I lost a very dear friend who was a unique figure in the publishing world two months ago when Caroline Latham died in Novato, California. I am pretty sure she was 68 or 69; her close friend Joan was sure she was 70. Even Caroline didn’t know for sure.
I met Caroline in 1978 when my family’s Two Continents Publishing Group, a distributor along the lines of PGW or NBN, and her Latham Publishing Company, a packager of college textbooks, were in their last days. Two Continents was desperately looking for more books to distribute; Caroline was desperately looking for additional ways to monetize content assets she held. We couldn’t solve each other’s problems then, but we became friends and I got to know one of the most extraordinary people on the planet.
Caroline had been raised in an oil-industry family; her father was an engineer. She had grown up in various places in the US and in Iran, and went to Oberlin College very young. She graduated from Oberlin at the age of 16 or so (later events established that she didn’t really know) and, as she put it to me, married the richest young man in town who had a job as a college traveler for Macmillan, putting Caroline in touch with the college textbook business. For several years, Caroline lived a relaxed life, bearing a son and daughter and indulging her lifelong passion for the written word. She read extraordinarily fast and could literally devour several full-length books a day. By the time she was in her early 20s, she had read more books than most well-read people consume in a lifetime.
Then, after they had moved to New York so he could move from sales to being an editor, her husband suddenly disappeared from her life. As I recalled the story, he was discovered a few years later, having had a total emotional breakdown, in Detroit. Caroline abandoned his family’s fortune to him for a variety of reasons — one being that she knew he would need it to live out his life — and immediately shifted to writing textbooks to earn a living in New York for herself and her children, Scott and Sarah Bridge. Her kids were just about grown and out of the house when I met her and she began to work in trade publishing.
The first project we worked on together was for a Warsaw Ghetto survivor named Jack Eisner, who had made a fortune in the US after World War II and then, in the late 1970s, was underwriting the telling of his story through all available means. Caroline ghost-wrote his book, “The Survivor”, and Abby Mann was hired to write the play of the same name (which closed very quickly despite Jack’s efforts to build a success on Broadway.) Caroline and I together made a deal for the book with William Morrow; then she supervised a team following scripts I wrote to augment the house’s sales efforts with calls to bookstores all over the country, an effort that seems rather quaint today but actually produced measurable results back then.
Caroline was really good at the ghost-writing thing. She could “become” any person and produce an appropriate style or voice. She never violated the trust by telling me his name, but I know that she ghost-wrote many of the books and articles signed by the head of the business school of one of the country’s better-known universities. She also ghost-wrote a sociology 101 textbook that became a standard in the field.
From ghost-writing and a brief unsuccessful stint as a literary agent, Caroline moved on to authoring. She wrote celebrity bios of movie and pop stars (many of them penned in a few short weeks): her bio of Michael Jackson hit the bestseller list. She co-authored “Life with Rose Kennedy”with Kennedy secretary Barbara Gibson, another book that hit the lists. She did a bio of David Letterman 20 years ago. Our Filedby web site has pulled together the biggest list available of her credits, but I’m quite sure it isn’t complete.
Of course, the Eisner book doesn’t show up on Filedby under Caroline’s name; it was ghost-written. Another project we worked on together that was ultimately published was a book to reveal the duplicity of Nixon and Kissinger in the Vietnam War by a Denver lawyer and peace activist name Joe Amter. There were others…
By 1990, Caroline’s kids had moved to the West Coast: Scott was pursuing a career in Seattle as an agent for exotic travel and Sarah was in the real estate business in San Francisco. Caroline moved to the Bay Area and, with Sarah, started a new business called RealFacts. RealFacts is a database surveying rents and occupancy in multi-family housing, a business Caroline grew and ran — sometimes with Sarah’s help and sometimes without — until her death.
But none of this — not raising two kids without a husband; not writing dozens of books; not even picking up, moving on, and starting a completely new business at about age 50 — describes what made Caroline so extraordinary. You see, she couldn’t. That is: she couldn’t see.
From the time I met her, I was aware that she had trouble with her vision. She wouldn’t know me if I passed her on the street (we lived not far apart in New York, so that happened.) She had to hold written material very close to her face or look at it through very thick glasses. She drove a car, but admitted to me that she probably shouldn’t (she drove slowly and, as with everything she did, with a huge application of intelligence.) Apparently she had an accident earlier in life that rendered one eye absolutely useless; the stark worsening of diabetes in her 50s, concurrent with the ailment that compromised her heart, robbed her of much of the rest of her vision and for the last years of her life she was legally blind.
But, somehow, she read; she wrote; she built and ran a business.
It was in the late 1990s that Caroline suffered an infection which lodged in her heart and induced congestive heart failure. The Mayo Clinic branch in Phoenix told her in 1998 that she had three months to live. She then took over the custodianship of her own health care, pretty much telling the doctors what to do from that time on. A few years later her kidneys also started to fail, which is when I learned (from her) that just about everything that helps the kidneys hurts the heart, and vice-versa. She was managing a very sensitive balance, which she did — for years.
Her health issues became further compounded with a digestive malfunction that, as far as I know, was never successfully diagnosed. But it meant she was deprived of one of her great pleasures — eating. What used to be a source of great joy and amusement became a chore and a challenge. But she persevered and, although she went from being a rather large and round lady to a lean and frail one, she cheerfully lived with the condition for the last several years of her life.
Caroline was a totally unique mixture of a brilliant intellectual with eclectic tastes that ran from very middle-American to quite sophisticated, the former being perhaps a product of her family’s tight connection to a little town called California, Missouri (she called it “CalMo”) right in the center of the state. She could parse professional material in business, science, medicine, statistics, and real estate. But she loved gossip about movie stars and celebrities, spending time at the beach (when I met her her “ambition” was to own and run a small hotel on a Caribbean island), sports, and pop culture. (A CD of her favorite music that she gave out at her 65th birthday party was testimony to that: it starts and ends with Ray Charles and in between you find artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Leonard Bernstein, and the Beatles, and June Carter Cash!) She was not a beautiful woman, but she usually had an affectionate and caring boyfriend, often a Caribbean man with a limited education. She related to everybody.
And she cared about everybody. She not only wrote more books than any two people I ever knew, she also lent a personal helping hand to more people than anybody I ever met. Over the years, RealFacts had employees who were down on their luck or otherwise found themselves in dire need. Whether through fault of their own or not, Caroline was always there to help them. Sometimes they let her down and she had to let them go, but if they got on new meds or turned a corner some other way, she’d take them back.
I found out that Caroline didn’t now how old she was when she had her 65th birthday party in Novato in 2005. She celebrated the party because she found out that Social Security thought she was 65, even though she thought she was 64! I remember getting that party invitation in about January and her birthday was in June. We wondered whether she’d make it; she was already frail, it was years past the 6-month death sentence from the Mayo Clinic, and she was on the heart-and-kidney teeter-totter that was the story of the last decade of her life.
But she did make it; she made it to that party and for several years beyond, including a wonderful 1-week trip back to Manhattan, along on which she brought an entourage and took an apartment on West 55th Street. She continued to consume books (by audio now, with the help of a friend named Don Christensen in New York who remotely picked out the books to be delivered to her for her from the local Marin County Library System.) She put a program on her computer that blew type up to a huge multiple of its normal size — so big that you had to move the type across the screen with the mouse to read more than a word or two at at time, and she continued to read and write. (I know because she answered my emails!)
Being Caroline’s friend for the past several years has meant knowing a phone call delivering news you don’t want could come at any time. I got the call last May from Caroline’s friend Joan Winer Brown, who told me Caroline was about to die. She had been taken to the hospital with blocked intestines, unable to take in any more food. Doctors were telling her there was no point to surgery; Joan felt they were about to stop heroic efforts.
But a month later the news had changed. Caroline had, from the depths of her illness, mustered the strength to tell the doctors and her caregivers, “yes you will operate. Do whatever you can that might save my life.” And they did. Caroline moved to a rehab facility by the end of June.
I last spoke to her on the phone when she was in that rehab facility and about to go home. Talking on the phone was something Caroline always loved to do. Her voice was weak, but her mind was clear. She knew the odds against her were long, but she was determined to manage things toward a solution as long as one was possible. She was happy to be going home.
I’m glad she got that last couple of months in her own house and the feeling, to the end, that she was in some ways at least the master of her own fate. She leaves a daughter and granddaughter and son and brother and countless friends who will never forget her and her kindnesses, and will certainly never meet another like her.
I am indebted to Caroline’s close friend Joan Winer Brown for some key information that is in this post.