One recent Tuesday, members of the literary old guard gathered at the Church of All Souls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to bid final farewell to one of their secret society and to be reminded that the literary agent Candida Donadio, who had died some weeks earlier, was always clear in her devotion to the
written word and the men and women who make it. So much so that she never allowed herself to be pulled off her course by issues of money or power, meanness or shortsightedness. She had represented, over the years, so many of our literature’s mega-authors–Heller, Pynchon, Roth and so on. Everything was always personal with Candida. You sensed her Sicilian past the moment you met her, and with Candida business was always the handservant of literature, not the other way around.
I met Candida in 1984. At the time, all of Nelson Algren’s novels were out of print, and Algren himself had died just three years earlier. A short story of his that I’d read in a battered anthology compiled by Robert Penn Warren, “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” had knocked me off my feet. A young editor at Norton then, I blazed through the Algren canon. Although the books were out of print, people everywhere seemed to love to say they had known Algren, and two separate short-fiction prizes had been named after him. He was being silenced and cited simultaneously, and to me that seemed like a kind of posthumous torture. So I called Candida, who had represented him, and said I would like to start reissuing his books, which I could arrange through a company called Writers and Readers, where I moonlighted. Candida dutifully called each of Algren’s previous publishers–Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Doubleday, Putnam. None were interested in putting him back into print, so after about six months of demurring she told me yes, and from then on she never ever said no to me. Once she accepted me as a fellow keeper of the flame, I could have proposed running the texts backward and I think she would have given serious consideration to the proposal.
Candida’s connection to her authors, and particularly Algren, was devotional both in the sense of requiring an absolute loyalty and in that there was an incense of faith and ritual that surrounded her–and you also, if you were fortunate enough to be on the inside with her. Her youthful partner Neil Olson said that Candida never thought of herself as a literary agent at all, but rather, she said, as a person polishing silver. You could picture her as a goddess disguised as a servant, in order to make sure that the silver–those words written by her clients–not be denied its brightness. For its sense of egolessness in the extreme, and its implied narrative of enhancing the beauty of what is precious, the image is brilliant and pure Candida.
The anecdotes at All Souls were revelatory of how her values increasingly stood out in a changing landscape. Knopf associate publisher Vicky Wilson recalled that Candida used to say sometimes that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun–not a big change, I can’t help thinking–and how, at one of their regular lunches, Candida had fixed her large eyes on Wilson and said of a contract, “Can’t you do better on the dough?” The interesting thing is that the anecdote suggests mostly they were talking about things other than money.
Robert Stone regaled the crowd with his favorite Candidaism: “She loved to say, ‘Trust is good, not to trust is better.'” And then added, “Not that she believed that not to trust is better. Just that she loved to say it.” Leaving us in the audience who knew her to be infused one last time with her complexity: Not that she didn’t believe that not to trust wasn’t better. She knew when to do both. And loved to say it.
Peter Matthiessen added some color along those lines: During a lunch at which Candida had been drinking heavily, she was sitting next to Matthiessen and hardly responded to an attorney’s harsh demands during a negotiation over one of Matthiessen’s books. At the very end she turned to the attorney and thanked him politely for the pleasure of lunching together, and then raised her voice to say: “We like you but we don’t love you. You are not our brother!” And then she countered each of the attorney’s points. “She hadn’t missed a single thing,” Matthiessen recalled, still marveling.
Frank Conroy recalled when Candida and he were both just starting out, he a pimply-faced, 24-year-old unknown, she the receptionist and assistant at a literary agency. At the end of their first meeting, he described how he called up his courage and reminded her that she was never going to make any money off him, then asked, “So why do you want to represent me?” And how she had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “The prestige!” The complete implausibility of her response had stayed with him all these years. And perhaps too that in the end she had been proved right.
Eden Collinsworth, a young, willowy Hearst executive who had grown close to Candida in the past decade, told a story that was not related to publishing and yet expressed her magic nonetheless. On the evening Collinsworth introduced her to her fiancé, Candida pulled her aside to say, “He has a very interesting mind, but have you looked at his shoes?” Collinsworth had to confess she had not. “Have you looked at his shoes,” Candida repeated, “and considered their implication? They’re handmade shoes; it’s not going to be easy for you.”
We miss her. We need more like her.