Ashbel Green, 84, old-school publishing figure discovered ‘Friends of Eddie Coyle’
By HILLEL ITALIE AP National Writer September 19, 2012 6:50PM
Updated: October 21, 2012 3:00PM
NEW YORK — Ashbel Green, a versatile and respected editor at Alfred A. Knopf who persuaded Gabriel Garcia Marquez to switch publishers, worked on Walter Cronkite’s memoir and a foreign policy book by President George H.W. Bush and helped discover the crime classic “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” has died at age 84.
The publisher announced Wednesday that Green died Tuesday night while dining with his wife, Elizabeth Osha, near their home in Stonington, Conn. The cause of death was not immediately given.
Green, known to his friends as Ash, was an old-school publishing man who preferred a typewriter to computers and was praised by The New York Observer as “an exemplar of elegance, decency and seriousness.” He acquired and edited hundreds of books and as managing editor at Knopf looked through the endless unsolicited manuscripts known as the slush pile.
“Ash was a prodigious talent, one of the most significant editorial figures in modern publishing, famous for his breadth of reading and grasp of history,” Knopf president Sonny Mehta said in a statement. “Many of us had the good fortune of learning a great deal about the business from him. He was a beloved colleague, and his contributions to our company — an esteemed editorial legacy — are part of what still define us today.”
The son of a newspaperman and descendant of Presbyterian ministers, Green was born in New York in 1928. He graduated from Columbia College in 1950 and two years later received a master’s in Eastern European history from Columbia. He worked as publicity director of Prentice Hall, developed a love for editing and was hired by Knopf in 1964 as managing editor. Nine years later, he was promoted to vice president and senior editor and remained in those positions until his retirement, in 2007.
In the early 1970s he came upon a story about the Irish-American underworld in Boston, written by Assistant U.S. Attorney George V. Higgins. Although put off by the two-page cover letter — “George sometimes tended to garrulity,” Green later told the alumni publication Columbia Magazine — he looked through the submission, liked it and paid $2,000 for a novel now considered a masterpiece and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum.
At an elite publishing house that included literary editor Gary Fisketjon and poetry editor Harry Ford, Green had a special interest in politics and history. He edited the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis, who in the introduction cited Green’s reputation as “the salt of the earth.” He acquired many works by Cold War dissidents, among them Andrei Sakharov’s memoir and books by Milovan Djilas and Vaclav Havel.
Green’s other projects included Cronkite’s “A Reporter’s Life” and a collaboration between Bush and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft titled “A World Transformed.” He also worked with historians Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward and the novelists Ernest J. Gaines and Winston Groom.
A notable achievement was getting Garcia Marquez to join Knopf in the 1980s after a long history with Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). According to Al Silverman’s “The Time of Their Lives,” a publishing history, Green had heard that negotiations were stalled for Garcia Marquez’s novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Green contacted the Nobel laureate’s agent, noted Knopf’s history of publishing Latin American authors and acquired the English edition of his new book and many of his older ones.
Green’s job required patience and firmness, especially when dealing with the famous. He waited years for Cronkite to finish his book and had to prod Bush and Scowcroft.
Barbara Bush, the former first lady, wrote in her memoir that her husband and his close friend “were the most reluctant of writers. I had loved writing my memoirs in contrast to those two, who suffered.” Finally, Green and other Knopf executives arrived at the Bush home in Houston and urged them to “get on with it!”