Evelyn Waugh Faces Life and Vice Versa
Mr. Osborne worked for the Luce Magazines for twenty-three years and now free-lances in Washington
Tthe editors of Life magazine decided in January of 1946 to favor the British novelist Evelyn Waugh with their massive and, they assumed, welcome attention. His Brideshead Revisited had just been published, and they proposed to derive from it and his earlier novels a series of photographic essays, to be compounded of excerpts from the Waugh prose and pictures representing his scenes and characters. It was the kind of unlikely thing that Life did well, in part because its editors and subordinate minions took themselves and their projects with total seriousness and were accustomed to overriding obstacles, occasionally including the qualms of such beneficiaries as Waugh, with imperious certitude. One of the magazine's best photographers, David Scherman, and a researcher on its London staff, Elizabeth Reeve, were assigned to the Waugh project, and, for Life's purposes, it was in process when somebody thought of telling Waugh about it.
This chore fell to the London researcher. No doubt aware of Waugh's famous horror of the telephone, she informed him of the project by letter. She set forth Life's designs, asked his cooperation, and in what was intended to be a show of humility, referred to the "monumental" endeavor upon which Life and presumably Waugh were embarked. The original of Waugh's reply, dated "31st January 1946," is before me now. It is in his wasp-track squiggle, in green ink on dun-gray paper, under his letterhead in blue capitals:
PIERS COURT, STINCHCOMBE
Dursley was the village telephone exchange, 250 was the number, and Waugh had drawn a faint and eloquent green dash through that line.
"Dear Madam," Waugh wrote, "I have read your letter of yesterday with curiosity and re-read it with compassion. I am afraid you are unfamiliar with the laws of my country. The situation is not that my cooperation is desirable, but that my permission is necessary, before you publish a series of photographs illustrating my books. I cannot find any phrase in your letter that can be construed as seeking permission.
"You say: 'without consulting you the project will be like blind flying.' I assure you that it will be far more hazardous. I shall send a big blue incorruptible policeman to lock you up and the only 'monumental' work Mr. Scherman is likely to perform is breaking stones at Dartmoor (Our Zing Zing).
With the receipt of this letter, the Waugh project became my problem. Although I was the chief correspondent in London for both Life and Time, I tended to leave the Life people to their own devices and worked mostly for "The Weekly Newsmagazine." Here, however, was a Life crisis of the first magnitude, and I either undertook or was ordered to resolve it. I suggested to Waugh by letter that we discuss the difficulty in person, touched upon the vast audience awaiting introduction to his works, and invited him to invite me to visit him in Gloucestershire. He replied:
"I don't know how I have given you & Mrs. Reeve and Mr. Scherman the impression that I seek popularity for my books among those who cannot read. I have tried to give the literate all the information they need about my characters. If I have failed, I don't think you can help me.
"I am sure it is not your fault & that you are being bothered by some boss in the United States. Take heart; he has forgotten about it already. I was once a journalist for seven weeks & I know about bosses. They are volatile creatures.
"But if this preposterous project has become a fixed idea with the man & you would like to see me, by all means come. .
Waugh tempered the invitation with a warning that he could not put me up ("I have no cook or house-maids") and something more than a hint that I should not expect to be met if I came by train ("Have you a bicycle?"). He closed on a slightly warmer note: "I am always here and can give you a glass of port on arrival and plenty of dry bread. Please do not telephone." Subsequently acknowledging the mailed information that I enjoyed the use of a company automobile, and in any event, preferred to return to London the same day, he brought himself to say, "I can very well put you up for a night" and,
"Sunday is a good day for a visit as we eat meat then.
"I hope Mrs. Reeve is well."
A Sunday was agreed, and I found Waugh and his wife and Piers Court behind "the shabby white gates at the crossroads" which he had described. What passed in connection with the essay project, I have forgotten. We evidently did not quarrel about it. What I do remember are the handsome lunch provided and served by Mrs. Waugh, whom I knew to be my host's second wife and the granddaughter of an earl; a pig named Glory; and a productive conversation.
The pig was pink and lived in a small shed, apparently in utter darkness except when the door was opened to feed or show it. When Waugh showed it to me during a walk about the premises of Piers Court after lunch, he spoke of it with pride and a fondness which, so far as I could discern, the pig did not requite. I was to hear more about it, twice.
Waugh remarked in the course of talk about the oddities of English society that the country's aristocracy, and particularly the titled portion of it, was a shrinking asset which ought to be preserved in the national interest. He proposed that its leading ornaments be herded together into a suitable space and there maintained at the public expense, in the fashion and for the reasons that such relics as the Tower of London were maintained long past their practical utility. I knew from experience that my notions of subjects for Life articles seldom coincided with those of the New York editors. But this one seemed to be surefire. I recklessly urged Waugh to set it on paper and submit it forthwith to Life. He said that he would think about it, and on that happy note we parted.
On "12 March 1946," which could not have been more than a fortnight after our meeting, I received a card with the printed inscription "From Mr. Evelyn Waugh, Piers Court," and so forth, and, in the familiar green squiggle:
"I have written an article on the subject you proposed & sent it to a man who has a typewriter. It will reach you in about a week. I think it will be of interest to Americans. We killed a pig today and are well supplied with meat, should you think of coming to luncheon again."
The card crossed a letter from me, informing Waugh that Life had abandoned the essay project. His reply reflected his conviction, which I had failed to shake at our luncheon meeting, that Henry R. Luce and his wife, Clare, were necessarily, personally, and jointly responsible for all Life editorial enterprises of any importance, and his fixation upon the innocent Elizabeth Reeve as the embodiment of all that he abhorred in American journalism.
"I am delighted," he wrote, "to hear that Mr. Luce has seen reason about his project of illustrating my books. I am afraid he (or Mrs. Reeve) will have to pay for the article. It will be a good thing to send it to him, as even if he does not print it, it might interest him. It was written specially for very simple Americans. The pig (Glory) made a fine death—'bona mors' to Mrs. Luce."
The article on the preservation of the aristocracy fascinated Life's editors, and judging from the resultant flow of letters, Life's readers. The latter were variously appreciative and outraged, some by what they took to be undue respect for the aristocracy and others by what they thought to be undue contempt for it. I sent Waugh a copy of the issue containing his article, and later, for his amusement, excerpts from the letters.
"Thank you for 'Life' and the extracts from correspondence," he replied. "It is a sad thing that these simple illiterate immigrants should have been taught to read. They clearly do not understand a word of the language."
Waugh, Life, and the Luces got along very well thereafter. He visited Los Angeles in 1947 and wrote for Life a gruesome report which anticipated The Loved One, his novel about the barbarities attending death in the vicinity of Hollywood. His suggestion, shrewdly aimed, that "the subject of Catholicism in England is one which should interest Mrs. Luce" (he and she were converts to that faith) led to a second visit to the United States and an article entitled "The American Epoch in the Catholic Church."
During the second visit he stayed at a luxury hotel in New York, went his rounds in a chauffeured limousine, and took evident pleasure in living splendidly at Life's expense. A dinner for him at the Links Club was the occasion of our last exchange. The assembled Life editors, by then including me, were in a winish fog and discussing the state of religion in the United States in our naturally portentous way when Waugh asked whether any man at the table other than himself was a practicing Christian. With that malicious little smile of his, he demanded individual answers.
When my turn came, I stared across the table at him, and with all the intensity I could muster, asked in return, "Do you mean, do I believe in the life, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of my soul?" Waugh said that he did mean this, and I said, "I do." It was a reprehensible lie, but I thought it had its intended effect. Waugh was subdued, all but silent, for the rest of the evening, as if he were wondering how he would answer his question, put in that Baptist way.