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Literary agent Wendy Weil dies at age 72

HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
Monday, 1 Oct 2012 | 3:13 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Wendy Weil, a beloved literary agent known for her low-key but determined style and for an eclectic clientele of groundbreaking and best-selling authors, from Alice Walker and Rita Mae Brown to Fannie Flagg and Mark Helprin, has died. She was 72.

Weil died Sept. 22 of a heart attack at her country home in Cornwall, Conn., her colleague Emma Patterson said Monday.

"It's like a face fell off Mount Rushmore," Brown told The Associated Press.

A New York City native and graduate of Wellesley College, Weil was in publishing for 50 years, starting in the training program at Doubleday, then becoming an agent and eventually founding Wendy Weil Agency Inc. in 1986. Among the books she helped get published were Walker's "The Color Purple," Helprin's "Winter's Tale" and Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever," a 1996 story collection that was dedicated to Weil and won the National Book Award.

"I don't think I've ever had another reader as instantly and thoroughly supportive," Barrett told The Associated Press in an email message Monday. "Whether a book did well in the market, or poorly, won nice prizes or got no attention at all, Wendy always made me feel like she loved it, and was thrilled I'd written it. When I was discouraged, I wrote for her."

Weil became an agent during a time of profound cultural upheaval, and in 1972 she helped get Walker's work published in the newly created Ms. magazine. Her clients included feminists, political activists and gay writers, among them Susan Brownmiller, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Paul Monette and June Jordan. She also represented the music critic Greil Marcus, essayist Philip Lopate and journalist James Fallows.

She was as likely to take on a commercial novel, such as Flagg's "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," as a work of serious nonfiction, such as Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Looming Tower."

Helprin, whose Republican politics contrasted with those of Weil's more liberal writers, marveled at how she could work with so many different kinds of people. He knew Weil for 40 years and said she was the rare person who had not a "nanogram of malice in her." She was also improbably organized; the kind of agent who kept piles of papers and other materials on her desk, yet somehow always found the document she was looking for.

"She had an ability to manage chaos like no else," said Helprin, whose novel "In Sunlight and In Shadow" has just come out. "At one time, she had some 200 clients, all writers, all crazy, all under tremendous stress. And yet she was able to adjust to so many people coming from so many points of view."

"The reason her office is so crowded isn't just because her writers' manuscripts and published books pack the shelves and the tables," Barrett added. "It's because they fight for space with the pillows and knickknacks and orchids and photos and stuffed creatures we have all sent her over the years."

Weil had presence. She stood tall, around 6 feet, and her face was often likened to Diane Keaton's. Her appearance was so youthful that when she signed up Brown in the 1970s, the author thought she could have passed for a teenager. Emily Forland, of the Weil agency, wrote in an email Monday that Weil had an "unusual personality for an agent." She was not fast-talking, or overbearing, but was instead described as "ladylike" or "quietly tenacious."

"She used charm, meticulousness, reasonable arguments, creativity, and incredible tenaciousness ... as persuasion in deal-making rather than being confrontational," Forland wrote. "Though she represented so many strong personalities herself."

Before founding her own agency, Weil also worked at the New American Library, International Famous Agency and the Julian Bach Literary Agency.

Survivors include her husband of 28 years, the painter and illustrator Michael Trossman, and two stepsons.