Jason Epstein, Publishing Editor and Innovator, Dead at 93

He co-founded The New York Review of Books and worked with such novelists as E.L. Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov, and Philip Roth.

Jason Epstein in his home in New York on January 8, 2001. AP/Jim Cooper, file

Jason Epstein, a publishing innovator and bon vivant who helped put the classics in paperback, co-founded The New York Review of Books, and worked with such novelists as E.L. Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov, and Philip Roth, has died at age 93. 

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

The book world has its share of accidental lifers and Epstein was one. Once a young bohemian who desired only enough money to have time for reading, he took a job at Doubleday in the early 1950s, joined Random House in 1958, and remained for decades as editorial director. He became one of the industry’s most honored executives, receiving lifetime achievement awards from the National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Award, in 1988; and from the National Book Critics Circle, in 2002.

Epstein was not just a man of letters, but 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 attorney-political operative Roy Cohn. In “Making It,” a 1967 best-seller about the literary world, Norman Podhoretz wrote affectionately of Epstein’s tastes for imported shoes, first-class travel, and “appallingly expensive” restaurants.

“He was beautiful to watch,” Mr. Podhoretz observed.

He was as well-read and as opinionated as the authors he worked with, “so damned intelligent,” Mailer would joke, once telling the Associated Press that he had to adjust to an editor “who might be a lot brighter” then he was. Epstein published an early excerpt of Nabokov’s “Lolita” and fought unsuccessfully to convince Doubleday to publish the scandalous novel about a professor’s obsession with a 12-year old girl. Epstein also feuded bitterly with Gore Vidal and became a critic of the Library of America, believing that the imprint he helped establish had grown bloated. A Random House co-founder, Bennett Cerf, would call him the “cross I bear,” while Epstein labeled Cerf “the bear I cross.”

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

Epstein admittedly passed over the occasional best-seller, although he was proud of rejecting Shirley MacLaine’s New Age favorite “Out on a Limb.”

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

The son of a successful textile salesman, Epstein grew up in Maine and Massachusetts, where he acquired his longtime passion for fine cuisine and spent so much time at the library that one librarian saved his card while he and his family spent a year in New York City. In the late 1940s, he entered Columbia University, when the school’s president was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Epstein met the future U.S. president once, and, by accident, made a fine impression.

“I had spent the night downtown with a girl,” Epstein told the AP. “I could hardly stand up. I had been up all night and he thought I was a bright young fellow, up bright and early. He was beaming, and he shook my hand.”

In his early 20s, his quest for affordable classics inspired him to start one of publishing’s first literary paperback imprints, Anchor Books, now part of Penguin Random House. He also helped launch two other major and lasting projects. One came in the early 1960s when a newspaper strike and the general tedium of literary criticism led Epstein and his then-wife, Barbara, to help found The New York Review of Books, along with critic Elizabeth Hardwick and editor Robert Silvers among others. In the late 1970s, he was among the creators of the Library of America, which offers hardcover editions of 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 brief and unfortunate. His novel “The Wild Oats” was published in 1979 and was soon found to contain numerous similarities to Martin Amis’ “The Rachel Papers.”

“Epstein wasn’t influenced by ‘The Rachel Papers,’” Mr. Amis wrote at the time, “he had it flattened out beside his typewriter.” 

Jason Epstein was the rare publishing veteran to show early and unforced enthusiasm for technology. He looked for ways to sell books online before the rise of e-books and Amazon.com and was a strong advocate for in-store machines that could print and bind works on demand. Epstein essentially advocated a system that enabled authors to bypass the industry that employed him, looking back to the days when Parson Weems could sell books about George Washington by simply sitting under a tree and hitting on a drum.

“Soon writers and readers will be able to meet again on a worldwide green where writers may once more beat their drums or hire a Weems to drum up business for them,” Epstein wrote in “Book Business,” a memoir published in 2001. “On the World Wide Web, future storytellers and their readers can mingle at leisure and talk at length.”

The New York Sun

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