Robert Loomis, who edited Angelou, Styron and Morris, dies at 93

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Robert Loomis, who edited Angelou, Styron and Morris, dies at 93
Robert Loomis talks with Maya Angelou at a celebration of Loomis's 50 years at Random House, in New York, Jan. 18, 2007. Loomis, an editor who bloodlessly transformed embryonic manuscripts by a pantheon of 20th-century American authors into award-winning and best-selling books, died on Sunday, April 19, 2020, in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 93. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Robert Loomis, an editor who bloodlessly transformed embryonic manuscripts by a pantheon of 20th-century American authors into award-winning and best-selling books, died Sunday in Stony Brook, New York. He was 93.

His wife, Hilary Mills Loomis, said he died at Stony Brook University Hospital after being airlifted from his home in Sag Harbor, where had fallen earlier in the day.

If Loomis was known to the reading public only from the acknowledgments pages of his authors’ books, he was revered in literary circles and respected in the publishing industry for his keen judgment about which writers and books held the greatest promise, and how to fulfill their potential.

He was also known for his forbearance in forgiving delays that few publishers would tolerate from an author.

His career began when he joined Random House in 1957 and went on to span the giddy era of its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald S. Klopfer, the transition to the computer keyboard (which Loomis pecked with one finger) and the world of digital publishing.

By the time he formally retired in 2011 at 85 (and reluctantly gave up his private pilot’s license), he had served under a dozen Random House publishers and edited books by, among others, Maya Angelou (who compared him to “the rainbow in the clouds” in Genesis), Daniel J. Boorstein, Pete Dexter, Shelby Foote, Jonathan Harr, Seymour Hersh, Jim Lehrer, Edmund Morris, Joseph E. Persico, David Rockefeller, Neil Sheehan, William Styron (a former Duke classmate whom he first edited on the student literary magazine) and Calvin Trillin.

Armed with a medium soft pencil, Loomis polished his authors’ prose in the spirit of Maxwell Perkins, who had edited Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and who had advised writers to “just get it down on paper and then we’ll see what to do with it.”

Bennett Cerf described Loomis in his 1977 memoir, “At Random,” as “one of those painstaking editors in the old tradition.”

He was so solicitous that, at first blush, an author might be lured into believing that his manuscript, gingerly sprinkled with rhetorical questions, was virtually complete — only to be invited to a rigorous line-by-line copy-editing tutorial at Loomis’ desk, or a broader conversation over two double Jack Daniels’ at lunch.

With his spare notes in the margins — “are you sure?” or “we know this?” — Loomis “taught me and oh so many others what writing a book was all about,” Hersh said in an email.

Trillin recalled those “mysterious little check marks next to things in the manuscript.”

“He says, ‘It’s almost there,’ ” Trillin said. “ ‘Everything is great, but the beginning and the end.’ ”

In 1988, Loomis scored an industry coup when two of his books, Dexter’s novel “Paris Trout” and Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” each won a National Book Award. Sheehan’s biography also won a Pulitzer Prize.

After being commissioned at 100,000 words with a submission deadline in the early 1970s, “A Bright Shining Lie” was published in 1988 at 360,000 words. Sheehan and Loomis had spent a year pruning it by about 110,000.

“Writers tend to resist editing, but you trusted Bob and knew how much he cared about your work,” Sheehan said in a phone interview. “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.”

Robert Duane Loomis was born Aug. 24, 1926, in Conneaut, Ohio, near Lake Erie, to Kline and Louise (Chapman) Loomis. His father was a public school principal and, in the 1950s, mayor of Plain City, a village near Columbus, Ohio. His mother was a teacher.

“Books guided my life from high school,” he told Vanity Fair in 2011. “I was able to associate with great minds through their books.”

After serving in the Army Air Forces at the end of World War II, he graduated from Duke in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in literature. But by then he had already given up his dream of becoming a writer and had turned to editing. “I couldn’t write well enough!” he told Vanity Fair.

His first marriage, to Gloria Colliani, who became a literary agent, ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter, Diana, from his first marriage; a son, Miles, from his marriage to Hilary Mills, a biographer of Norman Mailer under the name Hilary Mills Loomis; and two grandsons.

After college, Loomis wrote book ads at the publishing house Appleton-Century, worked as an editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston and was recruited to Random House by another Duke alumnus, Hiram Haydn.

Loomis likened editing to a quasi-religious function.

“You have to turn your collar around like a priest,” he said. “You offer a lot of praise, you have confession and you have faith, and pretty soon they might trust you enough to know that you’re not trying to make the book in your own image. It’s their book.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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