Agent Sterling Lord, who supported Jack Kerouac and others, dies at 102

Sterling Lord, a literary agent who spent years looking for a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, has died. He just turned 102.

Lord died Saturday at a nursing home in Ocala, Florida, according to his daughter, Rebecca Lord.

“He died well, peacefully,” she said.

Sterling Lord started his own agency in 1952 and later merged with a competitor to form Sterling Lord Literistic, a failed magazine publisher who is almost certainly the longest-serving agency in the book industry. He stayed at the company he founded until he was nearly 100 years old before deciding to start a new company.

He was an early ambassador for the revolutionary cultural movement: Beats. He endured publishers’ initial reluctance to embrace Kerouac’s unorthodox work, and later became poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist Ken Casey and poet and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Felin Heidi’s agent.

Because of his friendship with Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, Lord helped launch Stan and Jan Berenstain’s multimillion-selling Berenstain Bears book. He found a publisher for Nicholas Pileggi’s gangster tale Wiseguy and helped arrange a deal for his famous film adaptation of Goodfellas.

In the early 1960s, the Vikings asked Lord to obtain a brief from Kerouac for Kathy’s first and most famous novel, One Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kerouac declined, but Lord ended up representing Casey.

He has acted for former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Judge John Silica of Watergate fame, and worked with Jackie Kennedy during her tenure as editor for Doubleday and Viking. Some of the great American sports books of the 20th century, from the North Dallas Forties to The Secretariat, were written by Lord clients.

“A lot of things about this business really appealed to me and made it a compelling interest,” Lord told The Associated Press in 2013. “First, I’m interested in good writing. Second, I’m interested in new good ideas. Third, I’ve met some really interesting people.”

Lord rejected Lyndon Johnson’s memoir. The former president’s representative told Lord that Johnson wanted $1 million and that Lord should accept a smaller commission than usual. The Lord rejected them. The Vantage Position, which was eventually published in 1971, was dismissed by critics. Lord found a deal from the LBJ chairman, a best-selling parody.

Lorde was married four times and had a son. Born in Burlington, Iowa in 1920, Lord had a lifelong love of books and tennis. He edited the high school newspaper and worked as a sports stringer at the Des Moines Registry. He became a tennis star at Grinnell College.

After serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, Lord co-owned Germany-based Weekend magazine, which soon went out of business. Returning to the United States, he worked as an editor at True and Cosmopolitan, before being fired before starting his own literary agency. Lord believes that most agents fail to understand that the public is becoming more urbanized and sophisticated. He also prides himself on his empathy for writers whose lives are wilder than his.

Lord found quick success by selling the film rights to two popular sports books, Rocky Graziano’s Somebody Up There Likes Me and Jimmy Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out. But his “on the road” mission will prove bumpy.

In his 2013 memoir, “The King of Publishing,” Lord remembers meeting Kerouac in 1952. Kerouac completed a traditional novel, Town and City, but without an agent, and certainly needed one. “On the road” is typed “on a 120-foot building tracing paper.”

Jack Kerouac leaning on the radio listening to his broadcast in 1959. Photo: John Cohen/Getty Images

Lorde believes Kerouac “deserves to hear a fresh, unique voice.” But even the young editor rejected him. One editor wrote: “Kerouac does have a very special and enormous talent. But it’s not a well-made novel, it’s not a bestseller, and I don’t think it’s even a good novel.”

By 1955, Kerouac was ready to give up. The Lord is not. The broker eventually sold excerpts to The Paris Review and New World Writing. An editor at Viking Press contacted Lord with an offer of $900. Lord insisted on $1,000. After the book was published in 1957, the New York Times was full of praise, and “On the Road” quickly entered the canon.

Lord wrote that Kerouac was a shy and vulnerable man. The fame magnified an alcoholism problem that killed him in 1969. Lorde tried to get Kerouac to clean up, but eventually backed off because he was his “literary agent, not his life agent.” Rhodes attended Kerouac’s funeral, standing by the grave with Alan Ginsburg.

Lorde oversaw the posthumous release even as he battled the Kerouac family for control of the estate. After years of unsuccessful attempts, a “On the Road” was released in 2012. But Lord was barely involved. He did not attend screenings or private parties.

“I decided to go home,” he said.

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