- A Tribute to Timothy Seldes
Timothy Seldes, Eudora Welty’s literary agent beginning in 1972, died on December 5, 2015, just eleven days short of his eighty-ninth birthday. It is difficult to imagine with clarity the day that Diarmuid Russell and Henry Volkening sold their agency to the younger Seldes, although Seldes speaks of it in his interview for Narrative magazine. (Volkening died soon after in 1972; Russell in 1973.) Welty had written to Ken Millar of “a little gathering of old friends and clients for Diarmuid on the occasion of his retirement, given by Tim Seldes, who’s taken over the agency—& whom Diarmuid has all confidence in” (qtd. in Marrs, Meanwhile 140). Cited by the Washington Post as “one of New York’s most prestigious literary agencies,” Russell and Volkening boasted an illustrious author list that included Welty, Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer, Bernard Malamud, and Barbara Tuchman (Schudel). Seldes added Peter Taylor, Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, and others. He sold the agency in 2012 to Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, which continues the Russell and Volkening legacy.
Seldes, born December 16, 1926, in New York, was the son of the much-admired cultural critic Gilbert Seldes and brother of the successful actress Marion Seldes. He worked as an editor at Doubleday for seventeen years prior to buying Russell and Volkening. He married novelist Susan Shreve in 1987 and began to live in both Washington, DC, and Manhattan. Lehrer, a longtime friend of Welty’s who published twenty novels with Seldes, said Seldes “was a gentle man and a gentleman. Every word he ever spoke to me about anything was done gently” (qtd. in Weber). Anne Tyler, who claims Welty as her single most important influence, described working with Seldes as follows: “He didn’t edit in any way, never suggested changes or different titles, but that’s not to say he was a yes-man; he once stated flat-out that a book I’d just finished should be put away in a drawer, and I trusted his judgment so completely that I followed his advice without question” (qtd. in Weber). He was a good friend as well as a responsible agent for Welty, attending the cast party for The Robber Bridegroom in New York, visiting Jackson, Mississippi, to see Alice Parker’s comic opera adaptation of The Ponder Heart, and inviting Welty to join in celebrating his engagement to Susan Shreve (Marrs, Eudora 416, 474, 518). [End Page 5]
I myself had the pleasure of meeting Seldes one day in the late 1990s. I was feeling bold and, after making the requisite arrangements, made my way to the Russell and Volkening office on West 29th Street in Manhattan to meet the gentle man who had always been so pleasant and jokingly chatty with me on the phone. Seldes greeted me happily; offered a cup of coffee; and showed me the book shelves, window sills, desktops, file cabinets, and coffee tables stacked and jammed with books and manuscripts. When he saw my interest in Gordimer, he pulled a recent title off the shelf to give me and invited me to take others. Although I had the privilege of working with Seldes on various publications and permissions, I did not see him again until Welty’s funeral, when he read messages from Diarmuid Russell’s daughter Pamela Jessup and from Reynolds Price. We met again briefly in Jackson, for what would be the last time, for the Welty Centennial conference in 2009, when he thanked me for the dedication of Occasions: Selected Writings. Suzanne Marrs also publically announced her gratitude to Seldes in her dedication of What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.
Asked for a comment to include in this tribute, Marrs wrote,
When Eudora Welty’s agent Tim Seldes took me on as a client, it was an act of charity. He knew I was Eudora’s friend, and that was all he needed to know. How lucky I was. Tim soon became my champion, providing information for my Welty biography and securing a contract for the book with Harcourt. A few years later, he asked...