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Obituaries : Evelyn Shrifte; Longtime Head of Vanguard Press

September 08, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Evelyn Shrifte, the president of Vanguard Press, first publisher of Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates and Dr. Seuss, died Aug. 8 at her home in New York City. She was 98.

Shrifte, who joined the small literary house in the early 1930s, was one of the first women to head a book publishing company. She was president for 36 years, until Vanguard was sold to Random House in 1988.

Vanguard was known not for commercial blockbusters but for quality books, including Bellow's first two novels, "The Dangling Man" and "The Victim," and 20 books by Oates.

Shrifte was "a passionate lover of literature who took for granted that editing and publishing meritorious books, regardless of their commercial prospects, was a high calling," Oates said.

"She was intellectually inspiring and emotionally supportive and I cherished our association for nearly two decades."

Vanguard was founded in 1926 on a $100,000 grant from the American Fund for Public Service, a foundation that sought to provide the working class with inexpensive books. It published titles considered too radical for other publishers, selling reprints of books such as Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" for as little as 50 cents apiece.

Shrifte, who earned a bachelor's degree from Barnard College in 1921, worked for the Musical Quarterly and ran a Manhattan bookshop before joining the company full time in the early 1930s.

By then Vanguard was publishing novels of social realism by such authors as Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell. It published more than 30 Farrell books, including the classic Studs Lonigan trilogy.

It also published Dr. Seuss' first two books, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," regarded by many critics as his best work, and "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins."

Vanguard "never became a large and important house," wrote John Tebbel in "Between Covers," a history of American book publishing, "but it continued to publish quality books year after year."

Shrifte, drawn to authors who grappled with serious moral and philosophical questions, continued Vanguard's tradition after she became president in 1952.

She met Oates when the author was about 25 and had recently completed her master's degree at the University of Wisconsin.

"She was fresh out of school, and I thought she was a genius," Shrifte, who was also Oates' editor, told the New York Times in 1980.

Vanguard published Oates' first book, a short story collection titled "By the North Gate," in 1963. Over 20 years it would publish seven more collections of stories, two books of literary criticism and 10 novels, including "Them," which won the National Book Award in 1970.

It also published "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Planet of the Apes," both by Pierre Boulle, "The Collected Poems of Edith Sitwell," "Auntie Mame" by Patrick Dennis, and Marshall McLuhan's first book, "The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man."

The 62-year-old independent publishing company released fewer than 20 new titles annually in the years leading to its sale to Random House. At the time, Shrifte said the sale was prompted by financial difficulties of some of its investors. She retired after Vanguard was closed.

Shrifte is survived by a sister, Bernice Woll of Larchmont, N.Y., two nephews, two nieces and four grandnieces.

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