It was 1958, and Fred Hills, a graduate student trying to earn some extra cash, was selling books at the Emporium department store in San Francisco. He picked up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which had just been published in the United States, and read the opening: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
Mr. Hills was so electrified that he paid the full retail price of $5 for the hardback — the first he had ever bought, apart from textbooks.
He always remembered that first encounter with Nabokov with great fondness — and with astonishment that in time he would become Nabokov’s editor. He worked with the author on a half-dozen books and on the 1974 published version of the screenplay for the 1962 movie of “Lolita,” cutting Nabokov’s original script, with its running time of nine hours, down to two. In the twilight of Nabokov’s career, Mr. Hills traveled to Zermatt, Switzerland, and between editing sessions on his last completed novel, “Look at the Harlequins!” (1974), the two went butterfly hunting together in the foothills of the Matterhorn.
At the end of his own career, after Mr. Hills had been editor in chief at McGraw Hill and then a senior editor at Simon & Schuster for more than a quarter-century, after he had helped birth the books of several prominent authors, he remained most awed by Nabokov, whom he called a glorious stylist.
“Having worked with many other writers,” he told the Nabokov Online Journal in 2019, “I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.”
Mr. Hills died on Nov. 7 at his home in Bronxville, N.Y. He was 85. His wife, Kathleen Matthews, a writer of nonfiction books, said the cause was complications of prostate cancer.
During his four decades in publishing, Mr. Hills brought to market both commercial hits and literary prizewinners and edited more than 50 New York Times best sellers.
His stable of authors encompassed an eclectic assortment from multiple genres — Heinrich Böll and Jane Fonda, Justin Kaplan and William Saroyan, Raymond Carver and James MacGregor Burns, Sumner Redstone and Joan Kennedy, Phil Donahue and David Halberstam.
The alphabetized cards in his massive Rolodex showed just how wide-ranging his contacts were: After Bruce Lee came Harper Lee.
So varied was his work that he likened being an editor to being a hermit crab. “We inhabit an author’s shell for a year or two, get the feel of that world, and then scuttle along to the next one,” he said.
At Simon & Schuster, Mr. Hills was believed to have set a record for an editor by producing nine Times hardcover nonfiction best sellers in one 12-month period, from 1990 to 1991. Among those titles were: Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power,” which won the Pulitzer Prize; Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld’s “The Best Treatment,” a guide to treating ailments of all sorts; and Christopher Andersen’s “Madonna Unauthorized,” a biography of the pop star.
In Mr. Hills’s hands, an author was safe from the scratching of a pointed red pencil and instead would be nudged by gentle persuasion.
“He understands that positive comments elicit stronger manuscripts than harsh criticism does,” Ann Rule, the true-crime writer best known for “The Stranger Beside Me” (1980), about the serial killer Ted Bundy, wrote of Mr. Hills on his retirement from Simon & Schuster in 2006.
On the same occasion, Mr. Yergin praised Mr. Hills’s “inimitable balance between patience and subtle pressure” and said he treasured Mr. Hills’s view of the editor-author relationship as one of “unindicted co-conspirators.”
While he was appreciated by writers, Mr. Hills was also valued by Simon & Schuster management, and not just for his editing skills; he routinely saved the company money on author advances. (Sensitive writers should skip the next sentence.)
“He is legendary,” one manager wrote in tribute in announcing Mr. Hills’s retirement, “for his exceptionally canny negotiating.”
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 a 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 written 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.”
Besides, he added, as an editor he could work one on one with authors and be rid of managerial tasks. This, he liked to say, allowed him to have “twice the lunches and half the meetings.”
He left McGraw Hill in 1979, and the next year he married Ms. Matthews, whom he had met at McGraw Hill. Mr. Hills’s previous marriage had ended in divorce.
In addition to Ms. Matthews, Mr. Hills is survived by a daughter, Christina Hills Brown; three sons, Bradford, Gregory and Frederic, known as Teddy; a brother, Stuart; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Hills was sometimes motivated by his personal interests when deciding what books to acquire. Hence he published one on sailing, one of his favorite hobbies, and another on home repair while overseeing construction of a house on Shelter Island, where he spent every summer for 35 years.
And tucked into his bookshelf at home, its dust jacket torn and yellowed, was that first copy of “Lolita” that he had bought in 1958. He kept it his entire life.