Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Raymond Chandler Gripes To His Agent About Agents

by Stephen J. Gertz

In a letter dated July 11, 1952, Raymond Chandler wrote his agent, H.N. Swanson ("Swanie") mentioning, among other things, that he is "still fussing around with the end of a book, a draft of which I unwisely sent East to Carl Brandt and Bernice Baumgarten [of Brandt & Brandt of New York, Baumgarten an associate and wife of novelist James Gould Cozzens] and received in return a lot of picayunish criticism which annoyed me without being in the least helpful."

Chandler goes on to muse about not being the sort of writer who publishes in the Saturday Evening Post, and reflects on the relationship between writers and agents. "During my fairly long association with poor old Sydney Sanders, I did learn exactly how to benefit by the advice of New York literary agents. Thank them politely, and then do something else." Brandt and Baumgarten were Chandler's former agent and editor, respectively; the manuscript they had criticized was The Long Goodbye. (See Selected Letters, p 315n.)

In another typically colorful and direct letter by Chandler to Swanson, dated December 5, 1952 and three pages in length, Chandler explains why he wants to handle matters concerning his book rights himself. Chandler begins by "remarking in passing that you (including Eddie) are the only agent that I have been able to like," then goes on to once again air his grievances with former agents Baumgarten and Brandt, alluding to their criticism of his draft of The Long Goodbye.

He then launches into a page and a half critique of the ineffectualness and superfluousness of literary agents in general. "The English agent and the American agent can't even write a contract; they don't know when royalty statements are due; they don't know if they are paid when they should be paid; they don't even know when the books are published unless they get author's copies, and they don't always get author's copies. The whole thing is just a bluff." Elsewhere he declares, "I will never again submit a book manuscript to an agent unless a publisher has first approved it. If I have to get kicked in the teeth, okay, but I won't take it from anybody but the head man." 

Chandler provides several other reasons for wanting to handle his book rights himself, and offers to let Swanson continue to handle matters related to motion picture, television, radio, and serial rights.

I was acquainted with Swanie (1899-1991), who was still active when I was a story editor in Hollywood during the early 1980s; I spoke to him a few times. The dominant literary agent in his heyday he was still respected as one of the greats by those in the know; his client list was awe-inspiring. He began as a writer and editor; he knew the writers soul and how to deal with those who would rob it and then pick their pockets. He was of the old-school and by the 1980s was sort of a fossil in the new Hollywood to those who didn't know any better.

"Harold Norling Swanson, known as Swanie, was a native of Centerville, Iowa, and a graduate of Grinnell College. He began his career as a writer and was a founder and the editor for eight years of College Humor, a Chicago-based monthly that became a showcase for new talent. In 1931, he moved to California and became a producer, making about a dozen films for RKO.

"Three years later, Mr. Swanson rented a building on Sunset Boulevard and became a pioneering literary agent. By 1939, when 110 screen writers were under contract to 20th Century Fox, he represented 80 of them.

"Among his early clients for screenplays were William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pearl Buck and Raymond Chandler. More recently, he represented the Hollywood efforts of writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux and Joseph Wambaugh. Among the scripts he sold were the 1946 version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Old Yeller" (1957), "Butterfield 8" (1960) and "The Mosquito Coast" (1986)" (NY Times obit).

These letters are being offered by Bonham's in their Fine Books & Manuscripts sale, February 17, 2013.

Images courtesy of Bonham's, with our thanks.

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