Publisher John Sargent Sr. dies in NYC at age 87

Posted Feb. 07, 2012, at 8:10 p.m.

NEW YORK — John Turner Sargent Sr., a publisher, editor and socialite who as CEO of Doubleday worked with authors from Dwight Eisenhower to Stephen King and helped recruit his friend Jacqueline Kennedy as an editor, died Sunday at age 87.

Doubleday’s parent company, Random House Inc., announced in a statement Tuesday that he died “peacefully” at his Manhattan home. Sargent’s son, Macmillan CEO John Sargent Jr., said that his father had been in frail condition in recent years after suffering a stroke.

Raised in an affluent household in New York City, Sargent started in the mid-1940s at Doubleday as a copywriter after being discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II and remained with the company for 40 years, serving as chairman and CEO from 1963-78. Doubleday was very much a family business for Sargent; Sargent’s first wife, Neltje Doubleday, was the sister of Nelson Doubleday III, grandson of the company’s founder. (Sargent was married to Doubleday from 1953-65).

Handsome, well-spoken and irresistible to women, Sargent was known as a serious and eclectic thinker and an accomplished reveler who dined out most nights and was equally comfortable with authors, movie stars or socialites. John Sargent Jr. remembered his father’s annual “singles only” Christmas Eve parties, co-hosted with actress Joan Fontaine.

“A Salvation Army band would play at midnight and everybody would sing Christmas carols,” Sargent said. “And you had to be single. There was no flexibility in that rule.”

According to the publishing history “The Time of Their Lives,” by Al Silverman, Doubleday during Sargent’s time operated under the principle MBP (Management By Party). Gay Talese, whose book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” was published by Doubleday, remembered attending editorial meetings and watching everyone “get smashed.”

“Many of the editors and senior executives were big drinkers,” Talese told The Associated Press. “You’d go up this spiral staircase, into this private apartment, and the meetings were like a fraternity party that went out of hand. And John, elegant as he was, held his liquor with the best of them.”

Sargent edited award-winning poetry by Theodore Roethke and published such best-sellers as King’s “Carrie” (although the book was far more popular as a paperback released by the New American Library), Leon Uris’ “QB VII,” Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” and Alex Haley’s “Roots.” He also presided over Doubleday’s network of radio stations, book clubs and bookstores.

A notable addition to Doubleday came through his friendship with Kennedy, who in the mid-1970s had resigned as an editor with Viking after the publisher purchased a novel that imagined an assassination plot against her former brother-in-law, Sen. Edward Kennedy. She soon joined Doubleday, where her authors included Harlem Renaissance novelist Dorothy West and Michael Jackson, who signed with the publisher for his memoir “Moonwalk.”

Sargent was close to Kennedy and they were often rumored to be romantically involved.

“None of us knew whether they were more than friends,” Sargent’s son said. “He was extraordinarily discrete about his relationship with Jackie.”

John Sargent Sr. also served on numerous boards, including the New York Public Library, working with his friend Brooke Astor; the New York City Arts Commission; and the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society).

He is survived by his second wife, Betty Nichols Sargent; two children; two stepchildren and six grandchildren.

Sargent’s son said that his father didn’t get out much near the end of his life, but did manage a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the day before he died. On Sunday, he ate a “great” breakfast, left the room to take a nap and within an hour was gone.

“He died without any regrets,” John Sargent Jr. said. “He lived life at an extraordinary level.”

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