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Austin Olney; gentle editor honed writers' words, careers

AUSTIN G. OLNEY AUSTIN G. OLNEY
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Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

Wry allusions to books and the literary tradition were part of Austin G. Olney's quotidian observations as he marshaled talented writers into print at Houghton Mifflin, Boston's storied publishing house.

Anecdotes were at his fingertips from years of guiding authors and the worlds they brought to life: J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth, Louis Auchincloss and the refined Upper East Side enclaves of Manhattan, Isaac Asimov and the far reaches of outer space.

Handling works ranging from the light romps of the "Curious George" books to weighty tomes by John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to the nature field guides of Roger Tory Peterson, Mr. Olney exhibited an intellectual range and gentleness that made him a beloved editor in Boston publishing for more than four decades.

Mr. Olney died Feb. 28 in his rural Marlborough, N.H., house, where in retirement he enjoyed gazing at vistas and spotting wildlife that wandered past the windows. He was 85 and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

"He was a gentleman, and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense," said Tracy Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who had thanked Mr. Olney in the acknowledgements of "House," published in 1985. "Just a lovely man - honest, forthright, reticent. To me, he represented publishing at its best."

In the kind of longevity rarely seen today, Mr. Olney spent his entire career at Houghton Mifflin, from the day he walked in for an interview in 1946 still wearing a Navy uniform until he stepped down in 1988 as senior vice president in charge of the trade and reference division.

Whether as a trainee, head of the children's book department, or board member, Mr. Olney was acutely aware of his place in a line of editors that began when Houghton Mifflin was founded in the mid-1800s as a publishing house determined to sway the national conversation on important issues in politics and the arts, colleagues said.

"My own personal concern is that we maintain our sense of quality - that we do what we used to do best - and still make a profit," he told the Globe in 1981 as the business landscape for publishing shifted along financial fault lines. "I think it's going to require ever more fancy footwork to do that."

And dance he did, cutting a rug that stretched from the company's accounting offices to the creative realm of writing.

"He really was an editor's editor and a writer's editor, someone who wanted to stay behind the scenes, who wanted writers to blossom," said Nancy Grant, senior vice president of marketing for HMH Supplemental Publishers, part of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt company that is home to Mr. Olney's former publishing house. "He made his editorial comments quietly, but extremely persuasively."

Even difficult tasks were handled with a gentle touch. Marcia Legru, who married Mr. Olney in 1981 and had worked with him at Houghton Mifflin, said her husband "was known to write some of the best rejection letters in the business."

"I've heard it said that to get a rejection letter from him, you hardly knew it because he was trying so hard to be encouraging," she said.

Nan A. Talese, who has her own imprint with Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, said by phone from her office in New York City that Mr. Olney represented "that sense of writing being important, of authors being important."

"He was a very handsome and gentle man who had a terrific mind and who, no matter how clearly he thought, always put the good thoughts about people first," said Talese, who had worked with Mr. Olney at Houghton Mifflin. "I think Austin always wanted to see the best in people."

Born in Boston, Mr. Olney graduated from Milton Academy and Harvard College before serving as a lieutenant in the US Navy during World War II.

For many years he commuted by train to his office on Park Street from Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he lived with his children and his first wife, Annette Olney. That marriage ended in divorce, and Mr. Olney lived on Beacon Hill before moving to New Hampshire.

"He was very much the conscience of the literary tradition here and of that tradition in Boston," said Paul Weaver, former senior vice president and general counsel at Houghton Mifflin. "He had this unique credibility and authenticity. He was a highly literate and well-read person, and he was also witty as hell in a sophisticated sort of way."

That Brahmin urbanity made Mr. Olney a good editing match for the likes of Auchincloss, whose manners are on full display on and off the pages of his novels.

"I was extremely fond of him, and we got along very well," Auchincloss said.

Though Mr. Olney eventually edited books that appealed to some of the most educated adults, he initially made his mark leading the children's book division, working with "Curious George" authors Margret and H.A. Rey.

"Austin had a sharp mind and a sense of humor which enabled him to relate to the authors in constructive ways but also to make sure the manuscripts chosen carried a message that made them salable for the company and a message for the children who read them," said Harold T. Miller, former president and chief executive at Houghton Mifflin.

Mr. Olney, whom Talese recalled as having "beautiful eyes and a very mischievous smile," could also set aside his cultured demeanor to win the hearts of colleagues who sold the books he edited. At one sales presentation meeting, he introduced the latest Peterson guide to birds by warbling the calls of several birds in succession.

"He just commanded everyone's attention," his wife said. "We kind of laughed that he could be a bit of a show-off.

"He adored the American Heritage Dictionary - he always called it the world's finest dictionary," she said. "His kids were saying it needs a new word, 'Austintacious.' "

Said Grant: "For those of us who worked with Austin, I think it's fair to say we feel very, very blessed. We got to see the real thing. I don't think a lot of people can say that anymore."

In addition to his wife and former wife, Mr. Olney leaves four daughters, Polly Glovsky of Kittery, Maine, Elise Dudley of Manchester, Sylvie Rice of Keene, N.H., and Claudia of Chimacum, Wash.; a son, Christopher of Wenham; a sister, Vrylena Symes of England; seven granddaughters, two grandsons, and two great-grandsons.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on March 22 at Stonewall Farm in Keene, N.H.

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