Remembering writer John C. Keats

OpenRoad Media got some press recently for releasing The Lord of Publishing, the memoirs of an old literary agent. And I do mean old. Sterling Lord is 92 years old, and still sharing stories of his past clients, such as Jack Kerouac, Dick Francis, Jimmy Breslin, Frank DeFord, Howard Fast, and Nicholas Pileggi.

I first heard about Lord when I was in my teens. One of my journalism professors, John C. Keats (top), was a Lord client. Keats had spent his career churning out books of social criticism during the 50s. He attacked the suburbs and their cookie-cutter houses, Detroit and its dangerous cars, and on and on. One of the best descriptions I heard about Keats’ work was that “he took on Detroit when Ralph Nader was still in his Buster Browns.” Later he wrote biographies on Howard Hughes and Dorothy Parker. He was a definitely a 50s man, and by the time he and I met he was heading into retirement but still teaching journalism. The rap on the teachers in the magazine journalism department was that you ought to take magazine writing with Bill Glavin, my dear professor whom I wrote about last November, and magazine editing with Keats. Keats struck me as a professional curmudgeon. He read one of my short stories once and said, “Nice writing. You have talent. But I don’t believe a word of what you’ve written.”


Keats told us that even if he landed a magazine assignment on his own, without Lord’s intervention or assistance, he always sent Lord a check for his 10% anyway. Knowing what I know about agent-writer relationships today, I’d regard this as unthinkable, but Keats said he did it because he believed Lord had invested in his total career and was entitled to that small token.

I enjoyed reading about Keats in Sterling Lord’s book:

John was in the process of withdrawing from the society he critiqued. He and his wife Margaret moved to Pine Island in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River… When I needed John, I would call the Andress Boat Works, in the tiny town of Rockport, Ontario, and tell them I wanted to talk to John Keats. Someone would board a motorboat and bounce over the two miles to Pine Island to deliver the message. Once it was received, John would hop into one of this boats and motor to the tiny Canadian general store that had the phone to call me back. It was quaint and cumbersome, but it worked.

I saw that island once, the day before I graduated, when Keats took a group of his “student bodies” up there to help him and Marge open the house for the season. Keats forgot the food he was supposed to bring for our lunch, and we made do with soup out of the pantry. I’ll never forget how angry he was at himself for that, and how he chalked it up to his advancing age. 

He and I stayed in touch after Syracuse and I treasure the letters that originated on that island, where he’d tell of listening to Caruso on the record player while turtles and “Devonian-seeming pike” plied the waters. When his wife died and he got too old for the island, he moved to an assisted living home on the river. He wrote some letters from there and we talked a few times, but he suffered from aphasia, which made everything difficult. I was sad to hear the news of his passing in 2000 at the age of 80. I helped another Keats alum write and submit the obituary which ran in the New York Times. The photo Dana sent to the Times is the one above, which hangs on my office wall today.

It was nice to think of Keats again, and see him come to life — even if only on three pages or so — as I read Lord’s recollections.

Lord’s book is available in paper and ebook. It’s a neat look at a world that feels long gone. You can catch a taste of it in this Vanity Fair article about Lord that ran recently.

If you have ever read any of Keats’s books, please consider leaving a review for them on Goodreads, where I set up a profile for him.

2019 Update: I’ve corrected the dead link to the New York Times obit, and have re-named the link to this post due to advice from Google’s search engine. In the future, I’d like to post other links about Keats that are available online. If anyone reading this finds interesting articles about him, kindly let me know via the Contact page, and I’ll post them in the future.

And yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thank you! — Joseph D’Agnese