Joan Bingham, Catalyst in a Publishing Merger, Dies at 85

Joan Bingham, whose eventful life included almost three decades as executive editor of the Grove Atlantic publishing house, a role in which she published numerous prestigious titles, including Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” and collections by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Kay Ryan, died on Saturday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

Her son-in-law, Joseph G. Finnerty III, said the cause was pneumonia.

Ms. Bingham had already experienced glamour, accomplishment and tragedy when she helped create Grove Atlantic, which was formed in 1993 by the merger of Grove Weidenfeld and the Atlantic Monthly Press.

She had married into the wealthy Bingham family, whose media holdings included the Kentucky newspapers The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, also in Louisville. Her husband, Robert Worth Bingham III, was thought to be destined for a prominent role in the family business, but he was killed in a freak accident in 1966.

After that, Ms. Bingham made her own mark. In 1984 she was the founding publisher of The Washington Weekly, a spunky but short-lived publication that covered politics and culture in the nation’s capital. Later she edited a newsletter on economics in Paris.

Then, in the early 1990s, she was the catalyst for the merger that created Grove Atlantic. George Weidenfeld and Ann Getty (who died in September at 79) had created Grove Weidenfeld in 1986, incorporating the venerable Grove Press into the new company. Morgan Entrekin had taken over Atlantic Monthly Press in 1991. He knew Ms. Bingham’s daughter, Clara, and in a phone interview on Monday he said it was Joan Bingham who had provided the connection that led to the Grove-Atlantic merger.

“She called me in the spring of 1992 and said, ‘Do you know anything about Grove Weidenfeld?’” Mr. Entrekin, Grove Atlantic’s publisher and chief executive, said. “Joan was really crucial in creating the whole thing.”

Grove’s formidable backlist and Atlantic’s success with new titles seemed a good fit. But, Mr. Entrekin said, Ms. Bingham was more than just a matchmaker.

“She put up some advance capital, became involved as executive editor, and away we went,” he said.

Over the years she acquired and edited more than 100 titles, in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. There was “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America" (2003), David Von Drehle’s account of the catastrophic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. There was “The Inheritance of Loss,” Ms. Desai’s best-selling novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. There was “Walk the Blue Fields,” Claire Keegan’s acclaimed story collection, from 2008.

And there was a lot of poetry. Ms. Bingham helped create and oversaw the Grove Press Poetry Series. Among its first offerings was “Elephant Rocks” by Kay Ryan, an interesting voice because, as Mr. Entrekin noted, she was “an outlier,” not part of the strain of poets from academia.

With Ms. Bingham championing her work, Ms. Ryan became prominent enough that, in 2008, she was named poet laureate of the United States. Her 2010 collection, “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

Joan Williamson Stevens was born on March 5, 1935, in Steubenville, Ohio. Her father, Edward, was chief executive of United Oil Company in Pittsburgh, and her mother, Helen Williamson Stevens, was a homemaker.

Joan Stevens grew up in Sewickley, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, and graduated from Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut in 1953. Four years later she graduated from Connecticut College with a degree in art history.

She was studying at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco when, during a summer session at Harvard University, she met Mr. Bingham. They married in 1960.

Mr. Bingham enjoyed outdoor activities. In July 1966 the family was vacationing in Nantucket, Mass., and Mr. Bingham hoped to do some surfing. Fitting the surfboard into their rented car required rolling down the windows and laying the board crosswise in the vehicle, the ends protruding out the windows on either side. With Mr. Bingham driving, one end of the board clipped a park car, causing it to pivot, whipping the board into Mr. Bingham’s neck and killing him.

Ms. Bingham remained a director of the family company (which sold its media holdings in 1986) but settled in Manhattan and Washington. Once she entered the book-publishing field, her homes in both cities, with their walls of bookcases, became frequent stops for those in the business.

“She was the irrepressible host of hundreds of dinners for Grove’s authors, booksellers and international publishers,” Elisabeth Schmitz, editorial director at Grove Atlantic and a colleague for a quarter-century, said by email.

Ms. Bingham, she said, brought a vigor to her job even late in life.

“Joan may have been our most senior colleague, but she was also certainly our most youthful and energetic spirit,” Ms. Schmitz said. “She would hike our four flights of stairs in the Union Square offices several times a day” — generally in one of her multiple pairs of All Stars sneakers. She attended international book fairs and accompanied her authors on tour.

“She was a fierce, sometimes stubborn advocate on behalf of her writers,” Ms. Schmitz said, “and you couldn’t keep Joan out of our publicity director’s office if she had one on the verge of publication.”

Ms. Bingham supported a number of charitable organizations. Her family said she was particularly passionate about the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and was a member of its board.

Ms. Bingham’s brief marriage to George Packard in the late 1970s ended in divorce. Her son, Robert Worth Bingham IV, died of a drug overdose in 1999. In addition to her daughter, Clara Bingham, she is survived by three grandchildren.

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