“Such Friends”: Maxwell Perkins and Ernest Hemingway

As with F. Scott Fitzgerald, his first major author, Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins [1884-1947] found Ernest Hemingway [1899-1961] through a chain of people—including Fitzgerald himself.

Hemingway was recently home from the war, dumped by his nurse-girlfriend, Agnes, writing ads for Firestone Tires in Chicago. He met a red-head from St. Louis, Hadley Richardson, and was instantly entranced by this woman eight years his senior. Agnes had been seven years older. Bit of a pattern there.

Soon after Ernest and Hadley married in September 1921, they dined with the successful novelist, Sherwood Anderson, who had just returned from Paris. He told stories of meeting fellow American Gertrude Stein, a “writer’s writer,” who had had a few small pieces published in the States. The newlyweds were planning to visit Italy, where Ernest had been an ambulance driver in the war, but Anderson convinced them to go to Paris. The exchange rate was great, the people interesting. He promised a letter of introduction to Stein.

By spring 1922, the Hemingways were ensconced in a small walk up on the Left Bank, living off Hadley’s trust fund. Ernest was a reporter for the Toronto Star, and had met Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. He’d shown Stein some of his short stories and she had told him, “Begin over again and concentrate.” She also told him to go see the bullfights in Spain.

When the Fitzgeralds arrived in Paris two years later, just before the publication of The Great Gatsby, Hemingway was all the buzz. By then he had fathered his first child, “Bumby,” seen the bullfights, had his Three Stories and in our time published by small presses, and was working for the transatlantic review. Capital letters were quite unpopular in Paris at the time.

Always eager to pay back his editor, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins, “Hemmingway [sic] has a brilliant future. Ezra Pound published a collection of his short pieces…I haven’t it hear [sic] now but its [sic] remarkable and I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.” Fitzgerald the terrible speller hadn’t actually read anything by Hemingway.

By February 1925, Perkins had received his requested copy of in our time, and written to Hemingway, “I was greatly impressed by the power in the scenes and incidents pictured… Whatever you are writing, we should be most interested to consider.”

But the Hemingways were off skiing in Austria. When they returned to Paris, a cable from another publisher, Boni and Liveright, was waiting, agreeing to re-publish in our time. The eager young writer accepted instantly.

Then Hemingway read the letters that had finally arrived from Perkins, and responded, explaining he already had a contract.

“What rotten luck—for me, I mean,” Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald.

A few weeks later, a man walked in to a bar.

Hemingway was at the Dingo with his ex-pat friends. In walked an American preppy, in a Brooks Brothers suit, who introduced himself as Fitzgerald, and ordered champagne. After a few drinks, Fitzgerald’s face turned white, became covered with sweat, and he passed out. They sent him home in a taxi. Hemingway was not impressed.

Then he read Gatsby. As Hemingway remembered later, “If he could write a book as fine as Gatsby, I was sure that he could write an even better one.”

Liveright published In Our Time, and the glowing reviews compared Hemingway with his mentor, Anderson, a wildly successful Liveright author. Hemingway saw a way to switch to Perkins, the editor who Fitzgerald was praising and who was writing him terrific letters. He wrote a terrible parody of Anderson’s style, The Torrents of Spring. Liveright wouldn’t publish that.

Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins, “I wish Liveright would lose faith in Ernest,” and they did. Perkins agreed to publish Torrents and then Hemingway’s first novel, about the postwar generation in Paris who hung out at the Dingo and went to Pamplona to watch bullfights.

Now Perkins’ hard work began. As with Fitzgerald, he would have to fight Scribner’s to publish The Sun Also Rises, where the word “bitch” refers to the heroine, not a female dog. Once again, Perkins won.

Then he had to ask his newest author to tone down certain four-letter words, writing “Some words should be avoided so that we shall not divert people from the quality of this book…The very significance of so original a book should [not] be disregarded because of the howls of a lot of cheap, prurient, moronic yappers.”

The Sun was published in October 1926, including “bitch,” and was a big hit. When I interviewed Charles Scribner IV for my MBA thesis, Manager as Muse:  A Case Study of Maxwell Perkins’ Work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, he held that Scribner’s was not afraid of those words. “After all, they published them!” he said.

Back in Paris, finished with his first novel and first marriage, Hemingway assigned the royalties from Sun to Hadley and Bumby, and divorced her. He married her friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, only four years older, also from St. Louis, and started his second novel. When that was finished, he divorced Pauline, married Martha Gellhorn, also from St. Louis, and started another novel. And then…well, you get the picture. As Toklas said, “Any man who marries four women from St. Louis can’t learn from his mistakes.”

But he stayed with Perkins and Scribner’s for his whole life.

-Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

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