Stephen Rubin dies at 81

Stephen Rubin, a longtime publishing executive with an eye for bestsellers and a passion for music and public life who helped launched the career of John Grisham, among others, and released such blockbusters as “The Da Vinci Code” and “Fire and Fury,” has died. He was 81.

Rubin died Friday at a hospital in Manhattan after “a brief and sudden illness,” according to his nephew, David Rotter.

Book publishing is hard to imagine without the raspy-voiced Rubin, a powerful and colorful presence for decades with his tortoiseshell glasses, stylish suits and wide range of friends and colleagues, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Beverly Sills. He hosted memorable parties at his spacious West Side apartment and was a prime source of gossip and alternately profane and loving assessments of friends, colleagues and the greater world.

“He would enter a room and immediately fill it,” close friend Jane Friedman, the former CEO of HarperCollins Publishers, told The Associated Press via email. “He had very strong likes and dislikes and he NEVER changed his mind.”

Rubin was a former New York Times journalist who broke into publishing in the 1980s and rose to top positions at Doubleday, where Kennedy worked for a time as an editor, and Henry Holt and Company. Most recently he was a publishing consultant for Simon & Schuster.

Rubin’s many notable projects included the million-selling “Killing” history series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” and former President George W. Bush’s “Decision Points,” a million seller which Rubin helped sign at a time Bush was widely unpopular in the publishing world and beyond.

Book executives dream of overseeing even one phenomenon: Rubin scored at least three times.

In the early 1990s, he was just starting out at Doubleday when the publisher was set to release a thriller by a little-known author, John Grisham’s “The Firm.” The novel helped make Grisham synonymous with courtroom drama and marked the beginning of a long friendship between him and Rubin, who would acknowledge taking advantage of the author’s good looks and featuring them in promotional ads (Grisham would rebel for a time by appearing at photo shoots unshaven).

“Steve Rubin was a great publisher,” Grisham said in a statement. “He loved books, especially those on the bestseller lists, and he knew how to get them there. He was a writer’s dream — loyal, generous, and never shy with his opinions. He was seldom wrong, but never in doubt.”

A decade later, Doubleday took on a then-obscure author who had sold few copies for Simon & Schuster but now had a promising manuscript for a religious/art thriller set in Europe. With a relentless promotional campaign, including thousands of advance copies sent to booksellers and others in the business, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was an immediate and lasting sensation. Sales topped 70 million copies, even as some critics and fellow authors despised it and some religious officials thought it blasphemous.

The book was so successful that Brown’s earlier novels, “Angels & Demons” and “Digital Fortress,” also became top sellers.

“Steve’s infectious enthusiasm for my work was every author’s dream,” Brown said in a statement. “A world class oenophile, Steve used to send me cases of lavish Italian wines — a secret plot, he joked, to saddle me with a refined palate so I could never afford to stop writing. I am eternally grateful for his belief, his encouragement, and, above all, his friendship.”

In 2018, when Rubin was in his mid-70s, he had one more extraordinary ride. He was the publisher of Holt and overseer of a signature book of the Trump presidency, Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” which Rubin agreed to take on after meeting for cocktails two years earlier with the veteran and often controversial journalist.

“Fire and Fury” was the first work to vividly capture the ongoing chaos of the administration and proved so unflattering that Trump threatened to block its publication and fired a top aide, Steve Bannon, who had spoken with Wolff. Rubin would call the book “the wildest experience” of his career.

“For more than a month, it was humanly impossible to miss ‘Fire and Fury,’” Rubin wrote in his memoir “Words and Music,” published earlier this year. “It was a triumph for Michael and for Holt. It was also exhilarating and fun.”

Rubin was a New York City native whose initial and enduring passion was music, especially the opera. After graduating from New York University, he received a master’s in journalism from Boston University. (A waste of money, he later wrote). He started out at UPI and Vanity Fair and eventually wrote profiles of Luciano Pavarotti and Sills, among others, for The New York Times Magazine.

Rubin joined Bantam Books, a venerable paperback publisher, in the mid-1980s, and remained there for six years before leaving for Doubleday. Throughout, he retained his affinity for opera and classical music and, along with his wife Cynthia, who died in 2010, helped run the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a great source of pride.

But he knew that books would define his legacy, especially the one which sold the most copies. In his memoir, he offered a succinct, if incomplete prediction: “I suppose the headline of my obit will read ‘Publisher of ”The Da Vinci Code” dies’.”

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