Author HILLEL ITALY, AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Mort Junklow, the flamboyant former corporate attorney who rose to prominence as a literary agent by securing massive advances for publishing, political and entertainment leaders from Ronald Reagan and Al Gore to David McCullough and Barbara Walters, has died.
Janklow died Wednesday of heart failure at his home in Water Mill, New York, just days before his 92nd birthday. His death was announced by publicist Paul Bogards, speaking on behalf of the Janklow family and his literary agency Janklow & Nesbit Associates.
“Mort has been a beacon of positivity and hope in an uncertain world,” his business partner, Lynn Nesbit, said in a statement. “He exuded optimism and as a result, his clients, family and friends always leaned on and learned from him. He was a shining light in the publishing world, dedicated to his writers and passionate about our cause. We will all miss him.”
Junklow was one of the first so-called “super agents” and became one by accident, stepping in to help with the book of a legal client and old friend, speechwriter and columnist William Safire, and quickly mastered his new trade. Janklow has been credited and blamed for blockbuster book distribution and million-dollar deals in the 1970s and beyond, for pushing the gentleman’s trade for a lawyer savvy in marketing, additional rights, and fine print in a publishing contract.
“Mort took publishers into the space age,” Joni Evans, CEO of Simon & Schuster, told New York magazine in 1987.
He was a great man – so energetic that he dictated dozens of letters a day; a wrestler on the tennis court and in the boardroom, a chatterer in large-rimmed glasses and monogrammed white shirts, a whirlwind with a mental catalog of witticisms, anecdotes, and superlatives. Never afraid to talk about his accomplishments, Junklow liked to recall that some of the contracts he signed were worth more than the $25 million needed by Hearst Corporation to buy publisher William Morrow.
“One of the reasons for getting big advances is not to make writers and agents rich,” Junklow told The New York Times in 1989, “but to let the publisher know what he is buying. You must make them pregnant. They stand in front of their sales team and say, “We paid millions for this book. This is the biggest book we have. Take him to the shops.”
He was at ease with liberals (Gore, Michael Moore) and conservatives (Reagan), with famous science fiction writers such as Sidney Sheldon and Daniel Steele, and with journalists Ted Koppel and Daniel Schorr. His influence and reputation multiplied in late 1988 when he and fellow agent Lynn Nesbit announced the founding of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, and Nesbit brought along award-winning authors such as Tom Wolfe and Robert Caro.
Not all of his clients were superstars, at least not in the beginning. He took on McCullough long before the historian sold out on the million-selling Truman book. He dealt with the disgraced Nixon, helping John Erlichman, Diane Ackerman and the poetess of the first novel, Jill Eisenstadt. In recent years, Janklow & Nesbit contributors have included award-winning Joan Didion and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as the more colorful James Frey, who retired (at another agency) as a memoirist but reemerged as a writer. Janklow’s son, Luke, did deals for Anderson Cooper and Simon Cowell. Mort Janklow also had a daughter, Angela, a former editor of Vanity Fair magazine.
Junklow has served on numerous advisory boards, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. He has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for over four decades.
Born in New York in 1930, Junklow was the son of a lawyer who grew up in rugged Queens, a brilliant, confident kid who missed enough classes to graduate from high school at 16. as a graduate student. He married young, divorced young, then met and married Linda Leroy, daughter of Hollywood director Mervyn Leroy, sister of restaurateur Warner Leroy and his longtime high society partner.
Janklow joined the law firm of Spear and Hill in 1960 and founded his own firm, Janklow & Traum, seven years later. Among his clients was Safire, a former student from Syracuse who was leaving his job as President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter in the early 1970s and wanted Janklow to represent him in his memoirs.
Janklow not only secured a $250,000 deal with publisher William Morrow, but also helped break the publishing precedent by recovering about one-third of his advance when the publisher attempted to scrap the book, claiming that the Watergate scandal had rendered Safir’s story obsolete. (Authors usually had to pay back all the money.) Safire quit his job before Watergate came along, and his memoir, published by Doubleday, was called Before the Fall.
“Bill was running around DC telling all his friends and colleagues about his friend who was his agent,” Junklow wrote for The Daily Beast in 2009, shortly after Safir’s death.
“His opinion carried such weight even then that the phone rang in my office… and two years later I gave up a successful law practice and became a full-time agent, a decision I never regretted.”
In 1977, Junklow enriched Safire again when he landed a $1 million contract with Ballantine Books for Safire’s “Full Disclosure”, which at the time was considered the largest advance for a first novel. He later negotiated seven-figure deals with The Silence of the Lambs writer Thomas Harris and the memoirs of Reagan and Pope John Paul II, Ted Turner and Barbara Walters.
Summing up his influence, Junklow posed a riddle to New York magazine in 1987: “Where is the 500-pound gorilla sitting?”
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