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Daniel Menaker, veteran writer and magazine and book editor, dies

Daniel Menaker
Daniel Menaker attends the 2005 PEN Montblanc Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
(Robin Platzer / FilmMagic)

Daniel Menaker, a longtime fiction editor for the New Yorker and former executive editor-in-chief of Random House, where he edited Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro, among others, has died.

He died Monday in his home in New Marlborough, Mass., from pancreatic cancer, his son announced. He was 79.

“He was me, and I am him in so many ways,” Will Menaker, cohost of the political podcast “Chapo Trap House,” wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “I miss him terribly, but am struck with a profound feeling that I am the luckiest man alive for having been his son.”

Menaker began his 26-year career at the New Yorker as a fact checker in 1969. He moved up the ranks to eventually become a fiction editor and contributor. Throughout his career in publishing, Menaker worked with highly esteemed writers including Michael Chabon, Billy Collins, Elizabeth Strout and David Foster Wallace.

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As a writer himself, Menaker was known for his witty prose. Among his published works, many of them critically acclaimed, were “The Worst” with Charles McGrath (1979); the short-story collection “The Treatment,” published in 1998 and later made into a film starring Ian Holm; and his 2013 memoir, “My Mistake.” He won the O. Henry Award twice for his short stories.

Menaker had two stints at Random House — first in 1995 as editor and later in 2003 in a more executive position, helping the publishing house sustain its literary reputation. In between, he was executive editor at the rival house HarperCollins.

Working for others didn’t always come easy for Menaker. He almost lost his job at the New Yorker after fighting with his longtime editor, William Shawn, over word choice, according to a 2003 New York Times story. He was also the only manager to join a union organizing drive. It failed.

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Once he got into book publishing, his rebelliousness and restlessness waned some.

“I came here, and I gradually felt like I could handle a little more responsibility, and I enjoyed it,” he told the New York Times when he worked at HarperCollins. “It is about time. Better late than never.”

Menaker was also a contributor to the Barnes & Noble Review, where he wrote book reviews and served as editor of the daily humor piece “Grin & Tonic.”

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His colleague Jim Mustich, founding editor of the Review, said in an interview that Menaker was the embodiment of wit. “Not just the whittled down meaning of mere cleverness, but a more expansive version, in which humor is allied with generosity, irony to intelligence, and playfulness of mind to seriousness of purpose,” he said.

Novelist Gary Shteyngart echoed that sentiment.

“He struck me as one of the funniest people in publishing,” Shteyngart said in an email Tuesday. “Lunch with him was a long volley of laughs and sometimes martinis. He was both an old-school editor and someone attuned to how literature was changing. He was always open to possibilities but he yielded the red pen with brio. He removed a few unnecessary chapters from my book, for sure.” Menaker edited Shteyngart’s 2006 novel, “Absurdistan.”

Menaker was born in Manhattan on Sept. 17, 1941. He attended Swarthmore College in the 1960s and went on to earn a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. He taught briefly at a high school in Manhattan before being hired by the New Yorker.

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Menaker is survived by his wife, Katherine Bouton, son Will, and daughter Elizabeth Menaker.


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