A remarkable 750-strong gathering of authors and book industry colleagues joined family and friends for the memorial service for agent Deborah Rogers in St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square yesterday (1st October).
Rogers, chairman of agency Rogers, Coleridge and White, died suddenly in May.
The service, at which moving speeches were delivered by publishers Gail Rebuck, Carmen Callil, Liz Calder and Bob Gottlieb, Rogers, Coleridge and White colleague Peter Straus, as well as authors Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Bailey and Tony Scotland, was said by some attendees to have been the finest such service they had ever attended. In his address to the congregation, McEwan noted that the self-effacing Rogers would have been "amazed…and probably embarrassed" by the prolific turn-out, which included a roster of the industry's most prominent figures, as well as international publishers from far afield, and authors including Philip Hensher, Michael Frayn, William Boyd and Sally Vickers.
Rogers' qualities of warmth, humour, acute literary perception and "caritas" - compassionate charity – were highlighted by many speakers.
Peter Carey remembered first meeting her in London in 1968, when he was an unpublished writer of 25, "sceptical to the point of paranoia", and presenting her "with a novel of such gritty avant-garde integrity that it had no commercial potential at all – I was proud of that." Rogers said: "Well! What is it? What do you mean? Well, it's not literature, is it?" Carey remembered: "She was perfectly correct. Thank God it never found a publisher."
Paying tribute to Rogers as "the greatest agent of our times", he said: "I thought so often of my good fortune, as Deborah fought for me… put up with bouts of rage and hysteria, and poured champagne." He described her as a "genius… she could see what was not here yet.. what a prickly young Australian did not know he had. My heart is overflowing with grief and love and gratitude."
Ishiguro said Rogers had a "profound" influence on him, teaching him to take himself seriously as a writer, and not to be distracted by the superficial. "Five months after she left, I find in myself a curious new feeling – I am less afraid of death now that Deborah has gone there before me," he said. "If her wise, benevolent, humour-filled realm now extends to death, then somehow death has become less fearful." He added that it was "the habit of a lifetime to be reassured and given encouragement by Deborah", calling her "strong but gentle, infinitely kind."
Bailey remembered a hilarity-filled outing with Rogers in the 1980s to a book talk by Barbara Cartland, "an animated meringue", who advised that a resourceful woman would "practice a mental virginity each time her husband makes love to her", reducing Rogers and himself to helpless laughter. "From now on I am going to try my luck at mental virginity," Rogers told him. "One of many joyful memories," Bailey remembered.
Straus paid tribute to the "warm, democratic" environment he joined as a young agent, with Deborah Rogers, Gill Coleridge and Pat White – despite being fired "twice on my first day – for not reading book X and for having read book Y." The care and wellbeing of authors was always uppermost in Rogers' mind, and she never became jaded, but retained her "curiosity and delight" throughout her career, he said. Calling her "passionate and fearless in her loyalty and support", her remembered Rogers' "great love, great care and great wisdom."
Penguin Random House chair Gail Rebuck remembered Rogers as "a fierce guardian of publishing values", saying she loved her "authenticity", that she "railed against calling books 'content', for her a commodification of the writing process," instead seeing each book as "magical and unique."
Meanwhile Gottlieb, calling Rogers "the sister I never had, the friend of my heart for 50 years", drew comfort from the fact that when he last saw the agent, shortly before her sudden death, she had been more "buoyant, happy and engaged" than for 25 years. "The famous publishing award [Rogers won the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement in International Publishing award 2014] had a lot to do with it – she loved it and was really, really happy, it was a validation of her career," he said. A period of travel with husband Michael Berkeley, and the birth of her daughter Jessica's son Nathaniel, had also contributed to her happiness, he said. "She talked about her agency – how thrilled and unnerved she was by how it had grown," he added. "She found it amazing that now it was such a big deal.. we remembered the agency when it was two rooms on top of a fish and chip shop in Goodge Street."
"People say how great it was that she could die in this happy period in her life," he added. "It would not have been good to see her lose strength and acuity… even so, I feel cheated that she didn't have some more years in her life when she was so happy… We wanted more."
Meanwhile Virago founder Carmen Callil and Liz Calder, a founder director of Bloomsbury, brought the house down with a joint rendition of ditty "Time to say Goodbye", a song they used to sing with Rogers, with Calder noting fondly: "Deborah, on reaching the pearly gates, will have been handed the keys to heaven – I only hope she didn't lose them." Callil remembered Rogers' roster of much-loved pets, observing that among their number were two sheep called Liz and Carmen.