Elisabeth Sifton, editor and tamer of literary lions, dies at 80

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Elisabeth Sifton, editor and tamer of literary lions, dies at 80
Nicholas Lemann, one of many authors in Sifton’s stable, described her in an email as “one of the few people in publishing who’s also a prominent public intellectual.”

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Elisabeth Sifton, a widely respected book editor and publisher who burnished manuscripts by many of the 20th century’s literary lions, died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 80.

Her son Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, said the cause was complications of metastatic breast cancer.

Elisabeth Sifton was also an author in her own right, affirming in a memoir that it was her father, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had popularized what became known as the Serenity Prayer, which begins, “God give us grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change.”

Since the prayer began circulating during World War II, various theories have emerged about its derivation — did Niebuhr actually write it or cobble it together from historic precedents? — and about its precise wording. Sifton made it her mission to demystify both questions.

With her husband, Fritz Stern, who was a leading historian of Germany, she also wrote “No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State” (2013).

Nicholas Lemann, one of many authors in Sifton’s stable, described her in an email as “one of the few people in publishing who’s also a prominent public intellectual.”

Her other authors included Isaiah Berlin, Don DeLillo, Ann Douglas, Susan Eisenhower, Carlos Fuentes, Philip Gourevitch, Michael Ignatieff, Stanley Karnow, Stephen Kinzer, J.R. MacArthur, Robert MacNeil, Peter Matthiessen, Jules Witcover and Victor S. Navasky.

“I can’t recall a single author who wasn’t over-the-moon grateful for the work she did on their manuscripts,” said Altie Karper, the editorial director of Schocken Books.

Barbara Elisabeth Niebuhr was born on Jan. 13, 1939, in Manhattan. Her mother, Ursula (Keppel-Compton) Niebuhr, founded the religion department at Barnard College and was its chairwoman.

“My mother was extremely English in a high Oxonian way, and my father was this, as he put it, yahoo from Missouri,” Sifton recalled in 2003 in an interview with the weekly San Diego Reader.

A daughter and granddaughter of pastors (she described her father as “quasi-Congregationalist” and her English-born mother as Anglican), she had considered herself to be “a believing Christian” when growing up. But, she said, “I declared to my parents when I was 17 years old that I was not a believer, and I stopped going to church regularly.”

Raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she graduated from the private Chapin School and went on to Radcliffe College.

“I sat at her table in my first year at Radcliffe,” journalist and historian Frances FitzGerald said in an email. “She would ask us what we were interested in, and then talk eloquently about whatever subject we had raised.”

Sifton graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature and then studied at the University of Paris as a Fulbright scholar. In 1962 she married Charles Proctor Sifton, a lawyer and later a federal judge. Their marriage ended in divorce.

In addition to their son Sam, she is survived by two other sons, Toby and John, and four grandchildren. Stern, whom she married in 1996, died in 2016.

After working for the State Department in Washington, Sifton began her literary career in 1962 with Frederick A. Praeger Publishers. In 1968, after the company was sold, she joined the Viking Press as an editor; she was named editor-in-chief in 1980. She was executive vice president of Alfred A. Knopf from 1987 to 1992 and then joined Farrar, Straus & Giroux as senior vice president and publisher and editor at large of its subsidiary Hill & Wang.

In the late 1980s Sifton was among the first 20 women admitted for membership in the Century Association, the venerable New York private club, after it lost its legal challenge to a city human rights law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender.

It was after she retired from editing full time in 2008 that she began exploring the derivation of the Serenity Prayer, which had been widely attributed to Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

She remembered the prayer from 1943, when her father preached from the Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts, a farming village in the northwestern part of the state where the family spent summer vacations. Other sources quoted Niebuhr from a decade earlier, and he himself later wrote that the prayer “may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so.”

“I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself,” he said.

The prayer has appeared in various forms, though, including: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Sifton later reflected on the prayer. In one interview, she said: “Every single day one has to think, Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change? That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.”

As an editor, Sifton “had read deeply enough in literature and history that she could immediately see what was fresh, or why the question investigated or thesis proposed was urgent and necessary,” Dan Frank, the editorial director of Pantheon, said in an email.

“There was no area of inquiry or idea that did not engage her curiosity and intellect,” he added.

But she also found joy and excitement when plunging into a new work. She recalled that editing Saul Bellow’s “Humboldt’s Gift,” published in 1975, and his subsequent books “was like finding a box of sparkling unset jewels.”

And she had little patience for those who would deconstruct an author’s work to death. She quoted Bellow as ridiculing graduate students and book reviewers who, after dissecting his novels, delivered what she described as pretentious and “inane mega-interpretations.”

“Kiddo,” Bellow told her wearily, “don’t they understand that we’re making it up as we go along?”

2019 The New York Times Company

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