The Eulogizer: Innovative publisher, Bataan death march survivor

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Walter Zacharius, 80, iconoclastic publisher

Walter Zacharius, an innovative publisher who brought genres such as romance fiction into the industry mainstream and onto the best-seller lists, and who kept a passion for meeting new challenges into his last days by writing a well-regarded novel at age 80, died March 2 at 87.

Zacharius’ Kensington Publishing is the largest independent publisher of mass-market fiction in the United States, with annual sales of $70 million. Zacharius published science fiction, erotic thrillers, romance novels and fiction aimed at African Americans and gays. More recently, the company began publishing novels from brand-name authors and celebrities. Early titles included the “Conan the Barbarian” series, as well as a paperback edition of Mario Puzo’s first novel, “The Fortunate Pilgrim.”

In 1965, Zacharius was among several who published the erotic satire “Candy,” which had been published in Paris but was not copyrighted in the United States. Zacharius undercut other American publishers with a lower price, and put it out with a lurid cover stating that “Not one word changed! This is the ORIGINAL, UNCUT and UNEXPURGATED EDITION as first published and banned in Paris.”

The company’s Zebra Books became known for breaking staid publishing industry traditions by putting out embossed covers with foil and holograms. Zacharius’ path to success also stayed outside publishing industry norms on the business side, and included distribution deals with Wal-Mart and QVC, as well as e-books.

“We’re not impressed with what’s selling on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive,” Zacharius said in 1982. “Our readers patronize suburban shopping malls.”

Dorien Kelly, president of the Romance Writers of America, said Zacharius was a visionary "willing to take risks with new authors and lines, and Kensington quickly became one of the major players in the romance publishing industry.”

Kensington also published name writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Asimov and Jerzy Kosinski, and hit the best-seller lists with memoirs by Michael Reagan, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan, and Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Famer Duke Snider.

New York literary agent Richard Curtis called Zacharius a “colossus of the publishing industry." Curtis also said "It is not hyperbolic to say that his death marks the passing of an era.”

Zacharius was born in Brooklyn and took part in the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Paris, an experience he turned into fiction decades later in his 2004 novel “The Memories We Keep,” originally titled “Songbird,” which focuses on the remarkable and terrible experiences of a Jewish woman caught up in wartime Paris. The novel was called “a breathless read” and “one of the year’s more unusual and captivating debut novels.”

Zacharius’ said about becoming an author at 80 that he started a lot of things late in life: “I took up horseback riding in my 40s, finished my college degree at 54, played my first game of squash after I was 65, and began piano lessons at 70. Now I’m learning to play golf. Most importantly, though, is that I’ve fulfilled a dream of my youth — becoming a writer.”

Zacharius’ philanthropy included Brandeis University, chairing the publishing division of the United Jewish Appeal, building a campus for cerebral palsy patients, establishing a scholarship at New York University for students interested in publishing, and Harlem RBI, a sports organization for inner-city youth.

Briefly: Louis Sachwald, 92, Bataan death march survivor; update on Soviet ‘spy’ Judith Coplon/Socolov

Louis Sachwald, 92, who survived the Bataan death march and other unspeakable horrors as a prisoner of warin the Pacific theater of World War II, died Feb. 28 in Maryland. His remarkable story of survival and his full and successful life in the Baltimore area afterward can be read here

The son-in-law of Judith Socolov, whose death was reported by The Eulogizer last week, broke the family’s longtime silence with an essay in the Forward. Itzik Gottesman offered trenchant details of Socolov’s life after her convictions for spying for the Soviet Union were overturned in 1950 and contrasted her “extroverted and spritely spirit with the silence that pervaded her family regarding her case.” And Gottesman tells why he never pushed her to tell her story.

“As the son-in-law who had grown up in the Yiddish world among Holocaust survivors," he wrote, "I understood that one should not push to hear the testimony of someone who is not willing to speak.”
 
 

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