Walter Minton, a risk-taking publisher who goaded censors and put out a slew of best-sellers during his 23-year run at the helm of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, releasing Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” and works by authors including Norman Mailer and John le Carré, died Nov. 19 at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. He was 96.
His wife, Marion Minton, confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause.
Minton was 31 when he became president of Putnam’s in 1955, succeeding his father as head of the company. He had once planned to pursue a legal career and found himself immersed — not altogether unhappily — in a world of legal threats and occasional obscenity trials, while publishing many of his era’s most acclaimed and controversial writers.
Through Putnam’s and its imprints (including Berkley Books and Coward, McCann & Geoghegan), Minton published authors including Simone de Beauvoir, Scott Turow, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Harris and Robert A. Heinlein, whose science-fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) was a personal favorite.
His publishing house was the first to release U.S. editions of novels including William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” in 1955, and le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” in 1964. It also published a pair of major 1973 nonfiction books: “Plain Speaking,” an “oral biography” of President Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller, and “An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park,” by Elliott Roosevelt and James Brough.
But Minton was perhaps best known for taking a chance on novels that, because of their sexual content, no other publisher would touch. The year he became Putnam’s president, his firm published Mailer’s “The Deer Park,” which included a passage involving oral sex. Minton told the New Yorker last year that he had admired Mailer’s 1948 debut, “The Naked and the Dead,” and pursued the author’s new novel after receiving a call from Bennett Cerf, a co-founder of Random House.
“Cerf said, ‘Walter, I know you’re young, but if you publish this book, you’ll bring down the great veil of censorship,’” Minton recalled. “We published it and ran ads: ‘The Book Six Publishers Refused to Bring You!’”
Minton acquired the novel without making any changes, later telling Mailer that he had been prepared to take the book without reading it, fully confident that its sales would more than make up for the author’s advance. “He is the only publisher I ever met who would make a good general,” Mailer wrote.
In 1958, Minton took an even bigger gamble in publishing the first U.S. edition of “Lolita,” Nabokov’s novel about a literature professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl. Although it is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, the book had been spurned by editors — one recommended “that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years” — and faced bans in Europe after being published by Olympia Press, a small Paris-based firm run by Maurice Girodias.
Minton told the New Yorker that he first came across “Lolita” after falling asleep in the living room of Rosemary Ridgewell, a former showgirl: “I woke in the middle of the night and there was this story on the table. I started reading. By morning, I knew I had to publish it.”
“It had a reputation of being very sexy, though it really wasn’t,” he added, “and a lot of publishers who wouldn’t bring it to you, because it was too ‘dirty.’ To me, that was an opportunity.” So he wrote an introductory letter to Nabokov: “Being a rather backward example of that rather backward species, the American publisher, it was only recently that I began to hear about a book called ‘Lolita.’ . . . I am wondering if the book is available for publication.”
Minton cut a deal with Girodias and released the novel to a flurry of negative reviews but no major lawsuits. Nabokov’s agent announced that “Lolita” was the first book since “Gone With the Wind” to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks; years later, according to the New Yorker, the author would refer to Minton’s home in Saddle River, New Jersey, as “the house ‘Lolita’ built.”
Over the next few years, Minton presided over American editions of “Candy,” a 1958 sex satire by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, and “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” an 18th-century erotic novel by John Cleland.
Popularly known as “Fanny Hill,” the latter chronicled a country girl who becomes a London prostitute, and was banned for obscenity in Massachusetts after its release in 1963. The ban was overturned three years later in a landmark Supreme Court decision, Memoirs v. Massachusetts, in which Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote that even a “modicum of social value” was enough to protect a book under the First Amendment, regardless of how prurient or “patently offensive” it might be.
The legal saga proved gratifying and lucrative for Minton. “We’ve sold 10 times as many copies as we would have,” he told the New York Times, “if there hadn’t been this censorship proceeding.”
Walter Joseph Minton was born in the Bronx on Nov. 13, 1923. His mother, the former Ida Harris, was once a chorus line dancer; his father, Melville, entered the publishing business at 15, partly as a result of a transit mishap.
According to family lore, Melville had been offered a job at Standard Oil’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, but took the wrong ferry from New Jersey and found himself in Midtown, near Charles Scribner’s Sons. A family friend there helped him to a job in the sales department, and in 1924 he co-founded his own firm, Minton, Balch & Co., which merged with Putnam’s six years later.
Melville Minton was made president in 1932, and by the time his son was 11 he had already mapped out a career plan for him: six months in the stock and shipping room, followed by a couple years in manufacturing, three or four more in sales, a stint in advertising, several months in accounting and finally a stay in the editorial division.
After graduating from the Lawrenceville preparatory school in New Jersey, Walter Minton studied at Williams College in Massachusetts and received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1947. (His education was interrupted for several years by Army service, with Minton working as an X-ray technician at a prisoner-of-war camp in Belle Mead, New Jersey.)
“He was enrolled at Harvard Law when his father said, ‘Just come work this summer,’ “ Marion Minton recalled. “And of course he never left,” with jobs in sales, advertising and publicity before rising to become president.
Minton sold Putnam’s to the entertainment conglomerate MCA in 1975, at a time when independent publishing houses were being swept up by larger companies. He was replaced as president three years later by Peter Israel, an editor and novelist, and finally made his way to law school, graduating from Columbia in 1982 at the age of 58.
He worked for several years at a firm in New Jersey before retiring to Florida, and his former company is now part of Penguin Random House.
Minton’s first marriage, to Pauline Ehst, ended in divorce. In 1970, he married Marion Whitehorn. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage; three children from his second; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
One of Putnam’s biggest successes under Minton emerged out of a contest he launched in the early 1960s to find “the best unpublished novel in the English language,” according to a blog post by Israel, his successor at the company.
Minton offered a six-figure advance, with predictable results. “Every fiction manuscript on every dusty shelf in the English-speaking world,” Israel wrote, “ended up in the floor-to-ceiling piles that adorned our corridors and offices.”
The contest ended without a winner. But among the novels signed during the hunt, using “seed money” given out to promising writers, was a pulpy Mafia epic titled “The Godfather.” Dismissed by some critics as a “trash novel,” it sold more than 20 million copies and inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning film trilogy.