Knox Burger, book editor and literary agent; at 87

By Bruce Weber
New York Times / January 14, 2010

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NEW YORK - As a magazine editor in the 1950s, Knox Burger published Kurt Vonnegut’s first short story. As a book editor in the 1960s, he asked John D. MacDonald to create a mystery series around a character who eventually turned out to be the detective Travis McGee. And as a literary agent in the 1970s, he took on a novel about a Russian detective by a largely unknown writer, “Gorky Park,’’ by Martin Cruz Smith, which in 1980 he sold to Random House for $1 million.

A fierce advocate of writers and writing who did not suffer pretenders gladly, Mr. Burger was one of the book industry’s notoriously crusty personages. A 1999 guide to literary agents described him as “a lean, bald, craggy-faced man with a game leg, which he assists with a cane, an expression usually either amused or sardonic, a gruff manner that can sometimes seem downright brusque, and a reputation as one of the truly upright men in the business.’’

He died Jan. 4 in Manhattan at the age of 87 after enduring a number of medical problems.

From 1948 to 1951 Mr. Burger was the fiction editor of Collier’s, a magazine that competed with The Saturday Evening Post.

For two decades after that he edited books, mostly mystery and suspense novels, first for Dell and later for Fawcett Publications, which released MacDonald’s first three Travis McGee novels - “The Deep Blue Good-by,’’ “Nightmare in Pink,’’ and “A Purple Place for Dying’’ - one after the other in 1964.

In 1970 he established a literary agency, Knox Burger & Associates, with his wife, Kitty, whose clients, in addition to Smith, included the mystery writers Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block, the novelist Donald McCaig, and the fishing writer John Gierach. Mr. Burger himself was such a dedicated fly fisherman that his ashes are to be buried in a creel.

His unusual résumé, with experience on both sides of a book contract, gave him a keen sense of a book’s value, both literary and financial. For that reason, as an agent he attracted clients who prized his skills as a reader as much as his skills as a negotiator.

“What made him such a great agent is that he was a great editor to begin with,’’ said Smith, whom Mr. Burger represented for nearly 40 years.

During Mr. Burger’s tenure at Collier’s, a short story by Vonnegut, whom he had known slightly when both were at Cornell and who was then working in public relations for General Electric, crossed his desk. He asked for changes, which Vonnegut made, and the story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,’’ appeared in the magazine in February 1950. It was the first published work of fiction for Vonnegut.

“And let it be put on the record here that Knox Burger, who is about my age, discovered and encouraged more good young writers than any other editor of his time,’’ Vonnegut once said.