Morton L. Janklow, agent for best-selling authors, dies at 91

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Morton L. Janklow, agent for best-selling authors, dies at 91
Mr. Janklow posed in his office in 2003 with a collection of collages based on his silhouette made by the artist Ray Johnson. Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK, NY.- Morton L. Janklow, the storied New York literary agent who struck megadeals with publishers for bestselling authors, ghostwritten celebrities, several presidents and a pope, and who influenced international book lists and the reading habits of millions for decades, died Wednesday at his home in Water Mill, New York. He was 91.

The cause was heart failure, said Paul Bogaards, the president of Bogaards Public Relations, which works with Janklow’s company, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

Janklow was arguably America’s most powerful independent literary agent. His agency represented such hugely successful commercial writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz. It also represented Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as Pope John Paul II, whose collection of essays, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” was published around the world in 1994.

A wily, risk-taking negotiator — he put himself through college partly with poker winnings, and he was a lawyer for years before reinventing himself as an advocate for the literati in 1972 and founding his own agency in 1977 — Janklow by the 1980s was routinely securing multimillion-dollar contracts for writers in his stable, including several deals that he said exceeded $25 million. At his invitation, publishers often engaged in bidding wars.

His power was partly a result of economic changes in the book world. After many years of dominance by publishers that all but dictated marketing strategies and the size of authors’ advances and royalties, several factors — a consolidation of publishers into a handful of major houses, the decline of independent bookstores, the rise of discount bookstore chains — forced publishers to rely increasingly on the sale of bestsellers.

Many major publishers would not even read unsolicited manuscripts. Agents became the first to see the work of unknown authors, and agents’ judgments, often based on sales potential and not public interest or literary merit, largely determined what publishers bought and presented to the reading public.

These trends tipped the balance of bargaining power from publishers to agents like Janklow, who made a fortune with the authors of mass-market books. While he represented some scholarly writers, including historians David McCullough and Ronald Steel, he did not court stylists like John Updike or John Cheever, and he was criticized for promoting the lesser literary lights of romance novelists and celebrity memoirists.

Asked what he looked for as an agent, Janklow responded frankly.

“Big books,” he told New York magazine in 1978. “Renowned authors or renowned subjects. Of course, we’re not averse to getting some serious writers who need our kind of talent.”

Writers flocked to him, but some probably needed psychiatric help more than they needed an agent.

“You get people who write books about dog burials,” he told The New York Times in 1980. “People write letters to me about how this book should sell 5 million copies in hardcover, 10 million in paperback, and why Robert Redford will want to make a movie out of it. And you pick it up and it’s a book about a postman. Then we get these books all the time about how the CIA has planted a transmitter in my teeth.”

Having made millions, Janklow shifted direction in 1989. He formed a partnership with Lynn Nesbit, a veteran agent for International Creative Management whose clients included such literary figures as Toni Morrison, Tom Wolfe, John le Carré, Donald Barthelme, John Gregory Dunne and Robert A. Caro.

Representing moneymakers as well as literary talents, Janklow & Nesbit eventually established a client list of 1,100 novelists and nonfiction writers, including the winners of Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, Academy Awards and other accolades. Many were well-known politicians, entertainers, historians, journalists, and leaders of the arts and sciences.

Janklow took commissions of 15% when most agents got 10%. But his clients received abundant rewards. The Janklovian clout often won signing bonuses and subsidiary rights for television and movie spinoffs, as well as book club and world publishing deals. He also won rights rarely given to authors: a say in advertising and promotional campaigns, even in the details of a book’s cover and jacket copy.

For some established writers, he secured contracts for books not yet plotted, let alone written. Many of his clients became regulars on the bestseller list. In November 1989, he had three clients who held No. 1 positions on Times lists: Danielle Steel on hardcover fiction with “Daddy,” Nancy Reagan on nonfiction with “My Turn” and Sidney Sheldon on paperback fiction with “The Sands of Time.”

Unlike most agents, who remain in their clients’ shadows, Janklow was a flamboyant self-promoter who moved in political, cultural, communications and entertainment circles and gave lavish parties for the A-list. His friends included Mayor Edward Koch of New York; television news stars Morley Safer and Barbara Walters; The Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham; William Paley, the chairman of CBS; California’s governor, Jerry Brown; and writers Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

He was tall and intense, and he talked a blue streak. “One doesn’t so much converse with Janklow as plunge into a rushing river of words and try to grab onto a piece of conversational driftwood,” Trip Gabriel wrote in a magazine article for The Times in 1989. He noted that Janklow’s quest for big advances was more than a macho game or the result of gossip’s influence on the marketplace.

“This is a business of self-fulfilling prophecies,” Janklow explained. “One of the reasons to drive for big advances is not to make authors and agents rich. It’s to make the publisher aware of what he’s bought.

“You’ve got to get them pregnant,” he continued. “They get up before their sales force and say, ‘We’ve paid millions for this book. This is the biggest book we’ve got. Drive it into the stores.’ ”

Morton Lloyd Janklow was born in Queens on May 30, 1930, to Maurice and Lillian (Levantin) Janklow. Morton was 7 when his sister, Alice, was born. Their father was a lawyer who fared poorly in the Depression years.

Morton, a brilliant student, attended public elementary schools and Far Rockaway High School, where he edited a school newspaper, was captain of the tennis team and graduated at 16 in 1946. He had his heart set on an Ivy League college, but Syracuse University was one of the few schools that would admit a 16-year-old.

He graduated from Syracuse in 1950 with a degree in political science. After earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1953, he practiced law in the Army and later, briefly, in Manhattan.

While in the Army in the mid-1950s, he contracted a fungal infection that proved nearly fatal. He ran raging temperatures and lost weight. Given an experimental drug, he was hospitalized for eight months. When he finally began to recover, his weight was down to 106 pounds.

His marriage in 1953 to Marjorie Perrin, the daughter of an investment banker, ended in divorce in 1959. In 1960, he married Linda LeRoy, the daughter of film director Mervyn LeRoy and granddaughter of Harry Warner, a founder of Warner Bros. They had two children, Angela and Luke. He is survived by LeRoy Janklow, their two children and six grandchildren, and by his sister, Alice Drucker.

Janklow’s first client was his old college friend William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, who wanted help selling his book on the Nixon presidency, “Before the Fall” (1975). He then sold “The Company” (1976), a novel by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic adviser, who went to prison in the Watergate scandal; the paperback rights to Safire’s first novel, “Full Disclosure” (1977), for $1.3 million; and the paperback rights to Krantz’s “Princess Daisy” (1980), for $3.2 million.

Janklow was a director of the City Center of Music and Drama, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, and was on advisory boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, New York University and Columbia University. He endowed a $1 million arts advocacy program at Columbia Law School in 1982 and a professorship in literary and artistic property law there in 1992.

In 1994, Janklow was the United States agent for Pope John Paul II’s Italian publisher, Mondadori, in the publication of “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.” The book was sold to Alfred A. Knopf for about $10 million, with the royalties going to charities.

Janklow also represented the authors of two books about the pontiff, “Pope John Paul II: The Biography” (1995), by Tad Szulc, and “His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time” (1996), by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi.

Besides representing Nixon, Carter and Reagan, Janklow negotiated book contracts for each of their wives. Presidents’ wives, he said, far outsell their husbands.

“Presidents tend to try to rewrite history from a kind of Olympian posture,” he said in 2000, when publishers were vying for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir “Living History” (2003). “First ladies tend to be much less inhibited and more inclined to settle scores.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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