Roslyn Targ, Pioneering Literary Agent, Dies at 92
By Leon Neyfakh
Roslyn Targ died peacefully in her Greenwich Village apartment on October 29, 2017.
Born Roslyn Siegel in Brooklyn, New York, on May 27, 1925, Targ was a pioneering literary agent known for her mischievous sense of humor and her taste for glamour. Starting in the 1950s, Targ made a career of selling translation rights around the world. In the process, she introduced entire shelves of American literature to European audiences; among the canonical authors her agency sold in translation were F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson.
Her beloved husband Bill Targ, the former editor-in-chief of Putnam and World Publishing, who died in 1999, once wrote that his wife would “take most dares, go anywhere at a moment’s notice; … pick up a T-bone and gnaw it boldly, even in Lutèce; steal cookies while having tea with Paul Getty in his English mansion;… and find time for a long Bal à Versailles-bubble-bath soak with the latest Cosmo in her hands.”
He also wrote, “When in action, she has the energies of three, and though her number of languages is limited, she seems to have the gift of many tongues. Hers is ‘method’ language; she does it with a smile, a flash of the eyes, a wave of her hands, a nose-to-nose brush, and contact! I’m sure that in Outer Mongolia or Bulgaria she could communicate with the natives after thirty minutes on their terrain.”
When Targ was three, her parents, Polish immigrants, moved to Jones Street in Greenwich Village. Her mother worked as a seamstress and managed their small apartment building. At a young age, Targ’s father moved away, and she was raised by her mother, who instilled in her a powerful work ethic—and an acute sense of independence.
She graduated from Hunter College in 1949, majoring in economics and minoring in English. Soon after, she joined the Franz J. Horch agency, coming aboard initially as a “girl Friday” but quickly moving up in the ranks. In 1969, Targ bought the agency and became its president; in that capacity, she traveled the world and made deals with some of the greatest publishers of the 20th century. She went to Paris at least 25 times over the course of her career, and had favorite hotels and restaurants in Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany and England. Publishers and editors adored her, and so did authors: she was beloved by luminaries like Italo Calvino, Henry Roth, Samuel Beckett, and Erich Maria Remarque.
Targ lived in the same Greenwich Village penthouse apartment for 52 years, filling it over time with thousands of books, eclectic art, and photographs of her late husband, old friends, and authors. Hanging from one wall was a nude painting of Targ; elsewhere, she had a portrait of her drawn by Edward Gorey for her birthday.
One could spend hours looking around Targ’s apartment and asking her questions. Her answers would double as both an exhibition of her irrepressible drive to entertain and as a rollicking survey of 20th century American literary history. In telling her stories and her jokes, Targ opened a window onto an extraordinary life. As Targ told a close friend at her 92nd birthday dinner "When I look back on my life, all I can say is 'Wow'!"
In 1978, the Washington Post described Targ this way: “She is seen everywhere - and you can spot her across any room — from screenings to parties to intimate luncheons and, if you have any nostalgia at all for the old meaning of the word ‘glamorous,’ you will apply that word to Roz. Her hair is long, fashionably straight and fashionably bright gold, although frequently hidden from sight by the many turbans and hats that are her trademark. If Coco Chanel's clothing brings a million at her auction, Roz' rags oughtta bring at least two mil.”
Targ continued working until age 85. In 2009, Hunter College inducted her into the school’s Hall of Fame honoring alumni with outstanding achievements. She is survived by many close friends, relatives of her late husband, Bill Targ, and all her hats. Arrangements by Beth Abraham Memorial Chapel, Greenwich Village, New York City. At Roslyn’s request, there will be no service.
Leon Neyfakh is a long-time friend of Roslyn Targ and a reporter at Slate.com.
Photo Credit: Lucjan Gorczynski