Sep 07, 2022 3:36 AM

Burlington Native and Influential Literary Agent Dies at 102

Posted Sep 07, 2022 3:36 AM
Sterling Lord, born and raised in Burlington, built his legacy by championing Jack Kerouac and other iconic authors. Lord died on Sept. 3, 2022, on his 102nd birthday.
Sterling Lord, born and raised in Burlington, built his legacy by championing Jack Kerouac and other iconic authors. Lord died on Sept. 3, 2022, on his 102nd birthday.

By Beacon Staff

Only a man as influential as Sterling Lord could warrant an all-day festival in his honor.

Lord, the Burlington-born literary agent who found a publisher for Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and “The Berenstain Bears,” died at the age of 102 on his birthday, Saturday, Sept. 3, in a nursing home in Ocala, Fla.

The Burlington Public Library celebrated the literary agent's Burlington heritage with an annual celebration starting in 2015. The first event featured a "Berenstain Bears" story time, hosted by Michael Berenstain – the son of the late authors Stan and Jan Berenstain.

"Sterling is one of the last great gentlemen of the old world of publishing that I knew as a kid. It was a very different world of publishing," Michael Berenstain said.

Lord, who was 94 years old during the first library celebration, still worked at the same agency he founded in 1951. He started his long road to New York at Sunnyside Elementary School. 

Lord later became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Burlington High School, landing a job stringing sports stories for the Des Moines Register at the same time. Lord's love of the written word continued beyond high school; he worked for the student paper at Grinnell College until graduating in 1942.

"At the time I graduated, I didn't know what I wanted to do," Lord said during a Skype conversation in 2015.

That's how Lord ended up serving with the Air Force in Europe during World War II. He still had time to serve after the war was over and was able to get a transfer to Stars and Stripes –  the news organization that covers the military community. After working for the Stars and Stripes Weekend magazine, he purchased it and turned it into a private enterprise in post-war Germany.

There was only one problem.

"Frankfurt, Germany, went from being the cheapest place to publish in Europe to the most expensive place," he said.

The cheapest place turned out to be Paris, but even there, the magazine lasted only a couple of years before going under. Lord moved to New York City and worked for several magazines before being fired from Cosmopolitan. He then decided to start his own literary agency.

"I had a different background than almost anyone at the time," he said.

Lord was flexible enough to champion any type of book to publication, earning himself a reputation that garnered all-star clients. Besides Kerouac and the Berenstains, Lord also represented Dick Francis, Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nicholas Pileggi, Dick Schaap, and Robert McNamara – just to name a few.

"Kerouac never asked for a million dollars. He never named any money he wanted. All he wanted to do was sell the book, and he didn't want the publisher to change any words of his text," Lord said.

It took four years, but Lord finally landed a contract with a special clause that forbade the publisher from changing anything in Kerouac's iconic novel "On the Road" -- including the punctuation. The deal was highly unusual for the time.

"That really made Jack happy," Lord said.

Lord was a champion tennis player as well and played competitively for 68 years until macular degeneration in his eyes forced him off the court in 2003.

Lord client Stacy Cordery, a former Monmouth College history professor who is now a history professor at Iowa State University, began her writing career with a biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. She said Lord had a magical way of making everyone he talked to feel like the only person in the world.

“I am honored beyond words that he thought my manuscript was good enough," Cordery said.