Monday, June 8, 2009

Two Stenos To Literary Stars

One day in 1939, Frances Kroll Ring, a 22-year old with typing and dictation skills, was interviewed by Rusty's Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"At the agency," she recalls in an excellent article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, "they asked if I knew Scott Fitzgerald and I said I wasn't really sure. I hadn't read Fitzgerald then. I'd read Hemingway, who was the big muck-a-muck."

200px-Francis_Scott_Fitzgerald_1937_June_4_(1)_(photo_by_Carl_van_Vechten).jpgIt was Frances Kroll Ring who was at Fitzgerald's side when he began work on The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished swan song, released posthumously as The Last Tycoon (1941). In addition to typing and dictation, she wound up being his confidant. At the time of his death, it was she who settled his affairs and made the funeral arrangements; Fitzgerald's lover, newspaper columnist Sheila Graham, who would write of their affair in Beloved Infidel (1958), was bereft and unable to function. It is through Frances Kroll Ring that we know the daily details of the last eighteen months of Fitzgerald's life.

Ms. Ring's interview appeared just a few days after I wrote and posted Help Wanted: Professional Reader, within which I mentioned that I had been a story analyst ("reader") for a major TV and film production company (Lorimar). I worked as reader/assistant to Eleanor Breese, the Executive Story Editor, one of the most fascinating women I have ever known, who began her career, as Frances Kroll Ring did, by being sent by an employment agency for a job, one that turned out to be in the center of New York's  - and by extension, America's - literary universe: she joined the steno pool of 180px-Maxwell_Perkins_NYWTS.jpglegendary Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins.

It was the mid-1930s, she was in her mid-20s, Perkins was in his early 50s, and her assignment, Thomas Wolfe, was in his mid-30s.

Before sending her out to Brooklyn, where Wolfe lived, Perkins gave her the following warning: "No matter what, if you can't decipher his writing, don't interrupt him; we'll figure it out later."

Eleanor showed up at Wolfe's pad. It was late morning; Wolfe was still in his pajamas and needed a coffee IV-drip. Few words were exchanged. She set up her typewriter on the kitchen table, he began to write.

Upright. He couldn't sit still at a desk. A tall man, Wolfe used the top of the refrigerator as writing desk.

200px-Thomas_Wolfe_1937_1.jpgAnd, according to Eleanor, this was his writing method: he wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, his penmanship small and on the lines. He would quite literally toss completed manuscript pages over his shoulder to her; she would grab them, sometimes in mid-air, and type them up. As he became more enraptured with the writing, his nervous energy would increase and his penmanship would slowly enlarge and deteriorate to the  point where, beginning with twenty-eight standard lines with neat words stretching across the pad of paper, by the end of his work day he was furiously writing a frenzied 4-5 giant words per page, if that many. The man needed a lot of writing paper real estate when he wrote, and somewhere there's a large scar in a forest dedicated to Wolfe, who suffered from the opposite of writer's block, writer's blabber; there was no stopping him: he stepped on the ink, raced off into wordland and left an endless, thick plume of 300 horsepower verbal exhaust in his wake.

That book, October Fair, a massive work, was beaten into shape by Perkins and published as Of Time and the River (1935).

Eleanor, 65 when we met but very young at heart with a libido to match and a datebook to prove it, enjoyed being surrounded by bright young men. (She preferred, however, the intimate company of contemporaries. Her fave was ID'd only as "Numero Uno," who she suspected of being with the CIA because of his peripatetic international travels, always on a moment's notice). She, thankfully, lowered her standards and I was extremely proud then, and remain so today, to become one of "Eleanor's Boys," as her circle of young male friends and/or employees was known.

against current.gifFrances Kroll Ring wrote a short memoir of her time with Fitzgerald, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald (1985).

Eleanor Breese, born in 1912, died in 1999. She is survived by a son, daughter, granddaughter, and at least five men I know out of countless others who, because of her early, crucial support and encouragement, established themselves as writers. She was, and will always remain, "Numero Uno" to us.


If you have not already read it, I highly recommend A. Scott Berg's Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). He was, in addition to Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and other literary luminaries, Hemingway's editor.

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