Richard Baron: A Contrarian Who Published James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and Was Fearless

From a New York Time obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Richard Baron, Who Published Baldwin and Mailer, Dies at 98”:

Richard Baron, the contrarian publisher of the Dial Press, had boundless audacity when he wanted to prove a point.

Diners at his all-white country club in Purchase, N.Y, were said to have been mortified when Mr. Baron brought James Baldwin as a guest to lunch one day — until Mr. Baldwin received the imprimatur of a hearty embrace from another prominent club member, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Mr. Baron defied convention again by prominently displaying an author photo of Frank Yerba, who, like Mr. Baldwin, was Black, on the jacket of Mr. Yerba’s historical novel “Foxes of Harrow” in 1947. He published other hot-button authors like Thomas Berger (“Little Big Man” in 1964) and Norman Mailer….

Ironically, among his biggest best sellers was a satire that Mr. Baron and his editor in chief at Dial, E.L. Doctorow, conspired, more or less successfully, to market in 1967 as a secret, suppressed 109-page government study. The purported study — leaked, the story went, by someone within the government — warned of the dangers of peace and concluded that a state of war, the threat of conflict or some credible substitute, like an attack by aliens from outer space, was vital for governments to maintain power.

The book, “Report From Iron Mountain,” was conceived by Victor Navasky, Richard Lingeman and Leonard C. Lewin and embraced by Vietnam War-era conspiracy theorists as it leapt onto nonfiction best-seller list in The New York Times.

“Richard published it as a protest to the Vietnam War,” Ms. Baron.

Despite Mr. Lewin’s confession in The New York Times Book Review in 1972 that the report was a hoax, it was revived decades later by right-wing paramilitary groups as evidence of ongoing government skulduggery.

At Mr. Baron’s 90th birthday party, Mr. Doctorow, whose own novels had by then entered the American canon, recalled the tempestuous 1960s as “a terrible time but also a wonderful time.”

“If anyone was the perfect publisher for the 1960s, it was Richard Baron,” Mr. Doctorow added. “He was totally fearless, and he backed us in every crazy thing we wanted to do.”

Richard Warren Baron was born on April 4, 1923, in Manhattan….He attended P.S. 166 until he punched a student who had pushed him from behind during a fire drill and was shipped by his father to Manlius St. John’s Military Academy in upstate New York, where he graduated in 1940.

He enrolled in the University of North Carolina, enlisted in the Army infantry to fight in World War II and attended Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga. He apparently didn’t graduate, after being caught gambling across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama.

Mr. Baron was sent to North Africa as a lieutenant in 1943, wounded at Anzio in Italy and captured in Germany, where he was held for four months in a prisoner of war camp. There, American troops made an abortive attempt to rescue General George S. Patton’s son-in-law, an incident Mr. Baron recounted in a book titled “Raid”….

When the war ended, he went to Paris, where he ran into Drew Middleton, The Times’s military correspondent, who informed Mr. Baron’s parents that their son had survived the war. He returned home to join his father’s paper business and developed an interest in publishing when he started a division to sell paper to book companies.

In 1960, he bought into half-ownership of Dial Press, found himself in charge when his partner died and surrounded himself with a talented staff that included the editors James Silberman; Charlotte Sheedy, who went on to become a prominent literary agent; and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a future senior book critic for The Times.

Mr. Baron published Mr. Baldwin’s novel “Another Country” after spiriting the author from Manhattan to Mr. Baron’s home in Westchester to spare him from distractions and let him finish writing it there.

And, among other books, he released “The Armies of the Night,”  Mr. Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, National Book Award-winning “nonfiction novel.” (The Baron and Mailer families vacationed together for a time in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, where publisher and author were sailing competitors.)

He sold Dial in the late 1960s to Dell, which ended the imprint in 1985. It was revived in 1993 by his wife, Carole Baron, an editor at Knopf whom Mr. Baron married in 1975.

Mr. Baron started his own imprint, the Richard W. Baron Company, which published, among others, Thomas Berger, Eleanor Craig, Nat Hentoff and Julius Lester. He retired to Shelter Island, off the East End of Long Island, in 1980 to sail and fly his own plane….

Mr. Baron was an idiosyncratic boss. Mr. Doctorow recalled “a wonderful sense of indeterminacy floating through that place,” including unbusinesslike 60-hour weeks that included lunchtime chess games with Mr. Baron that would extend long past lunch.

“People would be waiting outside the door,” he said in 1985. “There were decisions to be made, and we’d be in there, playing the game.”

Mr. Lehmann-Haupt recalled in The Shelter Island Reporter that when he accepted a job offer from Mr. Baron in the 1960s, his former employer warned that he’d be “working for Captain Bligh.”

Unfazed, Mr. Lehmann-Haupt replied, “I don’t plan to sail with him.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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