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Literary ‘superagent’ Mort Janklow dies at 91

NEW YORK (AP) — Mort Janklow, a colorful former corporate lawyer who elevated the power of the literary agent by negotiating big advances for publishing, political and entertainment leaders from Ronald Reagan and Al Gore to David McCullough and Barbara Walters, deceased.

Janklow died Wednesday of heart failure at his home in Water Mill, New York, days before his 92nd birthday. His death was announced by publicist Paul Bogaards, speaking on behalf of Janklow’s family and his literary agency, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

“Mort was a beacon of positivity and hope in an uncertain world,” his business partner Lynn Nesbit said in a statement. “He radiated optimism and his clients, family and friends always leaned on him and learned from him accordingly. He was a shining light in the publishing world, dedicated to his writers and passionate about our craft. We will all miss him.

Janklow was among the first of the so-called “superagents”, and became one by accident, stepping in to help with a book from legal client and old friend, speechwriter and columnist William Safire, and quickly mastering his new profession. Janklow was credited, and blamed, for the proliferation of best-selling books and million-dollar contracts in the 1970s and beyond, for shaking up a gentleman’s business with a marketing-savvy lawyer, subsidiary rights and the fine print of a publishing contract.

“Mort ushered publishers into the space age,” Simon & Schuster executive Joni Evans told New York magazine in 1987.

He was a great character – so energetic that he dictated dozens of letters a day; a fighter on the tennis court and in the boardroom, a schmoozer with wide-rimmed glasses and monogrammed white shirts, a whirlwind with a mental repertoire of lines, anecdotes and superlatives. Never afraid to cite his own accomplishments, Janklow was fond of recalling that some of the contracts he negotiated were worth more than the $25 million Hearst Corporation needed to buy publisher William Morrow.

“One of the reasons for making great strides isn’t to enrich authors and agents,” Janklow told The New York Times in 1989. ‘he bought. You have to get them pregnant. They stand up in front of their sales force and say, “We paid millions for this book. It’s the biggest book we have. Drive it to the stores. “

He was comfortable with liberals (Gore, Michael Moore) and conservatives (Reagan), with marquee fiction writers such as Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel, and with journalists Ted Koppel and Daniel Schorr. His influence and credentials would multiply in late 1988 when he and colleague Lynn Nesbit announced the formation of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, Nesbit bringing in award-winning authors such as Tom Wolfe and Robert Caro.

Not all of his clients were superstars, at least at first. He faced McCullough long before the million-selling historian’s “Truman.” He dealt with disgraced Nixon aide John Erhlichman, poet Diane Ackerman, and Jill Eisenstadt’s first novel. In recent years, Janklow & Nesbit writers have included award-winning Joan Didion and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as the more checkered James Frey, defeated (under a different agency) as a memoirist, but reborn as a novelist. Janklow’s son Luke brokered deals for Anderson Cooper and Simon Cowell. Mort Janklow also had a daughter, Angela, former editor of Vanity Fair.

Janklow has served on numerous advisory boards, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for over four decades.

Born in New York City in 1930, Janklow was the son of a lawyer raised in a tough Queens neighborhood, a bright, self-assured kid who skipped enough grades to graduate from high school at age 16. He attended Syracuse University as an undergraduate and Columbia Law School. as a graduate student. He married young, divorced young, then met and married Linda LeRoy, daughter of Hollywood director Mervin LeRoy, sister of restaurateur Warner LeRoy and his longtime companion in high society.

Janklow joined the law firm Spear and Hill in 1960, and seven years later formed his own Janklow & Traum. Among his clients was Safire, himself a former Syracuse student, who in the early 1970s quit his job as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and wanted Janklow to represent him for a memoir.

Janklow not only struck a $250,000 deal with publisher William Morrow, but helped break publishing precedent by recouping about a third of his advance when the publisher tried to drop the book, claiming that the Watergate scandal had made Safire’s story obsolete. (Authors usually had to return all money.) Safire had quit his job before Watergate emerged, and his memoir, published by Doubleday, would be titled “Before the Fall.”

“Bill ran around DC to tell all his friends and co-workers about his friend who was his agent,” Janklow wrote for The Daily Beast in 2009, shortly after Safire’s death.

“His opinion carried such weight even as my office phone started ringing…and within two years I left a successful law firm and became a full-time agent, a decision I I have never regretted.”

In 1977, Janklow further enriched Safire by negotiating a million dollar contract with Ballantine Books for Safire’s “Full Disclosure”, considered at the time to be the largest advance ever made for a first novel. He would later negotiate seven-figure deals for “Silence of the Lambs” novelist Thomas Harris, and for memoirs of Reagan and Pope John Paul II, Ted Turner and Barbara Walters.

Summing up his influence, Janklow posed a riddle to New York magazine in 1987: “Where’s a 500-pound gorilla sitting?”

The answer: “Anywhere he wants.

Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes