A new book «Hothouse» (Simon & Schuster), by Boris Kachka takes as a given that its subject, Farrar, Straus&Giroux, has been and remains a great publisher, and without any question that’s the case. FSG, as it’s generally called, has brought us more than half a century of distinguished books, rarely slipping below the level of distinction it hoped to achieve. How it did so is certainly worth both parsing and paying tribute to, but a degree of disillusionment with this project sets in when we get past the cute title to the even cuter and more hyperbolic subtitle: «The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House.» The tone is set: this vigorous and often diverting trot through the history of an important cultural institution is frequently slapdash and overwrought in its determination to show just how hot the house was in fact, «hands down, the hottest house in New York.» Iʼve been in the business close to sixty years, and there’s never been a single hottest house; neither FSG nor any other publisher has ever been perceived as one except perhaps by the central character in Kachka’s account, Roger Straus, the crucial «S» of FSG and, to put it mildly, an accomplished blower of his own horn.
Roger (which is how he s referred to throughout the book weʼre on a first name basis here) drifted into publishing, as so many of us have done, though not by the usual route. Here was no wet behind the ears idealistic book lover, recendy out of college, scratching at the door of opportunity no Dick Simon and Max Schuster, no Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer of Random House. Roger Straus came from the union of two of the most prominent German-Jewish families in America, the Strauses and the Guggenheims. The Strauses had been members of Our Crowd longer, and they had the more illustrious background: not just big money but serious government service. Roger’s grandfather Oscar had served as minister to the Ottoman Empire under Cleveland, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft, and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and Commerce. The newer and therefore slightly tarnished Guggenheim money came from the American Smelting and Refining Company, But it was very big money indeed.
It was Oscar’s son, the first Roger Straus, who married Gladys Guggenheim. «Rarely, outside glorious Temple Emanu-El, was so much of New York’s new elite gathered in one room», Kachka tells us. This Roger was dragooned into the Guggenheim family business, and made a considerable success and a great deal of money but preferred to lead a relatively modest existence an estate of «a mere thirty acres» in Westchester County, as opposed to the new Guggenheim spread of two hundred and fifty acres in Sands Point, Long Island: Scott Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Our Roger Roger, Jr. spent his childhood and youth shuttling between these two principalities, concentrating on sports and girls. He didn’t finish high school some private tutoring plus serious pull eventually got him admitted to Hamilton College, from which he also never graduated. However, he spent summers working as a copy boy at a local newspaper, and «the cocky teen» was «turned on». During this period, he grew close to a young woman named Dorothea Liebmann, an heir to the Rheingold brewing fortune, whose parents had «stormed their way into the haute bourgeoisie», and was far more literary than Roger would ever be known later for her stylish writing and for rereading Proust almost every