Longtime fiction editor at Esquire

Times Staff Writer

L. Rust Hills, the former longtime fiction editor at Esquire who was known for publishing the work of the best American writers during his 30 years at the magazine, has died. He was 83.

Hills, a resident of Key West, Fla., died of cardiac arrest Tuesday after collapsing during a visit to Belfast, Maine, said his wife of 34 years, author Joy Williams.

"Over the course of five decades, he was one of, if not the, greatest fiction editors in magazines," Will Blythe, a former literary editor at Esquire who worked with Hills for 10 years beginning in the late '80s, told The Times on Friday.

Hills began working at Esquire as fiction editor in 1957. He left in 1964 to become fiction editor at the Saturday Evening Post and returned to Esquire for an 11-month stint beginning in 1969.

Returning to Esquire again in 1977, he remained at the magazine until 1999.

Writer Gay Talese, who knew Hills at Esquire in the '60s and had some of his nonfiction pieces edited by Hills, described him as "a man who cared greatly about stature and status in the world of fiction."

"He wasn't interested in commercial fiction," Talese told The Times. "He was interested in the standards of serious literature, and he tried to, in a commercial magazine, impose upon its pages some of the lofty notions he had about the written word."

During Hills' years as fiction editor at Esquire, the magazine published the work of literary heavyweights such as Philip Roth, John Cheever, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Bruce Jay Friedman, E. Annie Proulx and Ann Beattie.

"He basically was, from the beginning, a champion of literary fiction," Blythe said. "Not gimmick fiction, not slick fiction -- literary fiction.

"When Arnold Gingrich started Esquire back in the '30s, the magazine published some very good writers such as [Ernest] Hemingway and [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, but by the time Rust arrived [in 1957] I think it was publishing fiction that was nowhere near as good, at least on a consistent basis, as what Rust was about to bring to the magazine," Blythe said.

Hills, Blythe said, "believed in fiction as, I think, the ultimate creative expression.

"I once saw him tell an editor in chief of the magazine that he could show him exactly why a story was superb. And at that moment, he was waving at the editor a heavily annotated manuscript that was full of what looked like equations and all sorts of markings. He had spent a lot of time marking it up so he could show exactly why it was a superb piece of work that deserved to be in the magazine, and he was waving it like a battle flag.

"He really did believe a good short story was the ultimate feature of a magazine, no matter what reader surveys showed."

Hills was known not only as a meticulous editor of short stories at Esquire, but also for his brilliance in excerpting novels for the magazine, including Styron's "Sophie's Choice" and Richard Ford's "Independence Day."

"He thought that that was the most skillful thing that he did," Ford told The Times on Friday. "Being able to excerpt bits from novels so that they'd resemble short stories was the height, in some ways, of the magazine editor's art."

Ford said Hills published "the first good short story I wrote" -- 'Rock Springs' in 1981 -- "and told me if I would write good short stories he would publish them. It was extremely encouraging to me. Esquire to me at the time was the place that you really wanted to publish fiction."

Hills "really loved to read, and his tastes were extremely wide," Ford said. "Being a fiction editor for a publisher or a magazine is a very difficult job. But Rust never got jaded ever in his life about reading fiction -- ever, ever. To his last breath, he saw the world through the optic of good fiction."

Among Hills' accomplishments at Esquire was conceiving a literary issue of the magazine in 1963 that included short stories, author interviews, a photo essay on writers' lives, a profile by Talese of the literary crowd involved with the Paris Review and a diagram of "The Structure of the American Literary Establishment."

Hills also commissioned Mailer to write the novel "An American Dream," which Hills edited and Esquire serialized.

"He retained until the end of his life really a passionate enthusiasm for new writers," Blythe said. "And not only that, once he had taken a shine to them, he would slip some impoverished writers little gifts of money. He once said to one, 'We don't want our writers going hungry.' And he'd do it in a very inconspicuous way. He put his money where his mouth was on that."

Talese recalled that, although he knew and worked with Hills in the 1960s, "he was not a man of the '60s. He was a guy who looked like he belonged to the '30s.

"He wore bow ties, and he didn't have a walking stick, but you imagined he'd be very comfortable with one. What he was, was an old-fashioned gentleman."

Blythe agreed, saying, "I always felt he was transplanted from another generation of editors." Hills "was a very charming, gracious guy," but "he also had a bite to him."

"We once had a shouting match on the phone over whether Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow was the better writer and deserved to be at the top of a pyramid we were putting together ranking nearly all the major writers in America."

He was born Lawrence Rust Hills on Nov. 9, 1924, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up.

After attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., he served in the merchant marine during World War II. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1948 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and a master's in 1949.

Hills was the author of three books of personal essays in the '70s: "How to do things right: The revelations of a fussy man," "How to retire at forty-one: Or, dropping out of the rat race without going down the drain," and "How to be good: Or, the somewhat tricky business of attaining moral virtue in a society that's not just corrupt but corrupting, without being completely out-of-it."

He also wrote "Writing in general and the short story in particular," a 1977 book that is used in college creative writing classes and is still in print.

In addition to his wife, the twice-divorced Hills is survived by a daughter, Caitlin Hills; and a grandson.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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