Advertisement
Obituaries

Robert Loomis, editor of Maya Angelou and William Styron, dies at 93

Robert Loomis and Maya Angelou attend the Norman Mailer Center’s Fifth Annual Benefit Gala in 2013.
(Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

Robert Loomis, a blue-chip editor of old-fashioned sense and persistence who in more than 50 years at Random House encouraged, prodded and befriended William Styron, Maya Angelou, Calvin Trillin and many others, has died.

Random House announced that Loomis, who retired in 2011, died Sunday at 93. The publisher did not immediately announce a cause of death.

“I was just one of many who adored and learned from Bob, who inspired several generations of editors and publishers,” Random House President and Publisher Gina Centrello said in a statement. “His values and work ethic are permanently embedded in the Random House DNA.”

Loomis was a final link to the so-called Golden Age of publishing after World War II. He joined Random House in 1957, when co-founders Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer were running the company. He remained there into his 80s, long after most of his peers had died or changed jobs, long after the publisher had been bought by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG and the industry overall had shed much of its genteel past.

Advertisement

He was dignified, loyal and successful. Among the award winners and bestsellers, fiction and nonfiction, that he helped publish: Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action” and Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie.”

He spoke softly, but acted forcefully, likening a manuscript to a sculpture that required the most precise shaping. “Passages” author Gail Sheehy wrote of his “barely audible critiques emitted from beneath his white pencil mustache.” Angelou would remember his determination to get her to write a memoir, “Caged Bird,” and how he scrutinized every word and punctuation mark. Loomis spent more than a year working with historian John Toland on revisions for “The Rising Sun,” a Pulitzer Prize winner. Styron, best man at both of Loomis’ weddings, would speak of his intolerance for bad writing, and his “almost” style of editing that would label a manuscript “almost” ready for publication.

“With Bob,” Styron once said, “you can’t get by with those moments of laziness or failure of clarity or self-flattering turgidity: he pounces like a cobra, shakes the wretched phrase or sentence into good sense or meaning.”

Advertisement

In the 2011 memoir “Reading My Father,” Alexandra Styron described Loomis and her father as a literary odd couple, the author “all untidy appetite and noisy id,” the editor a “sort of Leslie Howard figure, fair hair always meticulously groomed, his voice as gentle as his demeanor.” Literary agent Sterling Lord remembered a more adventurous side to Loomis, who for lunch would fly clients in his private plane from Manhattan to Pennsylvania. Seymour M. Hersh, the prize-winning author and journalist, would describe Loomis as “precise, careful and very direct,” and certain to order a “Jack Daniel’s on the rocks” while only eating “half of his lunch.”

Maya Angelou was a diva of American culture: an actress, singer, dancer and film director as well as an essayist and Pulitzer-Prize-nominated poet, whose mainstream magnetism led her to write verses for Hallmark and recite one of her poems at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton.

Loomis was married twice, more recently to Hilary Mills. He had two children, one with each wife.

Loomis grew up in Plain City, Ohio, and attended Duke University, where he would meet such future authors as Styron, Peter Maas and Mac Hyman. After writing at an ad agency, Appleton-Century, and editing at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, he joined Random House, which thought enough of the new hire to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village that had an asking price of $8,000.

Advertisement

“Donald [Klopfer] said, ‘We hear you want to buy this apartment.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, $8,000. I don’t have any money at all,” Loomis recalled in Al Silverman’s “The Time of Their Lives,” a publishing history released in 2008. “Donald pulled out a checkbook and wrote on it ‘eight thousand dollars.’”

He would publish literary fiction by Styron and Pete Dexter, history by Sheehan, Shelby Foote and Daniel Boorstin, and confessional works by Trillin and Angelou. Along with his many triumphs, Loomis was also responsible, at least in part, for Edmund Morris’ “Dutch.” It was an authorized biography of Ronald Reagan that came out in 1999 and became a scandal when Morris — winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Loomis-edited “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” — admitted that he didn’t understand his subject and inserted himself as a fictional character.

Critics, historians and Reagan supporters denounced the book and Loomis, who acknowledged that he was initially horrified by Morris’ experiment, was forced to defend permitting it.

“I really began to believe in it after a while,” Loomis told the New York Times in 1999. “As the material came in, and we started to talk, this was a book that really went through a metamorphosis. This needed a different creative structure to it and different ways of telling Ronald Reagan’s story using this viewpoint.”


Newsletter
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times

Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Advertisement