November 24, 2020

Fred Hills, Editor of Nabokov and Many Others, Dies at 85

Frederic Wheeler Hills Jr., who was born on Nov. 26, 1934, in East Orange, N.J., may have been destined for the literary life at birth — he was delivered by William Carlos Williams, the pediatrician-cum-poet. His father, Frederic Wheeler Hills, was an engineer, and his mother, Mildred Chambers (Hood) Hills, was a homemaker.

He won a scholarship to Columbia College, where his mentors included the literary critics Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1956, then went west to Stanford, where he studied with the writer Wallace Stegner and earned his master’s in English in 1958. After Stanford, he joined the Army and was stationed at Ford Ord, Calif.

His publishing career began with his work on college textbooks at McGraw Hill, where he soon became editor in chief of the college textbook division. Then two explosive scandals rocked the company — the fake autobiography of the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving, and the discovery that a top editor had taken money from two authors in violation of McGraw Hill policy.

In the ensuing managerial shake up, Mr. Hills was named editor in chief of the company’s trade book division, where he served for seven years. It was there that he edited Nabokov, and the author’s death in 1977 became a turning point for him.

“After Nabokov died, I no longer felt any great inclination to hang around McGraw Hill,” he told the Nabokov Online Journal. “All I had to do was to walk across the street to Simon Schuster in the halls of Rockefeller Center and they would pay me more as a senior editor than I was making at McGraw Hill to be editor in chief.”

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