My magnificent agent died last week. The barest facts of her life are in a New York Times obituary this morning. Her name was Emilie Jacobson, but her colleagues called her Emmy. She found me in a slush pile.
Emilie is the reason why I get a little impatient with people who insist that you need to know someone, or have some sort of inside connection, in order to get your book published. Some years ago, when I thought I had a good draft of my first novel, I started querying agents. Emilie was the thirteenth or fourteenth agent I contacted; she pulled my letter and sample chapters out of the slush pile, requested the full manuscript, and then, well, sent me a rejection letter. But her rejection was long, regretful, and filled with thoughtful editorial comments, all of which seemed sound to me. There was no guarantee of future representation if I took her suggestions, but I thought that in the worst-case scenario I’d at least have a better book, so I spent six months revising my novel and sent it back to her. She very graciously agreed to read it again, and this time she took me on.
I came down to the Curtis Brown offices on Astor Place to meet her. It was a heady occasion—the initial “I can’t believe I actually have an agent!” shock hadn’t worn off yet. I was early, so I loitered for a while in a bookstore near the office, running my hand over the spines of books, trying to imagine what it would be like to see my name on the shelf. I went up to the offices to meet her, and was struck by her warmth.
Emilie took me to lunch at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, a few blocks away. She’d hurt her back a few months earlier, and the recovery was proving difficult; she was stooped over and moved slowly. She was too vain, she said, to consider using a cane.
I doubt the décor of Knickerbocker has changed significantly since it opened in 1977. (I was surprised, in fact, to discover that it opened that late—it looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1940s.) It’s all dark wood paneling and leather and round banquettes, a dizzying assortment of bottles atop the grand piano. I’d never been there before and it was like slipping back into a lost world, a time when publishing deals were made in a cloud of cigar smoke over multiple martinis. I half expected to see Norman Mailer dining out with his agent at the next table.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked, when we sat down. She was of an era when a business lunch typically involved cocktails. I declined and ordered my usual mint tea. I wanted to ask how long she’d been agenting, but given her obviously advanced age it seemed somehow vaguely impolite, as if I were indirectly asking how old she was. I asked her, instead, how she became an agent.
“Well,” she said, “it was back in the early days of television, and…”
Curtis Brown was her first job out of college, and she stayed there for the next sixty-two years. From our first meeting, I decided that Emilie is what I aspire to: when I’m in my eighties I want to be that passionate, that interested, that warm, with a mind as sharp as hers.
Some weeks ago Emilie called to tell me that at long last she’d decided to retire. The good news, she said, was that a colleague of hers was interested in representing me. I told her that of course I’d known this day would come, but that I would miss working with her terribly.
“I think it was email that finally pushed me over the edge,” she said. She used email gamely enough, but she disliked the informality of the medium; emails from strangers that began with “Hello Emilie” bothered her immensely. She was deeply annoyed when she sent people emails and they didn’t write back.
I came back to the offices on Astor Place a few weeks ago to meet my new agent. I arrived early to visit with Emilie, and for a quiet half-hour we sat in her office together. Her office was a wonderful place, large and filled with books. I’ll confess that seeing my first novel displayed prominently next to David Lodge’s work always gave me a thrill. Her computer seemed an unwelcome imposition on a second desk, behind her real desk, which was massive and piled eight inches high with correspondence and manuscripts.
Emilie was so much a part of Curtis Brown that it was almost impossible to conceive of her being outside it, no longer coming into this office every day. I asked what she planned to do after retirement. She said she thought it would take her about a year to clean the stacks of manuscripts out of the closets in her apartment, and then she was going to read for pleasure. She thought she might like to do some writing. We talked about books for a while—she’d just read and loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We spoke about her career.
“You were my first champion,” I told her. I told her how much I appreciated everything she’d done for me, the faith she’d always had in my work.
She smiled and began reminiscing about other firsts: a piece of Joyce Maynard’s that she placed in The New York Times when Maynard was eighteen (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”), a John Knowles story that eventually became the climactic scene in A Separate Peace. She asked if I was working on a new novel and I told her that I was.
“Oh, this is why I’ve delayed retirement for so long,” she said. “I always want to see what everyone’s going to do next.”
I told her that I’d send her the manuscript as soon as it was done. She seemed happy at this prospect. “Okay,” she said, but she was gone five weeks later.
All sudden deaths are a little shocking. It seems impossible that I’ll never see her again. In the last letter she ever sent me—she never sent an email when a letter would do—she expressed her regret that she wouldn’t be in Martha’s Vineyard when I read at a bookstore there in June. But she would be there later in the summer, she said, and she suggested that if my husband and I were to return to the Vineyard, perhaps we might like to visit with her and her husband. It’s startling to think that she won’t be there. It’s startling to think that the next time I see the orange Curtis Brown letterhead on an envelope in my mailbox, it won’t be from her. The last email I received from her was only two weeks ago.
There’s great comfort, of course, in knowing that she spent almost the entirety of her long life doing work that she was truly passionate about. I know this is the best we can hope for: a long life engaged in a pursuit that brings us joy and fulfillment, a quick death at the end. There’s a school of thought that a peaceful death at the end of a long and fulfilling life isn’t a tragedy, and I put some stock in this.
But she really was magnificent, and I don’t use that word lightly. I always thought of her as an emissary from a bygone world, among the last of her kind. I feel as if a light’s gone out, and there won’t be another like her.