I have been fighting a generally low feeling for some time now. I awake dizzy and depressed. I sleep long hours in the day in my office, on a bed with my dogs. We all lie there fast asleep and then I get up and check my e-mails, pay bills, and go back to bed. This morning, I felt particularly bad. I don’t want to pretend I can tell the future, but let’s just say I had a creepy feeling.
Sure enough, when I got up at about 1:15 to check my e-mails, there was disaster in black and white. My literary agent and dear friend, Lois Wallace, died on Friday night, said the e-mail from her colleague, Jeff. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach while being electrocuted.
So, let me tell you about Lois. Long ago, when I was on the edit page of the Wall Street Journal covering culture, I met one of the most impressive men I have ever met. His name was Earl McGrath. He was a high honcho at Atlantic Records, later to be head of Rolling Stones Records. By an amazing coincidence, he was pals with Joan Didion, whom I idolized, and her husband John Gregory Dunne, whom I also idolized.
Earl arranged for me to meet Joan and John in L.A. Joan and John arranged for me to meet their literary agent, a powerful icon in the literary world Her name was Lois Wallace. She represented John and Joan, and also William F. Buckley, Don DeLillo, and many powerful authors far beyond my level of success or talent.
I met her in her office in a townhouse on East 70th Street across from a private girls’ school whose name I never learned. She was a small, elegant woman with an intense look on her beautiful face. She had an extremely fancy Manhattan accent, sort of similar to the wealthy East Coast accent that Hollywood gave to stars playing wealthy women in the 1930s and 1940s. Think of a Jewish, but super-high-end German Jewish Katharine Hepburn accent, much less languid, but still damned languid. Her office was filled with books and manuscripts and contracts. She smoked incessantly. Nonstop.
She was kind enough to sign me up on the spot. At that time, I was brimming with energy and self-confidence. My first few books had been well reviewed by the New York Times (which would not review one of my books now if I put a gun to the editor’s head). I had a million good ideas for both fiction and nonfiction and we were off to the races.
For a number of years, I would routinely publish a book about every nine months, always sold by Lois. (I had briefly been represented before that by Irving “Swifty” Lazar, an amusing man who came very close to killing my whole career with his amazingly unethical instructions on how to deal with contracts. Lois was as honest and straight up as “Swifty” had been crooked.)
She never got he huge advances, and sometimes the advances were trivial. But she never conceded defeat on a book, and she never conceded that anyone who owed me money should be allowed to get away with it.
Decades ago, New York magazine hired me to do a column on finance and economics. After a few months, they decided they wanted me to move to New York City to do it. I said no, of course, and they stopped my column. Lois insisted that they pay me for the balance of my promised year and she got the money. That may seem unimportant, but I paid and still do pay my bills with money.
Lois and I occasionally had lunch together in New York. She had gone to Vassar College, as had my wifey, so we talked about that. She was 4 and one-half years or maybe 5 and one-half years older than I was to the day, and we talked about that.
We both had unruly sons. Hers was named George, and she sometimes called him “George Corley Wallace,” an evocation of the superstar populist governor of Alabama who might well have been President if a nut named Bremer had not come along. (He had originally been a major racist and when he turned out huge crowds in Wisconsin and Oregon and Maryland, he would say, “My enemies say all I have for me is rednecks. There sure are a lot of rednecks in this country, I guess.”) We spent a lot of time on the phone talking about raising sons.
Lois was an heiress, and we talked about that. We both had extremely high opinions of John Dunne and Joan Didion and we talked about that.
Mostly we talked about how to monetize my ideas and energy and ambition and whatever talent I have and had. She loved to sell and she was good at it. I often thought she should have aimed higher, but she kept me in the game, and that was something. The world of publishing was and is disappearing, and to keep on getting books published is not like winning the Navy Cross but it’s noteworthy.
And meanwhile, she was smoking like a madwoman. Not just smoking but a house afire.
The single best piece of advice she ever gave me was about a book I was ghosting for a famous black civil rights leader. The editor had come back with some major suggestions for added work. I said I wouldn’t do them. Lois simply said, “Now, Ben, don’t be lazy.”
Just so you know, I am the least lazy writer on the planet, or used to be. But I valued her advice to squeeze any drop of laziness out of my system. The book never got published, by the way. Too bad. It was about a spectacularly interesting guy from Greenville, South Carolina, where our son now lives with his wife and daughter.
Time passed. I became famous. Mr. Buckley died. John and Joan went to another agent. Lois soldiered on. She loved what she did and did it even though she did not need a penny of the money she made from it. I spent less and less time writing books. But Lois was always eager to hear from me if I had an idea. She was a salesman.
Several years ago, she told me she had cancer. She said it had been caught in time. She would have surgery and treatments and make a full recovery.
She was marvelously brave and upbeat. Last year, I had an idea for a book called “What Would Nixon Do?” about how RN would have handled the foreign policy crises of our era. With the help of John Coyne and Aram Bakshian, I submitted a lengthy proposal. She eagerly tried to sell it but she could not. Editors wanted things about personal finance from me and my genius writing partner, Phil DeMuth. No one wanted (so I learned) a defense of Richard Nixon. That did not stop her from trying.
Meanwhile, the cancer came back. She had more treatments and said it was all under control. Her voice betrayed no worry or fear whatsoever. “It’s all taken care of,” she said.
It wasn’t. She died two nights ago and I feel sick about it. She was not warm and cuddly. She could be tough. She did not mind telling me what I did not want to hear. But she was as loyal as the day is long. She had the elegance of a bygone era. She was fanatical in her determination to get things sold. And she was always interested in Tommy and Alex.
God bless that dear woman. I shall miss her every day.
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