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Episode 36: The editor and the giants, featuring Jim Tobin

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

This episode of Listen in Michigan deviates a little from the norm, as if I’ve ever established a norm. But anyway, instead of interviewing someone about their experience or expertise here, I tag along with Jim Tobin, who is an expert and does have expertise, and a Ph.D. in history, as he embarks on some research at U. of M’s Bentley Historical Library. Here’s a little context in episode 26 of this podcast. I visited the vault at the Bentley, home to some of the university’s most prized historical artifacts. There, I learned that the co-founder of Esquire magazine, Arnold Gingrich, was a U of M grad class of 1925. As a pop culture freak, I love that kind of stuff and made a note to return. Jim has since written a story for the Bentley’s magazine collections about Gingrich. The editor’s bromance, is the only thing you could call it, with Ernest Hemingway as Esquire got off the ground. It’s a great story on the page, but I love the sound of Jim’s voice. So I asked if we could go back to the library and read some of the correspondence between the two gentlemen. One box in, and we emerged with an even greater understanding of Gingrich as an editor, a writer, and a man. All we had to do was open a folder filled with additional correspondence between our man, Gingrich, and literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald. The telegrams, the scrawled notes, can only be described as hastily typed missives revealed two relationships that are profoundly different. Gingrich is like a giddy schoolgirl flirting with a no-nonsense Hemingway, but with Fitzgerald, he’s a stern taskmaster, chasing down the writer for copy and fending off his requests for advances in fees. So come into the research room with us as we dive in to a series of folders from the Arnold Gingrich collection in search of a story. Who wants to open the box?

Jim Tobin: Hemingway is very much in the driver’s seat.

Holdship: Yeah, that’s true.

Tobin: And Hemingway is at the peak of his career when he’s writing for Esquire. And yeah. And Gingrich needs him, wants him. I think I think Gingrich was really impressed by Hemingway, both as a writer and as a person. Liked to hang out with him. You can almost see Hemingway toying with Gingrich a little bit in their correspondence. Yes, it’s a business relationship. At least at first. But it’s Hemingway insisting on high fees, getting paid a lot.

Holdship: Doing it his way.

Tobin: Arrogance and straight-shooting. You know, he wants Gingrich to believe that he is totally trustworthy in his business dealings, but he emphasizes that in such a way that it’s all about him. You know, it’s one more reason to think I’m the great man. I’m this pure, you know, honest soul with integrity. I will not be corrupted by this capitalistic enterprise. So this is Gingrich pitching Hemingway on writing for Esquire. Esquire, at this point, has not been published yet. This is in early 1933. They conceived of the magazine as a magazine very much for men, paid for mostly by fashion advertising. So the question on Gingrich’s mind is, how do you get away from this general notion that the only men interested in reading about fashion were gay men? So he says, the counter to that is going to be to recruit, you know, so-called manly men to write for the magazine. Gingrich and Hemingway had met by accident in a New York City bookstore. So they sort of strike up this acquaintance. And Gingrich is now following up on their chat and he says. It’s going to be “a consumer magazine, i.e., not a trade magazine. It will try to be to the American male what Vogue is to the female. But it won’t be the least damn bit like Vanity Fair. It aims to have ample hair on its chest to say nothing of adequate cajones. And it won’t, on the other hand, have that self-conscious, bad little boy behind the barn air that was emanated by those magazines from men. That that fellow Roth got out for a while.” So I think that’s sort of kind of dirty joke magazine’s, dirty cartoon magazines, that had been popular 10, 20 years earlier. “Just short of splitting a bottle. I’ll try anything to sell you the idea of being in that first issue. Something about fishing in Florida or about hunting or about anything you like. About the bullfights in Mexico. If you’re gonna be there and I promise no editing, whatever.”

Holdship: Woah

Tobin: That’s not a promise many editors would make. “You write, and I print. No monkey business en route to the printers.” Now he talks about the sort of what the compensation is going to be. “I realize you’re in the money. I’m glad. But I’d want you if you weren’t. And maybe some guys wouldn’t cash in advance, though not such a hell of a lot of it, and plenty of time in which to deliver. I’d have to have it by August 1st.” He’s talking about the first issue. “I haven’t started to gather material on this and won’t until I get my various summer issues put to bed.” Lots of other magazines. “And by the way, if I’m just a twerp offering you my measly 250 plus hopes, you won’t mind telling me so, will you? Why aren’t you broke, as I’d surely be if I were making as much as you do?” Let’s see if I’ve got Hemingway’s response. I think I do. OK, so here’s Hemingway responding a few weeks later. He’s had several letters by now from Gingrich. “Now, about your projected quarterly, I have two policies about selling stuff. If it is for a noncommercial publication published in the interest of letters, I give this stuff away or take a nominal fee, whatever the man can afford to pay and get his money back, then later usually find the bird has sold the manuscript and my letter asking him to return it as it is the only manuscript I have. And then if I tear up the pamphlet to use it.” His manuscript when publishing a book of stories. “Parenthesis. What a sentence end parenthesis.” You can see Hemingway. This is typewritten, right? Written on a typewriter. He’s just pounding stuff out. He does. He’s not changing a word. Kind of correcting himself in the next sentence as it goes along. “The second policy is to make all commercial magazines pay the top rate they have ever paid anybody. This makes them love and appreciate your stuff and realize what a fine writer you are. If only. So where does that bring us? Oh, yes, to the fact that two hundred and fifty is nice money in the pocket, but nothing to negotiate about. Then he says, this is writing a couple days later, in the same letter, “I go across to Cuba in small boat to fish that coast for two months.” He’ll write in this abbreviated form, almost like in a telegram. “In case Go to Spain to make a picture.” That is a movie. “If not for four months. Then to Spain, if I get suddenly flat and the 250 dollars. To the extent that knock off, and write a piece, will wire you if that is agreeable, but do not count on anything. For your information, in case I should wire you, I have never accepted an advance on anything without delivering it.” So he’s saying that’s what I mean about this, like, hey, I live up to my promises. This is just something an asshole.

Holdship: Yeah, really arrogant.

Tobin: So arrogant. He was not the most. Yeah, he had much to be arrogant about. As Winston Churchill might have said. At one point in the mid-thirties, he had written the draft of a novel and he wants to get Hemingway’s reaction to it. This is Hemingway to Gingrich. “You have this ungodly amount of drive and energy, but no matter how good a paragraph it would make for your obituary, how you ran this mag, days, and wrote a novel, nights, that is not the way to write a novel. Writing a novel is such hard work that it is a full-time job. The real secret in writing a novelist to keep inside of your reaction all the time like a horse. Don’t let the damned horse run away on you when you are going to have to keep racing him forever and always stop at an interesting place when you still know what is going to happen. Then you can go on from there the next day and the next and etc. Do a certain amount every day or every two days and always stop where it is interesting. And while you are going good.” That’s pretty darn good advice.

Holdship: No kidding.

Tobin: Here’s another piece of advice that Hemingway gives Gingrich. “You’ve gotten yourself into a hell of a state about this book, Arnold.” And by this point, they’re not Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Gingrich. He said he said that Gingrich was getting too attached to his own word choices. “God damn it, if you start defending what you’re right, instead of attacking it to yourself and trying to beat it or better it or get rid of it, you make yourself into an amateur.” In the summer of 1936, Hemingway was writing the manuscript for the novel that became to Have and Have Not, which would be published in 1937. And he decides that he has to spend absolutely full time, as he, you know, in keeping with the advice he just gave working on this novel, and he’s trying to tell Gingrich, I have no time for this journalism for now. So he writes to him and he had, you know, he had made a commitment to write further for Esquire. And he’s now breaking that commitment, contrary to his earlier promises, that he would never go back on a promise to a publisher. “It is practically a sin against the Holy Ghost for me to interrupt writing the novel at this point to write a piece” that means a journalistic piece “or a story,” a short story. “If I don’t give it every bit of juice I have. I’m a son of a bitch. I feel goddamn bad about this, Arnold. I think of you as the best and most loyal friend I have. And the one guy who knows what I am trying to do. By staying out of the magazine, now I am probably f***ing up my commercial career as badly as if as I f***ed up my critical status (the hell with it) by staying in it. But I haven’t any choice as long as I am working on this.”

Holdship: So that’s 1936.

Tobin: But this is just about the same time that Fitzgerald is starting to submit these personal essays to Esquire about his own, what he calls “crackup”, his own struggles with alcoholism, with being out of money with his wife Zelda, who is going crazy, and he’s trying to be a successful screenwriter. And he believes that the movies are sucking up all of the audience’s attention from novels. And he might be the greatest novelist of his era, which he probably was, but nobody’s going to want to read him anymore. “But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work. And in a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. Day after day.” That’s a, I think that’s a famous line. I’ve heard that quoted. At that hour, the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring them into an infantile dream. But one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists, there is less and less chance of the bonanza. One is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.” So that you see I mean, to me that’s like, wow, that’s the prose writer that wrote The Great Gatsby. And yet he’s writing about this absolute despair. “And I’m just writing the only thing I can right now, which is the story of my own sad circumstances. Please publish it. Because I need the money.”

Holdship: Tell me if you like it. That’s all that really matters deep down.

Tobin: But you know what? Yeah. Yeah true. But it’s still F. Scott Fitzgerald. And it might not be The Great Gatsby. But reading that material, you can see it was still the work of a master. This is dated March 23rd, 1935, Story Mailed. This is Fitz-Gerald to Gingrich, story mailed. It is called Shaggy’s Morning, a fifteen hundred word featherweight story about a dog and perhaps not good enough to run in a prominent place. This, you’ll see. I sent you a link to this story. The claim is Fitzgerald invents the personal essay with the crack-up series.

Holdship: Oh, fascinating.

Tobin: I don’t quite buy that. But.

Holdship: Yeah, I mean.

Tobin: There were certainly personal essays before that, but that’s our modern interpretation of American journalism

Holdship: that style

Tobin: So that’s interesting too. But doesn’t that … that’s you know, that’s another frustration.

Tobin: Yeah. You’ve got this collection. You know, it’s like, oh, the Arnold Gingrich papers. But it doesn’t have all the Arnold Gingrich material. Certainly got now the telegrams that you were working with. That’s from that period just before the crackup.

Holdship: Now, this would appear to be a handwritten note from Scott, right?

Tobin: Yeah. This reduces debt to five hundred dollars, if you like it, so. Gingrich has given him an advance. It looks like. “Dear Arnold, Here’s the story for your October issue a little later than expected because of moving and of sickness, here, there and everywhere. Remember, his wife was cracking up. Next, I do a post-story, got two congratulatory wires today on An Afternoon of an Author. Another story, obviously. Scott, This reduces debt to five hundred dollars, if you like it, if you like the story, in other words. Maybe I’m reading into it, but you get the sense that, that Gingrich is publishing these on the side of pity. So here you can see that Gingrich is angry with Fitzgerald for pressing him for more money.

Tobin: He writes, Dear Scott, sending one hundred and fifty dollars today, which will credit against purchase of Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish, that’s the name of that story. We’ll have to decline with regret any more in this series. Would have been pleased to go on stocking them up against future requirements as fast as you could turn them out. But cannot do so anymore unless and until you let me be the judge of how much we can honestly afford to pay for them. Realize you haven’t asked for my advice, but would nevertheless advise you, frankly, not to jeopardize old reliable instant payment market like this by use of strong-arm methods, which I am bound to resent as a reflection on my six-year record of complete frankness in dealing with you. In any case, you have the extra 150. And next move is up to you. But on bird in hand theory, believe you would be better business manager regarded as advanced against another story. Regards, Arnold.” It sounds like Fitzgerald called him in response to that. Used very hurtful language that Gingrich resented. And then Gingrich said, wait a minute, we get a patch this up. October 17th, 1939 to Scott. “We Mennonites cool down quicker than you Fighting Irish. So suggest you don’t answer this until tomorrow. But after you hung up, I realized that if my unfortunate choice of words in my wire hurt you half as much as your last spoken words hurt me, then it is inevitably silly for two adults to fight a naturally unwanted war over a relatively small amount of money. After six years of friendly and peaceful give and take in which mutual understanding and forbearance has smoothly oiled the exchange of some 75000 words and 7500 dollars without damage to friendship, which later commodity is to me at least a more precious currency than cash.” That’s a long sentence, but it shows how well Gingrich writes. So it’s interesting. Whatever passed between them and obviously turned out OK because Fitzgerald kept writing for Gingrich and they seem to continue to get along.

Holdship: Here’s a good little telegram to Arnold Gingrich. “If story arrived, can you wire money? Scott.

Tobin: There you go.

And then in handwriting on top of the telegram and says, “Sorry, couldn’t see us up for a story but wiring hundred. Regards.”

Tobin: Wow.

Holdship: Kill fee!. Fitzgerald did not make it into the magazine. Here’s one, hundred. 1942. “Yeah. Travel harder next time, keep you floating.”

Tobin: I mean, you know, we can read up. We could read a biography of Gingrich or we could. You know, we can read about Hemingway and Fitzgerald in books that are written by other people who have gone through materials like this, but it’s really different when you have your own hands and your own eyes on the original material. You know, these are letters that were held in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hand. To read the originals and all the stuff that doesn’t get into the biographies about the daily lives of these people that makes them feel very real.

Holdship: I feel like Gingrich when I say “If I am twerp, just tell me.” But I love a good library, and there’s nothing like snooping through someone’s personal letters and scribbled notes. That is at once both mischievous and highly enlightening. Meanwhile, I still can’t believe a U of M grad co-founded Esquire. Look for more episodes of Listen in Michigan at michigantoday.umich.edu. You just have to click on the podcast tab. You also can find Listen in Michigan podcast and subscribe at Google Play Music, iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. OK. That’s it for now. We’ll catch you next time. Until then, as always, go blue.

(In this podcast, writer Jim Tobin lets you in on his research process at the Bentley Historical Library. As he reads letters, telegrams, and handwritten correspondence between Esquire magazine’s Arnold Gingrich and contributors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a fascinating narrative emerges.)

A tale of two writers, an editor, and one amazing box

At the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus, history is packed in thousands of sturdy boxes of brown cardboard. Each box is 15 inches long, 12 inches wide, 10 inches deep — big enough to hold a couple thousand pieces of paper and often a surprise, a mystery, or at least a string of tantalizing clues.

The papers of Arnold Gingrich, BA ’25, are stored in 25 boxes of correspondence and memorabilia from Gingrich’s long career as co-founder and editor of Esquire magazine, a touchstone in American popular culture.

The other day, two of us asked for Box 1 — marked “Authors — Special” — to see what we would find. Soon we were peering into the workaday lives of two giants of American literature — Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzergerald.

Both were steady contributors to Esquire in the 1930s. Both became friends of Gingrich’s — of a professional sort, anyway. But the papers tell two such different tales.

“Ample hair on its chest”

Esquire started in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. Gingrich’s idea was a fashion magazine for men with lots of ads for men’s clothiers. But conventional wisdom said only gay men would buy a magazine about clothes. Thus Esquire‘s editorial strategy: Bulk up the content with “manly” stuff. Gingrich’s first target was Hemingway, who was as famous for his fascination with hunting, fishing, and bullfighting as he was for his novels.

Their letters show an editor in need and an author riding high.

Esquire “will try to be to the American male what Vogue is to the female,” the editor told the writer. “It aims to have ample hair on its chest, to say nothing of adequate cojones

“Just short of splitting a bowel, I’ll try anything to sell you the idea of being in that first issue. Something about fishing in Florida. Or about hunting. Or about anything you like… And — I promise — no editing whatever. You write and I print — no monkey business en route to the printers.”

Hemingway took the bait.

“You write a very good letter,” he told Gingrich. His standard fee for any magazine was “the top rate they have ever paid anybody. This makes them love and appreciate your stuff and realize what a fine writer you are.” But he would make an exception for Gingrich’s new venture, he said. He was about to go fishing off Cuba. “If I get suddenly flat and need 250 dollars,” he might knock out a piece or two for Esquire. “But do not count on anything.”

In fact, Hemingway knocked out a bunch of pieces for Esquire. His output helped to lift the magazine to prestige and success. And he introduced Gingrich to other big-name writers, including his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Can you wire money?”

Hemingway’s letters to Gingrich show a writer in his prime, confident of his powers and shrewd in his business dealings. The editor is an eager supplicant.

The Gingrich-Fitzgerald correspondence is altogether different.

Fitzgerald's copy of Pasting it Together

The typed manuscript for Fitzgerald’s essay “Pasting it Together” had the original title “Glue Together.” (Image: D. Holdship.)

By the late 1930s, the author of The Great Gatsby had moved to Hollywood to write for the movies, committed his wife to a sanitarium, and descended into alcoholic gloom.

He was now constantly short of funds. So he plied Gingrich with pleas for quick payments in exchange for each installment in a series about Pat Hobby, a broken-down screenwriter who daydreams of past glories between binges of drinking.

One such cable, sent on the heels of a manuscript that Fitzgerald had put in the mail, reads: If story arrives, can you wire money? Scott

Gingrich scribbled his reply across the top: Sorry, couldn’t see a spot for story, but wiring hundred regardless.

Clearly Gingrich had been advancing funds for work not yet completed, since one note pinned to a Fitzgerald manuscript reads: This reduces debt to five hundred dollars ­— if you like it.

Needy for funds, Fitzgerald was equally needy for praise. After another Pat Hobby story was published, Fitzgerald sent a frank appeal to Gingrich: You did not tell me whether you liked the story. Don’t you think it’s one of the best ever? 

Gingrich wrote back: I agree with you that it’s a swell story and it’s only my negligence where correspondence is concerned that prevented me from telling you so.

Within weeks of that exchange, Fitzgerald was dead of a heart attack at 44. Yet the Pat Hobby stories, written for money on the fly, had helped to define a turn in popular culture.

As a writer for Esquire would put it long afterward, Fitzgerald’s last stories “made failure seem compelling, magnetic, sexy. After reading him, who could ever look at success — so robust, so wholesome, so bland — again? … The ‘he-man-Hemingway’ type was out. A new type of male, a less, well, masculine type of male — the sensitive rebel, alienated and androgynous, as personified by James Dean and Elvis Presley and, slightly later, Mick Jagger and, a lot later, Johnny Depp — was on its way in.”

And all in one box.

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