There was a half-page obituary for Robert Lescher in the New York Times this morning. Bob was my literary agent; he’d been ill for over eighteen months and was no longer actively working on my behalf but still, his death was a shock.
Bob was one of the “grand old men” of literary agenting. Many of the authors he represented were people who changed the American landscape: Robert Frost, quite possibly the best-loved American poet; Dr Benjamin Spock, America’s most trusted pediatrician; the artists Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O’Keeffe; Madeleine L’Engle, author of young adult classics including A Wrinkle in Time; thriller writer Thomas Perry; the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer; the humor writer Calvin Trillin; the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, the children’s author Judith Viorst, whose Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is an American children’s classic. On the international front, he represented the English jockey/thriller writer Dick Francis, the English literary biographer Michael Holroyd, and the Dalai Lama, whom Bob took on as a client because, as he said, “Jesus was unavailable.”
Bob was a throwback to a more gracious, literary, and literate publishing world. “Courtly” was the word I used when describing Bob to my friends; “courtly” seemed to be the word many people, including the New York Times obituary writer, used to describe him. When one of his oldest and most revered clients died, Bob went to the funeral. I spoke to him the next day. “That must have been very sad for you,” I said. Bob, uncharacteristically, said nothing. He was too much of a gentleman to say the actual words: the person was a force, and not in a good way.
He had a gently wicked sense of humor about everything he did, including getting editors personally invested at an early stage in his projects. Rather than send an entire manuscript directly to editors, he would first send a brief email, describing the book in one or two sentences, then saying, “I would so love to share this new author with you.” By securing the editors’ request to see the manuscript he was, as he said, “making them complicit in their own demise.” As he said this, he would catch your eye and grin.
Bob was eighty-three when he died, and had worked in publishing since his early twenties. As a first-time editor at Henry Holt, he’d gone to the London Book Fair and had come back with only two projects. His boss said something along the lines of, “Only two?” Both became bestsellers in the US. I don’t remember the first, but the second was Dick Francis, whose posthumously co-written books still hit the bestseller list. By age twenty-five, Bob had become Holt’s editor-in-chief.
Bob came into my life shortly after my father died in 2007. I had written a thriller that was deemed too “edgy” by at least fifteen New York literary agents, and I was looking for an agent who believed in me, and my ms.
I decided that I would look for a young, edgy New York City literary agent who wouldn’t be put off by an edgy, New York City thriller, but on a whim, I sent my manuscript to Bob Lescher. I’d never met him, but he was one of the few agents that the publisher and editor-in-chief at HarperCollins, where I had worked as an acquiring editor, had spoken of with unadulterated respect.
Bob read my manuscript over Easter weekend, and called me on Easter Monday. He loved it; he wanted to represent me. I asked if the other half of Lescher & Lescher, his wife Susan, had also read it. She had, and she’d loved it, too. I happily accepted his offer, and became part of his stable of authors. There was no contract to be signed; he said that contracts weren’t necessary between people of good will.
Finding Bob was propitious in many ways; I needed an agent, and I also needed a father-figure. This was just after Easter, and my own father had died several days earlier, on Good Friday. My mother and I were with him to the end during a torturous year-and-a-half of hospitalizations, rehabilitations, more hospitalizations, more rehabilitations. At least once a week my dad would ask, “Have you found an agent?” My getting an agent was clearly very important to him in the small amount of time he had left. Three days after he died, I had an agent. And not just any old agent; I had Bob Lescher, an agent’s agent, the sort of agent you could only dream of having. And, coincidentally, who had daughters named Katherine and Margaret, as did I.
When I first met him, he was living and working in a brownstone on East 84th Street. Over lunch, he told me stories. One was about editing Alice B. Toklas, life companion of Gertrude Stein. When he showed up for the first time at her apartment in Paris’s Left Bank, he knocked on the door and saw it slowly open. He looked out, but no one was there. Then he looked down (Bob was quite tall), and there she was, “a tiny woman with a moustache.”
Over the course of five years, he visited Alice in Paris for one week every year to edit the fifty pages she’d written during the previous year. Slowly, slowly, he helped her craft her autobiography, working in her apartment under a gallery of Matisses, Cezannes, Juan Grises, and Picassos.
During our lunch, Bob mentioned that his first wife had written a memoir in which he figured. He said, with some humor, that she had referred to him as “B.” From the way he spoke, it was clear that “B” was not short for “Bob.”
With some trepidation, because I didn’t want to find out about reasons not to like my agent whom I liked very much, when I got back home to Boston I Googled “Robert Lescher,” but found almost nothing about him. He was under the radar. Finally, I was able to discover that his first wife was Mary Cantwell, whose essays in the New York Times I had loved. I bought her book, hoping there wouldn’t be much material on “B.,” but what I learned was that, up until the end of the marriage, he was a magnificent husband and continued to be an excellent father to their children.
When I last saw Bob, in June 2011, he’d just moved from 84th Street on the Upper East Side to West 21st Street in Chelsea. His landlord at 84th had so liked having Bob as a tenant that he or she (I can’t remember which) brought Bob with him/her when he/she relocated to Chelsea, never having raised Bob’s rent in all the time he’d been a tenant. Bob had been offered the garden apartment in a gorgeously renovated brownstone.
I took the train from Boston to hand-deliver my second manuscript. It was a swelteringly hot day. Bob proudly showed me around his new office, his bedroom at the front, a small lawn at the back, and a lot of room in between for him and the two terrific women who worked with him, Carolyn Larson, also an agent, and Barbara. In the hour I was there, several of his clients and friends stopped by to congratulate him on his new digs, and he chatted amiably and offered them a brand of fruit juice he’d just discovered, seeming to derive an immoderate amount of pleasure at introducing his visitors to this elixir of the gods.
He took me to lunch at his favorite restaurant, his arm through mine as he walked unsteadily to a cab. Upon arriving, we were immediately ushered to a table in a clearly desirable corner of the dining room. He ordered a large glass of wine, downed it in one gulp, handed the wine glass to the waitress, and asked for a refill. That amount of wine, consumed so quickly, would have flattened a lesser man.
He told me about his weekly poker group with several men of his generation, mystery writers and the owner of a mystery bookshop. I told him about spending my summer after college at the house of John Wain, Oxford professor of poetry, and finding a letter from Philip Larkin in his bicycle basket, and he told me more about finding Dick Francis and publishing him for the American market.
We went back to his office, then he walked me to 7th Avenue and hailed a cab. He opened the door, kissed me goodbye, and promised to read my manuscript at his soonest opportunity. I watched after him as he walked slowly back down 21st Street.
A week passed, then two, then three. Finally, I screwed up my courage, and called. Carolyn said that he hadn’t been able to get to my new manuscript, but that he would, soon. I was at the top of his list.
Another call, and word that Bob had fallen, and was in rehab. It was clear that this fall hadn’t happened recently. Then another silence; Bob was unable to get to the phone but I was still at the top of his list. I feared the worst. And then came the word from Carolyn that Bob had declined to take on my new manuscript. By then I had suspected that we were over; that most likely, he was over.
Last spring, while I was living in Cambridge, England, I read a post on the internet written by one of Bob’s other authors that his agent, the very kind and welcoming Carolyn Larson, had died. I emailed the office, and several days later, heard back that Carolyn, only 70, had died in her sleep, a complete shock to everyone. It must have been devastating to Bob.
I do not know what will become of Lescher & Lescher without Bob and Carolyn. I can only hope that perhaps one of his three daughters will take it on, because it is a fine name that is worthy of continuing. I will always feel honored that I had the privilege of being one of Bob Lescher’s authors. I so miss that rich, cultivated voice over the phone, choosing his words so carefully, and his wry, sometimes wicked, sense of humor, and the knowledge that he would do absolutely everything in his power for me.