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Sterling Lord, agent who championed Jack Kerouac and more, dies at 102

Sterling Lord, a literary agent who among other triumphs worked for years to find a publisher for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, has died. He had just turned 102.

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

“He had a good death and died peacefully of old age,” she said.

Sterling Lord, who started his own agency in 1952 and later merged with a rival to form Sterling Lord Literistic, was a failed magazine publisher who became, almost surely, the longest-serving agent in the book business. He stayed with the company he founded until he was nearly 100 – then decided to launch a new one.

He was an early ambassador for a revolutionary cultural movement: the Beats. He endured the initial unwillingness of publishers to take on Kerouac’s unorthodox work and was later the agent for the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist Ken Kesey and poet and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Thanks to his friendship with Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, Lord helped launch Stan and Jan Berenstain’s multimillion-selling Berenstain Bears books. He found a publisher for Nicholas Pileggi’s mob story Wiseguy and helped arrange the deal for its celebrated film adaptation, Goodfellas.

In the early 1960s, Viking asked Lord to get a blurb from Kerouac for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s first and most famous novel. Kerouac declined but Lord ended up representing Kesey.

He represented the former US defense secretary Robert McNamara and John Sirica, the judge of Watergate fame, and worked with Jackie Kennedy during her time as an editor with Doubleday and Viking. Some of the great US sports books of the 20th century, from North Dallas Forty to Secretariat, were written by Lord clients.

“A number of things about this business have really caught me and made it a compelling interest,” Lord told the AP in 2013. “First, I’m interested in good writing. Second, I am interested in new and good ideas. And third, I’ve been able to meet some extraordinarily interesting people.”

Lord declined Lyndon Johnson’s memoir. Representatives for the former president informed Lord that Johnson wanted $1m and that Lord should accept less than his usual commission. Lord turned them down. The Vantage Point, ultimately published in 1971, was dismissed by critics. Lord found a deal for Quotations from Chairman LBJ, a bestselling parody.

Lord was married four times and had one child. Books and tennis were lifelong passions for Lord, who was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1920. He edited his high school newspaper and worked as a sports stringer for the Des Moines Register. He became a tennis star at Grinnell College.

After serving in the Army Air Force during the second world war, Lord co-owned the Germany-based magazine Weekend, which soon folded. Back in the US, he was an editor at True and Cosmopolitan, from which he was fired, before founding his literary agency. Lord believed most agents failed to understand the public was becoming more urban and sophisticated. He also prided himself on his sympathy for writers who lived more wildly than he did.

Lord had quick success by selling 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 quest would prove bumpier.

In his 2013 memoir, Lord of Publishing, Lord remembered meeting Kerouac in 1952. Kerouac had completed a conventional novel, The Town and the City, but had no agent and surely needed one. On the Road was typed “on a 120ft scroll of architectural tracing paper”.

Jack Kerouac leans closer to a radio to hear himself on a broadcast, in 1959.
Jack Kerouac leans closer to a radio to hear himself on a broadcast, in 1959. Photograph: John Cohen/Getty Images

Lord believed Kerouac had “a fresh, distinctive voice that should be heard”. But even younger editors turned him down. One editor wrote: “Kerouac does have enormous talent of a very special kind. But this is not a well-made novel, nor a saleable one nor even, I think, a good one.”

By 1955, Kerouac was ready to give up. Lord was not. The agent eventually sold excerpts to the Paris Review and New World Writing. An editor from Viking Press contacted Lord, offering $900. Lord held out for $1,000. In 1957, the book was released, the New York Times raved and On the Road soon entered the canon.

Kerouac was a shy and fragile man, Lord wrote. Fame magnified a drinking problem that killed him by 1969. Lord attempted to get Kerouac to clean up but eventually backed away since he was his “literary agent, not his life agent”. Lord attended Kerouac’s funeral, standing by the grave with Allen Ginsberg.

Lord oversaw posthumous releases even as he battled the Kerouac family for control of the estate. After years of failed attempts, a film of On the Road was released in 2012. But Lord had little involvement. He didn’t attend a screening or a private party.

“I decided to go home,” he said.

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