GAMBLER IN PUBLISHING
THE ATLANTIC EXTRA
BY LOUIS KRONENBERGER
AT SIXTY, I can look back on a fair number of jobs, and on none unhappily, but on only one of them 7emdash; it was almost the very first — with nostalgia. I was twenty-one when in June, 1926, I went to work as a summer substitute for Boni & Liveright; I was to stay on, as it happened, till the end of 1932, during a period when the state of the firm was sufficiently like the state of the nation to go beyond glib symbolism, and when the mood of the firm, from being florid and manic, slumped into something gaunt and depressive. Yet if Boni & Liveright shared the waste and folly of the age, it was, nevertheless, a small and very notable monument of it. If some of my nostalgia is due to the splotched glamour of the twenties — which were my twenties also—just as much is due to an anchorless, undaunted, undisciplined, messy, magnificent publishing house.
For most people (including literary people) under forty, even for most retrospective browsers in the prohibition era, or for those who look back at the twenties as did people my age to the nineties, the firm’s name seldom evokes recognition and almost never a vibrant response. At most, Boni & Liveright is remembered as somebody’s publisher — Faulkner’s, maybe, or O’Neill’s; almost as often the name is confused with A. & C. Boni. Yet it is odd that the firm is not a greater memento of the twenties, for it shared their gay disreputableness and spendthrift vitality; it is odd that it has ceased to be heard of, since in its earlier years it was something of a clarion, rousing the young to what stirred and streamed forth in the arts.
By 1925 a whole new post-war literature existed, sensitive and sophisticated as well as jazz-age and raw, self-searching as well as self-dramatizing. For the literary-minded young there were then three American publishing houses with a special cachet. The house of Knopf had it, partly for its concern with fine bookmaking, but pre-eminently for opening a door on modern European literature —on, then or soon after, Knut Hamsun, Pío Baroja, Sigrid Undset, Italo Svevo, Wladyslaw Reymont, Ivan Bunin, and most particularly, on André Gide and Thomas Mann. Harcourt, Brace had among others Sinclair Lewis, but its real luster derived from England’s then very formidable, indeed central, Bloomsbury group: Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell. Boni & Liveright stood for the new ferment and the new figures in American letters: Dreiser, O’Neill, E. E. Cummings, Conrad Aiken, H. D., Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Ben Hecht, Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, the early Hemingway, the early Faulkner. (By the late twenties, as it happened, the greatest highbrow name to come, T. S. Eliot, had published with all three firms, first Knopf, then Liveright, then Harcourt.)
During those same years a host of’ eager youngsters, bored with the provinces and with going to college, bewitched by New York and with this or that art, and aspiring to fame, arrived looking for jobs. In those days there were not many enticing ones. Tleaching was out; many of us, beyond being rabidly unacademic, hadn’t even a college degree. Magazine jobs were scarce; the great age of opportunity lay ahead: Time and the New Yorker were both in their swaddling clothes. Newspaper jobs were not numerous either; several papers had recently failed, others had merged. What, in any case, one most sought for was a publishing house; what usually one settled for was grubby freelancing.
Asked to choose a publisher, most of us would have said Knopf or Liveright; about the polite, skeptical tone of the Harcourt list there was something a little withdrawn. Knopf had distinguished European names, had great enterprises like the History of Civilization series, had Mencken and Nathan and the new American Mercury. It stood for established culture with a dash of irreverence. Boni & Liveright on the other hand stood for America in the process of exposing and defining and aspersing itself; stood for the Zeitgeist, itself all too fluid and mercurial; stood for Something brooding and lonely in American life as well as unruly and defiant. Knopf better suited my own temperament, but B & L appealed to my sense of the times. And B & L had for my entire generation one further very striking claim. It had launched, and till very recently had published, the Modern Library. For young people hungry for what was sophisticated, subversive, avant-garde in literature, the Modern Library signified to the early twenties, one can almost say, what the whole world of quality paperbacks does today. Inside its limp, oily, smelly leatherette covers were texts hard to come by at low prices, or at all: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Baudelaire, Whitman and Zola, Strindberg’s plays and Chekhov’s stories, Havelock Ellis, Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, D. H. Lawrence.
I rather leaned toward Boni & Liveright for another reason — I knew more about it. Indeed, I went to work there because of knowing Edith Stern, whose reader’s job I was to have while she spent the summer abroad. A very young Lillian Hellman, whom I also knew, had worked there, too, for a time; and they had filled in for me, with firsthand flourishes, the picture of a most unorthodox establishment. Fittingly maintained in an old brownstone house during an era of brownstone speakeasies, it was a place where authors and bootleggers came and went, and where blondes and barflies clattered, and sometimes swayed, up and down the late-nineteenth-century stairs. There was reported to be a certain amount of night life on the premises as well. And I had met, now and then, one or two other Boni & Liveright people — Julian Messner, unexpectedly rather ponderous and slow-speaking, and a thin, poetically dark younger man, Maurice Hanline, who to me looked rather like Poe, but to a friend of mine more like “a referee at a snake race.” To a youngster like myself, more at home in sophisticated literature than sophisticated living, the prospect of this mild saison en enfers was at once beckoning and a trifle awesome.
ON THE Monday morning when I reported for work—I had submitted some book reviews to a young vice president, Donald Friede, who thereafter hired me by phone — neither Mr. Friede nor virtually anyone else had arrived. An exception, along with some shipping-room boys in the basement, was the switchboard operator, who sat in a sort of open space one flight up from the street entrance. Her name escapes me, but she herself remains delightfully vivid: a quite pretty peroxide blonde, with the added looks that gay toughness sometimes confers; very chatty, informing me that no one had come in yet, while managing a personal phone call with a friend and pleasantries with all incoming calls. Chewing away at her gum, she kept a sharp eye on the stairs, had a hand now fishing inside her purse for a lipstick, now plugging in telephone wires, now scribbling out messages. Everyone who came up the stairs knew her, and she knew everyone. She had a very finished friendliness, a very individual slanginess; and in the months ahead, her dialogue was to fascinate and delight me, even as I overheard it as I climbed up to my office. Once I heard her say while chatting on the phone: “Do I clean my apartment before I leave for work? Why, fagawds sake, my husband works in a mill. Do you think I’d let them bring him home mangled to a dirty apartment?”
In due course of that first morning, Donald Friede welcomed me in his office and someone else showed me to mine, which had been a fourth-floor hall bedroom. During the first week, as I recall, I was more concerned with getting acquainted with irreducibly tall stacks of manuscripts than with the people I worked among. My floormates, mostly sales-force people, came and introduced themselves and spoke of “lunch sometime,” and a poet in charge of advertising, Isidor Schneider, helped make me feel at home. On the floor below was my immediate boss and the firm’s invaluable editor in chief, T. R. Smith, a round-faced, rolypoly but dapper man in his late fifties, with a pincenez on a cord. He had earlier been a rather famous editor of Century magazine; had known and still knew everyone; had done much to put B & L on the map; and from my first meeting with him, punctuated business at hand with reminiscence and anecdote. And there was the head of the firm, Horace Liveright. At forty, he had an unforgettable look: graying hair, a beaked nose, and piercing black eyes; a face so riveting as to obscure his body, which it seems to me was lean and fairly tall.
During those first days I was called in several times by both Smith and Liveright; but I lived among my mountain of manuscripts, reading them with a little too much care, writing reports on them that were a little too studied. Still, from the constant anecdotal colloquies on the stairs, the sudden bursts of laughter on every floor, from Hanline’s flying visits with reports on “Horace’s hangovers,” and from never finding Mr. Smith in his office when I had questions to ask of him, it was further borne in on me that this was no usual publishing house.
I had never been told when to show up in the morning or go home at night; and discovering that certain members of the staff often arrived after lunch, by which time certain others might have left for the day, I soon decided, less from a desire to strut than from a wish to conform, that I too would be no slave of the clock. Therefore, on the Tuesday of my second week, I was breakfasting in the drugstore around the corner at twenty minutes to twelve when in walked Mr. Liveright. He looked at me as at someone he ought to know, and very soon he did, winning me over for life with the most engaging of snubs: “This,” he said with a well-trained smile, “is a hell of a time for me to be coming to work!”
In retrospect the remark strikes me as more than a charming snub: it suggests a whole side of Liveright as he was then, a whole side, too, of his publishing house. As the summer progressed, I was in a small way admitted into the life of the place, though not enough to meet any of the authors I so greatly admired, or for that matter very many that I didn t. But I would be summoned on occasion to editorial meetings, or yelled for to read, overnight. an important manuscript that my superiors had disagreed about; and I went to lunch now and then with some of the second violins on the staff.
I was also made welcome in the “manufacturing” department, where printers and binders and paper manufacturers, and sometimes illustrators and jacket designers and authors, came to see the head of it, a jolly, likable man, Pete Gross. I was periodically regaled with Hanline’s amusing embroidered tidbits, with Smith’s faintly apocryphal memoirs, with Messner’s lumbering jocularities, with Friede’s semiweekly discoveries of genius. I was so much the youngest person around as to be given a friendly pat or tossed a conversational bone.
Though the office had more than its share of higher-level neurotics and could boast its colliding egos and small simmering feuds, the place seemed wonderfully free from tension, or a sense of insecurity, or a Fear of the Boss. There was a certain sobering air about the bookkeeper-paymaster, Mr. Pell, but it did not affect the general climate. Otherwise, with so many people absent each day, or tardy, or under the weather, discipline was about as out of place as at one of the then brand-new progressive schools.
It was not that the office, however free and easy, was at bottom altogether democratic: there was a certain real if unspoken social cleavage between the vaguely moneyed, upper-middle-class people who had at least the air of being part of the firm and others who were plainly part of the staff. Nor did lack of tension argue a model boss. Liveright had his sudden flare-ups, his irrational obstinacies, his distinct dislikes; and on occasion, with help from those piercing eyes, he could be quite forbidding. What, beyond the easygoing atmosphere, prevented tension was an air of humor, not just a saving humor but a kind of circumambient one. It wasn’t always of a distinguished sort; it could be thoroughly schoolboy, or crude, or stately institutional, or even out of bounds. But more than it was anything else, which is perhaps why it proved so helpful, it responded to the fun in things. It throve on anecdote, on mild heckling, on practical joking, on incidents like my drugstore breakfast, on the imbecilities of authors, the incongruities of publishing; and, just so, everyone in the office was made to pay an amusement tax by way of his weak points or foibles. I’m not sure that in all this there was much affection or good nature involved: there was a kind of therapeutic malice, a sense of boardinghouse jokes rather than family ones. But there was almost no institutional piety. You weren’t in the least on the honor roll for being punctual or for working overtime (to begin with, who would ever know?), or the least out of favor for not being.
Clearly, one key to all this was Liveright himself. It was precisely because he wasn’t a model boss that he did not expect, that he did not much desire, model employees. They might even have made him uncomfortable, and he was a man who very much wanted to be liked. But decorum would have bored someone who sought after dash and who physically so much commanded it. Industriousness, again, would have meant nothing to a man whose trademark was showmanship. Most of all, the usual measuring rods for rewarding a staff would not have occurred to an employer so naturally openhanded. Liveright had — I shall come back to this — a very noticeable, nineteen-twentyish, bigspender, lavish-tipper side; but he was also, 1 think, truly generous. He used to say that B & L was the one real socialist publishing house in New York, in the sense that you shared in its prosperity and never had to wait for a raise: at Christmas you always got a bonus, vacations grew annually longer, B & L books were yours for the asking. As far as jobs could be, those at Liveright’s — unless you ran foul of Horace’s irritations or were blatantly incompetent — seemed worry-proof.
TIMES were never better than during the first year or two after I arrived. Indeed, my first year there (for when Mrs. Stern came back from abroad, I was kept on as an additional reader) was, I think, the firm’s annus mirabilis. Sales were still booming from Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both published in 1925; and during 1926—1927 there were to appear, for profit or prestige or both, Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed, Dorothy Parker’s first book of verse, Enough Rope, Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day, E. E. Cummings’ Is 5 and him, Sherwood Anderson’s Tar, Lester Cohen’s best seller, Sweepings, Waldo Frank’s Virgin Spain, Ezra Pound’s Personae, Hart Crane’s White Buildings, Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, and one book more: Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon, which, acquired outright for $1000, sold a quarter of a million copies. (Liveright sent Ludwig many, many more thousands.)
In contrast to Harcourt’s simplicity of dress and the lithe elegance of the Knopf borzoi, the Boni & Liveright imprint was thrusting and emphatic. The use in advertising of very bold type and heavy black borders made the house identifiable at sight; and it had also initiated a new, informal style of copy, the sort of inter-office-memo style that afterward became standard with Simon and Schuster. Along with the type and the borders went the B & L device of a cowled monk seated at a writing table. I have often wondered who thought up this most misleading of office symbols, for never in publishing, and seldom anywhere else, has there been an atmosphere so unmonastic, so unstudious, so unsolitary as at Liveright’s.
By 1926 B & L was a sufficiently elder house to have helped forge three other firms: A. & C. Boni, Simon and Schuster, and Random House. Among the B & L alumni who had “graduated” before my arrival — Manuel Komroff, Edward Weeks, Lillian Hellman, Beatrice Kaufman — there had also been Bennett Cerf and Richard L. Simon. Cerf and Donald Klopfer had bought the Modern Library in 1925, and soon after, by way of expansion, had founded Random House. In 1925, too, Dick Simon and Max Schuster had joined forces, and by making a national pastime of crossword puzzles, had made a national name of Essandess. The sale of the Modern Library was a tragic blunder on Horace’s part, however pressing the need for cash. A steadily growing source of culture and revenue, it might have given B & L, despite all the waves and winds that were to menace it, a Gibraltar-like endurance. I never knew the exact circumstances until, at a dinner party a few years ago, Donald Klopfer told me. Horace, he said, had wanted a divorce but owed his father-in-law a large sum of money.
The nature of the firm was pretty well reflected in the nature of its list: it was a very heterogeneous list, given a certain unity as well from being very heterodox. Heterodoxy at its worst involved merely sensational books; at its higher reaches it stood for notable pioneering and the avant-garde. This policy might at both levels require courage, since at either it might brush up against censorship. The split-level nature of the house also reflected those who dwelt within it. T. R. Smith’s survival in letters must rest on an uninhibited volume called Poetica Erotica. Donald Friede’s most fruitful discovery was of an illustrator named Alexander Rose, who became in later days an author named Alexander King. In later days, too, Julian Messner would found his own publishing house, whose cornerstone — earlier, part of B & L — was Frances Parkinson Keyes. Historically, moreover, the firm had to some extent got going with such roughhewn books as Harry Kemp’s Tramping on Life and Samuel Ornitz’s Haunch, Paunch and Jowl, such ripe best sellers as Gertrude Atherton’s Black Oxen and Warner Fabian’s Flaming Υouth. Yet in the good sense as well as the bad, Boni & Liveright was never an entirely “respectable” publishing house. If it could play host to vulgarity, it waged war on stodginess; if it tousled the proprieties, it refused to trample on life; if it might blush for its Maxwell Bodenheims, it might boast of how early it had taken over Dreiser and acquired O’Neill, of how, a little later, it published The Enormous Room and The Waste Land, and Hemingway’s In Our Time and Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay.
Nor did split-level publishing really lead in the end to a split personality. It was not just that without its faults the firm could hardly have achieved its virtues; but that, even had it been better run, it could never have been conventionally efficient. B & L was a kind of merger of culture and anarchy. On the side of anarchy, there was more to it than a sense of the speakeasy era: Boni & Liveright was an actual part of the speakeasy world. Not only were there perhaps six speakeasies to one publishing house on our block; they were virtually all B & L branch offices. Long before Madison Avenue gave business a social facade, Forty-eighth Street did. There was considerable drinking in the home office as well: as I remember, Horace’s scarlet-walled, black-ceilinged bathroom — a bit of a showplace — had its barroom aspects too.
The upshot of this, however, was nothing sodden but something persistently convivial. I wonder whether any other publishing house of consequence has ever had so many faithful habitual visitors. Liveright authors and would-be authors, and for that matter former authors, came, certainly, many times on business, but many times as well as to their club or their bank or their favorite bar. Friends of various kinds, and sometimes the friends’ friends, would come and go; and girl friends of various kinds came too. I was not privy to much of this, but a good deal of it was the meat and marrow of the firm’s publishing success.
It was in many ways a kind of word-of-mouth success. One author led in another: Sherwood Anderson introduced Faulkner; Harold Loeb, Hemingway; Waldo Frank, Hart Crane. No doubt, as the twenties roared ahead, publishing was pervasively infected with a gambling spirit; but in the matter of what might be termed spur-of-themoment contracts, B & L must have been miles in the lead. There was a kind of legend that anyone could walk into Boni & Liveright off the street and get a $500 advance on a book about — I don’t know that you had to say what it was about. Certainly many of the promised works never reached the office, let alone saw print. (This reached up as high as Katherine Anne Porter, whose The Devil and Cotton Mather was several times a catalogue announcement and never a book.) All the same, it was through the firm’s party-going and party-giving, it was through tips from authors on the list, that much profitable publishing ensued. Also, a firm riding so high, a firm reining in so seldom, often got first crack from literary agents and was first choice with adventurous authors. The good side of B & L’s lack of seemliness proved not only a cultural virtue but a genuine business asset.
One reason why, during these plump years, the suggestion of antics, the impression of anarchy, flourished so brilliantly on stage is that there was considerable orderliness behind the scenes. People like Pete Gross and Isidor Schneider were conscientious men who kept regular hours. Manuscripts may have come in late, but books came out on schedule. There was also Arthur Pell, in charge of accounts and dispenser of paychecks. In the way he would from time to time suddenly emerge or glance about or look unconvincingly jovial, it was clear that if he could not avert wasteful spending, he would nowhere abet it. Indeed, it seemed unforeseeably wise of Liveright to have in his bookkeeper a man dedicated to business before pleasure, perhaps even to business without any pleasure, a man equidistant from culture and anarchy alike.
I played small part in any of this. I worked in the “attic,” and even with the wish to share the high life, I would have lacked the wherewithal; even given the chance to get to know authors I admired, I might have lacked the poise. Yet right from the start, such was the atmosphere of the place, such the speed with which activity passed into anecdote and editorial meetings into vaudeville, that I was not exactly an outsider either. Just by running an unorthodox business in a private house that discouraged privacy, B & L was a living bulletin board. There was the constant sense of people clattering up and down stairs, and emerging from conspicuously placed toilets; and even with the office door shut, you could overhear telephone conversations through the walls. Having been summoned, say, to Liveright’s office two flights down,
I might be fifteen minutes getting back to what, with various encounters as I climbed the stairs, resembled a gossipy Alpine village — hearing who was in the building, who now was with the boss, noticing whose doors were closed, wondering which doors were locked.
My first sight of Dorothy Parker was of her mounting the stairs; as was my first of Sherwood Anderson, coming down. Frequently the various morning visitors to Pete Gross’s office would linger on till lunchtime, when a half dozen or more people would go “next door” to eat. It was by way of these lunches, in a rather untidy basement, that I was socially launched. Here, besides such occasional authors as Alfred Kreymborg or Lewis Mumford, were print and paper people, or Louis Greene (now the head of Publisher’s Weekly), or friends from other publishing firms, and members of our staff. Here circulated literary news and not quite so literary gossip; here were mingled shoptalk and B & L goings-on, salacious anecdotes, four-letter jokes, bad puns, bad wine in coffee mugs, boiled beef in a delicious green sauce — the specialty of a sixty-five-cent lunch. Shift the cast of characters slightly, and this was the stuff of countless lunches about town. But just because it was so typical then, and would seem rather infra dig in today’s status-conscious professional world, one need not be sentimental to remember it with affection.
THE Boni & Liveright editorial meetings, on the other hand, were very untypical, even for the times. They were held in Horace’s office — it was like him to tell me almost at once to call him by his first name — and during the early years the cast always included Smith (editor in chief), Friede (vice president), Messner (sales manager and also, I think, vice president), and Hanline (a sort of minister without portfolio). One or two others and myself were usually invited, as, on occasion, was anyone with a reason for being there. The meetings generally started, around eleven thirty, by having considerable trouble getting started. Liveright, as you entered, might be on the phone while having his shoes shined; someone was always late, which meant dial someone else, bored with sitting around, would wander off and himself be even later; someone else would have brought the wrong manuscript or notes or letter and have to have his secretary hunt for the right one, which might all the time have been in his pocket.
When we were all finally assembled and the meeting was set to begin, a gag or bit of gossip that had been held back till everyone could enjoy it might be retailed. This could produce other gags or gossip, or invite an exchange of information about people’s doings the night before. There was, among those present, a special kind of competitiveness and social climbing, a sort of social climbing into bed. They were all very gentlemanly: they intimated, they would not deny, they would piously leer, they would positively beam with guilt and they were helped in all this by the phone calls that always punctuated a meeting, Far from refusing personal calls at such times, everyone clearly welcomed them, had conceivably prearranged them, and the calls from identifiable ladies elicited catcalls from the eavesdroppers and often greetings to whoever was on the other end of the line.
Between whiles a certain progress might be made on the business in hand. Manuscripts were debated and voted upon; authors’ projects for new books were discussed and acted upon; so were agents’; so were ideas of our own; prices and publication dates, sheets from England and limited editions, advances and sales all had their innings; things were decided, or sidestepped, or delegated to individuals. Now and then meetings even broke up conventionally, with Horace glancing at his watch and calling a halt. Quite as often, people glanced at their watches and jumped up mumbling an excuse as they made for the door, while at other times the meetings merely slumped into a gabfest. But however unbusinesslike, the meetings were almost always lively; even in presiding over a farce, Horace did preside, and with showmanship and aplomb.
It is hard to think of another publishing house where women, who were neither authors nor staff wives, were so much or so many in evidence. By 1926, it is true, Horace had become a well-known producer of plays, with an office in his publishing house; and actresses, whether pursuing a part or pursued by a partner, were constantly running in and out of the building and up and down the stairs. But many other ladies came to the office, sometimes to call for someone they were lunching with; or they came back after lunch, or appeared in midafternoon or toward sunset; and sometimes doors stood wide open upon impromptu drink-inhand get-togethers, and sometimes doors were locked.
An even more populous intramural custom was the Liveright parties, evening parties given sometimes in the office’s large reception room, sometimes at Horace’s apartment. In the office the parties were distinguished as A and B. The A’s were of an intendedly decorous kind, the kind given by other publishers; the B’s included less bookish guests and more bacchanalian aims. The few parties I went to at first were almost certainly A ones; later, when I was invited oftener, I’m not sure which they were, because I’m not sure that by then any distinction was possible. I’m not sure either, much as B & L parties may have differed from other publishing ones, that they differed greatly from the usual bohemian gaieties in the heyday of bootleg hooch. Although the doings at our office parties could involve public endearments, stained and ripped garments, periodical passing out in public, disappearing couples, maudlin recitals, unmanageable guests, almost as much spilled liquor as swilled, and almost as many gate-crashers as guests, what alone might have set Liveright entertainments apart was the prominence of the guest list. I’m afraid my most vivid party memory is of Hart Crane violently plastered and very pugnacious. And sometimes I saw Horace drunk, I suspect on not much liquor. He could be at times a bad hand, not to say a boorish host, through having stubborn notions and fixed ideas.
Strangely, I can’t remember seeing any Liveright party out to the end; indeed, the one or two parties I remember best weren’t Boni & Liveright ones, but were given by Donald I Friede and his gay, vivacious wife. These for a youngster like me were in a social sense more negotiable and in an artistic sense more alluring since they drew on representative people from all the arts. From one Friede party, I remember going with Elinor Wylie, Covarrubias, Paul Robeson, and two or three others to the Heywood Brouns. Robeson had recently become very famous; and as we sat, for some reason in a downstairs back bedroom at the Brouns’, Robeson sang spirituals and show tunes for hours: it was a private recital of an extent I have never enjoyed since.
IT IS life inside the office that I best recall. There, of a Monday, would come back to me from “HBL" my report on a manuscript I had demolished in a sentence, with a scrawled: “How dare you be so cavalier about what I suspect is a perfectly delightful book?” — only for this to be one of Horace’s jokes. Of a Tuesday, a wild-eyed woman would appear, bearing a huge hatbox crammed with manuscript and saying she had to bring it in person because the post office authorities hated her, were in league to destroy her, and neither delivered nor returned anything she put in the mails. Of a Wednesday, there might arrive an author of our own whose unpredictable violence had us all running and hiding from him. Friday might bring a scholarly-looking man asking whether we would be interested in a lot of Mark Twain material which he made sound mouth-watering. With growing excitement I said we’d be immensely interested; in fact, for fear of losing it, I was ready to go home with him for it when — his hand on the doorknob — he said smilingly, “Of course you know that Mark Twain was Lewis Carroll.”
As for manuscripts generally, there was a torrential flow of them during the years when we got first pick; and even though I acquired, as a good publisher’s reader must, the knack of reading intelligently 150 pages an hour, I was always falling behind. At length we did research, to find that during five years we had accepted for publication four unsolicited manuscripts, none of which had brought the least fame or fortune. We decided that though all scripts should be glanced at, they need not, if unalluring, be pursued. The very next day, “glancing” where I had opened a manuscript at random, I read: “He went into a restaurant and ordered $20 worth of scrambled eggs, just to see what they looked like.” I thus came upon Charles Wertenbaker’s first book, an amusing college novel that we published called Boojum.
Theoretically, the major authors on the list were outside my province. They were read by the higherups, and only by me when the higher-ups disagreed. Of our major authors, I knew none at all well. It was not they who frequented the office; a Dreiser or O’Neill was not precisely clubby by nature, nor — though he was not then a major author —was Faulkner.
On the two occasions when I heard him speak, Dreiser proved boorish. Once, in my hearing, one of our salesmen approached Dreiser a little fatuously to say how much he admired his work; as he went away, Dreiser said in a loud voice: “Who gives a damn what that jackass thinks?” On the second occasion, Liveright took me on a Sunday to lunch at Dreiser’s new estate near Mount Kisco. We had trouble finding the place and arrived long after the lunch hour. In fact the lunch guests, who included Ford Madox Ford, had eaten and come out on the porch. Dreiser came to the top of the steps, presumably to greet us. “You’re too late for lunch,” was his greeting, “and there’s nothing to give you for supper.” Liveright was plainly infuriated, and we did not stay very long; all I remember is Ford rambling on about “tea in the trenches.”
O’Neill I met once or twice; but I had with him just one, and that a painfully one-sided, conversation. I had been asked to read Mourning Becomes Electro in manuscript, and I reported on it with strong reservations. O’Neill’s close friend, and my fellow worker, Saxe Commins thought I should tell O’Neill my objections; and despite my fervently begging off, he one day led me up to the great man and to my horror said, “Gene, I think you’ll be interested in Kronenberger’s reactions to the play.” There I stood, stammering out some sort of preamble while O’Neill gazed down at me with a kind of patient wonderment. I suppose I mumbled some criticism or other, while he gazed at me more wonderingly still. Then I fell silent, as he had been all along and as he continued to be. At length he nodded — which served as both crushingly ironic assent and undoubted dismissal.
I had one real meeting with Faulkner also during Livcright days. By 1927 we had published two of his books, Soldiers’ Pay and Mosquitoes. Neither had done well, and when he submitted a new manuscript called Flags in the Dust, it proved more than disappointing; it was quite bad. It posed a dilemma: everyone felt, as against the disorder of the book, the great potential talent in the man. It was at length decided, on the not wholly disingenuous reasoning that Flags would do Faulkner no more good than it would us, to ask him to put it aside and accept an advance on a new book. I was delegated to broach the offer, and I remember we talked about it in a sort of summerhouse at the office where I used to read manuscripts in hot weather. Or, rather, I talked about it, with increasing embarrassment as Faulkner said nothing. Nor did he, any more than O’Neill, speak when I had finished. He simply sat on. I had, of course, given him upsetting news; but he sat on and on, while I made an effort at small talk or a pretense of reading a manuscript; sat on for what seemed hours, to get up at last, say very courteously “good-bye,” and leave.
In due time he turned down the proposal; and the history of Flags in the Dust may shed light on a murky period in his career. Very much rewritten, it was published some two years later, by Harcourt, as Sartoris. That, still very uneven, it should have been followed so soon and so overwhelmingly by The Sound and the Fury is explained by its having been composed so much earlier. Years later I did meet Faulkner a fair number of times, and got a compensating pleasure from his saying that I had written (this was before I went to Liveright’s) the only encouraging review he had seen of Soldiers’ Pay.
The peak years actually formed a kind of high plateau. If Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson wrote nothing noteworthy in the late twenties, they were big years for O’Neill, for best sellers by Ludwig, Hendrik van Loon, Bertrand Russell (who once on a New York visit wanted to see Harlem night life and was shocked by it), Dorothy Parker, Samuel Hoffenstein, and others. In those years, too, we were publishing Roger Martin du Gard, the ScottMoncrieff translations of Stendhal, and some hardto-come-by Melville, including the first American printing of Billy Budd. There was a small New Yorker group as well — Waldo Frank’s pseudonymous series of early profiles by “Search-Light,” Dorothy Parker’s verse, Frank Sullivan’s humorous pieces, Peter Arno’s drawings, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and S. J. Perelman’s first book, Dawn Ginsberg’s Revenge.
Actually, the firm had grown into something more than a publishing house; at moments it approached a kind of three-ring circus. Thus, on one side of the Dreiser-O’Neill-Anderson center ring, Liveright bathed in the limelight of his play producing; on the other, Donald Friede was ringmaster of a historic, spectacular fiasco. A little before I came to work for him, Horace had made rather a splash with Edwin Justus Mayer’s lively play about Cellini, The Firebrand, and with a modern-dress, indeed a dinner-jacketed, Hamlet. Though he did little actual producing thereafter, and that always at a loss, he functioned rather busily as a producer in his home office — reached through a concealed door made to look like a bookcase — behind the reception room. And Horace did do an adaptation of The Fountain, of Bram Stoker’s thriller, Dracula, and of An American Tragedy. At the opening (or was it the dress rehearsal?) of the latter I remember a boxful of celebrities: Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Somerset Maugham, Fannie Hurst, and others. Horace also had a play under consideration that we all thought had a fine title, Saturday Night, till Horace said, “Uh, uh. Imagine people calling the box office and saying “I’d like two tickets for Saturday Night for Friday night, or if that’s not possible, for Saturday night.”
Although it was a financial debacle, Friede’s producing venture remains a real footnote to the era, a cultural event memorable for sight and sound alike. He staged in Carnegie Hall George Antheil’s Ballet Méhanique, an opus using a wide assortment of musical instruments, not to mention mechanical pianos and electrical devices. Few events have enjoyed greater avant-garde clang and percussive - ness or more advance-notice publicity. Despite the interest in the concert, the higher-priced seats did not sell very well; wherefore, thanks to Friede’s kindness, I witnessed the event from a box. My fellow boxholders included Madame Walker, the Negro lady who had made millions from her antihair-kink, and an elderly, twangy, likably countrified couple, perhaps the most antediluvian pair ever to grace an avant-garde event. Presently the old gentleman said, “My son told us not to miss this.” We nodded. “Guess you know my son,” he continued “— Ezra Pound.” His son was right, it was not a thing to miss. On the wide stage stretched a bombardment of pianos, with the jeunesse dorée of modern music, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and others, seated in front of them. I remember some pulsing rhythms and deafening sound effects, and all the pianos clattering excitedly together, and all the instruments playing at once. But I was often too much interested in the Ballet’s effect on others to note its musical effect on me, for not since Nude Descending a Staircase had New York’s response been so embattled, with apoplectic burghers in droves deserting the hall. Mr. and Mrs. Pound remained attentive till the end.
Even during my first years at B & L, impossible though it now is to distinguish among them, the landscape began faintly to alter. There were small differences in publishing, in personnel, even in prestige. The firm opened a London office, which Maurice Hanline was sent over to manage. He had played a special friendly role: often ambassadorat-large, sometimes Horace’s ADC and whipping boy, a little, with his agitating love affairs, the sad-eyed clown; but most of all the office’s mercurial spirit and living newspaper. In a short while, Isidor Schneider resigned to go to Paris — it was still a left-bank Paris — to write. Donald Friede also left the firm; I don’t know just why, but Horace was no one to share authority, least of all with a young dilettantish partner, and Donald was no one for such a partnership. Soon after, with Pascal Covici, he formed the firm of Covici, Friede. Meanwhile, other people began to arrive: Fonzo Pezet, a pleasantly urbane Peruvian; Aaron Sussman, who today has his own advertising firm; Sandy Liveright, Horace’s young cousin; a young Leane Zugsmith, already becoming known for her fiction; a very pretty girl improbably named Golden Siwek; her brother, Manuel, now head of Grosset and Dunlap; and Saxe Commins, shunned during a rather terrifying Rochester childhood as “Emma Goldman’s nephew.” He was later to become the Random House editor of Faulkner, Auden, John O’Hara, and his great friend O’Neill.
The Liveright list held on to some of its biggest names: O’Neill, Dreiser, Anderson, Jeffers, George Moore. But as time passed, it acquired no figures of the same stature — though it had, to the end, its notable new titles: witness Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Certainly the sun continued to shine, and any wind blowing from the east went largely unnoticed. What one did notice was that Horace had begun not so much to lose his grip on the firm, as, by his scattered outside activities, to relax it. Tom Smith, always a bon vivant and publishing man-about-town, had imperceptibly, had inevitably — he was about sixty and the year was 1929 — begun to coast. Perhaps, too, the fruitful word of mouth, the chain of authorship that had been forged into a great list, no longer yielded the same quality of author. Fewer notables were going and coming on Forty-eighth Street, and more hangers-on.
Of editorial meetings in later years, I have a much less vivid sense — there was both less fire to them and less farce. But Horace must about this time have been setting in motion a publishing idea he had cherished for years: a book, that was to be rich in examples and anecdotes, on Luck. Everyone, he would say, is interested in luck; how could a book on it miss? And at length the book was commissioned, researched, written, edited, published — and proved a stupendous bust. It is the last book I associate with Horace himself, and its fate seems too glibly prophetic.
THE Crash came — I won’t expatiate on those all-too-real and quite unreal, those all-too-sobering but even more exciting first days. Certainly everyone at the office must have been playing the market, and now got punished; even I, through a friendly printer, Maurice Bernstein, had sent modest sums “downtown” and was, on such kindergarten terms, taught a lesson. Business at B & L went on, but I recall that Christmas, 1929, was the first to bring no bonus and no raise. How much this was due to general conditions, how much to internal ones, I don’t know; but the fortunes of the firm — by now it was called Horace Liveright, Inc. — were clearly, however gradually, declining. Now came not new faces, but old ones wearing new expressions; thus an elderly rich friend of Horace’s, Alfred Wallerstein, was often around trying, I imagine, either to resteer the boat or refuel it. And there was a greater awareness of Arthur Pell hovering, gliding, peering about; less bookkeeper than a sort of male housekeeper, trying to save on light when the candles were burning at both ends, trying to act as a time clock way past the eleventh hour.
The curtain came down first in midact. This consisted of our moving out of our wonderful old brownstone stage set into an ugly new ofiice building. It closed an era: moving to Forty-seventh Street inaugurated the Pell regime — practical, prosaic, no-nonsense, quite unsuited to partygiving; and lacking for me a big, worn, torn old leather armchair in which I would curl up after too much lunch, and holding a spread-eagled manuscript before my face, would snooze, or almost. (Once Horace caught me in it sound asleep.) Not an ounce of nostalgia attaches to Fortyseventh Street, though I had a far better office there; indeed, what memories I have of it are fairly scant and sober. I suppose I had become a little spoiled in the old brownstone: I remember Pell’s telling me soon after we moved that I should be in the office by ten o’clock, and my thinking this sheer despotism.
However, the reason we moved had nothing whatever to do with Pell or with shifting fortunes; it was because our tumbledown Forty-eighth Street brownstone was to be torn down, along with all its neighbors, to make way for Rockefeller Center. In any case, as time passed into what was coming to be called the thirties, the life and look of the streets and the city matched the dead, flat, filecabinet look of our new premises. The party was over.
No period of fever and festivity, with such a sense of vine leaves in its tousled hair, ever woke at last so bleary-eyed with such a throbbing head. The thirties were a kind of all-time, cautionary Morning After. The point about the twenties wasn’t simply how much you drank, but what you drank, and where you drank it, and whom you drank it with. Prohibition made strange barfellows, and bedfellows stranger still. But much of this derived from the actual rotgut— pineapple juice and Godknows-what, grapefruit juice and Let-Us-Pray — that went down the gullet. One benefaction, at least, of bootleg liquor was to confer the word “hangover" on the American language. It is hard to recall, today, what word or phrase conveyed as much earlier.
But if there was something special about the Morning After, less publicized has been the exact nature of the Night Before. What haunts us in most tales of gather-ye-rosebuds is the object lesson involved, of glitter and tarnish, froth and lees, dewfresh young beauty and painted hag. But this so classic, so elegiac contrast is what too often was missing from the twenties, from Gatsby’s parties, from Liveright’s parties. The twenties don’t just provide the wine-stained tablecloth and clouded glasses of the morning after; they equally evoke the broken glasses and the messy blur of the night before. Linked to next morning’s splitting headaches go last night’s broken heads; and getting sick in the streets and in taxicabs; and not just the wraiths and ruins who haunted the speakeasies, but the cadgers and bores. Anyhow, B & L’s parties, like those in the novels it published, could be monumentally bacchanalian brawls. And its publisher had the opposed, yet somehow indissoluble qualities of his era; moreover, what brought him low brought the era low no less.
For what in the end brought Horace low had little to do with the primrose path. It was not women, however generous or foolish he may have been toward them. It was not drink; he was a conspicuous drunk because he was so childishly bad a drinker. It was not, as it was sometimes said to be, his theatrical enterprises — for one thing, they must largely have involved other people’s money. It wasn’t even the spendthrift habits, the corkage fees, or the steady leakage of his personal and his publishing way of life. It was, I was reliably told, Wall Street, during the most catastrophic of all stock markets. To Wall Street traveled money in God-knows-what amounts; but I can remember Horace once telling me that he had two thousand shares of Stutz on margin, and even during the boom the Bearcat was a notorious wildcat. Horace, inevitably, must have been drawn to the stock market, less because of a greedy streak in him than of a gaudy and reckless one; and of big-shot dreams and I suspect, inside-track delusions.
He had become friends with, among others, Otto Kahn, then almost as well known an art patron as a banker. (There was an anecdote of Horace inviting Kahn to the opening of O’Neill’s five-hourlong Strange Interlude, which allowed an hour’s break for dinner. Liveright arrived at the opening in a business suit, Kahn in a black tie; at the dinner interval, Kahn pleaded an engagement, to come back in a business suit and find Liveright in a dinner jacket.) One can only suppose that in return for what Liveright could offer the Otto Kahns by way of bohemian glamour, he hoped for Wall Street shepherding and big-shot tips. If so, he must have been unlucky; and he was meanwhile drawing feverishly on the firm’s resources. Even during that great year when Ludwig’s Napoleon alone should have netted a golden harvest, the firm was in hock, borrowing heavily from the banks. As time passed, so the story ran, Horace began borrowing on his own from Pell, exchanging B & L stock for ready cash; and one day, with the latest stock allotment in his hand, Pell owned the business,
I HAD never known Horace well, though about a year before he left, he came to a party I gave, liked the hotel I lived at, and a little while later moved into it. After that I did see more of him, now and then sharing a taxi to or from the office, or dropping up to his apartment for a drink. He fascinated me very much, and at the same time interested me hardly at all. I always liked him; and if I did so for that best of reasons, that he was always kind to me, there were other reasons as well. He had virtues to counter his faults: although ill-humored and rude at times, he never was petty or mean. Despite his imperious air, he was, in terms of worldly wisdom, far more fool than knave. For all his dash, he was somehow “had.” I fancy that his generous impulses, with their sporty look, were less appreciated than exploited. He was at once genuinely impressive and palpably bogus — a type that from starting off too well tends to wind up in people’s minds too badly.
And yet, though it was to be shattered in the end, his dream really for a while came true. Except that he would have had it grow ever grander, what he had for a time was, I think, what he had always dreamed of having. Born somewhere in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Philadelphia, allied with a brilliant Jewish family — his mother was a Fleisher — and part of a solid burgher world. He had married Lucile Elsas, a sister of the actress Mary Ellis. Working his way out of Wall Street, he went into publishing with Albert Boni, a partnership soon after dissolved. He never finished high school; nor was he notably well read. Socially, however, he had background: if flamboyant, he was seldom crude. In essence he seemed to me something of the small-town boy who wanted to be a big shot; and in terms of his temperament, the age he lived in was to prove at once fecundative and fatal.
To the exact degree that the small-town boy had been dazzled by the great world, he wanted in turn to be dazzling. His endowments — - dramatic looks, a commanding air, a grandiloquent boldness — encouraged his ambitions; and certainly his era did. If he had neither an artist’s sensibilities nor a critic’s cultivation and judgment, he had a feeling, and indeed a flair, for what bubbled and stirred in the world he aspired to. He had the talents of the showman and entrepreneur, and it seems to me that it is on these terms that he is to be judged. The vulgar streak that marred his publishing house had gone all the same into making it; and if he too much craved the headlines, yet his firm, by way of its authors, has found its niche in history. He deserves to be remembered as a pioneer no less than a gambler; for the perils involved, as well as the publicity, in his fights against censorship; for being a sucker and not a sharper, a sharer and not a sponge. He deserved his fate, no doubt, but he deserved, no less, his fame. The gaudy dream came true; and, just so, rather than fading out unfulfilled, it was to flare up and explode in his face.
Whatever Horace’s emotions or finances when he left the firm, it was with flags flying: he had received a rather grand-sounding Hollywood offer. It was for those left behind that flags seemed at halfstaff. As, during 1931 and 1932, the Depression gained impetus, a publishing house that had from cavalier ways turned its banknotes into promissory ones was more and more sharply to feel the pinch. Certain books still sold well, and Tom Smith remained — as up to a point he had always been — in editorial command. But it was a different world, and though this was in part from change in management, it was also from change of everything else.
If I recall Christmas, 1929, as the first year we failed to get a raise, I can’t quite put a date on the first time we were given a cut. But it must have been during 1931 that on his paycheck rounds Arthur Pell gloomily half-whispered that owing to conditions, et cetera, et cetera. The first cut was almost exhilarating; it gave one membership in the Depression. By the third cut, one was all too grimly part of it. Soon that most cheerful moment of the week, when you got paid, became the most ominous — when you might well get paid less. (I enjoyed a brief fame for remarking, after the fourth or fifth cut, that I could remember when my salary ran to two figures.) But the shrinking paycheck was not the only menace. During our weekly trysts Arthur would tell now this employee and now that how we were all one family now, all in this thing together, and on that sink-or-swim pitch he invited us to buy stock in the firm. Despite our recent experience in the market, I fear that none of us had learned a lesson: at Pell’s urging, or from something in Pell’s look, we bought stock anew. Even so, though I was now a stockholder in the company, one day in November of 1932 I found I was no longer an employee. Others had preceded me to the door; others would soon enough follow. Early in 1933, the firm went bankrupt.
Horace’s Hollywood contract was not renewed. This was pretty foreseeable, not just because someone with spirit would find it hard to work there, but because Horace could scarcely work anywhere at all. He was a born boss, less for being an autocrat than a kind of anarchist, or actor. Or perhaps it was in the sense that a man is a born host: Horace had to sit at the head of the table, and carve — it was the role that mattered. In Hollywood, of course, he could never, whatever his pay or prestige, achieve such a role. He came back to New York, how well off financially I don’t know; but not back to another job. He was trying to raise money for a show. And he was “seeing quite a lot,” he told Tom Smith and me one day, “of Elise Bartlett.” He was seeing quite a lot, too, of us at the office; whether to haunt the scene of his former glory or just from being at loose ends, he dropped in very often. And one day, it seems, he was chatting with someone in the crowded reception room when Pell came through, noticed him, and said in a voice that carried, “Horace, I don’t think you’d better come in anymore; it doesn’t look well for business.” As far as I know, he never came again.
Presently he and Elise Bartlett were married. She had been an actress, and the wife of Joseph Schildkraut; and a great beauty, I would imagine, for there were still signs of great looks. To the wedding party at a hotel came a great many people, people oddly familiar, people weirdly anonymous, at length such a mongrel crowd as only the prohibition era could assemble. A fair sprinkling of the old guard dwindled in the company of Horace’s new friends and hangers-on, who seemed to bring their own friends and hangers-on in turn. I did not stay long, and in the elevator coming down was Horace himself, less bridegroom than a departing guest. But he doubtless went back, for the party lasted late. At the end Horace’s spinster sister, a hardworking Philadelphia librarian, could not find the new cloth coat she had bought for the occasion.
I saw Horace just once more, when some weeks later he and Elise gave a cocktail party. She looked madly grand in a costume that resembled a welldraped velvet portiere. He had a long nasty gash on the back of his hand; there were rumors that their domestic life did not lack drama. As I stood getting a drink, I heard Horace say to one of his delightful Liveright twin cousins while gazing at his spouse: “She’s crazy as a bedbug, but she’s white all through.” She herself was talking intently to a man known for his money, whom they wanted to back the show. Growing bored after a while, I slipped into a room where coats and hats were piled, to get mine and leave. There were Elise and the man with money; this time she was holding out to him a copy of a Liveright limited edition that had been a plug, and saying: “This is something very, very dear to Horace and me, which we want you to have.” He was pushing it back at her, protesting his unworthiness, only for her to magnify its worth; and she then, suddenly, with a kind of skater’s speed, glided across the room to me, glued her mouth against my ear, murmured “I know you understand, I know you understand,” then glided as swiftly back, to say once more, “This is something very, very dear to Horace and me. . .”
Thus the curtain came down for me, on something just saved from being shoddy by being idiotic, and by being played out on a drawing-room set. The marriage broke up not very long after; and the next year Horace, in his late forties, caught pneumonia and was dead. There was a funeral service at which the speaker at some point introduced a kind of joke. People laughed, and then froze from awareness of what they had done. It caused much talk at the time; yet perhaps it was not really inappropriate, or something that Horace himself would have minded.