National News

Elaine Markson, Literary Agent for Feminist Authors, Dies at 87

Posted June 1, 2018 3:59 p.m. EDT

Elaine Markson, who was among the first women to own a literary agency and to further the careers of fledgling feminist authors, died on May 21 at her home in Manhattan. She was 87.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Johanna Markson.

Beginning in the 1970s, Markson transformed an eclectic constellation of radicals, women’s rights advocates and other writers — including her husband, the experimental novelist David Markson — into loyal clients of her agency, which she ran from her third-floor Greenwich Village walk-up, and which virtually doubled as an authors’ counseling service.

“I was Elaine’s second client,” novelist Alice Hoffman wrote in a tribute on “I was a nothing kid from New York, living a hippie student life in California, but to her I was a novelist.

“Considering Elaine’s faith and confidence, what choice did I have?” Hoffman added. “I came to believe it, too.”

Among Markson’s other clients at one time or another were Salman Rushdie, Grace Paley, Andrea Dworkin, Peter Carey, Angela Carter, Abbie Hoffman, Phyllis Chesler, Lucinda Franks, Neal Gabler, Neil Postman and Donald Spoto.

“She was from an era when the book was the thing that mattered — finding the right editor, the right publisher, finding the writer a home where they stayed,” Hoffman said in a telephone interview. “And she spent as much time with the clients who made no money as with the clients who made tons of money.”

Elaine Kretchmar was born on July 30, 1930, in Brooklyn, to Leon and Lilyan (Alperstein) Kretchmar. Her father worked with his family’s Catskills hotels.

She graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Adelphi College (now Adelphi University) in Garden City, New York. She met David Markson through her early jobs in publishing, and they married in 1956.

They moved to Mexico and then returned to New York. They had two children and lived in Europe before settling in Greenwich Village, where David Markson socialized with his fellow writers at home and at the Lion’s Head and other saloons favored by the literati.

“He surrounded himself with other writers, with journalists and the Greenwich Village literary crowd,” Françoise Palleau-Papin wrote in “This Is Not a Tragedy: The Works of David Markson” (2007), and his wife “opened a literary agency with their friends as their first clients.”

As Hoffman recalled, “She seemed to know everyone below 14th Street.”

Geri Thoma, a fellow literary agent, said in an email that for Markson, who divorced her husband in the mid-1970s, the decision to start her own agency was a pragmatic one: “She saved the family by turning his social acquaintances into clients and friends.”

Markson was a member of the first generation of female agency owners. Among the others were Candida Donadio, Charlotte Sheedy and Lois Wallace.

In 1978, when she needed to make a down payment on a larger apartment for her and her two teenagers, Markson published a novel of her own, “Home Again, Home Again,” about a retiree in Miami Beach who is enlisted to resolve the marital tribulations of her two grown children.

“This is touching and funny, and poignant and clever,” Kirkus Reviews wrote. “Literary agent Markson obviously knows the market — better yet, she knows and loves these heimische people.”

David Markson died in 2010. In addition to their daughter, Markson is survived by their son, Jed, and three grandchildren.

Strikingly, as good as Elaine Markson was said to have been at negotiating with publishers on behalf of her authors, they regarded her foremost as a good friend.

“She was the lunch date that everyone wanted to have,” Hoffman said.

Elaine Showalter, the literary critic, said in an email that Markson “respected what I was doing as an academic and never pressured me to be more commercial.”

Even her former husband, who blamed his drinking for their divorce, retained her as his agent and, years later, still extolled her.

David Markson told biographer Charles J. Shields: “Everybody loved her. Before she was an agent, people used to call her the rabbi, because everybody came with their problems.”

Elaine Markson once observed that she enjoyed her job, even if scarcely anyone else coveted it.

“If you took a poll among your friends, I doubt that any of them would know a literary agent or want to be one,” she wrote. “And yet it is a most wonderful profession: Next to his dog, you are the writer’s best friend.”