Friday, June 24, 2016

Max Perkins

On one of James’s visits to New York, Max took a fancy to his ten. gallon hat. James sent one to Perkins, and it fit perfectly. ”I happened to be walking in it with a portrait painter,” Max wrote in thanking him, "and he begged me to let him paint me in it, and that never happened before I got this hat.” From that day forward, there was hardly a moment when Perkins did not wear a hat, indoors and out. Eventually he traded off permanently to a soft gray-felt fedora, size seven, which he wore so low that it folded his ears forward.

His habit of hat-wearing became Perkins’s most famous eccentricity and the subject of much speculation. ”Why the hat?” people kept wondering. The answer seems to be that he found it useful as well as ornamental. It gave the impression to unexpected office visitors that he was on his way out, and this kept them from buttonholing him into idle conversation. The hat also thrust his ears forward, which helped his hearing. Miss Wyckoff suggested that Perkins wore his hat to keep customers in the Scribners bookstore from mistaking him for a clerk as he made his afternoon promenade. Perkins himself revealed something of his attitude on the matter in a column he wrote for the Plainfield newspaper. The slouch hat, he apotheosized, was “the hat of independence and individuality, the American hat.”

Perkins’s attachment to his hat was hardly greater than his attachment to his clothing in general. At first glance he seemed to be an elegantly dressed New Yorker, but under close scrutiny he looked rather ragged. His daughters often pointed out his white shirt peeking through the thinning fabric of his suit-jacket elbows. Louise once tried to shame him into buying a new suit by telling him all his clothes looked secondhand, but that did not bother Max. Only at her sternest insistence would he give in to her demand that he buy a new suit. He would allow her to pick one suit from his closet, take it to the tailor, and have another made exactly like it.

This Yankee penchant for the sparse made Perkins the ideal editor for President Calvin Coolidge. Max published a collection of his speeches; it took months to talk "Silent Cal” down from 160,000 to 98,000 words. 

As publication neared, Fitzgerald lacked Perkins’s confidence. He was shakiest about the title. In early March he wired Max, asking if it was too late to change it to Gold-Hatted Gatsby. Max cabled that such a change would cause not only a harmful delay but also considerable confusion. The author tried to live with The Great Gatsby, but he still believed in his heart that the title would forever stand as his book’s one flaw.

Perkins went right on making the final preparations for The Great Gatsby’s April 10 publication; but on March 19 Fitzgerald could not re frain from sending him an exigent telegram from Capri: CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE. WHAT WOULD DELAY BE? Perkins responded that there would be a delay of several weeks. Besides, he wired THINK IRONY IS FAR MORE EFFECTIVE UNDER LESS LEADING TITLE EVERYONE LIKES PRESENT TITLE URGE WE KEEP IT. Three days later Fitzgerald acceded. He wired: YOU’RE RIGHT. But his nervousness mounted. ‘ 

Perkins said, "If a young man worked beside [Brownell] for some years and failed to become a passable editor he simply had no capacity for the work.” One of Brownell's hard and fast principles was that almost as much could be learned about an author's abilities through an interview as by reading his manuscript, since "water cannot rise above its source." Another Brownell adage that Perkins subscribed to was that the worst reason for publishing anything was that it resembled something else, that however unconscious, ”an imitation is always inferior." Sometimes a second-rate manuscript was marked by some rare characteristics that made it hard for the staff to surrender it. Brownell would close the debate by saying, "We can’t publish everything. Let someone else make a failure of it."

Brownell was always considerate of the authors he turned down. Whenever a book of promise had to be rejected, it was Brownell who wrote the most sympathetic letters. Perkins admired these compassionate rejections as works of art. One was so warmhearted that the author mailed his manuscript back, having written in the margin of the letter: "Then why the devil don’t you publish it?” 

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