fb-pixel

Daniel Menaker, book editor who wrote with wit, dies at 79

Mr. Menaker served as the editor of "Primary Colors."
Mr. Menaker served as the editor of "Primary Colors."NICOLE BENGIVENO/NYT

Daniel Menaker, who incubated literary celebrities as executive editor-in-chief of Random House and as a senior fiction editor of The New Yorker, and who, as a wry and discerning stylist, became a critically praised author himself, died Monday at his home in Marlborough. He was 79.

His wife, Katherine Bouton, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Mentored at The New Yorker by storied editors William Shawn and William Maxwell, Mr. Menaker oversaw mostly fiction at the magazine and edited reviews by film critic Pauline Kael.

As a book editor, he helped polish the poetry and prose of Noah Baumbach, Michael Chabon, Billy Collins, Ted Conover, Mavis Gallant, Jonathan Kellerman, Colum McCann, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart, Daniel Silva, and Elizabeth Strout.

Advertisement



He also edited “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics,” the best-selling 1996 roman à clef inspired by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Its author, columnist Joe Klein, was billed on the cover as “Anonymous” and was unknown even to Mr. Menaker and other Random House executives until after the book was published. (Mr. Menaker took credit for the title.)

With the author out of sight, that left Mr. Menaker — otherwise a faceless “paraliterary,” as he put it — to be the book’s public spokesman, a role, he told The New York Times, that gave him “the vicarious enjoyment of what it would be like to have a successful book of my own” and “the chance to glom onto someone else’s success, in a somewhat shameless way.”

His own half-dozen books were mostly critically acclaimed. They include “The Treatment” (1998), which the Times called his “engaging first novel,” about a 32-year-old private-school teacher undergoing psychoanalysis (it was adapted for a film in 2006); “The Old Left and Other Stories” (1987) — Mr. Menaker twice won the O. Henry Award for his short stories — and “My Mistake” (2013), a bittersweet memoir.

Advertisement



For “My Mistake,” he opted for the conceit of writing in the present tense. As he said in an interview with The Paris Review in 2014, “With a book that doesn’t have anything truly remarkable in it — I wasn’t captured and sexually violated for 10 years, I wasn’t a jihadist, I didn’t go into outer space — I had to figure out how I could make this more immediate.”

In an acknowledgment that could pass for an epitaph, he marveled that he and his agent, Esther Newberg, had remained friends for so long.

“Just think of it — going on 50 years now,” Mr. Menaker wrote. “Well, maybe don’t think of it. As you told me recently, comfortingly and disturbingly, ‘We can’t die young anymore.’”

Robert Daniel Menaker was born Sept. 17, 1941, in Manhattan to decidedly mixed lineage. His father, Robert Owen Menaker, who designed, sold, and exported furniture to Mexico and South America, was the son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia whose rabbinical ancestry could supposedly be traced to King Solomon and who had been jailed in czarist Russia as a revolutionary. Mr. Menaker’s mother, Mary R. Grace, chief copy editor at Fortune magazine, was said to be a descendant of William the Conqueror.

A red-diaper baby, Mr. Menaker attended what he described as the “aptronymic” Little Red School House in Greenwich Village in the 1940s. His father was a Communist Party member who, on his travels to Mexico, spied on Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary exiled by Stalin. (Daniel Menaker described his own politics as “anarcho-syndicalist.”)

Advertisement



Daniel Menaker was 10 when his first contribution appeared in The New Yorker: a Talk of the Town item about a classmate who had identified Columbus’s fleet as “the Atchison, the Topeka and the Santa Fe” railroads. Mr. Menaker told the arts journal The Brooklyn Rail in 2016: “Miraculously, they recast it a bit and published it. I guess it set me on the road to authorial vanity and perdition.”

He majored in philosophy and poetry at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and was captain of the soccer team. While there, he said, he bought Bob Dylan’s first album because he had mistaken Dylan for a Welsh folk singer. He was taught to play the guitar by Michael Meeropol, the older son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to spy for the Soviet Union and executed.

He graduated in 1963 and earned a master’s in English at Johns Hopkins University.

Mr. Menaker married Bouton in 1980. A freelance writer at the time, she became an editor at the Times and is the author of books on hearing loss. In addition to her, he leaves a son, Will, and a daughter, Elizabeth.

Mr. Menaker was hired by The New Yorker in 1968 as a fact-checker. He was working as a copy editor when, by his account, Shawn dismissed him as a know-it-all, but not before telling him that he could stay on while taking as long as he needed to find another job.

Advertisement



It took 26 years, Mr. Menaker wrote.

He was redeemed when the magazine published a short story by him based on the death of his older brother at 29 — what Mr. Menaker would refer to as his biggest mistake. Though his brother had a frail knee, Mr. Menaker had dared him to play running back in a touch football game. His brother injured the knee, underwent surgery, contracted a blood infection during the operation, and died of it in 1969.

“It has reaffirmed my belief that the past is the definition of inevitability,” Mr. Menaker said in the Paris Review interview. “I had no choice but to do what I did with my brother during the touch football game, which was to goad him slightly. He had no choice but to take up the goad and to do what he did. And so I’m kind of at peace with it.”

With The New Yorker focusing more on nonfiction, Mr. Menaker was eased out after Tina Brown took over as editor in the 1990s. Her husband, Harold Evans, the publisher of Random House, hired him to be a senior literary editor there in 1995. After a brief hiatus as executive editor of HarperCollins, Mr. Menaker returned to Random House as executive editor-in-chief of Random House Publishing Group in 2003. He left in 2007.

He was later the host of an online talk show about books called “TitlePage.” Among his other books were “The Worst” (1979, with Charles McGrath), a ranking of objectionable items by category; and “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation” (2010), which affirmed his bona fides as a grammarian. (He once praised lawyer Robert Welch’s denunciation of Senator Joseph McCarthy — “Have you left no sense of decency?” — because he “ends up with ‘decency’ instead of ‘left.’”)

Advertisement



Just before he died, Mr. Menaker had completed a book of poems about cancer in a time of pandemic. Titled “Terminalia,” the book is to be published this fall. In a poem called “Last Will and Testament,” he wrote that “to die lighter,” he had made internal peace with four of those he had wronged and external peace with the rest. He added:

We are each of us a flotilla

of virtue, shame, honor, pride,

hatefulness — not the single bark we

think we are. And anyway, these four did no

more or less than what they had to do.

We believe we make our choices, but no —

they make us.