Peter Olson-widely reported to be stepping down from Random House after a debilitating bout of pneumonia-doesn't get much sympathy in the publishing industry. Here's how the publishing giant's chief executive will be remembered: as a money-minded philistine who's fallen victim to the same financial accountability he tried to instill at Bertelsmann's US book producing factory. But there is one endearing angle to Olson's comeuppance: his departure may have been dictated less by Bertelsmann's Teutonic board members than Olson's formidable wife, Candice.
The New York Times reported the 58-year-old Olson had been "distracted and unavailable" since falling ill in November. But the newspaper didn't explain quite why he couldn't be reached. Candice Olson-known as Candice Carpenter when she ran the iVillage website for women-commandeered all his communication devices, according to a friend. After she left the internet business, Candice Olson decided that she wanted to do something else with the rest of her life. ''I personally came to the conclusion that being a C.E.O. is hell,'' she said in an interview. By some combination of poor results at Random House, pneumonia and a domineering wife, Olson has had the same decision made for him.
The Olsons have five children, two adopted from Eastern Europe; and Candice was still attempting another natural pregnancy at the age of 50. This is the couple's first-encounter story. When Candice met the Random House chief executive in 2001 at a party-only three months before marrying-he heard her explain what she was doing after retiring from business. Mrs. Olson recounted to the New York Times: "I said I was trying to be the best mommy on Park Avenue. That's what captured Peter's attention.'' So the clichéd explanation for so many corporate exits-the desire to spend more time with one's family-may actually hold true in this instance.
But that's quite enough generosity for the departing executive, who acknowledged himself that he was a "pariah" in the literary reaches of the publishing industry. His critics remembered smirking relish with which he fired Ann Godoff and other editors who viewed publishing as an art rather than a business. Wandering around a book fair at the time, he told an interviewer: ''I recognize hundreds of people here. Many of them worked for me. Many of them I fired personally.'' He did not seem upset by this; in fact, he seemed amused, observed the Times' Lynn Hirschberg ''I fired him,'' Olson said as two men passed by. ''There are so many people here that I've fired that we could have a reunion.''