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03/09/2011

Owen Laster, literary agent for Gore Vidal, James Michener, Judy Blume and others, dies at 72

March 9, 2011 |  3:13 pm

Owen Laster, a literary agent and executive of old-fashioned self-effacement and intregity whose many clients included Judy Blume, Gore Vidal and the estate of Margaret Mitchell, died Wednesday in New York. He was 72.

Laster, who retired in 2006, died in his Manhattan apartment after a brief illness, said his friend and attorney Richard Snider.

In a career that lasted more than 40 years, Laster represented such authors as Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren and Susan Isaacs. Among his more notable projects were the authorized sequel to Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," Alexandra Ripley's million-selling "Scarlett," and the posthumous release of Ellison's "Juneteenth," the novel Ellison spent decades trying to complete after receiving high acclaim for his debut, "Invisible Man."

Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, said Laster "was always honest, straightforward and unfailingly pleasant -- a true gentleman of the old school. And he takes a whole lot of publishing history with him into the great beyond."

After stepping down from William Morris, where he had served as head of worldwide literary operations, Laster said he had become less "enamored" with the business because profit had become more important than quality, even if he was among the enriched.

"The dollars have changed -- I retired a much wealthier man than I would have under the old system," he said in an interview with the Editorial Department, an industry consulting firm. "James Michener, when I became his agent, was doing $600,000, $700,000 a year. Now it would be more like $10 million. I have to say, I went with it, I benefited from it, my big authors were huge, the hits were megahits."

Some successes were unexpected. Laster recalled taking on "The 25th Hour," a debut novel by David Benioff. Unable to interest a large publisher, Laster sold it to Carroll & Graf for $7,500. But he and Benioff made far more. The book was adapted into a Spike Lee film and the paperback rights went for $500,000.

"Thirty publishers had turned it down," Laster said.

Laster, a graduate of Syracuse University, was not married and had no children, Snider said.

-- Associated Press

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