This is the story of two longtime colleagues who have proved without doubt that friendship pays.
In the case of Ms. magazine founding editors Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the sum was $1.2 million, the advance for two books to be written by Steinem, earned in an auction conducted by Pogrebin.
Once a publishing executive, Pogrebin declined any remuneration for acting as her friend’s agent. Instead, Steinem chose to divide the 10% she would normally have paid an agent into equal donations to the Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
“It’s a very natural way for me to act on friendship,” Pogrebin said, explaining what she called her “pro bono” project. “I do it because I believe in these things. We all do, in this place,” she said, referring to her associates at Ms. magazine and the two foundations. “It really is par for the course.”
“I did seriously consider and was advised by a great many people to go out and get a high-powered agent,” Steinem said. She said she consulted with one fancy literary agent, but “it didn’t feel right.”
Rather, Steinem turned once again to the friend and co-worker whose “initial generous gesture of friendship” had resulted in the publication of Steinem’s 1983 best seller for Holt, “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.”
Bidding Carefully Timed
Said Steinem, “I guess I have more faith in someone’s ability to sell something they love and understand.”
Three spirited days of bidding began on March 25, Steinem’s 53rd birthday. The date was carefully chosen, Pogrebin said, because “I’m very sentimental.”
With 18 houses vying for the two Steinem properties, Pogrebin’s office space at Ms. alternately resembled a brokerage house and a candidate’s headquarters on election night. Phones rang constantly, and Pogrebin marked each incremental bid of $25,000 with a different color pen on a chart propped up on her desk.
Finally, Steinem’s book, tentatively titled “Bedside Book of Self-Esteem” and due out in a year, brought an advance of $700,000 from Little, Brown and Co.; Simon & Schuster paid $500,000 for an untitled book to be published two years from now about the women in America’s wealthiest, most powerful families.
Expect to Earn It Back
“It’s a big advance, but we see no problem earning it back,” said Jennifer Josephy, the Boston-based senior editor at Little, Brown who will work with Steinem on the book on self-esteem.
“Gloria is a key figure in the feminist American consciousness, and across the board, she’s a tremendously important figure.” Besides, Josephy said, “she’s a best-selling author--that’s why this book went for as much as it did. We live in an age of best sellers.”
Before they began the auction, Steinem and Pogrebin had estimated that the two books would garner advances totaling $1 million. While the amount was certainly substantial, it carried added significance for Steinem since over the years, her friend Pogrebin said, “she has always given away all her money.”
For example, Steinem figured she donated around 60% of the proceeds from “Outrageous Acts” to the Ms. foundations and to the magazine. Often, Steinem said, she found herself giving "$5,000 here, $5,000 there” to battered women’s shelters, programs for the homeless or other social causes.
Giving Is ‘More Interesting’
She gave the money away, Steinem said, because “it’s more interesting. You can see it make change.
“Actually,” she added, “if you’re happy in your work, you don’t have time to spend that much money anyway.”
Her needs are relatively uncomplicated, Steinem said: “I don’t own a car, I don’t need one. I don’t go to a country house, or if I do, I go to friends’. There’s nothing major that I would have bought with the money I gave away.
“It’s not that I felt self-sacrificing or deprived. Just that it was more interesting to give it away.”
As pioneer feminist Steinem conceded, working in a social movement has seldom been known to breed vast riches.
“It’s a trade-off,” she said. “You love your work, and it’s work you would do whether you were paid or not.”
But suddenly Steinem took a hard look at her own future. After 15 years of working on a magazine that regularly admonishes women to plan for their later years, Steinem abruptly realized that “I hadn’t saved anything, so that if I were ill, or aging, or whatever, I wouldn’t be able to last for more than a month or two.”
More succinctly, Pogrebin said, “She is 53 years old and she has put away no money, and she is being silly about her life.”
It was Pogrebin, in large part, who urged her friend to take on the new projects as “Gloria’s retirement fund.”
“It’s a very interesting feeling,” Steinem said as she contemplated the entirely new prospect of financial security. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve had enough money to last more than a month or two.”
So, along with finally putting her in a position to practice some of her own movement’s preaching about sensible financial management, Steinem said the book deals she and Pogrebin negotiated proved once again her own conviction that working with friends “absolutely” pays off.
“I think you increase your enjoyment and your productivity if you work with friends,” she said.
That notion, in Pogrebin’s view, is “organic” to the very nature of feminism.
“We have a transformative vision,” Pogrebin said. “Artificial lines do not in fact reflect reality. They are arbitrary.” Among feminists, she said, “there really is no line between a personal life and a professional life.”
As for the chestnut that friends and business do not mix, that money poisons the best of friends, that vulnerability opens the door to betrayal, Pogrebin said, “Those are misconceptions, and they do not work in a feminist context.”
While Steinem sets about writing her two new books and doing a little fix-up work on the two-room brownstone apartment she has occupied since 1967, Pogrebin is finishing her work as a consultant to the forthcoming “Free to Be . . . a Family” (Bantam), the latest in the “Free to Be . . . You and Me” series. Next, Pogrebin would like to try her hand at a novel.
The mother of three, Pogrebin, 47, is also the author of “Growing Up Free” and “Family Politics.” But it is her most recent book whose title might serve as a metaphor for what Steinem calls Pogrebin’s “sheer generosity” in serving as her unpaid agent. The name of that book is “Among Friends: Who We Like, Why We Like Them and What We Do With Them.”