By: Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins [1884-1947] and author F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896-1940] were born 12 years and thousands of miles apart. In my research into Perkins’ management style, I learned the details of the interesting story of how they were brought together.
When Scott attended the Newman School in New Jersey, he got to know Father Sigourney Fay. Name sound familiar? Fitzgerald used “Sigourney” for a minor character in The Great Gatsby, and when a 14-year-old Susan Weaver read it, she liked the name so much, she adopted it. Father Fay’s other claim to fame is that he introduced his student to his friend, Scribner’s author and Irish diplomat, Sir Shane Leslie.
In early 1918, 21-year-old Scott Fitzgerald was working on his first novel, The Romantic Egotist. He had been withdrawn from Princeton University due to an illness—but really due to spending more time on theatrics with the Triangle Club than on his studies—and was planning to enlist in the Army. Everyone was doing it; but he told his mother that it was “purely for social reasons.”
When Fitzgerald thought he might be sent over to the battlefields of Europe that autumn, he sent his precious manuscript of Egotist to his friend Sir Leslie.
Although he thought it a “boy’s book,” Leslie passed the manuscript on to his own publisher, Charles Scribner, with a personal note. Scribner sent it around to his editors, until it landed on the desk of Maxwell Perkins, who had been moved up to editorial from advertising four years before.
He rejected it. Gently.
Perkins sent Fitzgerald the first of many encouraging letters. Although he didn’t sign it, this letter has many recognizable Perkins’ punctuation and grammar ticks, as well as the collective “we.” As in, “we should welcome a chance to reconsider its publication.” In reality, the only person at Scribner’s who was interested was Perkins.
This was enough for any aspiring novelist. Fitzgerald got to work. Still in the Army, he spent six weeks that autumn revising, using the specific advice Perkins had given him.
Scribner’s rejected it again.
When Scott was discharged in February of 1919, he went to meet Perkins for the first time. Among other tips, the editor advised him to switch his narration from first to third person.
Fitzgerald quit his advertising copywriter job, headed back home to St. Paul, and burrowed into his novel, now called The Education of a Personage. He told Perkins this was “in no sense a revision of the ill-fated Egotist but it…bears a strong family resemblance.”
By the time the finished manuscript arrived on Perkins’ desk in September 1919, the title had changed to This Side of Paradise and Perkins knew he had something worth fighting for.
Perkins’ legendary meeting with the editorial board introduced the themes which continued throughout his career at Scribner’s. When the book was rejected by the other editors for the third time, Perkins said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing…If we’re going to turn down the likes of Fitzgerald, I will lose all interest in publishing books.”
Quite a brash statement from an editor about to turn 35, who had only been in that position for a few years at one of the oldest publishers in the country. Perkins presented a practical, business case that another publisher would snap up the novel and reap the profits.
There was a tie vote, junior editors vs. senior, and “Old CS,” the head of the company, went off to think it over.
Perkins was soon able to announce to his newest author that Scribner’s would publish his novel in the spring.
In March 1920, This Side of Paradise was published and immediately caused a stir with its tale of flappers and “a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
One week later, Scott married Zelda in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from the Scribner’s building. She had waited until he was really published.
Perkins’ reputation as a discoverer of new talent was established.
Researching my thesis, Manager as Muse: A Case Study of Maxwell Perkins’ Work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, I was lucky enough to meet with Charles Scribner, IV, then chairman of his family’s company, who had overlapped Perkins’ last years at the firm. Mr. Scribner told me that he was surprised to get my letter stating that my research was for an MBA. “My goodness, Miss Donnelly,” he told me, “Maxwell Perkins was one of the worst businessmen who ever lived.”
Fitzgerald’s, Hemingway’s, and Wolfe’s novels are still in print, and many are required reading in high school classes throughout the US.
Not a bad businessman, if you ask me.
-Kathleen Dixon Donnelly