Richard Grossman, Crusading Publisher of 1960s, Dies at 92
In the early 1960s, Richard Grossman, who died on Monday at 92, was a new publisher looking for a big book, and automobile safety appealed to him as a topic. He had been moved by an article on the subject in The New Republic.
At the same time, a young lawyer named Ralph Nader, who had been studying car safety for several years, wanted to write a book in which he would contend that automakers had long put profits ahead of safety. One publisher, in rebuffing him, told him that such a book would interest only insurance adjusters.
The journalist James Ridgeway, who had written the magazine article and who had used Mr. Nader as his principal source, brought Mr. Grossman and Mr. Nader together. They signed a contract that gave Mr. Nader a $3,000 advance.
The deal resulted in “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile,” published in 1965, which helped jump-start the modern consumer movement, much as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” ignited environmentalism in 1962.
The book — named, edited and promoted by Mr. Grossman — maintained that a compact car, the Chevrolet Corvair, made by General Motors, had “designed-in” features that made it prone to spills and rollovers. Its larger message, Justin Martin wrote in “Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon” (2002), was that “unaccountable forces — the auto industry in this case — made decisions that affect the lives of individual citizens.”
Mr. Nader was even blunter in a telephone interview on Friday. He said the book “showed the cruelty of the modern corporation.”
Richard Lee Grossman was born in Chicago on June 26, 1921, and moved to New York City as a child. He was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania for two years, then transferred to City College in New York, where he studied religion for a year before dropping out, unable to afford to continue his studies.
He served in the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific during World War II, earning a bronze star and attaining the rank of captain. After his discharge, he worked in a department store in Canton, Ohio, then started an advertising agency there and began writing an advertising column for a home furnishings magazine published by Fairchild Publications.
A family connection later landed him a job at the publishing house Simon & Schuster, where he rose to vice president.
He founded his own concern, Grossman Publishers, in 1962 in a basement apartment in Manhattan. He and Mr. Nader met there to iron out their contract.
Mr. Nader rushed to finish the book in advance of the congressional hearings on car safety that he had agitated for, and he and Mr. Grossman met at a Washington motel to edit the book.
Mr. Grossman set up two typewriters side by side in the room. As soon as Mr. Nader finished a page, he would hand it to Mr. Grossman for editing. Working day and night, they finished the book in 22 days.
Mr. Grossman’s publicity campaign for “Unsafe at Any Speed” culminated in a news conference with Mr. Nader at the Sheraton Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, the site chosen because G.M. made Cadillacs. It proved to be a publicity masterstroke: the heads of car companies who had been invited did not show, conspicuously so, and Mr. Nader put on a deft performance parrying hostile questions from the trade press.
The first 9,000 copies of the book, published on Nov. 30, 1965, sold out, and by March almost 22,000 copies had been purchased. But it did not become a best seller until news reports revealed that G.M. had hired investigators to try to collect dirt on Mr. Nader. At a Senate hearing on March 22, 1966, James M. Roche, the chairman of G.M., apologized to Mr. Nader for what he called “harassment.”
That September, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which set safety standards for cars and roads.
Mr. Grossman went on to publish books by Mr. Nader and his associates on air and water pollution, food and drugs, pesticides and coal-mine safety, all of which helped lead to the passage of major legislation.
He also published literary books, including “84 Charing Cross Road,” Helene Hanff’s 1970 bestseller about her 20-year correspondence with the chief clerk of an antiquarian bookstore in London. (A film version starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins was released in 1987.) He published a half-dozen books by Louis Zukofsky, an American Jewish poet known for vivid verses inspired by Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1971, he published “Scorpion,” a novel by Albert Memmi set in the author’s native Tunis.
Among the company’s nonfiction titles was ”Dallas Public and Private: Aspects of an American City,” Warren Leslie’s portrayal of right-wing extremism in Dallas at the time of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Mr. Grossman sold his business to Viking in 1968.
A man of many interests, he became a psychotherapist, with offices in Manhattan and Salisbury, Conn.; an authority on alternative medicine; and a published expert on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
His book “Choosing and Changing: A Guide to Self-Reliance” (1978) gave advice on midlife career changes. His “A Year With Emerson: A Daybook” (2003) offers daily almanac entries of Emerson’s wisdom.
Mr. Grossman died in Salisbury. His wife, the author Ann Arensberg, said the cause was leukemia.
His marriages to Elizabeth Heiden and Jill Kneerim ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Mr. Grossman is survived by his daughters, Joan Grossman, Nancy Nagle and Lucy Rochambeau.
One story he liked to tell about his publishing days concerned a visit to the photographer Richard Avedon at his home on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He found Mr. Avedon crying.
“Where are your 35-millimeter cameras?” he said to Mr. Avedon, who was best known for his fashion work. “Get out on the streets immediately.”
The haunted faces of grief that Mr. Avedon shot that day are considered some of his most moving work.
Mr. Grossman himself was photographed, anonymously, for the cover of one edition of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” Sloan Wilson’s best-selling 1955 novel about a soulless business culture in postwar America. Jonathan Schwartz, the radio personality and a friend of Mr. Grossman’s, wrote in an email, “His pose was jaunty — the perfect suit with his back to the camera.”