Elisabeth Sifton, one of the most revered editors in American book publishing and the author of what she described as a “memoiristic” history of the life and works of her father, the towering American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, died Dec. 13 at her home in Manhattan. She was 80.

The cause was breast cancer, said her son John Sifton.

Elisabeth Sifton grew up in a home of intense intellectual and social engagement, in the company of the poet W.H. Auden, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and other luminaries who made up her parents’ social circle. After studying history and literature at Radcliffe College, she embarked on a career that, over the course of a half-century, took her to the highest echelons of the publishing industry.

She retired in 2008 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she had been a senior vice president, as well as publisher and then editor-at-large of Hill and Wang, a subsidiary. Previously, she had been executive vice president of Alfred Knopf and, before that, editor-in-chief of Viking Press and a vice president of Viking Penguin. Such was the respect surrounding Sifton that in 1984, Viking Penguin gave her the rare distinction of a personal imprint, Elisabeth Sifton Books.

Her authors included some of the most acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including John Ashbery, Isaiah Berlin, Andrew Delbanco, Don DeLillo, Carlos Fuentes, William Gaddis, Allan Gurganus, Stanley Karnow, Peter Matthiessen, Jonathan Spence, William Trevor and Geoffrey Wolff.

Sifton was known for the care that she brought to the writing over which her authors had labored for years. It was a trait she had displayed early in her career when, as a self-described “new kid on the Viking editorial block,” she was assigned to edit the novels of Saul Bellow, the soon-to-be Nobel laureate in literature.


“I had scarcely talked to him, but he nailed me as his co-conspirator in the work to be done, and we plunged in,” she wrote in a reminiscence published in the online magazine Slate when Bellow died in 2005. “I was shocked, at first, that he gave a hoot about my opinion … who was I to pass judgment on this manuscript? But we went over many a sequence, incident, chapter break, transition – then over and over them again.

“He seemed, sometimes, uncertain of his powers, even as he demonstrated them in the unflagging, keenly focused attention he gave to every detail,” Sifton continued. “He wanted me to pay attention, too. Auden says that paying attention is a form of love; well, then, I tried to love Saul Bellow.”

After devoting years to the writing of others, Sifton set out on her own literary odyssey in the 1990s, with a research project that eventually led to the publication in 2003 of her book “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.”

The title referred to the prayer, often but not always attributed to her father, that became ubiquitous in the second half of the 20th century, when it was amended and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, emblazoned on greeting cards and inspirational magnets and calendars, and recited among adults by rote, as if in the manner of children who murmur: “Now I lay me down to sleep . . . ”

The prayer commonly reads: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

In its simplicity, it seemed to many people, Sifton said on NPR, “so old that the origins are lost in the mists of time.” But in an essay that grew into a short book published in German and then into her full-length 2003 volume, Sifton sought to show that the prayer did indeed originate with her father, during the summer of 1943 when he was ministering to a small Protestant congregation in Massachusetts.


Even Niebuhr – to Sifton, he was simply “Pa” – entertained the possibility, when pressed, that the prayer might have included elements of other theological writings that he had absorbed in his years of study. “But he knew he wrote it!” she told the San Diego Reader in a 2003 interview. “I think he was just depressed and fatigued with these constant (questions about its provenance), and he also had a genuine spiritual modesty that prevented him from making a big claim about it.”

According to Sifton, her father’s prayer was first published in a booklet for U.S. troops in Europe during World War II, when many people were contemplating how to contend with evil in the world.

Niebuhr did not object to the prayer’s later application by Alcoholics Anonymous to personal struggles with addiction. But his daughter maintained that he had intended it for more sweeping collective struggles, such as the search for greater social justice.

“I think the singular and plural versions of it are related, however,” she told the San Diego Reader, because you can’t engage in the social action that I think my father had in mind unless your heart changes in a deep, personal, and singular way. So the prayer is rightly thought of in both ways.”

She buttressed her history with close readings of her father’s writings and sermons, leavening his theology with memories of her parents and the world in which she was raised. The result, Catholic theologian David Tracy wrote in the New Republic, was a “splendid and strenuous book” about a prayer of “genuine profundity.”

“Who does not want serenity, courage, and wisdom,” he observed, “to deal with whatever chance, or fate, or providence, has meted out?”


Barbara Elisabeth Niebuhr – she had a second middle name, spelled either Ann or Anne – was born in New York City on Jan. 13, 1939. She described her mother, Ursula Niebuhr, a noted scholar who established the religion department at New York’s Barnard College, as “extremely English in a high Oxonian way.”

Her father, meanwhile, “was this, as he put it, yahoo from Missouri,” Sifton told the San Diego Reader. “They came from different worlds, but they got along splendidly.”

Sifton was a 1960 graduate of Radcliffe College, the former women’s undergraduate counterpart to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she studied as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Paris before working briefly for the State Department. Her first editorial position was with the Frederick A. Praeger publishing house in 1962.

Sifton’s marriage to Charles Sifton, a federal judge, ended in divorce. In 1996, she married Fritz Stern, a noted historian of Germany who had fled the country under Hitler as a boy. Together the couple wrote “No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State” (2013).

Stern died in 2016. Sifton’s survivors include three children from her first marriage, Sam Sifton, food editor for The New York Times, and John Sifton, both of Brooklyn, and Toby Sifton of Brunswick, Maine; and four grandchildren.

Sifton considered herself a “believing Christian,” and she concluded, after years of wrestling with her father’s prayer, that its deepest plea was not the one for serenity – the virtue that gave the prayer its name – but rather for wisdom.

“Every single day one has to think, ‘Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change?'” she told the San Diego Reader. “That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.”

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