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Obituaries

Walter J. Minton, risk-taking publisher who took on censors with ‘Lolita,’ dies at 96

‘Lolita’
The content of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” has made it the 11th-most challenged classic on the Banned Books Week list. Walter J. Minton published it in the U.S.
(Covering Lolita)

Walter J. Minton, a publishing scion and risk-taker with a self-described “nasty streak” who as head of G.P. Putnam’s Sons released works by Norman Mailer and Terry Southern among others and signed up Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous “Lolita,” has died at his home in Florida.

Minton’s wife, Marion, confirmed her husband died Tuesday at their home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. She cited no specific cause of death. He was 96.

The son of longtime Putnam President Melville Minton, Walter Minton was in his early 30s when he inherited the position in 1955 after his father’s death and remained until he was forced out in 1978 by corporate parent MCA. (Putnam is now part of Penguin Random House).

Minton presided over an era of profit and growth, including the acquisition of Berkley Publishing Corp., although his abrupt style didn’t gain him affection.

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Mailer paid an off-hand compliment when he called Minton “the only publisher I ever met who would make a good general.”

In the mid-1950s, Mailer’s novel “Barbary Shore” had flopped and raised questions about whether the author of “The Naked and the Dead” would have a lasting career. After Rinehart & Co. dropped Mailer’s Hollywood saga “The Deer Park” because of concerns about obscenity, Minton offered Mailer a $10,000 advance, a record for Putnam at the time.

“The Deer Park” became a bestseller, and Mailer would release several other works through Putnam, including his landmark “Advertisements for Myself,” the essay collection “The Presidential Papers” and the novel “Why Are We in Vietnam?”

Other Putnam successes under Minton’s leadership included Merle Miller’s oral biography of Harry Truman, “Plain Speaking,” and a pair of risque novels: “Candy,” by Southern and Mason Hoffenberg; and a reissue of the 18th century erotic shocker “Fanny Hill,” the object of court battles in Massachusetts and New York in the mid-1960s.

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One of Minton’s most lucrative decisions came soon after he started as Putnam’s president.

“Lolita,” Nabokov’s classic about a literature professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl, inspired both shock and admiration when it was released in Europe in 1955. But it remained without a publisher in the United States. Several companies turned the novel down, and an editor at Viking worried that anyone releasing “Lolita” could be jailed.

As noted in Sarah Weinman’s “The Real Lolita,” published in 2018, Minton offered differing accounts on when and where he first heard of the novel.

“Dear Mr. Nabokov,” Minton wrote to the author in 1957. “Being a rather backward example of that rather backward species, the American publisher, it was only recently I began to hear about a book called ‘Lolita.’ I am wondering if the book is available for publication.”

Nabokov’s European publisher, Maurice Girodias, was convinced that Minton never got around to reading “Lolita.” But, in 1958, Putnam released the novel, which sold millions of copies despite being panned as “repulsive” by the New York Times and shunned by other newspaper reviewers.

“There was no prosecution, except by the critics,” Stacy Schiff, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Nabokov’s wife, Vera, later wrote.

Minton was married twice — to Pauline Ehst, and most recently to Marion Whitehorn in 1970 — and had three children with each wife. After leaving Putnam, he received a law degree from Columbia University and joked that he hoped to use his education to “audit the returns to paperback houses.”

Born in New York on Nov. 13, 1923, Walter Joseph Minton was a descendant of the 18th century financier Robert Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He attended Williams College before serving in the Army Medical Corps in World War II. He completed his undergraduate education at Harvard College and, in 1947, joined Putnam, serving as a salesman and director of promotion and publicity before succeeding his father as president.

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A Minton gimmick helped Putnam land one of the bestselling books of recent times. In the early 1960s, he started a contest for the best unreleased novel in English, with the winner receiving a six-figure advance. Putnam received piles of entries and signed up numerous young authors to traditional contracts, hoping one of those books might take the prize.

Contest judges never found a winner, but among the books Putnam acquired was a crime story by an indebted, middle-aged novelist who needed money for his family after his previous works flopped. The manuscript, published in 1969, was Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”


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