Owen Laster, literary agent, dead at age 72

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Posted: Mar 09, 2011 7:37 PM
Owen Laster, literary agent, dead at age 72

Owen Laster, a literary agent and executive of old-fashioned self-effacement and integrity whose many clients included Judy Blume, Gore Vidal and the estate of Margaret Mitchell, died Wednesday. He was 72.

Laster, who retired in 2006, died in his Manhattan apartment after a brief illness, said his friend and attorney Richard Snider. Numerous friends had visited him recently, including former colleague Robert Gottlieb, who said Laster was "to our industry as a literary agent as Maxwell Perkins was to the publishing industry as a publisher and editor."

"I remember as his assistant that when a young person called and asked for a meeting with him he would meet with them and encourage them to join our industry. He took the time for people even though he was the most successful agent of his time," Gottlieb, who now chairs the rival Trident Media Group, wrote in a posting on the online industry newsletter Publishers Marketplace.

"He truly never had a bad word to say about anyone. His kindness and gentle manner was unique in a very competitive industry."

In a career that lasted more than 40 years, Laster's authors also included Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren and Susan Isaacs. Among his more notable projects were the authorized sequel to Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," Alexandra Ripley's million-selling "Scarlett" and the posthumous release of Ellison's "Juneteenth," the novel Ellison spent decades trying to complete after receiving high acclaim for his debut, "Invisible Man."

Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, said Laster "was always honest, straightforward and unfailingly pleasant _ a true gentleman of the old school. And he takes a whole lot of publishing history with him into the great beyond." Isaacs remembered seeking an agent in the mid-1980s and having many in the industry recommend Laster as "a tough bargainer, but also a gentleman."

After stepping down from William Morris, where he had served as head of worldwide literary operations, Laster said he had become less "enamored" with the business because profit had become more important than quality, even if he was among the enriched.

"The dollars have changed _ I retired a much wealthier man than I would have under the old system," he said in an interview with The Editorial Department, an industry consultant firm. "James Michener, when I became his agent was doing $600,000, $700,000 a year. Now it would be more like $10 million. I have to say, I went with it, I benefited from it, my big authors were huge, the hits were megahits."

Some successes were unexpected. Laster recalled taking on "The 25th Hour," a debut novel by David Benioff. Unable to interest a large publisher, Laster sold it to Carroll & Graf, for $7,500. But he and Benioff made far more. The book was adapted into a Spike Lee film and the paperback rights went for $500,000.

"Thirty publishers had turned it down," Laster said.

Laster, a native of Weehawken, N.J., began at William Morris soon after graduating from Syracuse University. He was not married and had no children, Snider said.