NEW YORK — Walter J. Minton, who as president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons published Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” the 18th-century novel known as “Fannie Hill,” and other sexually explicit works that rankled the guardians of decency but broke ground against censorship, died Tuesday at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He was 96.
His wife, Marion Minton, confirmed the death.
Balancing a passion for books and a tolerance for risk, Mr. Minton succeeded his father, Melville Minton, in 1955 at the helm of Putnam’s and its subsidiaries. Over the next 23 years, he published Norman Mailer’s “The Deer Park” (1955), the first US edition of John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1964), Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” (1969), and many other bestsellers.
His lists also included William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” (1962), many US editions of Simone de Beauvoir and much of Art Buchwald’s humor.
Among the first to recognize the potential of mass-market paperbacks, Mr. Minton acquired Berkley Books in 1965 and turned thrillers by Lawrence Sanders and spy novels by Len Deighton into page-turning triumphs and their authors into household names.
But he was perhaps best known for books that challenged the nation’s prevailing notions and legal definitions of pornography.
The most notorious of them had been banned in the United States and abroad and rejected by US publishers fearing prosecution for obscenity. They also faced a gantlet of decorous critics, clergymen, and anti-smut crusaders.
“Lolita,” the tale of a professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl, had been banned in Britain and France (it was published by a small French company, Olympia Press, in 1955, a year before it was banned there). It had also been rejected by four US publishers, who came to regard their decisions as terrible mistakes. Mr. Minton flew through a snowstorm in a small plane to Ithaca, N.Y., to meet Nabokov and secure the deal.
Published in 1958, the book was castigated in a review in The New York Times by Orville Prescott, who called it “repulsive” and “highbrow pornography.” But it became one of the century’s bestsellers and faced no major legal problems.
That was not the case, however, with Putnam’s 1963 edition of “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” the 1749 John Cleland novel about a 15-year-old prostitute, also known as “Fannie Hill”; it ran into obscenity charges in New York and Massachusetts. Foes called it pornographic, and critics were divided. But Mr. Minton testified that it was one of the first novels in English literature and, having survived 200 years, “must have literary merit.”
Lower courts banned the book. But the US Supreme Court, in a landmark 1966 decision, Memoirs v. Massachusetts, reversed them, ruling that only material that was “patently offensive” and “utterly without redeeming social value” could be banned as obscene. That refined a 1957 Supreme Court standard that had limited obscenity to material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.”
In 1964, Mr. Minton published “Candy,” a pornography spoof written six years earlier by the novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern and the poet Mason Hoffenberg. Reminiscent of “Candide,” Voltaire’s tale of an innocent nymphet, “Candy” had been banned in the United States and, like “Lolita,” initially published by Olympia Press. Another ambitious Minton project was publication of an 1894 translation of the voluminous memoirs of Casanova.
Mr. Minton also stirred controversy by issuing Elliott Roosevelt’s 1973 book, “The Roosevelts of Hyde Park: An Untold Story.”
Written with James Brough, it elaborated on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s intimate relationships with his secretaries Marguerite LeHand and Lucy Page Mercer. The four other children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt disassociated themselves from the work.
Walter Joseph Minton was born in the Bronx on Nov. 13, 1923, to Melville and Ida (Harris) Minton, and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His father was a founder of the publisher Minton, Balch & Co. in 1924, and after its merger with Putnam’s he became the company’s president in 1932, publishing works by Winston Churchill, John Dewey, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
Putnam’s, founded in New York in 1838, had a storied history; its authors included William Cullen Bryant, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, James Russell Lowell, and Edgar Allan Poe. George Palmer Putnam, the founder’s grandson, published Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 autobiography, “We,” and later married the aviator Amelia Earhart.
Mr. Minton graduated from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, attended Williams College in Massachusetts in 1941 and 1942 and, after Army service in World War II, graduated from Harvard in 1947. He then joined his father’s firm as a salesman and director of advertising and publicity for the subsidiaries Coward-McCann (later Coward, McCann & Geohegan) and John Day Co.
Mr. Minton’s marriage to Pauline Ehst, in 1949, ended in divorce in 1970. He married Marion Joan Whitehorn that same year.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, Andrew, David, and Pamela Minton; three children from his second marriage, William, Jennifer Minton Quigley, and Katherine Minton Aisner; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
After his father’s death in 1955, Mr. Minton became president and later chairman of Putnam’s. His family retained control of the company until 1967, when it went public. Putnam’s was acquired by MCA, the diversified entertainment company, in 1975. MCA replaced Mr. Minton as president in 1978.
A year later, he enrolled at Columbia University’s law school, becoming the oldest full-time student in its history. He graduated in 1982 at the age of 58, passed the New York and New Jersey bar exams and worked for Schepisi & McLaughlin, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., from 1983 to 1987, specializing in copyright, trademark and entertainment law.
In a 2018 interview with The New Yorker, Mr. Minton talked about the rise of literary agents and the influence of Hollywood as factors in what he called the death of the publishing industry he had known.
“Traditionally, publishers and editors talked to their authors,” he said. “When the agents came along, that became much rarer. Now you went to lunch with them.”