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August 17, 2012 8:20 pm
Ed Victor is on the telephone when I arrive, a characteristic pose for the literary agent who works and plays with a vitality that belies his 72 years.
“I’m up early, I’m on the phone, and then I work, work, work,” he says of a typical day at Two Barns, the vacation house on Long Island where he spends the summer with his wife, Carol Ryan.
“Vacation house” may be a bit of a misnomer for a place that serves as an outpost of Victor’s London office. Still, he describes it as “our dream home” and enthuses about its design. “It still thrills me,” he says. “I never, ever get tired of looking at these beams.”
The black oak beams are the frames of two 17th-century English barns that give the house its name. They were taken from Sussex and Berkshire, packed into crates and shipped to New York in the early 1980s.
“Carol and I both like barns,” Victor explains. “In fact, the first time we lived together we lived in a barn out here, an old American barn, in Bridgehampton.”
The barns’ journey mirrors Victor’s own transatlantic connections. Born in the Bronx, he grew up in Queens, graduated from Dartmouth, and won a Marshall scholarship to Cambridge university. Armed with an MLitt, he launched himself into publishing and returned to New York, where he worked at Knopf and met Ryan. Then he moved back to London and opened his eponymous agency in 1976.
The barns have become an L-shaped house nestled against a hill near Southampton. One is an airy living space with Victor’s office at one end and a kitchen tucked in a corner. The smaller barn, with gently curved braces, holds the master bedroom.
Beyond are two more bedrooms and bathrooms with claw-foot tubs and sinks custom-built to accommodate Victor’s 6ft 3in frame. The basement holds a recreation room with billiards table, bar and exercise equipment; another two bedrooms; laundry and utility rooms; and a four-car garage.
Although the house is momentarily quiet (the phone “has been kind to me”, Victor says, Carol is out playing tennis, and their son Ryan is in the city), Two Barns is often buzzing with guests.
The couple’s annual Fourth of July party has become such a Hamptons institution that when they decided to skip it this year (they travelled to Nevis instead to celebrate their 40th anniversary), they sent out an announcement.
“If we simply didn’t send out invitations, people would think they’re off our list – we’ve dropped them – or I’m broke,” Victor laughs. The card promised “Normal service will resume in 2013”.
“We believe in celebration,” he says. On a recent weekend the couple hosted Roberto Scio, the Italian hotelier, and Frederick Forsyth, the novelist who is Victor’s client and friend. Saturday brought dinner with Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, a new client, as well as publisher Jason Epstein and his wife Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times.
The actress Candice Bergen and her husband, real estate developer Marshall Rose, are neighbours and friends. Earlier this summer, Two Barns hosted the wedding of Jeremy King, the London restaurateur. And then there are the countless lunches and dinners in Manhattan, where Victor spends two days a week “working the room”.
The line between client and friend easily blurs for Victor, and he clearly takes great pleasure in making connections. “I love introducing people. I always think that two plus two can make 10, 20.”
It’s a valuable skill for an agent, particularly one with such a star-studded client roster: John Banville, Nigella Lawson, U2, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend (who calls about his forthcoming memoirs while we are talking). “I’m the home for ageing rockers,” Victor says.
Victor’s nose for property is as keen as his eye for literary gold. He bought the two-acre plot in 1979 after taking a liking to the area while out for a jog. The land cost $20,000. “Even then that was very little,” he remembers. “If you want to build a house here now you need five acres, and it’s about $200,000, $250,000 an acre. So you need a million bucks for the dirt.”
For the Hamptons, a glittery stretch of coastline known for lavish estates screened by high hedges and state-of-the-art security systems, the 5,400 sq ft home is comparatively modest. A rural road, unpaved until about 15 years ago, winds past wheat and corn fields to a short driveway. A riot of greenery frames the front door, bright white against grey-brown shingles.
Inside, the barns’ geometry is echoed in the paned windows and double-height doors that lead to a pool and tennis courts. “When the place was originally designed, the architect had plain plate glass in all of these windows,” Victor says. “And then we went to an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery of [Sir Edwin] Lutyens’ work. These are his signature panes. Carol just said, ‘That’s what I want.”
The exposed beams are complemented by white stucco walls and muted furnishings: white couches, wicker chairs, natural fibre rugs.
Victor’s creative vision has served him well during half a century in publishing, but even he is amazed at the revolution that is being wrought by Amazon and the rise of ebooks. “Bookstores are going to die. That’s my worry,” he says. “So far, ebook sales are making up for the loss of revenue of physical book sales. And it’s, as we say, floating a lot of boats.”
He mentions Fifty Shades of Grey , which began life as a self-published ebook and has gone on to sell 20m copies. “I started to read it. I would have turned it down like that.”
Victor describes Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, as “a brilliant man ... he’s revolutionised retailing”. But, he says, “they want to get publishers out of the picture. Why doesn’t the author just go to them? They’ll print the book, they’ll ship the book.”
So where does that leave literary agents? “What I’m dealing with is like crude oil coming up out of the ground. Creative writing in English can be made into anything from Vaseline to rocket fuel. I can sell film rights, I can sell television rights, I can sell book rights. It’s content, and people need content.”
Victor sees where the wind is blowing: he launched an ebook and print-on-demand venture last year. He even admits that for a recent trip to south-east Asia, he downloaded a stack of books on to his iPad. “Because I didn’t want to schlep them. I couldn’t believe I was doing it,” he says. “I, Ed, in the business since 1964.”
“It’s a kind of famous car around here,” says Victor. The 1964 Ford Galaxie 500’s cherry-red leather and gleaming chrome are not exactly subtle. “I always wanted to have an old American convertible out here, and one day somebody tipped me off that this car was for sale. We drove it and that was it.” That was 20 years ago. Victor has restored the steering, suspension and brakes, and it drives smoothly – he insists that we take it for a spin.
“It’s automatic, it’s got power steering, it’s got power brakes, it has everything. And I always play 60s music in it.” The radio is a decade off – Steely Dan – but the effect is still potent as we cruise down the sun-dappled lane.
“I have resisted many calls to get rid of it because Carol thinks it’s not safe,” he says. “It is a great machine and it makes me happy. The whole purpose of life is to make yourself happy.”
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