Jason Epstein, the publishing innovator who brought the classics out in paperback, dies


Jason Epstein, a publishing innovator and bon vivant who helped bring the classics into paperbacks, co-founded the New York Review of Books and has worked with writers such as EL Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth, has died at the age of 93.

Epstein died Friday “surrounded by his books” at his home in Sag Harbor, NY, said his wife Judith Miller, an author and former New York Times journalist. The cause was congestive heart failure, she said.

The book world has its share of accident victims and Epstein was one.

Once a young bohemian who only wanted enough money to have time to read, he took a job at Doubleday in the early 1950s, joining Random House in 1958 and remaining as editor for decades. He became one of the most honored leaders in the industry and received lifetime achievement awards from the National Book Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle.

Epstein was not only a man of letters but also a man of food and drink, whose own books included the memoir Eating and whose dining companions ranged from Buster Keaton to Jacqueline Kennedy to the notorious lawyer and political agent Roy Cohn. In Making It, a 1967 bestseller about the literary world, Norman Podhoretz lovingly wrote of Epstein’s penchant for imported shoes, world-class travel, and “awfully expensive” restaurants.

“He was beautiful to look at,” remarked Podhoretz.

Epstein was as well-read and opinionated as the writers he worked with, the “so damn intelligent” author Norman Mailer joked when he once told the Associated Press that he had to get used to an editor who “might be a lot smarter” than he was.

Epstein published an early excerpt from Nabokov’s “Lolita” and unsuccessfully fought to persuade Doubleday to publish the scandalous novel about a professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl. Epstein also bitterly took on Gore Vidal and became a critic of the Library of America, believing that the imprint he helped build was bloated. Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf called him the “cross I bear,” while Epstein referred to Cerf as “the bear I cross.”

The many books Epstein has edited include Doctorow’s Depression-era novel Billy Bathgate, Jane Jacobs’ classic urban studies The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Mailer’s CIA epic Harlot’s Ghost.

Epstein has admittedly skipped the occasional bestseller, though he took pride in turning down Shirley MacLaine’s new-age favorite “Out on a Limb.”

“We were friends, and she actually wrote much of this book at my home in Sag Harbor. But she never told me what it was about,” Epstein said in 2000. “I read that and I was like, ‘Come on Shirley, you’re crazy.'”

The son of a successful textile salesman, Epstein grew up in Maine and Massachusetts, where he acquired his longstanding passion for fine dining and spent so much time in the library that a librarian saved his card while he and his family spent a year in New York City. He entered Columbia University in the late 1940s when the school’s president was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Epstein met the future US president once and happened to make a good impression.

“I had spent the night downtown with a girl,” Epstein said. “I could hardly get up. I’d been up all night and he thought I was a bright young lad, bright and early. He beamed and shook my hand.”

In his early twenties, his quest for affordable classics inspired him to found one of the first paperback literary publishers, Anchor Books, now part of Penguin Random House.

He also helped start two other large and enduring projects. One came in the early 1960s, when a newspaper strike and the general boredom of literacy criticism led to Epstein and his then-wife Barbara co-founding the New York Review of Books, along with critic Elizabeth Hardwick and editor Robert Silvers, among others . In the late 1970s he was one of the founders of the Library of America, which offers hardcover publications by the country’s most influential writers.

He had two children with Barbara Epstein: daughter Helen Epstein, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, and son Jacob Epstein, a television writer whose time in the book world was short and unhappy. His novel The Wild Oats was published in 1979 and soon bore many similarities to Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers.

Jason Epstein was the rare publishing veteran who showed an early and unforced enthusiasm for technology. He was looking for ways to sell books online before e-books and Amazon came along, and was a strong advocate of in-store machines that could print and bind works on demand. Jason Epstein, the publishing innovator who brought the classics out in paperback, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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