You probably didn’t know him. But you should have. And I did. He was my boss back in New York days, maybe the best I’ve ever had. He was a gentleman of fine Scotch and cigars, and better stories than anybody. He loved writers and the difficult business of writing. He was an original’s original. And I let him down, to my everlasting regret.
Travel well, sir. And thank you.
December 4, 2009
Don Congdon, a literary agent who spotted the talent of Ray Bradbury early in both their careers and whose long list of celebrated authors also included William Styron, Jack Finney, Evan S. Connell, William L. Shirer and David Sedaris, died on Monday at his home in Brooklyn Heights. He was 91. The death was confirmed by his son, Michael.
Mr. Congdon, who started out as a messenger at a small New York agency, developed an enviable reputation as a skilled editor, tough negotiator and shrewd judge of talent. While still a young editor at Simon & Schuster, he tuned in to the early stories of Ray Bradbury, who became one of his first clients after he set up as a full-time literary agent in 1947.
In 1966 he caused a stir in the publishing world, and precipitated a celebrated lawsuit by Jacqueline Kennedy, when, after spirited bargaining, he sold Look magazine the serial rights to “The Death of a President,” William Manchester’s study of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for more than $600,000.
The sum, staggering for the time, added to Mrs. Kennedy’s fears that the book would bring unwanted publicity to her family and delve too deeply into personal matters. She filed suit against Mr. Manchester, Look and Harper & Row, the book’s publisher, for breach of contract and sought an injunction to halt publication. After negotiating with Look and Harper & Row for changes in the magazine excerpts and the book, Mrs. Kennedy dropped her suit.
Donald Keith Congdon was born on Jan. 7, 1918, in Crawford, Pa. His father was a railroad worker and his mother ran the family’s boardinghouse, which the bank seized during the Depression.
With $8 in his pocket, Mr. Congdon moved to New York in 1935, when he was just out of high school, and found work with the Lurton Blassingame Literary Agency, where he delivered manuscripts to publishers in Midtown, picking up the rejects on return trips. By 1940 he was secretary to Mr. Blassingame, and had begun building his own list of authors.
In 1944 an editor at Collier’s, impressed by the editing Mr. Congdon had done on several stories the magazine had bought, hired him as an associate fiction editor. A year and a half later he was hired by Simon & Schuster as an editor for its Venture Press, recently established to introduce new writers and published writers whose work had been neglected.
In 1947 Mr. Congdon joined the Harold Matson agency, where he got off to a flying start by signing Mr. Bradbury. He went on to represent Mr. Bradbury for more than a half-century.
“I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife,” Mr. Bradbury said in a speech to the National Book Foundation in 2000. “So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes.” Mr. Bradbury dedicated his novel “Fahrenheit 451” to Mr. Congdon.
In 1983 Mr. Congdon started his own agency, Don Congdon Associates, which is now run by his son, Michael.
In addition to Michael, who lives in Brooklyn, he is survived by a sister, Dorothy Glenn of Erie, Pa.; a daughter, Wendy Stanton of Greenwich, Conn.; and six grandchildren.
Besides representing his clients, Mr. Congdon edited many serious paperback anthologies of mystery and horror stories, tales of romance and war reporting. These included “The Wild Sweet Wine: Superb Stories of Sensual Love” (1958), “Stories for the Dead of Night” (1957) and “Combat: Pacific Theater, World War II” (1959).