Born in 1907 in Chicago of Russian immigrants, Targ’s original name was William Torgownik. He dropped out of high school and at age 18 went to work as an office boy reading galleys at Macmillan. It was there that his boss advised him to change his last name because no one could pronounce it.
At age 22, Targ opened his own bookshop in Chicago and began his lifelong avocation acquiring rare books and first editions. His collection would eventually number more than a thousand.
In 1942 Targ became an editor for the World Publishing Company’s Tower and Forum unit in Cleveland. World Publishing sent him to New York in 1945 to begin a trade-book division. He went on to become editor-in-chief before moving in 1964 to Putnam’s, where he also rose to become editor-in-chef until he stepped down from that post in 1974 and retired from the company in 1978. The Godfather was the most profitable single novel ever published by Putnam’s at the time of Targ’s death.
While at Putnam’s, Targ guided many writers on long and successful careers, including Simone de Beauvoir, Art Buchwald, George Burns, and Harry Gordon. He edited 18 books by Art Buchwald alone, with Buchwald’s Laid Back in Washington being their last collaborative effort in 1978.
In 1982 Targ’s wife Roslyn threw him a birthday party, “Live at 75” at their Greenwich Village penthouse apartment. More than 100 friends and colleagues attended. Longtime Village residents, the couple met at the Jumble Shop and often dined at Grand Ticino. Roslyn Targ remembers many authors who frequented the Cedar Bar near their home. Samuel Beckett was a close personal friend to both.
She reminisced recently that her husband enjoyed hunting for rare books on weekends and would show them to her over breakfast. "He'd tell me, one day the price would be me and he'd hesitate," she remembered.
The New York Times called Targ “one of the greatest post World War II editors.” Roslyn Targ still lives in the Village and only recently retired from her own successful career as a literary agent.