Felicity Bryan was a leading literary agent who helped nurture journalism on both sides of the Atlantic, organising a long-standing fellowship that sends a young British journalist to work in The Washington Post newsroom each summer. She died on 21 June at home in Kidlington, England. She was 74.
The literary agency she founded and chaired, Felicity Bryan Associates, announced earlier this month that she was stepping back from day-to-day involvement while being treated for stomach cancer. Her death was announced in a statement by her family.
Bryan was a reporter for the Financial Times and The Economist before joining Curtis Brown, a premier London literary agency, in 1972. She rose to become a director before founding her namesake agency in Oxford in 1988, establishing what became one of Britain’s few major agencies outside London.
“She was not just about promoting an author – she nurtured them, she encouraged them, she was a positive force,” said Lionel Barber, a friend of Bryan’s who retired in January as the editor of the Financial Times. “If you had to draw up a list of the top 10 literary agents in Britain, she would be there.”
Bryan assembled a genre-spanning roster of authors, representing historians, novelists, artists, journalists, academics and cookbook writers in their dealings with publishers. Among many others, she worked with Karen Armstrong, Mary Berry, Francis Crick, Gerald Durrell, Lindsey Hilsum, James Naughtie, Iain Pears, Rosamunde Pilcher, Edmund de Waal and Sue Stuart-Smith, whose self-help book The Well-Gardened Mind recently landed on bestseller lists.
She was also known among journalists as an originator of the Laurence Stern Fellowship, named for an award-winning Washington Post reporter and Anglophile who died in 1979 at age 50. The fellowship began the next year after Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and British journalist Godfrey Hodgson turned to Bryan, a close friend and former partner of Stern’s, for help establishing the program and recruiting candidates.
“Larry Stern was the inspiration for this fellowship. Felicity is the unstoppable engine who made this program the success that it is,” Martin Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said in a June statement announcing a new name for what is now the Stern-Bryan Fellowship. “With one American and one Brit,” he added, “the hyphenated name also matches the fellowship’s transatlantic ideals.”
Bryan spearheaded fundraising efforts to keep the fellowship alive and helped cultivate the program’s reputation as an incubator for promising young journalists. Administered with the journalism program at City University of London, the fellowship has been awarded to reporters including Jonathan Freedland, Audrey Gillan, David Leigh and Gary Younge of The Guardian; Mary Ann Sieghart and Naughtie of the BBC; and foreign correspondent Louisa Loveluck, now the Post’s Baghdad bureau chief.
“It was enlightened, visionary, and Felicity kept it going when it could have easily faltered,” said Barber, a 1985 fellow who credited the programme with making him more rigorous in his reporting and confident in the newsroom. (When he returned to England, an editor told him he “had put on 3 extra pounds and was 10 decibels louder”.)
Away from her beloved books and periodicals, Bryan was often found in the garden outside her home, a former 15th-century stone rectory in Kidlington, near Oxford. She cultivated roses, dahlias, hollyhocks and foxgloves; wrote several gardening books as well as a gardening column for the Evening Standard; and frequently hosted outdoor parties. She was effervescent, colleagues said, with former Washington Post journalist Peter Osnos declaring, “Rarely has a name suited someone so well.”
But Bryan’s good humour also masked profound sadness in her life. Her family had a history of cancer, which claimed both her sisters, and of bipolar disorder. Bryan was 22 when her mother drowned in 1968, after two suicide attempts and what Bryan described as “eight years of hell”; her daughter was the same age when she died by suicide in 2004. Both showed symptoms of what was once known as manic depression.
“Coming to terms’ with her death is not only a betrayal; for me it is an impossibility,” Bryan later wrote in a Guardian essay, “Once We Had a Daughter”. “We shall none of us ever be the same … Thank goodness for my work, my colleagues, my clients, my friends and my sleeping pills.”
The second of three daughters, Felicity Anne Bryan was born in the Yorkshire town of Sowerby Bridge on 16 October 1945. When she was 6, the family bought and later moved to Park Farm, near Scarborough on the North Sea coast.
“My mother’s approach to farming was Marie Antoinettish,” she wrote in the Guardian essay, published in 2006. “We had all manner of unusual bantams, geese and pigs. Orphaned lambs wandered through the kitchen. I found ducklings in the bath.”
Her father, Paul Bryan, was a clothing manufacturer and decorated Second World War officer who commanded infantry units in North Africa and Italy. He was elected to parliament as a Conservative when Felicity was 9, and remained in office for 32 years. Her mother, the former Betty Hoyle, trained as a physiotherapist and began showing symptoms of bipolar disorder in her mid-40s, leading her to receive electric shock treatment.
Bryan went to boarding school and studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, part of the University of London, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1967. She worked at the Burlington Magazine art journal before settling in Washington in 1968 as an assistant to Financial Times correspondent Joe Rogaly.
While writing for the newspaper, she began a relationship with Stern, living with him in Saigon for a time after he became The Washington Post’s correspondent in Vietnam. She left to take a job at the Economist, where she covered American affairs before being recruited to Curtis Brown by noted agent Graham Watson, over champagne at the Ritz Hotel.
In 1974 she married Alasdair Clayre, a writer, musician and television broadcaster. They divorced in 1980, but Bryan remained a close friend and organised his funeral after he died by suicide in 1984, according to an account in the New Yorker.
By then, she had remarried, having fallen in love with an usher from her first wedding, Alex Duncan, who happened to be her stepbrother. They had met a decade earlier when their parents married, and became romantically involved when Ms Bryan visited him in The Gambia – where he was working as an economist – while recovering from her breakup with Clayre.
“The fact that my stepmother is also my mother-in-law is hardly ever mentioned,” Bryan wrote in a 1999 essay in the Daily Mail, “and on the rare occasions when we do explain our situation to new acquaintances, you can see a puzzled look come over their faces as they try to work out if incest is involved.”
“We knew a great deal more about each other than many couples do when they marry,” she added, “so there is less scope for nasty surprises and there is also no problem deciding whose family to visit.”
They married in 1981. In addition to their daughter, Alice, they had two sons – Max of Madrid and Ben of London – who survive her.
Bryan’s younger sister, the Rev Bernadette Hingley, became one of the first women ordained as an Anglican priest before dying of ovarian cancer in 1995. Her older sister, pediatrician Elizabeth Bryan, wrote Singing the Life, a memoir about her and her sisters’ inheritance of the BRCA1 gene mutation, which carries an increased risk of certain cancers. She died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.
In an email, Duncan recalled that Bryan had skin cancer and two separate breast cancers before being diagnosed with stomach cancer. “An element of understanding Felicity has been her resilience and utter lack of self-pity in the face of much adversity,” he wrote.
Bryan was awarded an OBE in December, for services to publishing. She had done far more than haggle on behalf of her writers, author and historian Diarmaid MacCulloch once told the Oxford Times.
“Felicity and her colleagues are not just a means of terrifying publishers and doing the hard-nosed negotiations that would send us delicate wilting flowers in the writing world reaching for our smelling-salts,” he said in 2013. “They make us think further than our own limited visions: They show us possibilities which we had not glimpsed, and then they help us turn them into reality.”
Felicity Bryan, literary agent, born 16 October 1945, died 21 June 2020
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