RIP Noel Greenwood, an editor who despised Republicans and loved newspapers

Former Los Angeles Times senior editor Noel Greenwood edited Steve LeVine’s first two books and was to edit his third, which is about batteries. LeVine, who is Quartz’s Washington correspondent, wrote this for

By Steve LeVine
noel2Noel Greenwood (right) died Sunday morning at his home in Santa Barbara. His daughter, Diana, called a few hours later to let me know, she said, “before it hit the papers.” Noel had cancer for years, and rang up recently to say he had decided finally that the chemo was too much. He had gone off of it, and been assigned home hospice care. My wife, our daughters and I flew out a few days later to say goodbye.

With Noel propped up in a hospital bed next to the window in his living room, a New York Times folded up next to him, we reminisced about the two books on which we had collaborated. Back in 1994, we had rendezvoused at a Santa Monica bar and, over beers, talked over the marvelous rogues, diplomats and prospectors who had turned up on the Caspian Sea, where I was living at the time, in what was a great oil boom set against a battle for influence between Russia and the U.S. I needed an editor as partner. With barely another word, Noel said, “I’m in.” I learned that Noel was jolly and good-humored, but also very tough – he discarded one entire chapter with a not entirely pleasant explanation. The resulting book, published 12 years later, was everything I had hoped.

Even before it was published, though, Random House called and wanted another one – Alexander Litvinenko had been murdered with Polonium-210 in London. Could I whip up a spy story? They wanted it in a year. I called Noel. He was in on that one, too (we did it in 13 months). It was a great read, and Noel and I continued to agree that the thesis stands up some five years later, even if some Russophiles don’t think so.

Steve LeVine

Steve LeVine

Noel was a literary editor with the deftest blue-pencil touch, and a sneaky way of motivating your best work. He despised Republicans, loved newspapers, and never forgave what the avarice of the Chandler family and the mindlessness of their successors did to the L.A. Times. But he loved life, good wine and beer, and a rollicking laugh.

When Noel called with the news about his chemo, he also said that I had better find a new editor for the book I’m working on now. I have not done so. But as we sat next to each other two weeks ago, I peppered him with questions that I should have asked long before – about pacing, about the unusual structure I intended for the new book. He warmed to the idea. He would take a look if he could. “Send a hard copy,” he said.