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But L.A.'s the Place for the Hottest Literary Whirlwind Around

Times Staff Writer

In an unorthodox life, Bronx-born Ed Victor, a resident of Great Britain for nearly 30 years, may have made his most unconventional move yet.

Since late last fall, Victor--a well-tailored, 49-year-old whirlwind whose diverse clients range from actresses Candice Bergen and Linda Gray to the estate of Raymond Chandler to novelists Irving Wallace, Erich Segal, Erica Jong, Jack Higgins, Douglas Adams and Dame Iris Murdoch--has been operating the American branch of his “boutique” literary agency out of a small office and a couple of tony restaurants on the Sunset Strip.

This is his idea of a frontier scouting expedition.

The foray has attracted a lot of attention in the close-knit world of book publishing, where his high-flying profile shows up instantly on radar screens. In some quarters Victor’s arrival is seen as an important lift in the elevation of Los Angeles to higher realms of bookdom.

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Victor has a variety of reasons for setting up shop here in the winter months, an experiment he will try again next year and perhaps the year after that--before deciding whether to become a permanent, albeit part-time, presence. Most important, he believes that “a lot of books come out of L.A. and I don’t think people realize that and I don’t think I realized it until I began to think about it.” Of course, there are “a lot of celebrity books which are a staple of our industry,” says Victor, whose recent exploits include agenting for epics by Bergen and Gray. But Victor also believes there is an untapped reservoir of unknown or obscure fiction and nonfiction writers who would benefit from his acumen.

“For a town that produces so many books, it’s severely under-agented,” he maintains. Victor says he already has signed on a couple of local journalists he believes can do book-length work.

As relatively unexploited turf, Los Angeles offered the added charm of not being New York, he says. In that city “there’s a kind of a murderer’s row of agents and they’re very good and I compete with them, I just didn’t feel like competing with them on their street,” Victor says.

Victor isn’t the only new kid on the block, though.

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Owen Laster, New York-based executive vice president and board member of the powerful William Morris agency, says that his firm installed a full-time literary agent in its Los Angeles office about three months ago.

“The need for that was in the air,” he said, adding that Victor’s decision may have helped crystallize the move. So far, that decision has proved to be right, Laster said. “He (the Morris agent) has already picked up quite a few writers plus one or two celebrity-oriented projects that I don’t think would have been the case” without a presence in Los Angeles.

Longtime Los Angeles agent Mike Hamilburg, who knows Victor only by reputation, commented: “It makes it better for everybody. The more we’re recognized as an important center for representing important writers, the better for everybody. . . . I was really pleased that he wanted to come out here, a guy of his caliber.”

Victor, who went to Cambridge University, remained in the United Kingdom and worked in publishing before becoming an agent about 15 years ago. He has family connections in Los Angeles. His mother lives here and an uncle, now retired, was a successful television producer. But although he has traveled here on short visits for years, opening an office represented a leap of faith.

He remembers “very precisely that I was driving on the Ventura Freeway, which is a good place to get an epiphany, when I suddenly thought, ‘Why don’t I open an office here?’ And I began to go through all the advantages it had for me. It gave me an office in what is arguably part of America. I mean, the jury is still out a little bit on it, but basically L.A. is part of the United States. It’s no longer this strange thing, this drain in the lower left-hand corner of the map.”

A Clear Conscience

As a fringe benefit, he and his family will escape the heart of the English winter with a clear conscience, Victor admits.

Despite his familiarity with Southern California, however, Victor says that he had to adopt a fresh perspective to actually conduct business here.

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“When I first started coming here after I had this idea about the office, I referred to it as Bulgaria,” he explains. “I tried to think of it as a foreign country with a very different language, as though I were emigrating to Bulgaria. It was interesting to think of it as Bulgaria because once you thought of it as Bulgaria, it solved a lot of problems. . . . So then you try to find your guides to Bulgaria and you find your accountant and you find your business manager, your lawyer.”

Ed Victor is the first to admit that the way he lives makes some people tired. All that jetting around, the weekending with famous people, the wheeling, the dealing, the power-lunching, the adrenalin rushes from doing million-dollar deals. And, above all, the non-stop telephoning--starting half an hour after he gets out of bed--dialing transoceanic calls from his car stuck in a London traffic jam, checking his watch to see what parts of the world are awake, a head stuffed with numbers and a file at the office for the ones that aren’t engraved on his frontal lobes. Even his 4-year-old is starting to ask if he’s ever going to hang up.

The other night Victor got off the phone long enough to throw a party at his rented house in Coldwater Canyon. Everybody was there. Everybody meaning Jackie Collins, Candice Bergen, Irving Wallace, Douglas Adams, Timothy Leary and a whole bunch of other people who seemed important. There was hardly enough room to sneeze without danger of starting an epidemic, which is the way Victor likes his parties.

“Oh, my God, there’s nobody here,” Collins joked at one point.

A little later somebody else said, “My God, you know everybody.”

That’s the kind of party it was.

“People sometimes get exhausted by my life when I tell them about it,” Victor says. “But you don’t actually have to be anywhere. I think there’s a great myth about people sitting in offices. What happens to me if I sit too long in any one place, paper accretes on my desk and I start moving the paper around and people start asking me questions I don’t want to deal with. Whereas, when I’m on the move, time becomes very concentrated.”

In fact, Victor speaks as if he can’t say everything fast enough. Sentences that should stand alone tend to be clamped together with connectors like boxcars in a long freight train.

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For instance, this is the way he describes getting a contract for thriller-writer Jack Higgins:

“The first thing I had to do when I was here (Los Angeles) in November was a deal for Simon & Schuster, a significant seven-figure deal--every seven-figure deal is significant, but this is more significant--for Jack Higgins, who lives on a rock in the English Channel called Jersey, with (Simon & Schuster head) Michael Korda in New York. I’m just used to doing that all the time. It started because on my way out here, I sat down with Michael Korda at the Four Seasons (a New York restaurant) and then I came out here. Higgins is on his rock in the English Channel, Korda’s in New York, I’m here but phones and especially the fax have changed everything. . . . I wish I could fax myself.”

In a telephone interview from his channel rock, Higgins clearly was impressed with Victor, who became his agent last summer after he left his representative of 30 years following a disagreement over an autobiographical novel. His former agents believed the book was too out of character from his 49 other published novels, Higgins said, explaining that he then called Victor simply for his advice.

Victor liked the book, “Memoirs of a Dance Hall Romeo,” and agreed to place it, the author added.

“Within 10 days he had got an advance of $125,000 from Simon & Schuster and 75,000 in Great Britain, plus the translation rights in a dozen countries,” Higgins said. “He even negotiated (actor) Alan Bates to do the audio (the book on tape).”

Victor went on to make the $1.5-million deal with Simon & Schuster for a new thriller, Higgins added.

“Ed knows more people than anyone I’ve ever met in my life--people with a capital P,” said Higgins, whose real name is Harry Patterson.

While he believes that Higgins’ atypical autobiographical novel should be published, Victor uses it as an example of how an agent can protect writers.

“When I sold that book to Simon & Schuster, I basically said you must not print more than 30,000 copies of it. . . . We don’t want the bookstores to order lots and lots of copies of this because this is not a thriller. . . . It has to be very, very carefully presented. A lot of thought has gone into not selling too many copies of this book.”

Before he took her as a client, Dame Iris Murdoch, whose novels are strictly serious, never had an agent. “I never really bothered about these things,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in England. “I just signed any old contract without reading it.”

‘An Absolute Angel’

Calling Victor “an absolute angel,” Murdoch said that he “has a great understanding of literary people, which not every agent has. . . . He’s got this talent a good doctor has, as if the only person he’s attending is you. He’s not looking at his watch or anything.”

For Victor, the great thing about being an agent is that it not only allows him to make money--a lot of it by all signs--it also allows him to move in circles that are defined by their disparity.

“My secretary in London once said my whole business life was summed up in a moment when I came back from lunch one day and I said, ‘Get me Koo Stark and Stephen Spender,” he recalls. Stark was famous for 15 minutes when she was linked to the Royal Family’s Prince Andrew. Besides being a Victor client, Spender is an English poet and critic important enough to be listed in Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Summing up, Victor says his eclectic tastes have put him “in a wonderful position in that I can represent what I want and what interests me and a lot of things interest me.” He adds: “The only thing that bind together Erich Segal and Iris Murdoch is that I represent them and what binds them together in my mind is that both of them are fascinating to me. . . . I’ve actually taken on clients who make no money and can’t write because I wanted to be near them and wanted to know them.”


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