February 8, 2012

Hail & Farewell: John Sargent Sr., Doubleday head and believer in MBP (Management By Party)


The old Doubleday logo

An extraordinary Associated Press obituary of John Sargent Sr., who was the CEO of Doubleday from 1963-78 and published everyone from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Stephen King, and hired Jacqueline Kennedy to be one of his editors, is a revealing look at publishing from a different era. Or should we say partying?

Sargent, whose death at 87 was announced by his son, Macmillan head John Sargent Jr., started at Doubleday after serving in the Navy during World War II. He started as a copywriter and remained with the company for 40 years, eventually become CEO … after marrying Neltje Doubleday, grandaughter of the company’s founder.

The marriage didn’t last, though. According to the AP report, which is by Hillel Italie …

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.”

In fact, the report continues,

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.”

Somewhere along the way, he published Stephen King‘s CarriePeter Benchley‘s Jaws and Alex Haley‘s Roots, and hired Jackie Kennedy, with whom he was rumored to have had an affair. “None of us knew whether they were more than friends,” says his son. “He was extraordinarily discrete about his relationship with Jackie.”

In the end, while he had to slow down recently after a stroke, Sargent “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,” his son tells the AP.

I believe it.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.