By HILLEL ITALIE
AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - The legend of Sterling Lord dates back to 1952, when he was just getting started as a literary agent. Into his basement-level office on Park Avenue walked a young man wearing "a light weather-resistant jacket with a lightweight checkered shirt underneath.
"He was striking looking _ `diamond in the rough' was the phrase that came to mind," Lord writes in his just-published memoir.
It was Jack Kerouac, and wrapped inside a newspaper was the manuscript for what became "On the Road."
Lord is now 92 years old and still keeps regular hours, at the bright, downtown offices of Sterling Lord Literistic Inc. His clients have ranged from Ken Kesey to the creators of the Berenstain Bears. He has lunched with Jackie Kennedy, played tennis with Katherine Graham and had the will to say no to Lyndon Johnson when the president was seeking help to get a book deal.
His memoir is called "Lord of Publishing" and his peers see nothing out of line about the title. His name means "respect," "gentleman agent," a "class act," according to fellow agent Jane Dystel.
"This is a guy who has been around a very long time, through many iterations of our business, which is constantly changing, and has survived," says Dystel, whose agency's clients range from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz to best-selling crime writer John Locke. "He does it with real determination and skill, in a very low-key style, but determined."
When Lord met Kerouac, the young Beat already had published a novel, "The Town and the City." But he was having a harder time with his second book, starting with the way he had written it. "On the Road" was born on a 120-foot scroll that he was known to unfurl on a publisher's floor. Not all dared to read it, but Lord did and found something fresh and dynamic, a jolt to the growing conformity of the times.
So he took the book on and suffered the rejections, including one from a Knopf editor who thought "On the Road" was not "saleable" or "well-made." Kerouac was ready to give up, but not Lord. By the mid-1950s, he had sold excerpts to The Paris Review and New World Writing. Viking Press agreed to publish the novel, for an advance of $1,000. "On the Road" was released in 1957, The New York Times raved and Kerouac became a hero for a generation of adventurers.
Lord writes in his book that Kerouac was essentially a shy man who didn't know how to handle the attention. His drinking worsened Kerouac died in 1969 when he was just 47. Lord had tried to help him, but realized that he was a literary agent and not a "life agent." And he had rarely seen the author's darker side, reasoning that he was a parental figure for whom Kerouac remained on his best behavior.
"I looked on him as a true craftsman, a man who knew what he wanted to do," Lord says.
The business remains stimulating for Lord, an improbably fit-looking man whose agency handles books by Rachel Maddow, David Mitchell and many others. He sees a strong future for e-books and has been working with the digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media to make sure older works by Jimmy Breslin, the late Howard Fast and others are available in electronic format. He also turned to Open Road for an even more challenging project: His own book.
A memoir had long seemed a natural and in 1999 he signed with PublicAffairs to write one, its working title the more businesslike "Agents' Fees." But after years of trying, with a ghost writer on hand, he and PublicAffairs each were dissatisfied. Lord made two critical decisions: He would write the book himself and he would release it through Open Road, whose co-founder is former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman.
"He was always fair, always very author-centric, which suited me fine," says Friedman. "We've become a lot closer in recent years, talking regularly about the older authors he wanted to bring to Open Road and then about his own book."
Interviewed recently at his office, Lord credits his endurance to moderate living, good genes and decades of competitive tennis. Time has been held back, too, by one the great blessings of earthly existence _ making good money doing something you love. Agenting was a job he never dreamed of having as a child, but became a calling he couldn't imagine living without.