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James Silberman, book editor who championed James Baldwin, dies at 93

Globe Staff and Wire Reports

James Silberman was an early editor and champion of James Baldwin, whose fiction and essays, he once said, needed little in the way of editing.

“Most of his material is essentially complete when it comes to me,” Mr. Silberman told the Globe in April 1963, when he was Baldwin’s editor at Dial Press. “I may make a suggestion and he may accept it or not. He’s completely his own man.”

Mr. Silberman, whose careful work and guidance helped elevate the careers of writers as wide-ranging as Muhammad Ali, Marilyn French, Chris Matthews, and Hunter S. Thompson, was 93 when he died July 26 in his Manhattan, N.Y., home. The cause was complications of a stroke, his son, Michael, told The New York Times.

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In the 1963 Globe interview, Mr. Silberman said Baldwin was “simply relentlessly truthful. What most people seem to miss in his writing is that he writes because of a very deep love for people and because of a fervent desire for their salvation.”

He added that as a Harvard-educated white man who “grew up in Brookline, Cambridge, and Boston,” getting to know Baldwin and reading his work was an education.

Mr. Silberman said that where he grew up, there “was a kind of cheerful myth there about what all the liberals” would do for Blacks. Indeed, it was quickly becoming clear to him that a Black man would only get “what he takes and what he insists on” when he met Baldwin and became his editor.

“Reading his works and knowing him and his family have made all this much clearer to me than any other experience could have,” Silberman added.

The two formed a professional relationship after Baldwin’s first publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, turned down his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room” over concerns that the book’s gay white characters might alienate his Black audience.

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Mr. Silberman and Dial Press published the book, and he then edited Baldwin’s novel “Another Country” and the nonfiction book “The Fire Next Time.”

In 1963, Random House hired Mr. Silberman as senior editor. Bennett Cerf, the company’s cofounder, later named him editor-in-chief and publisher of trade books.

There he was part of a team that included renowned editors such Robert Loomis, Jason Epstein, and Joe Fox.

Mr. Silberman published Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels” (1967), Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970), David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), and E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel” (1971) and “Ragtime” (1975).

In 1975, Mr. Silberman left Random House after he refused to fire Selma Shapiro, the company’s vice president for publicity, with whom he was having a romantic relationship; they later married. He faulted the company’s “moral rigidity” and was quickly hired by Richard E. Snyder, Simon & Schuster’s competitive chairman, to launch his own imprint, Summit Books.

At Summit he published French’s debut novel, “The Women’s Room” (1977), which sold more than 20 million copies; Seymour M. Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” (1983); and Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985).

“Jim could see things in what I was doing as a reporter that I did not see,” Hersh told the Times by e-mail, referring to his books about Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. “Amidst constant negative pressure from the subjects, he never flinched and had my back all the way.”

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Mr. Silberman lost his job at Summit in 1991 when the imprint was eliminated to cut costs. He was a vice president and senior editor at Little, Brown & Co. until 1998 and then established James H. Silberman Books.

During his career, his authors included Betty Friedan and John Irving.

Mr. Silberman also encouraged Matthews to write “Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told by One Who Knows the Game” (1988).

“He spotted a piece I’d done for The New Republic as Tip O’Neill’s guy going to daily war with the Reagan White House,” Mr. Matthews told the Times by e-mail.

Invoking the editor who fostered Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mr. Matthews said that “Jim was my Max Perkins.”

James Henry Silberman was born on March 21, 1927, in Boston to Henry R. Silberman and Dorothy Conrad.

After graduating from Cambridge High and Latin School, he served in the Army and attended Harvard as a government major.

Graduating in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Silberman enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which is now the Columbia Publishing Course.

He was hired in the shipping department of The Writer, which, he recalled in an oral history, was in the business of “selling a magazine to aspiring writers, telling them how to become rich and famous.”

In 1963, he told the Globe that he was “the most overqualified shipping clerk in Boston” while working at the magazine’s Back Bay offices.

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He took an advertising job at Little, Brown before becoming a publicist at the Dial Press in New York in 1953. When the company’s sole editor left to have her second child, he was promoted to replace her and assumed the title that would define his vocation.

“After nearly six years, the publishing business still seems like a fine place to be,” he wrote for the 1956 report of his Harvard class.

In 1960, Mr. Silberman married Leona Nevler, who also was a book editor. They had two children, Michael and Ellen, and divorced in 1976.

In addition to his children and wife, Mr. Silberman leaves his sister, Dorothy Altman; and four grandchildren.

At 86, even after suffering a stroke, Mr. Silberman finished editing two books.

He was “a man who knows how to edit a manuscript, to read a manuscript and to publish a manuscript,” Elie Wiesel, another of his authors, told the Times in 1991.

Mr. Silberman also became an amateur pilot in middle age and drove a Mazda RX-7 convertible sports car on weekends.

In his early 70s, for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class, he published a self-interview in which he wrote about what it was like to work with “a lot of terrific writers — and edit and publish their books.”

Chief among them, Mr. Silberman wrote, was “Jimmy Baldwin at the time he freaked establishment America with ‘The Fire Next Time.’‘'

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Few writers, however, were as challenging to work with as Hunter S. Thompson, whom Mr. Silberman was editing in the late 1960s and early ’70s — including Thompson’s book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”

Mr. Silberman could already see the writer Thompson would become.

“He didn’t need any help writing the book – but he needed help organizing the narrative,” Mr. Silberman said in an oral history published by Rolling Stone magazine. “He hadn’t yet discovered his full voice, but he was already beyond standard journalism. He was his own subject. He was put­ting himself into situations and not only letting them develop but making them develop. He was interested in results.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed.