Obituary: Dan Frank
Born 27th March 1954. Died 24th May 2021
Canongate c.e.o. Jamie Byng remembers Pantheon Books’ late editorial director.
“Dan Frank was the finest of men, and the best of editors. He found delight in ideas and beauty in prose, and he helped put them there”—author Jill Lepore
I first met Dan Frank in 2008. It was in New York. Sonny Mehta had told me on more than one occasion that I had to meet Dan. And ignoring a recommendation from Sonny was never a smart thing to do. So I was excited at the prospect of finally meeting Dan and getting to know this legendary head of Pantheon a little.
I walked into his office and no sooner had we made our introductions than Dan said I needed to read something before we talked any further. He proceeded to place a small, nondescript galley on the table between us and insisted that I read the first story there and then.
I hate being made to read on the spot and while someone is watching you, waiting to see how you react. How can you not feel self-conscious?
But three minutes later, I had read “Sum”, the eponymous tale that opens David Eagleman’s utterly wild and singular book of 40 imaginings of what happens to us after we die. We ended up publishing the book together, and five subsequent books by this brilliant neuroscientist.
The next time we met, Dan took me to his favourite Italian in Manhattan for lunch. He also insisted I order whatever wine took my fancy. I spotted a Brunello de Montalcino on the list and two bottles and two hours later, we had cemented a friendship that became one of those I truly treasured in publishing.
Over the years we collaborated on a number of book projects and Dan never ceased to guide and delight me with his wisdom, humour, judgement and care. Maria Popova’s magisterial group biography, Figuring; multiple books by the slacker polymath Geoff Dyer; and Raoul Martinez’ dazzling début, Creating Freedom, were notable highlights, but I also learned all manner of valuable lessons from Dan, lessons about how to live life as much as lessons about publishing writers and books.
We also collaborated on the ill-fated project that was Julian Assange’s memoir. I’ll never forget the dinner Dan, Nick Davies and I had at Andrew O’Hagan’s house on the eve of a trip that we had organised for a number of Assange’s international publishers to meet the WikiLeaks founder (it involved taking a train to Diss, which turned out to be most apt). Andy had been working like a demon for three months, pretty much living in the house in Norfolk where Assange was holed up under house arrest, trying to ghost this increasingly unhinged and self-absorbed man’s memoir.
The dinner felt celebratory, as we all believed we were on the cusp of pulling off something of a publishing coup. The grisly reality of working with Assange only became clear the next day when, as also recounted by Andy in his superb cover story for the London Review of Books, Assange revealed his true colours, posturing and prevaricating throughout the meeting, and we started to realise that we were actually dealing with a deluded, utterly untrustworthy man. Dan was Assange’s polar opposite and throughout this painful, costly publishing experience, Dan maintained his beautifully calm, wry cool.
But over and above any of these individual books we worked on, Dan was consistently one of the most thoughtful, unaffected, kindest and warmest people I would see on my regular trips to New York. The range of his knowledge and interests was formidable but he wore his erudition with the lightest of touches and he was disarmingly humble. And he truly cared. He was also extremely funny and just being around him was always such a genuine pleasure. His premature death feels like a huge loss to the world of books and publishing, and I can only imagine how great this vacuum must be for the many great authors with whom he worked so closely.
The last time I saw Dan was at Sonny’s memorial service in New York in February 2020. It now seems sadly fitting, as these men were yin and yang to me, and two of the most formidable and inspirational figures in modern publishing. I feel very fortunate to have spent as much time with them as I did, and now that they are both gone, I feel two of the most important pillars in my publishing life have gone. But such was their impact on me, and so many others, that they will continue to influence the way I think and act until I join them. I hope there is a place somewhere where we can drink more delicious red wine, smoke the occasional cigarette, talk about books and life, gossip, read, laugh, dance and cry.