Peter Osnos: “The Publisher as Storyteller”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Tunku Varadarajan headlined “The Publisher as Storyteller”:

The bustling CV of Peter Osnos tells us that he was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post from 1966 to 1984, with stints as foreign editor and national editor. In the decades since, he has been the editor and publisher of several eye-catching books….

Mr. Osnos was responsible for the publication of “The Art of the Deal,” by Donald Trump, and “Dreams From My Father,” by Barack Obama….

It helps Mr. Osnos that we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover but by the pages within. And there he takes us on a personal journey, one that is often charming, and—true to the book’s subtitle, “Watching History Happen”—brimming with ringside-stories from the world of journalism, letters and politics.

A lively example, from his time at Random House: As he worked with Tip O’Neill—whom Mr. Osnos had commissioned to write his memoirs—he urged the longtime speaker of the House to say something “on the vexed question of Kennedy and women.” O’Neill, who succeeded John F. Kennedy in his congressional seat in 1953 and had known him better than most, was loath to make salacious revelations “while the widow, Jackie, was alive.” After much prodding, writes Mr. Osnos, O’Neill “got a little angry” and said: “That guy would screw a skunk. Okay, are you satisfied?”…

The son of upper-middle-class Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland, Mr. Osnos boasts: “I know from memoirs.” He’s not being immodest, having published the personal narratives of Nancy Reagan, Mr. Obama, Boris Yeltsin and Natan Sharansky. His own, he tells us, is “a reported memoir”; and in the writing of it, Mr. Osnos retraces every step of consequence in his life, returning not just to Vietnam, Moscow and London—where he was a correspondent for the Post—but also to his parents’ native Poland and to India.

Józef and Marta Osnos, his father and mother, found refuge in British India in the fall of 1940. The family, which included Mr. Osnos’s older brother, Robert, fled Warsaw for Bombay in a tension-filled odyssey via Romania, Turkey and Iraq….

Peter Lionel Winston Osnos—the “Winston” was in homage to Churchill—was born in Bombay in 1943. In addition to the usual details, his Indian birth certificate had a box for a child’s caste, which was listed somewhat incongruously as “Polish.”

Shortly after Peter’s birth, the Osnos family secured precious visas to the United States. They ended up in New York, where they settled into a fine apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Young Peter was sent to Cheshire Academy, a boarding school where, he writes, saltpeter was added to the soup at dinner “to diminish sexual urges” in the resident boys. He went on to Brandeis University—“the Harvard of the Jews”—and thence to Columbia, where he obtained a degree in journalism.

Much of the lilt in Mr. Osnos’s narrative is to be found in his account of these early years, which offer a window on a prelapsarian America before Vietnam. His time at Brandeis, he writes, was at the “optimistic ‘New Frontier’ of the Kennedy years.” Universities were places where professors gave students uninflated grades, and spoke their minds in class. On an essay he wrote on “The Iliad,” a professor observed, “Not a stupid paper, Mr. Osnos, but an ignorant one.” Later, through a friend, he landed an internship with the leftist journalist I.F. Stone. And on a visit to Britain, he blagged his way into a job at the Post’s London bureau. Those were the days.

After cutting his teeth as a local reporter in the D.C. area, Mr. Osnos was sent to cover the war in Vietnam, where he dabbled in opium and had—by his own telling—three near-death experiences….One of them occurred when a group of irate South Vietnamese soldiers, “who were either drunk or high,” fired their M-16s over the heads of Mr. Osnos and some fellow journalists. They ducked.

His career as foreign correspondent was impeccable but unspectacular. He had a flash of notoriety when the KGB concluded he was a spy in his time in Moscow; and he opened himself to lampoon when he suggested, in an interview with Prince Charles, that he bore a physical resemblance to the heir to Britain’s throne.

Mr. Osnos came into his own as a publisher of books, joining Random House in 1984. He midwifed Robert S. McNamara’s controversial book on Vietnam, in which McNamara, the U.S. defense secretary at the time of the war, wrote that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were “wrong, terribly wrong” in the decisions they took. Mr. Osnos was also “the point person” for Random House on “The Art of the Deal,” published in 1987, a book by a hitherto unexalted New York realtor. “I am often asked if I regret having been the editor of a book that made Trump a national figure,” Mr. Osnos writes. “I do regret that it helped to make him the person he became.” And yet, he says, “I was trained in journalism, and Trump was a terrific story.”

So, too, was Barack Obama, although Mr. Osnos wasn’t to know that when he bought “Dreams From My Father,” a memoir of Mr. Obama’s early life. The book had been purchased by Simon & Schuster for $125,000, but the deal was canceled after the young community organizer was late with his manuscript. Simon & Schuster—which must still have corporate nightmares over its misjudgment—asked Mr. Obama to return his $40,000 advance. Mr. Osnos arranged for the repayment, in exchange for rights to the book, which eventually sold four million copies.

Mr. Osnos got lucky with the Obama text, no doubt. But there is no doubt, either, that he’s an astute man of books—even a moral one. This is evident in the doggedness with which he worked with Mr. Sharansky, the Soviet dissident, whom he befriended when he was the Post’s correspondent in Moscow. On Mr. Sharansky’s release from the gulag in 1986, Mr. Osnos flew to Israel to meet him. There he commissioned a book, “Fear No Evil,” on Mr. Sharansky’s struggle for freedom.

The book turned out to be a struggle, too, with the freed dissident refusing to take editorial suggestions. “The KBG couldn’t break me,” he told Mr. Osnos, “and you won’t either.” Mr. Osnos gave in, recognizing the “truly incredible courage it took for dissidents to challenge the Soviet state.” Even in this moment of surrender to a writer, he was the consummate editor.


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