. The number of people, the larger advances...
"I constantly get submissions that have also gone to six other publishers, and no matter how much I do, there's only a one-in-six chance I'll get that book. So we're constantly faced with frustration because somebody else mistakenly or astutely paid a lot more. You can get to be friends with an author and know how to work together, but it doesn't count the way it used to.
"Editors move around a lot, too; good people are hired away because they're at a premium. There's an uncertainty in personnel that makes everybody feel as though it's a new situation every time. I think it's somewhat detrimental to an editor's life, but it probably won't make a major difference in what results."
The infrastructure for selling books has also undergone tremendous change. "When I came here," Loomis recalls, "our sales force knew the stores, all independents then. We told them what we wanted them to take, and they accepted it. It wasn't a way to get more books out; it was a way to be accurate. If we were wrong, the store wasn't going to listen. Now there are chains and jobbers and a lot of dealing to get books inside them. Everything is negotiated. Everybody's got his hand out.
"But the volume, as a business, has been gained because of all those stores. When I was a kid in Ohio, we couldn't get books unless we traveled 70 miles to a city. They were exotic things. Now the availability of the book is tremendously enhanced.... But what happens when a book runs its course is that the pipeline has lots in it and they all come back. That's where a publisher comes in who's not an editor, who sees how much we can tolerate and what to do. We are faced with overriding business and financial issues. I don't want to make it sound bad. It's simply really different."
How really different it is resonates bittersweetly in an exchange Loomis has included from March and April 1944. Klopfer, hearing about how the wartime hunger for books has facilitated the company's growth, writes: "That's quite an organization you... are building up.... I wonder will Random House be any fun as a 'big business' instead of our very personal venture?"
Cerf responds at length outlining the postwar horizon, ending, "I hope that all the above will satisfy you as to the future possibilities of our business. The beautiful part about it all is that the setup can remain a simple one, right under our own control, and with no possibility, in my opinion, of ever developing into a sprawling and unmanageable menagerie like the Doubleday outfit. You know that I share your abhorrence for impersonal 'big business.' I don't think Random House will ever get into that category."
Forty-eight years later, Doubleday is only one part of a Random House whose size neither Cerf nor Klopfer could have imagined. As for Bob Loomis, at age 75 he comes into the office every day. He does his work. Despite all the changes, all the money, all the bigness, he says, "I look at my list and don't see all that much difference in what I did then and now. All of these changes can be dealt with, but they are time-consuming.
"I thought as I got older I'd be able to order my life, but I never remember feeling so pressed. Even then I'm not getting enough done. But where else are you able to deal with some of the most interesting minds and talents, become friends with them? It is a very privileged relationship."
Toward the end of the morning, the phone rings. It is Maya Angelou. Loomis had put in a call to her at the start of his day. His face absolutely lights up as he tells her that the sixth volume of her autobiography just got a rave in Kirkus. After he hangs up, the smile of satisfaction remains. "I published them all, and this is the last one," he explains. "This kind of thing is great. And I get paid to do it."