|Publisher:||Fromm International Publishing Corporation|
|Product dimensions:||5.92(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.93(d)|
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On July 1, 1995, marking the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of my days as a literary agent, it came to me in a flash that all that time I've been a real-life character in a living Saul Bellow novel.
Four years after I joined Russell & Volkening Literary Representatives as an assistant, Saul Bellow visited the office of his longtime agent, Henry Volkening, and jump-started my career by pointing out to Henry and his partner, Diarmuid (pronounced "Dermott") Russell, "Pay attention to hershe's got something there."
From my first week at the agency, whenever Saul called and I'd answer the phone, he'd make comments such as: "Oh, this is Russell & Volkening? It sounds like Mrs. Ross's sewing circle." The two or three times a year he'd come in, he'd announce: "Just a minuteI have to go and flirt with Harriet first."
One January day in 1969, he came to have lunch with his agent at the Century Clubor, as Henry phrased it, to have "drunch at the Drenchery Club." Saul knew he'd not get anything to eat before Henry had a few Old Grand-Dads, so he'd always grab a sandwich at the Horn & Hardart's across the street beforehand. At our agency, all of the offices were doorless and lined up in a row: Henry's, Diarmuid's, mine. That day, Saul stopped in front of mine. I was on the phone. He came in and looked me overup and down. I was skinny then, and I was wearing a great dress. He came behind me, to my free ear: "You know, you're really very pretty. Do you think you could take care of me? Would you marry me?" I took it lightly, laughed it off.
Backfrom lunch, Henry stood within earshot of Diarmuid's office and said in a loud voice, "Saul says Harriet has a pure heart. He says we should pay attention to hershe's got something there."
Diarmuid popped up from his crossword puzzle. He always finished his letters and cleared his desk by 11:30 A.M., and then he'd do his puzzle from the Guardian, his feet resting in his bottom desk drawer. He was very tall and handsome, an outdoorsman type. His father was the poet AE, and "Uncle Bill" was William Butler Yeats. Those two had been the editors of the Irish Statesman together. Diarmuid was a close friend of David Rockefeller, but he kept an account on his calendar of every cent I owed him: "HW 1 [cent] lunch." He wore the same raincoat for twenty years. It was pretty grubby. One day, he walked in and it was very wrinkled but clean. He was so happy: He'd found out, after twenty years, that it could be washed rather than dry-cleaned, which "saves money."
Henry was the exact opposite. He was a little, indoors guy. Henry wrote long, long, gushy letters to clients and editors, Diarmuid wrote one-line notes: "Dear Craig. Enclosed a Welty. Yours, Diarmuid."
The partners hadn't spoken for years, and this was their means of communicationproclamations in the hallway. Saul used to say, "Henry and Diarmuid don't run a literary agency, they run an eighteenth-century British vinegar distillery."
But when Henry called out, "Saul says Harriet has a pure heart. He says we should pay attention to her ..." Diarmuid jumped up and said out loud, "Saul's in love with Harriet."
And from then on they paid attention to me.
In the course of that afternoon, Saul came back to my office three times, sat down in the chair facing me: "Come with me to London tonight" ... "Have you got a passport?" ... "Let's go to your apartment and get your passport." Laughing and pointing at my instrument case, I said, "I've got a rehearsal tonight with the Collegium of New York Pro Musica." When he returned from London, he said he felt bad, felt I had been laughing at him.
I had no self-confidence. I graduated Hunter College magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a major in political science, but it didn't seem like something I had achieved. Instead, it seemed like some kind of fluke. When Saul told Henry, "she's got something there," it became a call for me to rise to his expectations. That was the basis of a lot of my feelings for him. He gave me a real classical education in art and spirit. He was my mentor. Our close business association and friendship (at a reception in Houston in 1988, Saul referred to me as "coach, manager, and trainer") began most improbably, in the last years of Henry and Diarmuid's partnership, indeed, their lives.
By the beginning of the seventies, to all intents and purposes, I was already acting as Saul's agent. Saul came to New York from Chicago one freezing February day in 1972 to give me 135 pages of an early draft of Humboldt's Gift. It was then that I realized he was counting on me as first reader. Late one afternoon, an assistant at Russell & Volkening said: "God's on the phone at La Guardia Airport. He wants you to meet him in front of the Westbury at six-thirty to pick up the manuscript pages." The traffic was bad, and the taxicab fairy was definitely not on my side. When I got there, a little late, Saul was standing, freezing, out in front of the hotel, without a hat, which was unusual. His nose was red and watery. I took the manuscript of Humboldt's Gift and continued on home in the cab.
Even though I had read all of his published work, being handed this manuscript was something special. It was late at night, and I was exhausted, very excited, and somewhat nervous about reading it, as if I were back in school, being tested. But once I started, I couldn't put it down. I loved it. It opened something like: "I, Charlie Citrine, the lanky son of an immigrant who came with nothing but a rolled-up mattress to Ellis Island ..." It was very breezy, very high-spirited. When Saul revises, he usually revises from the beginning, so this early opening was nothing like the published version. But it was so enjoyable, I read it through that night. I always like to read a manuscript in one sitting, and twice before responding. I got up early Saturday morning to do the second read, so I'd be fluent in it when I spoke with Saul that evening.
He was coming for dinner. Not only was I reading his manuscript pages for the first time, but he was coming to my apartment for the first time. I was busy shopping and getting my hair done and figuring out what to wear. I still didn't get it: the fact that my reading was important to him and that was why he'd come to New York. I was more concerned with vacuuming.
At about four that afternoon, he called up and said, "I'm at the Strand." (The largest used bookstore in the world: "8 miles of books," often frequented by writers.) The manager, Burt Britton, was putting together a book of self-portraits by writers, and he'd got Saul to do one. "Can I come up now?"
"My apartment is a mess."
"I'm freezing. I don't care what your rug looks like."
I asked him to come at five. I had expected him at six-thirty and was completely discombobulated. I kept cutting myself trying to shave my legs.
By the time he rang my doorbell, I realized the food wasn't out of the freezer. I shoved the vacuum into the closet. I was wearing a body suit and threw the caftan I'd just bought at Bloomingdale's over it. He walked in, and the first thing he said was, "Boy, you're coldnot a word about my book." Which didn't do much good for my nerves, either. "You didn't call last night," he said, "or this morning. And you didn't say anything when I called you from the Strand."
Saul's a literary idol and an electric, formidable presence. I was a babe in the woods, socially backward, even for the ideal mid-twentieth-century "good girl." He's always dressed like nobody else. He has great taste in clothes, slightly far-out: always a great tie you'd never see before or after, great colors in shirts, suits with knock-out linings, flashy but in good taste too. His style makes him look taller than he is. He's about five feet seven, and I realized after a while that he was self-conscious about his height. There's not a protagonist in any of his work who is under six feet tall. Writer Bob Gutwillig, back in those days, meeting Saul in a bar for an interview, later described him as "alarmingly handsome."
Henry wasn't the only one who'd break out in sweats when Saul came to town. He intimidated everyone. Years later, the photographer Tom Victor, who took many wonderful photos of Saul, said to me, before a photo session at Tom's studio on Twentieth Street and Fifth Avenue: "Saul looks at you like the strictest teacher you ever had in school. The one you were most afraid of." He has a way of giving a looksharp and penetratingthat can scare you to death, a no-place-to-hide feeling. For Saul, having his picture taken is like going to the dentist. "I'm not going to stay here long. I'm not going to take my coat off." He was like a little boy. I did go to the dentist with him oncemy dentistjust before a taping of The Dick Cavett Show in December 1981. He had trouble with an abscessed tooth. He went into the waiting room and refused to take his down coat off. He wanted to leave. Having his photo taken for book jackets was the same thing.
Tom Victor would say, "Okay, okay, Saul. I'll be quick. I'll work like a dog."
Saul: "If you work like a dog, I'll sit like a dog."
Tom was always concerned about Saul's wattles and jowls. No matter how high he told Saul to hold up his chin, those jowls were still hanging there. Finally, at a session where he had to work like a dog, Tom put the lights on, went over to Saul, grabbed the loose skin, shoved it down under his shirt collar and tightened Saul's tie. He did it so fast, Saul hardly realized what was going on, before it was all over and Tom started shooting.
When Saul told me I had been cold by not responding immediately to Humboldts Gift, I understood that I had become his first reader and that what he needed from me was my honest response. He was counting on me for that. Thereafter, for the next twenty-five years, as he gave me pages to read, I'd call at once with a response, no matter what the time of day or night. And I'd tell him I'd get back to him after I read the draft twice more.
On that freezing February night, I sat down on my couch, and Saul sat in a rocking chair facing me, and I gave him my response to his pages. I made a criticism about his character Charlie Citrine. Charlie says, "Every time I go into the elevator and the door opens, I expect to see a beautiful woman." "Why does it always have to be a beautiful woman?" I said. "Why can't it be a woman?"
"What's the matter with that?" Saul said gruffly. But he had asked for my opinion. By then I had given the pages a good reading, and he knew that I understood them.
Then he said he was hungry. I went into the kitchen. I hadn't set the table. I realized that I'd left the saucisson en croute in the freezer. I was in a sweaty panic. The boeuf bourguignon and the rice and vegetables were out, and I got them into pots. From the living room, Saul asked about my recordershe plays the recorder too. There I was, in the kitchen, frazzled but at least alone, convincing myself, like the Little Engine That Could, that I'd be able to get something together. What did he do? He picked up my soprano recorder and stood at the kitchen doorway, watching me and playing tunes the whole time.
We sat down to dinner in my glass conservatory, nineteen stories up, with its imposing close-up view of the Empire State Building. He liked that a lot. While we were eating, he said, "What's the matter? You seem distracted."
"I know what it is. You're distracted because you're nervous. You don't know if we're going to make love or not."
My response to that was reflex action. I dropped my fork on my plate, and my knife landed on the floor. They both made a clink. He started laughing. It was comical. Obviously, I was nervous ... and flustered.
Then we had coffee and dessert and came into the living room. He took his shoes off, lay down on my couch, and put his hands behind his head. He started wiggling his toes. He said, "You see these feet of clay? Do you want to touch these feet of clay?" He had his socks on.
He asked me to come to the couch and sit by him. When I did, he reached over and gave me a kiss. I had on Max Factor Grape lipstick. "Are you chewing bubble gum? You taste just like bubble gum!"
Meanwhile, I'm thinking: Oh my God, should we or shouldn't we? Is this good for business?
The point of no return came when Saul got up and walked right over to my bed. My studio apartment was quite big, but there was no door to go throughhe could just walk right over to the bed. Then I knew it wasn't going to be good for business either way. I was in a panic.
I had worn a black Lastex body suit under my caftan because I didn't think it would be good for business. Oh my God, I'm going to lose my client, my career is going to go down the drain. It was one thing to take off the caftan, but I didn't dare take off the body suit.
"You're not coming to bed in that diving suit!" he told me.
"It has a zipper.
"What?" Then he said, "I'm not judging you."
By this time, I'm muttering it out loud. "Is this good for business? Is this good for business?" Suddenly in my head it's the night of the Miss America pageant, and I had somehow gotten onstage.
When we were in bed, the red light on the Empire State Building tower was blinking at us. I kept asking him for permission, as if he were a museum objet d'art.
"Can I touch this?"
"Can I touch this?"
Then I found myself saying, "Ooh! You had an appendectomy!
He rolled his eyes upward.
When he left that night, I walked him to the elevator, thinking, "I've just lost a client, I've just lost a job. And as the elevator door closed, he said, "You were really cold to me." That's how he left.
The next day, I went to see him to return the glove he had forgotten. I didn't know what to expect. He said he hadn't had a date like that since under the Coney Island boardwalk when he was in high school. "I almost laughed," he said, "but I didn't want to hurt your feelings." I said I almost laughed too. But for me it had been a comic nightmare. He was this great famous man. And Iwho had been so torn between should I or shouldn't Iknew, no matter what he said, or because of what he did say, that he was judging me.
That night was never mentioned again. As if it never happened. At all. It wasn't in our eyes. It wasn't in our tone of voice. There was no flirting anymore. It was strictly businessand a growing friendship.
In fact, as both Henry's and Diarmuid's health failed, they knew they would have to sell the agency and wanted me to buy them out. They had tried to sell the business for $150,000, and that hadn't worked. Henry called me in and put on a piece of paper in pencil the price I'd have to pay for his half. I read it in my office: "$25,000 in cash, Punkt." "Oh, no, Henry, I couldn't do that. It's worth much more. Oh, no." Then Diarmuid called me in. For his half he wanted $75,000. Looking back on it, I realize he hadn't budged from his original asking price. Diarmuid wanted to help me buy the business and offered to take me to see Mr. Lord at the Morgan Guaranty Bank at Forty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, where Russell & Volkening had had an account since opening day in May 1940. Diarmuid knew they were both really ready to pass down the mantle and felt that with the way things were going, I'd probably be able to pay back a loan on what the agency would bring in during the next year or two. I think he understood the opportunity I was passing up. He was furious at my reluctance. But the truth was, I was a woman-child of the fifties and scared. But at the same time I thought: Can you make it 51 percent? I didn't want to buy half. Suppose I, too, got myself in a position in which I would be stuck with an unwanted equal partner?
For a while I had backers. But when they came to the office and saw how frail Diarmuid and Henry looked, they advised me to wait six months, when they thought it could be got for less, and backed out.
Diarmuid and Henry wanted the business to go on, and they had the faith in me that I didn't have. I simply wasn't ready.
Theirs had been an improbable partnership from the beginning. Henry told me his version one afternoon in 1971, after George Panetta's funeral in Brooklyn. George was a client. When he decided to write children's books, Henry handed him over to me, and I took him to lunch as his agent. Afterward, when I picked up the check, George was taken aback. "A dame!" he said in pronounced Brooklynese. "A dame? Ooh, I never had a dame pay for anything. You're actually going to pick up the check? A dame taking me to lunchhow do you like that?"
Henry and I took the subway back from Brooklyn to Luchow's, the historic German restaurant on Fourteenth Street, and Henry talked about himself.
He was from Yorkville, the German section of Manhattan.
His grandfather had served in the German Army in the First World War. As an American kid, Henry felt torn, but it was his grandfather, and he loved him. His classmates taunted him, and he himself was haunted for the rest of his life about a Jewish classmate (Princeton '23) whom all the Princetonians razzed. He told me that story often. I think my presence always reminded Henry, and he wished he could redo and make amends.
Saul Bellow was Henry's client, and Bernard Malamud was Diarmuid's. They were representative Male Jewish American Novelists at the time when MJANs were the high point of our culture. It was a duel. Diarmuid used Bernard as his sword and Henry used Saul.
Henry had read a Saul Bellow story in Harper's Bazaar and wrote offering his services, which were accepted. The first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, had been published by Vanguard Press in 1944 and 1947 without benefit of representation. Henry recommended George Joel at The Dial Press and Harold Guinzburg at The Viking Press, Saul chose the latter in 1948, and his work was published by Viking for the next thirty years.
Henry's first client was Michael Seide, whose collection of short stories, entitled The Common Thread, Henry sold to Doubleday. Seide recommended his agent to his friend Bernard Malamud, with whom he was teaching in the English department at a high school in Manhattan. However, Malamud became a lifelong client of Diarmuid.
"How come?" I asked.
"When Bernard called, I answered the phone," answered Diarmuid.
In the following years, Henry tried and tried, but Seide never had another book published. After three years of trying, Diarmuid finally sold a Malamud story, then a novel, The Natural, and on to National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal, etc., etc.
That afternoon at Luchow's, Henry talked effusively about Mr. Sammler's Planet, which had been published recently. He kept saying "Artoor," pronouncing Mr. Sammler's given name as Mr. Sammler did: not Arthur, but "Artur." Henry used to get on jags like that. He told me he and Thomas Wolfe used to eat at Luchow's and then go to the burlesque on Fourteenth Street. Henry was just out of Fordham Law and working in real estate, which he didn't like at all. He taught night school at NYU, where Wolfe was on the faculty too. They had become buddies, and it was Tom who suggested that Henry go and talk to his editor, the renowned Maxwell Perkins, about getting into publishing. Perkins told him he didn't have an editorial opening, then suggested he consider becoming an agent.
A month or so later, Diarmuid Russell came in to see Maxwell Perkins. Diarmuid, then an editor at Putnam, asked Perkins for advice on becoming an agent. Many years afterward, Diarmuid told me Perkins had said, "There are too many damn agents already, but just the other week there was a gent who came to see me. Maybe you ought to get together with him."
Shortly thereafter, in May 1940, Henry and Diarmuid began their partnership. They each put up five thousand dollars.
Their only criterion for taking on representation of a writer was their belief in the work's high literary quality. They never compromised for commercial reasons. Once they made their commitment, their faith in the author and the work was unshakable, and eventually was rewarded, sometimes after years of rejection after rejection.
From reading R&V's book and manuscript library, I developed a taste for the true, the real thing and became a snob fortunate enough to represent only writers and work I truly love.
Scott Berg, who wrote the best-selling biography of Maxwell Perkins published in the mid-seventies, quoted Perkins as saying, "There are too damn many women agents already." When he came to the office (by now he was an R&V client), I told Scott he had that wrong. That Diarmuid himself told me the story, and Perkins had said,"'There are too many agents already,' not women agents. I remember it distinctly." But Scott insisted, he said he knew for sure. "No," I said, "I know for sure." I went back to my office and sat down, and it occurred to me that, of course, Diarmuid wouldn't have told me Perkins said there were too damn many women agents already! I ran out to catch Scott at the elevator. "Oh, God, I just got it!"
Henry took his vacation every July, Diarmuid every August. One July day, a young woman writer, very enthusiastic and bubbly, walked straight into Diarmuid's officeas I said, none of our offices had doors. "Are you Henry Volkening? I've just come from Chicago especially to meet you, and I'm so excited and thrilled."
"No, I'm not Henry Volkening." Diarmuid looked up from his crossword puzzle. "You'll have to come back in August if you want to see him!" The young woman was somewhat taken aback by the cold reception. She was used to Henry's effusive letters. She asked, "Well, do you happen to have a picture of Henry Volkening?"
"What would I want with a picture of my partner? If I want to see him, I can just go next door and look!"
Henry kept all the records of earnings. Each author had a five-by-seven paper slip from a white scratch pad, and Henry would note the earnings through the year and then tally them up in pencil. Russell & Volkening didn't have an adding machine. As I understood it from Henry at Luchow's, one year in the fifties he got back from his vacation and found that Diarmuid had kept the records and left him a note that said, "My clients did better than your clients this year." That was it. Henry never spoke directly to him again to his dying day. Diarmuid never had a clue why.
Saul wasn't much more fond of Diarmuid than Henry was. One day in the late sixties, Saul came into the office and Diarmuid said, "Oh, that's a gay tie you're wearing." Saul asked, "In the old sense or the new sense?"
Diarmuid: "There's a new sense?"
Saul had two grudges against Diarmuid. His daughter, Pam, had rented Saul's house in Tivoli, New York, one summer and according to Saul trampled his garden. And once, when Henry was on vacation, Diarmuid sent Saul some Italian tax forms to be signed and didn't enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Saul was enraged. I made a mental note and have always sent my clients SASEs.
Henry's moods were erratic. Sometimes he would come back from the Drenchery Club holding on to the walls till he got to my office, where he'd be jolly and ebullient. At other times, he'd return morose. He would perform mock trials at moot court. He had a law degree, and he would pull out all the stops, often sweeping his glasses off and gesturing with them in his hand, then dramatically returning them to his face. He'd call witnesses, he'd cross-examine them. He'd win every case brilliantly and return to his own office in triumph.
Once, Henry came back from lunch very upset and told me an editor had double-crossed him and that Henry refused to send him any more manuscripts. Several months later, the editor asked him for lunch, and Henry accepted.
He was in one of his up moods when he returned to the office. The editor had pleaded with him to send manuscripts. "Mea culpa," he said. It would never happen again.
"I know, I know. I know it won't ever happen again," Henry said at the end of the meal. "I know because I'm not ever going to give you the opportunity."
I picked up another clue from Henry. Thanks for the warning: "I know you'll never do it again. I'm absolutely sure of it. I'm not ever going to give you the chance."
Henry always boasted that he never told a lie and advised three reasons. One: You'll sleep better at night. Two: You won't have to remember what you said. Three: No one will believe you anyway.
In January 1970, Henry's wife, Natalie, came back from a Caribbean cruise coughing; she died of lung cancer in May. Henry was lost without Natalie, and in the fall, he too was found to have a lung tumor. When Saul came into the office at the beginning of 1972, he expressed his condolences. "What a horrible year." It had been a lousy one for him too. "Well, Henry, there's one good thing about the year 1971. It won't be the year on our tombstone." Thereafter, Saul would recite that line to me on his first phone call of every new year.
Henry smoked like a chimney, so did Diarmuid. Natalie died of secondhand smoke. I visited Henry at Lenox Hill Hospital. Not only was he very sick, but he had lost his will to live. He didn't talk, he had withdrawn from life. I returned to Diarmuid to report that Henry's cancer was inoperable, and that though no one would tell him straight out, he knew full well there was no chance of recovery.
As I left Henry in his room, I imagined that his spirit had already packed up and moved on, and he was gone from the corporeal realm. When his daughter, Joyce, came to see him at home the following week, he did not recognize her and was silent.
A week later, Diarmuid called me into his office. He was smiling oddly. He'd just gotten the results of some tests, and his doctors told him he had the exact same kind of lung cancer as Henry. When, just eight days before, I had given him a detailed account of Henry's prognosis, he was ironically amused. Had I known, I would of course have left room for optimism, if not hope. He was stoical.
The two of them held on, so they could keep an eye on each other.
Diarmuid had always said that I was "ambitious in a nice way." I never thought of myself as being ambitious. I didn't consciously plan ahead: I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. I never planned to have a career. Though even to this day, probably, no one grows up wanting to be a literary agent, and certainly in my time few (I am one of them) knew there was any such thing in the world, it was as though I had entered a revolving door and never found my way out again. I thought it was just something temporary, until my real life started.
At that time, I called Saul and told him I was coming to Chicago on my way to a recorder workshop in Minnesota, and could we have dinner together. This was before that freezing February night chez moi.
I met him at his apartment in the Cloisters, the huge South Side complex near the University of Chicago. A graduate student was just on her way out. Saul was wearing a white shirt and a tie, no jacket, and his cheeks were flushed. He noticed that I was looking very intently at an engraving on the foyer wall.
It was a very zaftig nude woman.
I must have had a bemused expression on my face.
"The artist is Rembrandt."
In the elevator, a woman got on, and behind her back Saul put his hands in his ears, stuck his tongue out, and wiggled his fingers. When she got out, he said, "I wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot pole." I looked down and said, "Do you have a ten-foot pole?" A Mae West sort of thing. It just came out of my mouth. I think I was trying to be sophisticated. He looked very surprised. Raised his eyebrows.
We went to a Chinese restaurant, "a joint" near the campus, under the El. Seated across from me in a booth, he said, "Are you here to truss me up and deliver me? You know Doubleday directly offered me a two-book contract for two hundred thousand dollars and promised to get me a summer house in Spain." Obviously, the prospect was alluring.
I told Saul: Of course, you have to consider that. But whoever and whatever you choose, if you decide to stay with R&V or not, be aware of the terms, especially with a two-book contract. Foremost to consider: a provision that if book number one earns out before you deliver book number two, the contract separates into two individual contracts. Otherwise, the earnings from book number one will pay for the advance of book number two. I think he got it. A gleam came into his eye. "Oh."
I told him about percentages and about escalated splits on paperback royalties. Don't concentrate on the house in Spain. Forget that fantasy. The important thing is to have a good publisher, who would give you the best possible publication. You can always buy your own house in Spain.
I was very cool. No pressure. My intuition told me that was the way the author would consider it. I would never come on strong anyway. That's not me. I played it very cool. It would seem it worked.
Then we got into his car and he drove me back to my hotel. He stopped in front of the hotel, reached over, and gave me a peck on the cheek. "Thank you," I said.
I think he meant it as a compliment.
KATE FURBISH AND THE FLORA OF MAINE Tilbury House, Publishers
By Ada Graham and Frank Graham, Jr.
Copyright © 1995 Ada Graham and Frank Graham, Jr.. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
|I. Handsome Is||ix|
|II. To Almeria and Back||1|
|III. Nobel Savage||27|
|IV. The Best Is Yet to Be||49|
|V. Hometown Boy||71|
|VI. A Close Call||101|