Richard Ballantine, author, publisher, human power advocate and “cyclist guru” to the world, died peacefully at a hospice center in London on the twenty ninth of May, with Sherry, his wife of 39 years and their three grown children, at his side. Richard, who had waged a long battle with cancer, was 72 years old.
Hailing from a family of brilliant eccentrics including the first owner of an automobile in Edinburgh, anarchist Emma Goldman, the discoverer and life-long editor of Eugene O’Neill, [with] a member of the British Raj for one grandfather, and actor, sculptor, race-car driver EJ Ballantine for the other, Richard was also the only child of paperback publishing pioneers Ian and Betty Ballantine. He grew up between Bearsville and Manhattan.
It could safely be said that young Ballantine looked upon life as a series of adventures to be survived if possible, the first of many involving his being passed as an infant from the window of a burning apartment to a fireman on a ladder. Born near-deaf, Richard compensated by learning to read lips at an extremely young age. Separated from his father, once, in the dangerous confusion of New York City, he thereafter became the most organized and “emergency-equipped” individual imaginable.
When his father lost control of Bantam Books in 1952 and those “loyal to the cause” met clandestinely in the family penthouse apartment on 24th street to form Ballantine Books, Richard, aged 12, was obliged to give up his bedroom from 5 p.m. to midnite Monday thru Friday. Publishing was not a job for the Ballantines, it was a way of life, or more specifically a way of perceiving and creating life, fast passed from parents to son. It was Richard’s uproarious appreciation of Mad Magazine, for instance, which sparked a comedic revolution when that irreverent weekly was adapted into a hugely successful paperback series. It comes as little surprise, then, that of his many illustrative forbearers, Richard was most drawn to the anarchist writings of his great-aunt Emma Goldman, and that of the dozens of authors filing through his home, he became fondest of Marxist, C. Wright Mills. It was, in fact, on a motorcycle borrowed from Mills, that Richard effectively dropped out of Columbia and rode across the country and back, embracing a Call of the Wild he would never completely abandon.
I was four when my mother married Ian’s brother, David Ballantine, in 1960. I became aware and ever-more devoted to Richard as he was proving himself a new centurion on the more radical vanguard of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at NYU, where he and a flock of bearded friends seemed bent on burning the world, as it was presently configured, to the ground. But though rebellious, Richard was powered primarily — or it seemed to me — by an even more unstoppable sense of fun. Every time he turned up on Ballantine Hill it was with a new girlfriend in a different old car. His favorite was an F-85 Oldsmobile, once stolen from him in New York. I remember him triumphantly arriving atop the hill in the middle of a blizzard having freshly stolen it back. Over the years this older cousin gave me my first serious bicycle: a Peugot ten speed; and my first guitar, a Stella steel string. Richard, who could tune a guitar precisely, only played and sang the blues herewith creating a memorable cross between Huddie Leadbelly and a lovesick bear. He was also the first person I ever saw dive (without injury) from Fawn’s Leap into the Palenville gorge. Richard was a dancer on skis, over rocky Catskill trails, and on ever sleeker bikes. Assisted and enraptured by adrenaline I followed close behind.
Deafness provided Richard a concentrated clarity which could prove positively spooky. A drunken Bob Dylan once stuck a pistol into Rich’s beard in the Espresso Cafe, the zen-like stare from its owner sobering up the poet laureate sufficiently to inspire a rare apology. Given a Jaguarundi kitten the size of his fist, Richard named the cat “Pepe.” It grew into the fastest, wildest creature ever witnessed in The Catskills, and before being shot by a farmer, revealed a side of Richard nothing less than cat-like.
While supporting himself indexing non-fiction, and cutting his teeth co-authoring books with friends John Cohen (Africa Addio) and Joel Griffiths (Silent Slaughter), at about 30 Richard began work on a long manuscript about bicycles which, it was decided, would be published by the family. His mother, Betty (who happened to be one of the great line editors of her day) remembers being vaguely terrified. “Here was my son, hard at work on an incredibly involved book concerning a subject I knew absolutely nothing about which I was supposed to edit. Of course, upon reading it I was immediately put at ease, nothing less than marvelous! Precise, witty, chock full of energy…an editor’s dream!”