S. E. Hinton
I met Marilyn Marlow in January 1966, via mail. I was 17 years old, and I had written a book.
Except for my love of writing—and most of those who knew me figured it was a stage I'd outgrow—I was pretty much an ordinary high school kid. I had lived in Tulsa, Okla., all my life. I had no credentials, no prizes, nothing except a dog-eared, poorly spelt, chocolate cake-smeared manuscript.
And a name, Marilyn Marlow.
A classmate of mine had given my book to her mother, Evelyn Bachmann, who wrote children's books. She in turn had given it to a friend of hers, Elizabeth Thompson, who not only wrote but had an agent. Mrs. Thompson advised me to send the manuscript to her agent. I know, "a friend of a friend"—an urban legend, but this is the way it happened.
I didn't know the difference between an agent and a publisher. I didn't know what editors did. For someone who had known she wanted to be a writer from age eight, I was amazingly ignorant of the publishing world. I had concentrated on the writing part. And although I was too naive to even realize it, I desperately needed someone who knew the business side.
God gave me Marilyn. That's the way I look at it.
From her first letter, "I think you have captured a certain spirit here," to the last time I had dinner with her, Marilyn was on my side.
I met her in person the fall of 1967, when Viking Press invited me to New York for a publicity tour. Marilyn met the plane, along with my editor, Velma Varner.
I was 18 and looked even younger. From then on, Marilyn treated me like a little kid. And I loved it. Nobody had ever looked out for me before.
God knows I'll miss it.
She was an imposing figure from the start. Tall, handsome, her fierce hawk profile would swivel toward me, wanting to know my reaction: How was the plane ride? The contract? The seats at a play? What did I think of this clause? That royalty? This restaurant?
I found out very quickly that if something was not to my satisfaction, she would take things in hand.
I used to joke that if Marilyn asked me how I liked the weather, I would say, "I love it," for fear of her trying to do something about it.
In truth, I was a little afraid she could.
For 37 years I had Marilyn on my side. Supporting but never pushing. Going into battle for me, seeing the broad picture but ever mindful of the details (our last dinner together, she gently informed the manager that paper tablecloths were not appropriate for the restaurant). I could safely watch from afar, smug in knowing that when the dust settled, my side would have won.
Friend, supporter, mentor, sounding board, and really, most of all, agent, "one who acts, or has the power to act," says the dictionary.
Marilyn acted, and with power.
She's left a hole in my life that can never be refilled.
Marilyn was the only agent my husband Bob ever had. She sold his first novel, Now and at the Hour, to Coward-McCann in 1959. It was her first sale as well. What a perfect match.
When The Chocolate War came along it was offered to several publishers who wanted major changes. One wanted the number of characters reduced and another wanted the ending changed. Bob was reluctant to do either and, as always, Marilyn supported his decision. She found it a home, sending it to Fabio Coen at Pantheon who took it as is.
Marilyn always kept in touch with us, even when there wasn't pressing business. Her conversations were leisurely. She would inquire about our children, their doings. She'd call before holidays and want to know our plans. She became part of the family and attended many celebrations. She was so much more than just an agent.
Bob once remarked that Marilyn treated him like he was a bestselling author right from the beginning. She always had faith in him and he trusted her judgment. When he spent time in New York with her, he'd return to Leominster, energized and ready to write. She fueled his passion.
As an agent, she was tops in her field. He was the beneficiary of her skill as a negotiator, as a writer's advocate. Marilyn was a first-class professional and a legend. How fortunate he was to have her in his corner. How fortunate our family was to have her as a dear friend.
Marilyn and I rarely had a conversation in which she did not say, at some point, "I know you don't like agents.…" But she knew that I liked her, and so we could both laugh. We had known each other since 1955, when I went to Harper. She represented the Hurds, whom we both adored, and that was our link.
We didn't work together a great deal, but when we did, it was good. Marilyn was unique in refusing to drop my maiden name, and conferring on me one of those three-name titles that had distinguished so many of my predecessors. I attempted to get her to stop, but to no avail.
But I think what I remember most about Marilyn was our telephone conversations, which would get the subject of the call over with quite quickly, and then go on for half an hour with subjects ranging from every author we had ever known—or not known—to family, friends and the world. And all this despite each of us professing to be busy.
Throughout my whole career I always knew that Marilyn was there. And in my heart and memory so she will be always.
I first met Marilyn when I was nine. My parents had just started working with her, and we traveled from California to New York, where she took us out to dinner at the Top of the Sixes. I was dazzled by the view of the city at night, and by Marilyn's charm. It was the beginning of a 40-year relationship with our family. My parents adored Marilyn, and found her instincts in publishing matters to be impeccable. As a child she made a deep impression on me. She had tremendous presence and elegance and at the same time seemed like an aunt who was a beloved part of the family.
After art school I started to work on picture books, and Marilyn took me on as a client, perhaps as a favor to my parents. For the first couple of years I had no idea what I was doing, but Marilyn was supportive, and sent my first manuscript around to more publishers than she should have. The book never got published, but Marilyn stood behind it.
In the summer of 1975 the ALA came to San Francisco and Marilyn took me under her wing. We went booth by booth, meeting all the children's book editors. She did not intrude her own opinions, she just let me meet everyone face to face. Out of those meetings came my first editor and good friend Susan Hirschman, and my first published book. Marilyn had made it seem possible.
But I think it took her a while to realize that I was serious about doing children's books. The first few times I sold a book I recall her saying something like: "Gee, Thach, that's great..." with a tone in her voice of slight amazement, as if part of her thought I was still nine years old.
For me she was a guide, a mentor, a wise soul who could always see five steps ahead. No matter how harebrained an idea I was presenting to her, her strongest language would be: "Well, I don't know, Thach...." her voice trailing off. It took me a while to realize that those five words meant that she definitely thought something was a bad idea. She never gave advice out of self-interest, but always from a desire to find the best way, the most dignified way through something. In a sense she was from an older era: always perfectly dressed, dignified, thoughtful, warm and decent to all.
Marilyn Marlow was my first boss, and it's not an exaggeration that she taught me, or laid the foundation for, everything I ever learned about publishing for young people. She was my mentor during my days at Curtis Brown, and continued to be a sounding board until she died. I am one of a number of lucky individuals who had the benefit of her wisdom, humanity and experience.
Astonishingly, some of the most valuable lessons I learned from Marilyn I learned on my first day at work: it wasn't necessary to wear a three-piece suit; I was to call her "Marilyn" and not "Miss Marlow"; further, if anyone called me by my Christian name during a telephone conversation, I was to repeat the "courtesy" before the conversation ended.
The phones started ringing and never stopped. Marilyn dropped a piece of paper on my desk and asked that I read a manuscript and let her know what I thought. I put the paper aside, deciding to wait for the rest of the ms. before I read it. A couple of hours later, MEM asked what I thought of the book.
"I put it on your desk this morning and asked you to read it."
"You put a piece of paper on my desk."
"Right, it's a picture book manuscript. What do you think?"
Toward the end of the day, Marilyn said she had forgot to introduce me to the mailroom staff. I must have given her an odd look. "One of these days you're going to have to ask them to get something out for you at 5:15 on a Friday evening. You need to get off on the right foot."
Perhaps this seems like small potatoes, but I carry that advice as if it were gold. Marilyn never condescended to me, or to anyone else, always treated me as an adult with a working brain and she always dispensed pragmatic advice. I should only do as well.
Marilyn's reputation (she was after all a celebrity in the field of children's publishing) had reached me at Doubleday via colleagues there who had worked with her at Harcourt, Brace 30 years earlier. Still, when I joined Curtis Brown in 1985, I was unprepared for a personality that was, in a word, indelible. Marilyn was interested in every facet of foreign-language publishing; no deal or detail was too small.
Our dog-and-pony show at the Bologna Children's Book Fair was to run from 1987 to 2002 (Marilyn on her own had been a regular attendee since 1969). Working the fair with Marilyn was a lesson in the gradual, incremental building of professional relationships overseas which were at the same time very personal—to be renewed and deepened from year to year. She had, it seemed, a special affinity for German editors, and her close relationships spanned the conservative old-school publishing of Christian Stottele's Ravensburger of the 1970s to the swashbuckling new style of Klaus Humann's Carlsen Verlag of the 21st century.
Marilyn was always energetic and generous in seeking out and bringing together like-minded editors on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and in finding projects that crossed in either direction.
Next to our hotel in Bologna was a bar/tabacchi, the Mocambo, where Marilyn headed ritually upon arrival to buy two bottles of acqua non gazzata from a barista who was about her age. The warmth with which the two ladies reunited after a year's interval, caressing one another's face, neither understanding more than three words of the other's language, was emblematic of the Bologna experience. On my last trip with Marilyn to Bologna, the Mocambo had closed and we wondered where, after working 30 years in one place, the exuberant barista might have gone. And now I wonder if the barista thinks of Marilyn each April when Bologna sets up for the Children's Book Fair.