The Storyteller

Ike Williams knows a good tale when he reads one. Just ask Norman Mailer.

Published in 2005 Massachusetts Super Lawyers — November 2005

John Taylor “Ike” Williams loves to spin a yarn. If you are in his office and mention Norman Mailer, the strapping lawyer immediately directs you toward a framed photo hanging on the wall.

The shot captures Williams as a young lawyer in the late 1970s jawing with Mailer. The subject that day was The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s book about murderer Gary Gilmore, which Williams was vetting for libel. The photographer was Larry Schiller, an investigative journalist and collaborator with Mailer on book and TV deals. “We were working on the manuscript, which was enormous and had tons of legal issues,” Williams recalls, bright-blue eyes peering at the photo. “We’d have these meetings, they’d look at me, and they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, what a goy you are.’”

Williams is definitely a goy but he’s also a mensch. As a lawyer and agent in the media-entertainment field, which has a famously outsized Jewish presence concentrated in New York City and Los Angeles, the deeply rooted Bostonian has made it big.

From his office on the 27th floor of the State Street Bank Building in Boston, he oversees 40 media and entertainment lawyers at one of the city’s oldest and most prestigious firms, Fish & Richardson. As an intellectual property and First Amendment lawyer with 40 years of experience, Williams represents publishers, magazines and TV and film producers.

He is also co-director of Kneerim & Williams, the law firm’s literary and dramatic-rights agency. Often described as the best in New England, the agency has four agents in Boston. Since 2002 it has been spreading its wings nationally and now employs three agents in New York City and has representatives working on commission in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M.

Williams’ success stems from his savvy about how the entertainment-media business works, a treasure trove of contacts and sheer likeability, say people who know him and his practice well.

“More than anything else, he’s great with people,” says John Spooner, an investment adviser at Smith Barney, novelist and bestselling author of such nonfiction books as Confessions of a Stock Broker and Smart People, whom Williams represents as a literary agent. “He’s enormously charming without being phony.”

Williams is also proudly, exuberantly bookish. The yellow Civil War–era farmhouse in North Cambridge where he and his wife, the painter Noa Hall, have lived since 1967, groans under the weight of 10,000 volumes. Books in which he has played a part as a lawyer or agent clog the shelves of the bookcases on two sides of his office. More books from publishers seeking a promotional plug and the like are piled helter-skelter in a chair next to his desk, as though they had tumbled down a chute from the ceiling.

He raves about the co-director of his literary agency, Jill Kneerim, and how the first book she published was Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed early in her career with Grossman Publishing. “I just thought Ike would be a blast to work with, and he knows everybody,” says Kneerim, who had met Williams at college and had known him socially in Boston. “That seemed very promising in helping to get the agency rolling.”

Williams attributes his love of books to his mother. “She was a voracious reader and had an incredible memory,” he says. In Williams’ telling, his mother, Audrey, who was part Oglala Sioux, assumes almost mythic proportions. She grew up in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, skipped three grades and later taught English, math and Spanish at a middle school after becoming a widow at a young age. His father, Paul Taylor, the son of a prominent Worcester trial lawyer whose finances had dwindled during the Depression, had met Audrey while he was working as a truck driver in Colorado. The couple had married and settled in Cambridge, but Taylor was killed in an auto accident in 1941, when Williams was 3.

When his mother remarried four years later, Williams’ stepfather adopted him. The stepfather, a paint manufacturer whose surname was Williams, had come from Kansas to attend Harvard Business School. “He was on the road most of the time,” Williams says. “He was a great salesman and a rather sad man, I always felt. We had no closeness.”

Williams turned into “sort of a high school thug,” he says. His mother tapped the payout from his father’s life insurance policy and packed him off to the upper-crust Middlesex School in Concord. The school’s class snobbery rubbed Williams the wrong way, he says, but Middlesex fostered a “discipline of hard work” that landed him at Harvard. (It was at Middlesex where a roommate dubbed him “Ike,” after their hero, Ike Williams, a gutsy black boxer out of Trenton, N.J.)

Harvard was supposed to be on his stepfather’s dime, but that didn’t happen. “About halfway through my freshman year, I got a call from him,” Williams recounts. “He said, ‘I’ve got some bad news. I’ve had to declare bankruptcy. So you’re on your own.’” Scrambling to pay the bills, Williams worked as a prep-school sports coach, weekend custodian, bookstore clerk and test proctor.

The lack of a moneyed pedigree did not stop Williams from becoming president of one of Harvard’s clubs, the Spee Club (the roster of alumni includes Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Christian Herter and Peter Benchley). Nor, as he contemplated possible careers, did it limit his aspirations: ornithology, publishing, banking and diplomacy.

Ornithology? Fresh out of Harvard, he indulged a passion for ornithology by accepting a job to study shorebirds on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A question about that experience prompts a story that ricochets from Fidel Castro’s revolutionary intrigue to Mayan geopolitics to Mexico’s environmental laxity to hunters’ rampant slaughter of ducks — and on and on. “It was a really wild and unruly time,” he says, finally. Had he not had an impaired left eye, the result of an acorn fight when he was a kid, he might have stuck with ornithology, he says.

It was diplomacy he had in mind when he enrolled in 1962 at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which he attended on a scholarship. For a time he considered a career as a diplomat or CIA operative, but ultimately decided against it. “As I grew more worldly, I realized that [statecraft] was a big game, and what you read wasn’t necessarily what was happening,” he explains.

Instead, he returned to Boston for a job in the publishing industry’s orbit as a lawyer with the now defunct Haussermann Davison & Shattuck. Then a fusty firm with 12 lawyers, Haussermann had a client, Little, Brown and Co., that Williams was itching to represent. Says Williams, “It was the beginning of my life in publishing. The people [at Little Brown] taught me everything.”

That “everything” has been powering Williams’ career ever since, as he has carved out ever larger publishing law fiefdoms for himself and his expanding entourage of lawyers and agents at three top-notch Boston firms. He was at Palmer & Dodge from 1983 to 2001 and then decamped to Hill & Barlow. He joined Fish & Richardson three years ago.

It was under Palmer & Dodge’s auspices that Williams and Kneerim founded their agency. The start-up date, Williams puckishly notes, was April Fool’s Day 1990. His decision to start the agency followed a six-month sabbatical, during which he traveled as far as Burma and thought hard about his law practice.

“I was losing contact with the most interesting part of my life: someone coming to the door with this idea and saying, ‘What do you think? How should I go about this? How might I fund it? Who should I bring in as partners?’ All of that conversation, I was being slowly squeezed out of,” he says. He was becoming unaffordable to his prized individual clients — “creators,” he calls them — and thus hit upon the idea of establishing a literary agency under his firm’s umbrella so he could continue representing them, albeit in a different capacity. Today, Williams says, he divides his time 50-50 between his law practice and the agency. He bills his law clients at a rate of $615 an hour, whereas his agency clients pay him the industrystandard commission, 15 percent of any income they collect from their work.

As an agent, Williams became immersed in the creative realms of biologist Edward O. Wilson, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and TV personality Rikki J. Kleiman. They are among the 256 authors that the agency lists as its clients. “Basically, if you were to ask publishers what they expect to see from us, it’s going to be high-content nonfiction,” Williams says.

Of course, some of the books that Williams ushers to market are higher content than others. On his clients list is We Need to Talk, But First, Do You Like My Shoes? Dress Codes for Dumping Your Man by Kristina Grish. And Williams was the dealmaker for the bestselling I Want to Tell You, a compilation of letters sent to O.J. Simpson while he was in jail awaiting trial on murder charges.

With a ruddy face and full head of swept-back ash-blond hair, Williams still has the chiseled, movie-star looks that put him on the International Best Dressed List in 1992. He turned 67 on June 19. He and his wife have three sons in their 30s — a photographer, a painter and an actor — and one grandson.

In April, the Boston chapter of the American Jewish Committee presented Williams with its Judge Learned Hand Award, citing his achievements as a lawyer and literary agent and his “community activism” — notably, his work as a former cochairman of the Boston Bar Association’s Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. The keynote speaker at the award dinner was Norman Mailer.

Mailer, speaking by telephone from his house in Provincetown, says he regards Williams as a “good friend.” Mailer and Williams, who has a vacation house in nearby Wellfleet, get together in the summer to socialize and argue about politics.

Williams is a “liberal Democrat,” the novelist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner says. “I’d be either to the left or the right of Ike on a given argument,” Mailer says. “He is a complex man with a fine intellect and a personal point of view, and a very interesting man to argue with and talk to. We’ve had many discussions over the years. I find him great fun to be around.”

Fun, in fact, is a word that pops up often in Williams’ vocabulary. “I’ve had more goddamn fun with him,” he says of Mailer. And in referring to the whole of his career, he says: “You know one of the things that have made my life so much fun? It is the stories. I could listen to stories and tell stories all my life.”

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