The title of “nicest person on the planet” is now open. The longtime incumbent, Ruth Cavin — also a veteran book editor who was known to many as the doyenne of mysteries — died early Sunday morning at the age of 92. She was still holding down a full time position as an editor with the Thomas Dunne Books imprint at St. Martin’s at her death.
What is unique about Ruth’s career is that she didn’t become an editor until she was past her 60th birthday and didn’t start her more than two decades at St. Martin’s until she was 70. She was sort of the Grandma Moses of mystery editors.
I had the very good fortune to have known Ruth all my life.
Ruth Brodie grew up in Pittsburgh where she first met my mother, Eleanor Oshry, when they went to kindergarten together. They were active together as schoolchildren in the YPSLs (Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of the political party that was led by Norman Thomas) and they both attended college locally at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon).
The story in the family is that when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, went out to Tech in 1938 to get his degree in printing, he had the phone number of two girls in his pocket: my Mom and Ruth. He called Mom first. She said she knew he had both numbers, so she kept him too busy from that point on to have time to call Ruth.
But they all became friends and worked together on the Carnegic Tartan, the school paper, on which Ruth was a columnist, Dad eventually the editor, and Mom the managing editor.
I realize as I write this that I never asked Ruth exactly how she ended up in New York after college. What I do know is that between when the war ended, during which my Dad had been exempted from service because he was working on the Manhattan Project, and when my arrival could be anticipated (which would have been late in 1946), they thought he would be drafted. My parents organized a going-away party for him for which the guests were all married couples except for two single friends: Ruth and a young Business Week writer named Bram Cavin.
The families remained close, personally and professionally. When Dad started the Dolphin Books imprint at Doubleday, he was able to hire Bram as an editor. In the early 1960s, the Cavins with their young children, son Tony and twin daughters Emily and Nora, moved to Pleasantville near where we lived in Croton and we saw them increasingly often. They moved to Cleveland in about 1964 when Bram took a job as an editor with World Publishing and Ruth’s home was my stop the first night I was driving across the country to go to UCLA in 1965.
Ruth was not working full time then but was active in anti-war politics. She was also interested in whatever you were interested in. I remember in the late 60s when bands starting putting out “concept” albums sitting with her for an hour with the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed”, talking about what was “different” about all this, or whether anything really was.
In the early 1970s, my father started The Two Continents Publishing Group, setting up a trade book distributor on what is now the PGW-NBN model before there really any prototypes. Dad hired Ruth as his first employee to do the publicity. She also sold the subsidiary rights. I got the entirely-too-inflated title of Director of Marketing which meant that I got credit for a lot of what Ruth did.
Her output was prodigious. She wrote all the catalog copy, edited or wrote press releases, flap copy, and rep information for what grew into many dozens of books a year. She called on all the book clubs and all the senior book reviewers. Meanwhile, she had written a couple of books. One was called “Dinners for Beginners”. Another was on inter-urban rail transportation, mostly in the midwest, called “Trolleys.”
And, I must stress, it would be an understatement to say she had a smile on her face every day. Ruth had a smile on her face every minute. Nothing flustered or annoyed her. When you knew her well, you knew she had smiled her way through some pretty significant annoyances. She had a mastectomy in 1941. (She told me about two years ago that she now thinks she didn’t have cancer; that the diagnosis was a mistake.) She had a pacemaker installed in the late 1960s. I’ll bet that very few people who knew her had any idea about either of these things.
When the Shatzkins sold out of Two Continents in 1979, Ruth was 61 but definitely not done working. She was looking for new worlds to conquer. She managed to get a job at Walker and Company, a family-owned independent publisher that did a lot of mysteries. And thus did Ruth become a mystery editor.
Among the people she worked with at Walker were Philip Turner, who went on to work at Random House, Kodansha, and Sterling, and David Sobel, later at Wiley and Holt. I had an exchange with David yesterday in which he said, tongue only partly in cheek, that Ruth taught him everything he knows.
Ruth would teach you without it feeling like teaching. Every conversation was with an equal; every relationship was collegial. Her respect for other people was universal and deep and entirely genuine.
Tom Dunne was the man who “discovered” Ruth (when she was 70) for his imprint but he had support for the idea from then-CEO Tom McCormack. McCormack (another Doubleday alumnus originally recruited by my father) told me that he had a previous good experience with Joan Kahn, a mystery editor who had been retired by Harper at age 65 and then gave St. Martin’s ten great years.
Ruth started five years older and gave them more than 20!
The enormous productivity that my family and I saw in Ruth at Two Continents continued to be her reputation at St. Martin’s. I heard over the years that she routinely acquired, edited, and put into production more books than anybody. Since I pitched a few and sold her a couple over that time, I can tell you that she did all that without stinting on any part of the job from first contact through contract and editing and launch. Working with her was a positive experience for every author I know who did it.
With greater diligence since my Mom died in 2007, I’d see Ruth every few months outside the holiday season. We’d have lunch. She’d come along to see my nephew A.J. Shively in a play. I took her downtown a couple of times to get new hearing aids. I could see her decline. The scoliosis in her spine had her bent over so her back was nearly parallel to the ground. That meant she couldn’t breathe. We’d have to stop 3 times on the one block walk from her office to the restaurant she frequented.
Her memory, which, for names, had been sliding for years, started showing other lapses. I’d always ask her about her job. She always had a determination to keep it; the time she spent in the office with her colleagues was precious to her. A couple of years ago, she told me a bit abashedly that her company had insisted she stop taking the bus down from Grand Central to the office and provided her with a cab and then a car to take her back at the end of the day. (This was at the time that Bram was in a home near the White Plains train station, and Ruth stopped and saw him every evening on the way home.) A year or so ago, she said there was a plan afoot to have her work at home sometimes because the travel to the office was exhausting her. But she loved being with her colleagues. And she revered her boss, Tom Dunne, who really was the one who gave her this magnificent post-retirement-age career.
I had a conversation with St. Martin’s Publisher Sally Richardson (Dunne’s boss) about Ruth at a party for Al Silverman’s book three years ago. Sally was saying that she was working on making sure Ruth got a decent winter coat; she was so frugal and unconcerned with her own comfort that Sally had to, more or less, do it for her.
I told a few people at Macmillan that I wanted to acknowledge them publicly on Ruth’s behalf for the extraordinary sensitivity and generosity they showed her over the last months, perhaps even years, of her life. Although Tom McCormack made the point that they had learned that a “no age limit” policy made sense through their experience decades ago with Joan Kahn, that policy would not have obliged them to give her the extra support and reduced expectations that she must have required in the recent past.
They did that because they loved her, which was an inevitable consequence of knowing her well, so that isn’t extraordinary. But the fact that the company, particularly a company of the size of Macmillan, treated her better than many families would, is both rare and worthy of commendation. From this lifelong friend of Ruth’s, thanks very much.