My family’s literary agent of sixty years, Sterling Lord, passed away at the age of 102. Sterling sold the very first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt, to Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel at Random House in 1961. I knew Sterling from childhood on through my own professional working life. He was a charming and distinguished gentleman of publishing. My parents wrote about their introduction to Sterling in their autobiography, Down a Sunny Dirt Road:
“It took us about two months to write and illustrate the manuscript of our children’s book. During that period, two things happened that governed the fate of both the manuscript and its authors. First, a group of editors with whom we were working decided we needed an agent. Their reason: too many legal questions were arising in the course of our helter-skelter cartooning/writing career. Did the “next book” clause in our contract with Macmillan, our hardbook publisher, cover original paperbacks? Did we own the rights to our McCall’s cartoons or did McCall’s? Was the “greeting books” project we were working on with Bantam in conflict with our Hallmark arrangement?
While the idea of giving up 10 percent of our earnings to our agent wasn’t anathema, it was worrisome to a couple of penny-counting overgrown depression-era kids. However, given the increasingly complicated job of negotiating contracts, the idea was beginning to sound attractive. But we didn’t know anything about agents. How would we find one? We asked our various editors – Al Hart at Macmillan, Arlene Donovan and Marc Jaffe at Dell, and Knox Burger at Fawcett – for suggestions They each gave us a list of three or four agents. The names meant nothing to us. But there was the odd circumstance that one name appeared on all of the lists.
“Who is Sterling Lord? How come he is on all of the lists?” we asked Darlene Donovan (who went on to become a leading movie producer, most notably, perhaps, of Places of the Heart, which won two Academy Awards).
“Well, it sort of makes sense,” said Arlene. “What are you two? Are you cartoonists who write or are you writers who cartoon? You’re neither fish nor fowl. And Sterling is…well, flexible.“Flexible how?” we asked. “He’s open to trying new things. Right now, for instance, he’s booking Jack Kerouac into coffeehouses for poetry readings.” “Oh,” we said.
“Is there anything you’d like me to do for starters?” asked Sterling at our first meeting When we told him about our grand plan for a children’s book about a family of bears, he said, “Fine. I’ll give Phyllis a call.”
“Who’s Phyllis?” we asked.“Phyllis is Bennett’s wife,” he explained to the two hicks from Philadelphia. “She’s a publisher at Beginner Books.”
We did know that Bennett Cerf was chairman and co-founder of Random House. We watched him guess occupations every Sunday night as a panelist on What’s My Line.
We sent Sterling the Bear manuscript. A couple days later he called and said he’d had a nice lunch with Phyllis. She loved our work in McCall’s and was sending a contract over by messenger.
Wow! Woosh! So that’s how it was done! You got yourself an agent who was on a first-name, let’s have brunch basis with Phyllis Cerf and just like that, abracadabra, presto change-o, a contract was sent over via messenger.