Legend, Gentleman, Friend: George Nicholson (1937-2015)

George Nicholson

George Nicholson died yesterday. He was 77 years old.

He was a legend in children’s publishing. George was in the children’s literature business for over 50 years. In the 1960s, he introduced paperbacks to the children’s book industry. That’s something we take for granted now, but we owe it to George. As an agent (at Sterling Lord since 1995), he represented Betsy ByarsPatricia Reilly Giff, Sergio Ruzzier, Leonard Marcus, and several literary estates — including those of Don Freeman, Hardie Gramatky, and Lois Lenski.

Since 2006, he also represented me.

Initially, I couldn’t quite believe that the great George Nicholson was my agent. I’m an academic. Scholarly books about children’s literature don’t make much money. (And that’s an understatement.) I worried that — as George’s client — I wasn’t really helping his bottom line. I mentioned this to him one or twice, and each time he brushed it off. So, I stopped bringing it up.

It took me a year or two to figure this out, but George was my agent because he believed in me, not because he thought I’d write a bestseller. To put this another way, George was my agent because he was my friend.

George Nicholson

Harold LloydHe was a giant in the business, but never acted like one. Silver-haired and with glasses like Harold Lloyd’s (see photo at left), he was soft-spoken and kind. George was a gentleman, in the best, old-fashioned sense. He was courteous, but did not stand on ceremony. He was polite, but also let you knew what he thought. George had class, but was no snob. While we’re on the subject, his look was also classic. No matter the weather, he invariably dressed in a jacket, tie, oxford shirt, blazer, and slacks.

I was shocked to see Sterling Lord’s announcement today.

I gasped, and sat down. George is gone? It was — and is — too much to take in.

Yes, George Nicholson was 77. And he’d had some health issues, as everyone who makes it into their 70s does. But he was still actively involved, always returned my calls and emails promptly, ready to offer his advice. Whenever I went to New York, I would meet him for lunch or dinner — whether or not we had any business.

A Little Night Music (2010): Elaine Stritch, Bernadette PetersIn December 2010, George, my mother, Karin, and I went to dinner, and to A Little Night Music (starring Bernadette Peters and the late Elaine Stritch!). On a couple of occasions, he and Susan Hirschman and I went out to dinner. When last I saw him, the fall of 2013, he had to postpone our dinner engagement because he wasn’t feeling well. But the postponement was brief — we went out to lunch two days later.

George knew everyone connected to children’s books. Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Ursula Nordstrom, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, Margaret McElderry, Robert McCloskey. Everyone.  And he had lots of stories.

Maurice Sendak in his 20s, New York CityHere’s one he told me about Ted (as Edward Gorey was known to his friends) and Maurice. When they were both young artists, in their 20s or maybe early 30s, Gorey and Sendak were friends, and often saw each other in New York. One day, Maurice saw Ted on walking along the street — dressed, as Gorey tended to, in a fur coat and tennis shoes. Maurice strolled up to greet him: “Hi, Ted—”  Gorey started shouting, “RAPE! RAPE!” Terrified, Maurice turned and fled.

A few days later, Ted phoned Maurice to say hello, and to ask why he ran off. As it turned out, shouting “RAPE!” was Gorey’s way of making a joke.

So many stories. I wish I’d taken notes.

I spoke with George just a few months ago, in the fall of 2014. I had flown to Connecticut to give a couple of talks and to help my mother move. I’d hoped to catch MetroNorth into New York to see him, but mom’s move — as these things inevitably do — took longer than expected. Well, I figured, I’ll see him in 2015.

I last saw George for that slightly postponed lunch, in October of 2013. We met at his office, and then strolled to a nearby restaurant. We talked about my ideas for future projects, he shared stories, and we enjoyed each other’s company.  It was a happy lunch. When we parted, he — as he always did — first made sure I knew how to get where I was headed. (I did.) Then, he turned to walk back to his Bleecker Street office.

As he walked away, the autumn sunlight on his silver hair and blazer, I paused and thought: I wonder when I’ll see George again? Indeed, it’s because I had that melancholy thought that I remember our parting so vividly: George, walking across the street, into the early afternoon light.

Farewell, old friend. And Godspeed.

More on George Nicholson:

14 Comments »

  1. jules Said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Phil.

  2. jules Said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    I meant to add: This is a really lovely tribute.

  3. susan oviatt Said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

    Lovely tribute, Phil. Sorry you have lost such a dear friend.

  4. Amy Koss Said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

    George was the most charming man I ever met.

  5. Monica Edinger Said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 4:22 am

    This is a lovely tribute. I met him a few times and he was one of a kind. Made me think of the best of the old-style publishing. And he was so unassuming. I remember seeing him at one of Betsty Bird’s literary events just that to learn. I also was honored to be on a panel with him at a Joan Aiken celebration — he represented her and he estate and he had lovely stories. Very sad at his passing.

  6. Philip Nel Said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. In addition to being a living history of twentieth-century children’s literature (which I should have mentioned above), George was always interested in learning something new. When we worked on the Barnaby deal with the Ruth Krauss Estate and Fantagraphics (which, initially, he kept calling “Fantasmagraphics”), he admired their books and was happy to chat about comics & graphic novels.

  7. Rebecca Fjelland Davis Said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    Phil,
    Bravo for this beautiful tribute. George was my agent, too. I too felt amazed that the giant George Nicholson was my agent. I didn’t make him much money, either, and when I mentioned it, he reacted the same way as he did with you. My last novel, still not purchased, was the first time he read a book of mine and said he “loved” it. We had such splendid conversations (now it makes me happy to use that word). Sometimes I didn’t like to hear what he had to say, but he never minced words. I adored him. I cried when I read your post. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Rebecca Fjelland Davis – I call myself an author thanks to George Nicholson. Said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

    […] Another client of his wrote this beautiful tribute. […]

  9. Lissa Paul Said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 10:06 am

    Dear Phil
    With thanks for composing such a thoughtful tribute to George. He was equally kind to me, and like you, it seemed an astonishing act of generosity. Just a few weeks ago, in the late fall, he negotiated a contract with the University of Toronto Press for me–despite the fact that my work is unlikely to be profitable.
    I will remember vividly my times with him in New York, and I’ll remember his insights into publishing history. On our first meeting, he told me wonderful stories from his time at Viking when he worked with Ted Hughes.
    With thanks
    Lissa

  10. Sharon McQueen Said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    Oh, Phil. Thank you for this poignant, moving post and for giving us this opportunity to express our shared fondness for this incredible soul.

    I first met George when KT Horning suggested I interview him for my doctoral dissertation on “The Story of Ferdinand.” May Massee had ushered the book into the world and George had subsequently held Massee’s position as head of Viking Children’s Books. I fell instantly in love with this gentle man. We continued to correspond and meet at conferences over the years. When I finally had chapters to share, George read them all, encouraging me along the way with supportive notes that were candy to my eyes, such as, “You write so well, I did laugh several times. More, more. George.” In the end he offered to serve as my agent, which delighted me no end. Working with George was lovely but the loss I feel most deeply is the loss of my charming, witty, Dear Friend. See you later, George.

  11. Patty Campbell Said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    George Nicholson is gone. It’s hard to get our minds around it. He was always there, charming, witty, and kind, as others have said, and of enormous importance to children’s publishing. But also a force in the development of young adult literature, which others have not yet said. He cared about the genre, understood its implications for young people, and shepherded some of its greatest talents.
    He was a major influence on my life, too, both professionally and personally, and I owe him a debt of gratitude and love.

  12. Shawna Kent Said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

    I was looking up George Nicholson to try to get in touch with him when I found out that he had died. I am extremely saddened by the news. I worked for him many years ago, when Viking was still The Viking Press at 625 Madison Avenue. I was an editorial assistant in the children’s book department there. Though it was so long ago, I recognize in this tribute all of the wonderful qualities he had way back then. My condolence to his colleagues, friends and family. I can imagine how deeply he will be missed.

  13. Dr. Stephen Sheppard Said,

    May 11, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    I was just catching up on the NY Times and I was shocked to see the obit of George’s passing. He was a patient for many many years and I always enjoyed his visits, his intellect and just talking with him. He was very kind and thoughtful and considerate. He had a great attitude and it was a pleasure to know him.
    Dr. Stephen M Sheppard

  14. Kate McCusker Said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    I, too, am shocked to hear of Mr. Nicholson’s death. I feel privileged to have had him request my full manuscript although he decided to pass on it. The fact that he would even request it was, and still is, humbling. There have been other rejections, but none so important. Thank you for sharing your memories of him.

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