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: