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James Silberman, editor who nurtured literary careers, dies at 93
Silberman published E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” (1975).

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- James Silberman, a revered book editor whose meticulousness, intuition and patience helped propel the publishing careers of a distinguished roster of authors, including James Baldwin, Marilyn French, Hunter S. Thompson and Alvin Toffler, died on July 26 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His son, Michael, said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Silberman was “a man who knows how to edit a manuscript, to read a manuscript and to publish a manuscript,” another of his authors, Elie Wiesel, told The New York Times in 1991.

Silberman’s career path was serendipitous. A government major at Harvard, he enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course) after graduating in 1950, then got hired in the shipping department of The Writer, which, he recalled in an oral history, was in the business of “selling a magazine to aspiring writers, telling them how to become rich and famous.”

He found an advertising job at Little, Brown & Company, then became a publicist for the Dial Press in New York in 1953. When the company’s sole editor left to have her second child, he was promoted to replace her and assumed the title that would define his vocation.

After Alfred A. Knopf, James Baldwin’s first publisher, rejected “Giovanni’s Room” because they felt its gay white characters might alienate Baldwin’s Black audience, Silberman scooped it up for Dial. He went on to edit Baldwin’s “Another Country” and “The Fire Next Time.”

In 1963, Silberman was lured to Random House as senior editor by Bennett Cerf, the company’s co-founder, who later named him editor-in-chief and publisher of adult trade books.

Joining an impressive editorial team that included Robert Loomis, Jason Epstein and Joe Fox, Silberman published Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels” (1967), Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970), Stewart Brand’s “The Last Whole Earth Catalog” (1971, in association with the Portola Institute), David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972) and E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel” (1971) and “Ragtime” (1975).

Silberman left Random House in 1975 after refusing to fire Selma Shapiro, the company’s vice president for publicity, with whom he was having an affair and whom he later married; he blamed the company’s “moral rigidity.” He was immediately hired by Richard E. Snyder, Simon & Schuster’s competitive chairman, to launch his own imprint, Summit Books.

At Summit he published Marilyn French’s debut novel, “The Women’s Room” (1977), which sold some 20 million copies; Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” (1983); and Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985).

“Jim could see things in what I was doing as a reporter that I did not see,” Hersh said by email, citing his books on Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. “Amidst constant negative pressure from the subjects, he never flinched and had my back all the way.”

Silberman lost his job at Summit in 1991 when the imprint was eliminated to cut costs. He was a vice president and senior editor at Little Brown until 1998 and then established James H. Silberman Books.

Over the course of his career, his authors also included Muhammad Ali, Betty Friedan, George Goodman (who wrote about economics under the name Adam Smith), John Irving and Chris Matthews, whom he encouraged to write “Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told by One Who Knows the Game” (1988).

“He spotted a piece I’d done for The New Republic as Tip O’Neill’s guy going to daily war with the Reagan White House,” Matthews said by email. “He asked me to write a book about the inside political world to match ‘The Money Game,’” Goodman’s influential 1968 book. “It became ‘Hardball.’”

Invoking the editor who fostered Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matthews said, “Jim was my Max Perkins.”

James Henry Silberman was born on March 21, 1927, in Boston to Henry R. Silberman, who ran a news clipping service and was the executive director of the Massachusetts Progressive Party, and Dorothy (Conrad) Silberman.

After graduating from Cambridge Latin School, he served in the Army after World War II and then attended Harvard.

He married Leona Nevler, an editor, in 1960; they divorced in 1976. In 1986 he married Shapiro, who survives him, along with two children from his first marriage, Michael and Ellen Silberman; his sister, Dorothy Altman; and four grandchildren.

Silberman was a natty dresser, a dashing wheelman (he became an amateur pilot at 50 and drove a Mazda RX-7 convertible sports car on weekends) and a scrupulous wordsmith who at 86, even after suffering a stroke, finished editing two books.

Cerf, who took pride in all his top editors, said in the mid-1960s that “the best one of all for the purposes of great corporate handling of manuscripts is Jim Silberman, who is now being made editor-in-chief, because he’s the one willing to do all of the dirty work of seeing what happens to all of these manuscripts.”

Among the authors with whom Silberman had especially tortured relationships was Thompson, the gonzo journalist who wrote books about “Fear and Loathing” and whose struggle to write a book tentatively called “The Death of the American dream” is recorded in his letters to Silberman in books edited by Douglas Brinkley.

Silberman once said of Thompson, “Your method of research is to tie yourself to a railroad track when you know a train is coming to it, and see what happens.” And, when Thompson killed himself at 67 in 2005, Silberman remarked, “He spent his life in search of an honest man, and he seldom found any.”

Coaxing a book out of Thompson, or for that matter a more conventional writer, meant “helping the author write the best book he or she can write at that moment in time,” which requires that “every time you turn that page, you are open and hopeful,” Silberman once said.

“It’s very difficult to think your way into a story,” he added. “You have to feel your way into it, which requires you to approach the manuscript with a certain kind of naiveté. You have to return to the kind of reader all of us once were.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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