NEW YORK – Genevieve Young was a publishing editor with a long and diverse legacy.
She entered the business in the early 1950s, when there were few female editors and even fewer Asians. She worked with authors ranging from Herman Wouk to Betty Rollin and played a key role in the writing of Erich Segal's “Love Story,” the novelization of the Oscar-winning movie of the same name that is currently marking its 50th anniversary. She also edited the groundbreaking photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, married him in the 1970s and later helped oversee his estate.
Young's name was known to many in the industry and beyond. But her death received little initial attention. She was 89 when she died at her home in Manhattan on Feb. 18, 2020, after a long battle with cancer. Beyond publishing a paid notice in The New York Times, the family says it had trouble finding anyone to report on her death because of the quickly spreading coronavirus. Plans for a memorial tribute, originally scheduled for last spring, remain on hold.
“She was a pioneer, and not just in her working life,” says her nephew, Douglas Hsieh. “She was one of the first women in an editorial position in the publishing industry and she was with my uncle Gordon (Parks) at a time there were not that many interracial couples.”
Known to her friends as “Gene,” Young started in publishing in 1952, soon after graduating from Wellesley College. She rose from being “Stenographer No. 2” at Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) to editorial director of Bantam Books. Her notable projects included Nancy Milford’s acclaimed biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Stephen Birmingham's popular social history “Our Crowd” and the novelization of “Love Story.”
Segal’s 1970 melodrama inverted the usual formula for books and movies: It wasn’t a film based on a novel, but a novel based on a movie at the time in production. Segal had been writing the screenplay for Paramount producer Robert Evans and wanted to turn his work into a prose narrative. The Yale classics professor had released a previous work, “The Death of Comedy,” through Harper but was considering a different publisher for the more commercial “Love Story.”
Young convinced Segal to stay with Harper by offering what seemed like an extravagant advance, $7,500, and even got the author to promise he would return the money if he couldn’t finish the book. She then talked him into changing the structure of the plot about two college students who fall in love. Segal had wanted to wait until the end to reveal that young Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri, played on screen by Ali McGraw, will die of cancer. Young disagreed.
“I said to him, ‘You can’t work up to her dying at the end. That’s like grand opera. You’ve got to kill her off in the first paragraph,’” Young told Al Silverman for his publishing history “The Time of Their Lives,” released in 2008. “He’d say, ‘I can’t do it.’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, you can.’ He finally did that famous sentence, ‘What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?’ It took him three weeks to write the first paragraph and about another three weeks to write the rest.”