Born in France, Thomas Merton was the son of an American artist and poet and her New Zealander husband, a painter. Merton lost both parents before he had finished high school, and his younger brother was killed in World War II. Something of the ephemeral character of human endeavor marked all his works, deepening the pathos of his writings and drawing him close to Eastern, especially Buddhist, forms of monasticism. After an initial education in the United States, France, and England, he completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. His parents, nominally friends, had given him little religious guidance, and in 1938, he converted to Roman Catholicism. The following year he received an M.A. from Columbia University and in 1941, he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he remained until a short time before his death. His working life was spent as a Trappist monk. At Gethsemani, he wrote his famous autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain" (1948); there he labored and prayed through the days and years of a constant regimen that began with daily prayer at 2:00 a.m. As his contemplative life developed, he still maintained contact with the outside world, his many books and articles increasing steadily as the years went by. Reading them, it is hard to think of him as only a "guilty bystander," to use the title of one of his many collections of essays. He was vehement in his opposition to the Vietnam War, to the nuclear arms race, to racial oppression. Having received permission to leave his monastery, he went on a journey to confer with mystics of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He was accidentally electrocuted in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968.
Editor and author Robert Giroux was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on April 8, 1914. He dropped out of Regis High School shortly before graduation in order to take a newspaper job with The Jersey Journal. He received a scholarship to Columbia University, became editor-in-chief of The Columbia Review, and graduated in 1936. He joined the public relations department at the Columbia Broadcasting System and worked there for four years before finding his first editing job at Harcourt, Brace, and Company in 1940. During World War II, he served in the Navy. He joined Farrar, Straus and Company in 1955 as editor-in-chief and almost 20 of his writers at Harcourt followed him including T. S. Eliot, Bernard Malamud, and Flannery O'Connor. He became a partner in the publishing company in 1964 and eventually chairman. He also wrote several books including The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare's Sonnets, The Education of an Editor, and A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor. He was the president of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures from 1975 to 1982. He received numerous awards for his work including The Alexander Hamilton Medal from the Columbia University alumni association in 1987, the Mayoral Award of Honor for Art and Culture from the City of New York in 1989, and the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement in 2006. He died on September 5, 2008 at the age of 94.