Saving Vonnegut from Smithereens

The photo attached is of Sam Lawrence and Wakefield on the boat party for Starting Over [1972.]

The legendary basketball Coach Dean Smith won national praise for leaving in his will this year a gift of two-hundred dollars to each of his eighteen former players who won their letters in the sport at The University of North Carolina. That’s a fine gesture, but even finer – and little known, except to the recipients – was the two thousand dollars that publisher Seymour (“Sam”) Lawrence (1926-1993) left in his will to each of his long-time writers – a list including Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, Jayne Ann Phillips, Barry Hannah, Richard Bausch, Frank Conroy, Susan Minot, and Richard Yates (to name but a few.) 

Sam began and owned his own company, “Seymour Lawrence, Inc,) and was one of the first to have his own “imprint,” with the larger firms that he partnered with, so his books bore the designation (the first and longest-lasting) “Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence,” and later “Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.” Lawrence’s “list” is surely as distinguished in literature as Dean Smith’s gifted basketball players, which included Michael Jordan, Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, George Karl and Mitch Kupchak. Coach Smith’s letter that accompanied the bequest bore the notation “Dinner Out.” (The $200 might only cover the salad course in Michaels Jordan’s dinner out, but it’s the thought that 

The $2,000 bequest Sam Lawrence left to his writers did not carry any suggestions as to how the money might be spent, but it was obviously more than the price of “dinner out.” Some of Sam’s writers may well have used it to pay the bills or the rent, which would hardly have surprised him (some distinguished authors as well as some former basketball stars may be staving off the Repo guy.) 

I happened to be a few blocks ahead of the Repo people at the time I got Sam’s surprise bequest, and I knew how he would want me to use it. I booked a weekend in Key West. Sam owned a house on the beach in Key West, and rented one side to author John Malcolm Brinnin (Dylan Thomas in America was the first of his many books) and when Sam wasn’t staying there he offered it to one of his authors. I had that pleasure a couple of times, and on different occasions I accompanied Sam to Key West and St. Thomas – he loved any excuse for a “business trip/vacation” with his authors, maybe discussing ideas for book jacket designs as we sipped our Mai Tais. He took Vonnegut with him to Russia and Scandinavia, combining the business of introducing Kurt to his publishers in those countries, while enjoying the finest of the local cuisine, wines, and spirits.

“The Book Party,” to celebrate a new publication, is largely a thing of the past except for the Michael Jordans of the publishing business . It is most likely celebs such as Jordan (or his political or film counterparts) who are royally feted when a book bearing their name (though probably not actually written by them) is published today. Back in the ‘fifties and throughout the ‘seventies, until the big corporate mergers of publishing companies, every literary dog had his day. The category of “mid-list” writers has largely disappeared, along with “the middle class” itself, which The New York Times noted recently is shunned now by pols running for office. But in the Glory Days of mid-list authors (before the deadly term was coined and declared an official category) publishers were judged by their parties as well as their promotion power. Sam Lawrence ranked near the top of both, calling on his book store-owning friends to stock the latest works from his list (independent bookstores made up forty percent of the market in the glory days of Sam and his mid-list authors.)

Sam’s specialty was taking on writers who other publishers had dismissed to the dust-bin of literary history and turning them into best-selling stars. Perhaps his greatest coup was Vonnegut , who wrote that Sam Lawrence “rescued me from certain oblivion, from smithereens. . .” It was hardly the two thousand dollars Sam left in his will that bailed out Kurt, but “by publishing Slaughterhouse-Five, and then bringing all my previous books back into print under his umbrella [Timequake.]”

The three publishers who had brought out Vonnegut’s three early novels had all turned down the manuscript of Slaughterhouse, and Kurt remembered that Lawrence had once written him a fan letter and said if he ever needed a publisher to “knock on my door.” Kurt knocked on the door of Sam’s one-room office at 90 Beacon Street in Boston and offered Lawrence a look at the book, warning that his three former publishers had turned it down. A few days later Sam called Kurt back to the office and offered him a contract, not only for the new book but also for the next two as yet unwritten, for more money than Vonnegut’s books had ever earned.

“You shouldn’t give me that much money,” Kurt said. “My books don’t sell.” 

“You write the books,” Sam said. “I’ll worry about the money.”

Slaughterhouse became an international bestseller, and neither publisher nor author had to worry about money again. 

That put Sam on a roll that enabled him to save a lot of other authors “from smithereens,” and bring in enough profits to fund all those great “business vacations” and legendary publication parties. 

“What kind of a party do you want for your next book?” Sam asked me at our “publishing lunch” for my novel Starting Over, at Trader Vic’s in Boston. In the spirit of the occasion, and the second Mai Tai, I offered to throw the Boston Party, where both of us lived at the time, if Sam would host a party in New York. 

“It’s a deal,” he said. “What kind of a party do you want?”

“A belly dancer,” I said.

It must have been the Mai Tai. 

Sam approved, and we enjoyed (and lived through) a double celebration – I took seventy people on a boat trip around Boston Harbor, and Sam provided a belly dancer as the feature of a party in a New York hotel. 

Six months before he died, perhaps foreseeing his time was limited, Sam donated his papers to the University of Mississippi, with a generous enough bequest to the University to house them in “The Seymour Lawrence Room” of the Library. He had first offered them to Harvard, his alma mater, but they wouldn’t offer more than stowing the archive in the basement of Widener Library, which did not appeal to Sam’s flair for the beau geste. At the University of Mississippi Library, The Seymour Lawrence Room is next door to The William Faulkner Room. Touche, Harvard.

For the official dedication, Sam sent plane tickets to fly in his long-time authors to Oxford, Mississippi for a three-day party to mark the event. There was a ceremony with the University Band playing, followed by parties, dinner at a locally celebrated catfish restaurant, more parties and a dance the next night. Sam flung aside the cane he now used and danced with the lovely Susan Minot, author at that time of Monkeys, and Lust and Other Stories (with more fine books to come.) I think of it as the Last Party of the era of independent publishers and independent bookstores.

As far as I know, Coach Dean Smith never sent plane tickets to fly back his basketball stars to Chapel Hill to celebrate their championships, nor did his $200 bequest of “dinner out” come close to the two grand that Sam Lawrence gave us to pay our overdue bills, or blow it all on a weekend in Key West.

Eat your heart out, Michael Jordan.

Dan Wakefield had four of his novels and his memoir of New York in the Fifties published by Seymour Lawrence.


Recommended for you