NEW YORK - Frank H. Pearl - a lawyer and investor in Washington who entered the book business on a quest to publish the serious, good-quality literature that he felt large corporate publishing houses had neglected - died Friday in Baltimore. He was 68.
His death, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was announced by the lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a close friend, who said that Mr. Pearl had lung cancer. He lived in Washington.
When Mr. Pearl founded the Perseus Books Group in 1996, publishers were “bailing out of serious fiction and nonfiction, saying they can’t make the midlist pay,’’ New York magazine said in a profile of Mr. Pearl.
He had long held a deep interest in books and decided to create a company of his own. It grew to become a major player in the publishing industry, an authority in titles on politics, foreign affairs, history, and current events and eventually the largest independent book distributor in the country.
Perseus Books encompasses a number of publishers - some owned, some in partnerships - including Basic Books, Nation Books, PublicAffairs, and Da Capo.
Recent titles include “Strategic Vision,’’ by Zbigniew Brzezinski (Basic Books); “The Arab Uprising’’ by Marc Lynch (PublicAffairs); and “Tropic of Chaos’’ by Christian Parenti (Nation Books).
As a Washington-based financier, Mr. Pearl kept an unusually low profile in a city of big names and big egos, avoiding publicity most of his life, even as he gathered considerable wealth, influence, and connections while engineering leveraged buyouts in the 1980s as a partner at Wesray Capital Corp.
But publishing remained an enduring ambition.
“Frank always believed that there was an important role for serious publishing in the classic mold,’’ said Peter Osnos, the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs. “He set out to create an enterprise that would be a model of how you can publish books of consequence in a way that was both meaningful and good business.’’
Frank Hilton Pearl was born in New Haven, the son of Erwin M. Pearl, a lawyer, and Minna Pearl, a homemaker. He was raised in Chicago and attended the University of Wisconsin from 1961 to 1963 before transferring to American University in Washington. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in political science and three years later earned a degree from American University School of Law.
In 1969, he married Geryl Tull. He leaves his wife and a sister, Holly Pearl Wald.
Mr. Pearl was an art collector, sailor, and lover of music, and those interests were reflected in the institutions he supported, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he was a member of the board of trustees.
For all his avoidance of the limelight, he did agree to an interview in 1995 for a profile in The Washington Post.
But even then he spoke about his tendency to fly under the radar.
“Living life as a public person is an unnatural way to live,’’ he said. “There is something unbecoming about seeking publicity.’’