City Life

New Yorker founder Harold Ross was so pleased with the magazine’s dandified mascot, Eustace Tilley, that he bought a listing in his name in the New York City telephone directory.

He was triumphant when the city sent Tilley a personal property tax bill.

(Staff writer Brendan Gill described Ross as “aggressively ignorant.” When Robert Benchley referred to Andromache in one manuscript, Ross scribbled “Who he?” Benchley wrote back, “You keep out of this.”)

An Exercise in Analysis,_Gertrude_1934.jpg

Gertrude Stein’s writing could be impenetrable:

“Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.”

Editor A.J. Fifield once sent her this rejection slip:

I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.

“Courting in Church”

A young gentleman happened to sit at church in a pew adjoining one in which sat a young lady for whom he conceived a sudden and violent passion, and was desirous of entering into a courtship on the spot; but the place not favoring a formal declaration, the exigency of the case suggested the following plan: he politely handed his fair neighbor a Bible opened, with a pin stuck in the following text:

‘And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.’

She returned it, pointing to the verse in Ruth:

‘Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, seeing I am a stranger?’

He returned the book, pointing to the following:

‘Having many things to write unto you, I would not with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.’

A marriage soon after resulted from this Biblical interview.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1867

In for a Penny …

Prosper Mérimée is best known as the author of Carmen, the novella that inspired Bizet’s opera. But he began his career as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1820s, where a passing fad for Spanish literature led him to commit a modest hoax — he published Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of plays supposedly written by a Spanish actress.

The effort worked: The plays were well received and launched Mérimée’s career. But some admirers wondered — if Clara Gazul doesn’t really exist, who is the fetching Spanish lady in the book’s frontispiece?

It’s Mérimée in drag.

A Poor Review

In 1936, John Steinbeck’s puppy made confetti of half the manuscript of Of Mice and Men. “I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically,” he wrote to a friend. “I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I’m not sure is good at all.”

He redid two months’ work and decided the puppy had been right. “I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft,” he wrote. “I have promoted Toby-dog to be lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature.”

The Poison Pen

Voltaire was stirring up trouble even after he died. According to a tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was fatal to publish his complete works:

  • Beaumarchais, the first editor to produce such a collection, lost a million francs in stock speculations and died suddenly in 1798.
  • Desser published a 10-volume octavo edition and died shortly afterward of phthisis, and his friend who financed the project died in poverty of the same disease.
  • Cérioux and his wife published a 60-volume edition and were ruined financially by it.
  • Dalibon and René, editors of two separate editions, were forced to take jobs as workmen in printing plants.
  • Touquet died suddenly at Ostend in 1831, and his partner, Garnery, was ruined and died.
  • Deterville, who began as a wealthy publisher, went blind (!).
  • Daubrée accused a woman of stealing a book; she assassinated him.

Over the course of 70 years, it is said, at least eight publishers went bankrupt publishing complete editions of Voltaire’s writings.

See Curse of the Ninth.

“‘Declined With Thanks’ in Chinese”

The following is said to be an exact translation of the letter sent by a Chinese editor to a would-be contributor whose manuscript he found it necessary to return: ‘Illustrious brother of the sun and moon: Behold thy servant prostrate before thy feet. I kowtow to thee, and beg that of thy graciousness thou mayst grant that I may speak and live. Thy honored manuscript has deigned to cast the light of its august countenance upon us. With raptures we have perused it. By the bones of my ancestors, never have I encountered such wit, such pathos, such lofty thought. With fear and trembling I return the writing. Were I to publish the treasure you sent me, the emperor would order that it should be made the standard and that none be published except such as equaled it. Knowing literature as I do, and that it would be impossible in ten thousand years to equal what you have done, I send your writing back. Ten thousand times I crave your pardon. Behold my head is at your feet. Do what you will. Your servant’s servant. The Editor.’

The Literary World, March 23, 1895

Spine Appeal

Robert Benchley kept a special shelf of books that he favored for their titles:

  • Forty Thousand Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts
  • Success With Small Fruits
  • Keeping a Single Cow
  • Bicycling for Ladies
  • Diseases of the Sweet Potato
  • Talks on Manure
  • Ailments of the Leg

In a review of the New York City telephone directory, he wrote, “The weakness of plot is due to the great number of characters which clutter up the pages. The Russian school is responsible for this.”

Sotto Voce

‘Wordsworth,’ said Charles Lamb, ‘one day told me that he considered Shakespeare greatly overrated. “There is an immensity of trick in all Shakespeare wrote,” he said, “and people are taken in by it. Now if I had a mind I could write exactly like Shakespeare.” So you see,’ proceeded Charles Lamb quietly, ‘it was only the mind that was wanting.’

Frank Leslie’s Ten Cent Monthly, December 1863