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Authors: Stephen; Birmingham

The Late John Marquand

BOOK: The Late John Marquand

The Late John Marquand

A Biography

Stephen Birmingham

For Jean-Luc Dubois



Some Beginnings

A Middle

The Ending


A John P. Marquand Check List

Image Gallery



I first met John P. Marquand in the summer of 1957. He was sixty-three, and I was in my twenties. I had published a handful of articles and short stories in magazines, and he was one of the most successful and celebrated novelists in America, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the author of what were considered some of the best novels of social comedy and social politics in the country, a twentieth-century Thackeray.

Our coming together was quite accidental. I had just completed the manuscript of my first novel and had delivered it, on a Friday morning, to the office of Carl Brandt, who was my literary agent, and who also represented Marquand and a number of other authors. I had not realized that, a few days earlier, Brandt had been taken to a hospital and was seriously ill.

What happened, as I learned later, was that my manuscript was picked up by Carl's wife, Carol, and taken home to their apartment, where John Marquand, down from Newburyport to see the Brandts, was staying. My manuscript was placed in a pile with other unread material. The next day, after a worried night and a visit to the
hospital, Marquand said to Carol Brandt, “Look, there's nothing we can accomplish just sitting around here worrying. Let's get to work. Give me something to read.” Carol handed him the manuscript of my first novel. I am told that after reading the first thirty pages, he put the script down and said, “This is very bad,” but that he picked up the script again, read another thirty pages, and said, “You know, this is pretty good.” On Sunday, Carol telephoned me at my home to say, “I've had an unpaid reader reading your manuscript this week end. His name is John Marquand, and he'd like to talk to you.”

I shall never forget the next afternoon in the Brandts' apartment when we met. We sat in the library over gin and tonics, and John offered me suggestions to remedy the trouble in the first thirty pages—mostly a matter of heavy blue-penciling. His other comments were remarkably vivid. He felt, for example, that when I shifted from one period of fictional time to another, my transitions were too abrupt. “Ease the reader into these time changes by adding a sentence or two,” he told me. My chapter openings tended, by contrast, to be too leisurely, and he recommended that I cut sentences in these. I also had, he pointed out, the beginning writer's habit of being overly adverbial, particularly in my dialogue, and in this connection he suddenly stood up and launched into one of his famous—though I had never heard of them—verbal parodies. Pacing about the room, glass in hand, screwing his face into appropriate grimaces and flinging his free hand about in exaggerated gestures, he was “writing” a nonsense novel in which every line of dialogue was accompanied by a descriptive adverb:

“Have you fed the baby?” she inquired mincingly.

“No,” replied Leopold, chortling cynically.

“Why not?” she expostulated judiciously, lifting her face to his haltingly.

And so it went. It was a performance such as I had never seen or heard before, and it had me choking with laughter. If John Marquand had been unable to make a living as a novelist—an unlikely possibility at that point—he could have done so as a night club stand-up comic. At the same time, I have seldom since put an adverb on paper without thinking about that afternoon. “If your dialogue is good enough, it will stand on its own feet,” he said. “You don't
have to explain the tone of voice to the reader. All the reader needs to know is who said it, with ‘he said,' or ‘she said.'” It was all good and welcome advice. But the best thing he said that afternoon was, “I'd like, if you'll let me, to take this novel to my publisher.”

He did, and it was published the following spring. He generously also produced a blurb for the book's jacket, a thing he hardly ever did—indeed, a thing he disapproved of authors' doing. It was even he who selected the title of the book,
Young Mr. Keefe
. (“Keep your titles simple; don't use words readers won't know how to pronounce. People are interested in people, and so names are good to use in titles.”)

That afternoon at the Brandt apartment continued until dinnertime, and I was asked to remain for dinner. The evening lasted, in fact, until it was time to walk the dog. I saw John often after that, both socially and in a working sense. I do not wish to imply that I was in any way a protégé of John P. Marquand, but he served me as an informal editor and adviser on two novels and was waiting to read a third which I had not finished when he died. As John knew from his own experience, a young writer needs all the help he can get, and he was that help to me. I was therefore especially pleased when I was asked to write his biography.

As I researched this book, talking to as many men and women who knew Marquand as I could uncover, I inevitably encountered incidents and anecdotes that required, in order to relate them, direct quotation of John Marquand's spoken words. Since memory is, at best, a faulty instrument, it is impossible for me, or for anyone else, to say with any certainty that these quoted words represent exactly what Marquand said on this or that occasion. And so in every case I have put down what people recall his having said to the best of their recollections. In some cases, his words are to the best of my own recollections. He had a vivid speaking style. Not to attempt to capture it would be to evade an important aspect of his personality. If I have failed to capture it, I alone am at fault.

There are a number of people who have been helpful, and exceptionally so. I would like to thank Mr. Robert Beverly Hale and Mr. Thomas Shaw Hale, both of New York, who are John's cousins, for their recollections of the Hale-Marquand family compound, Curzon's Mill, in Newburyport. I would like to thank Mr. and Mrs.
Charles A. Lindbergh of Darien; John's old friend Mr. Edward Streeter of New York; Mr. Herbert R. Mayes of London, one of John's favorite editors; Mr. King Vidor of Los Angeles, with whom John worked on the film version of
H. M. Pulham, Esquire

Words of appreciation must also go to Mr. Philip Hamburger of New York, whose brilliant parody profile of “J. P. Marquand, Esquire” appeared in
The New Yorker
in 1952, and Miss Lillian Hellman of New York, who, though she did not know the subject well, retained impressions of two meetings with him. Mr. John J. Gross's book,
John P. Marquand
, was another helpful source. I am grateful too to Mr. E. Dickenson Griffenberg of Wilmington for letting me consult his scholarly thesis; to Mr. Melvin Johnson of the
Boston Globe
for supplying clips and files; to Mr. George Merck, Jr., of Far Hills, New Jersey, whose father was another close friend of John Marquand; to John's friends Meredith and Helen Wood of Scarsdale, and to Mr. Meredith Wood, Jr., of the same city, who captured several of John's celebrated verbal performances on tape. Professor William H. White of Wayne State University was helpful with his thorough bibliography of Marquand's works.

I am also indebted to Mrs. Anne Kaufman Schneider of New York for her memories of the happy collaboration between Marquand and her father, George S. Kaufman, on the stage version of
The Late George Apley
. I am grateful to two of John Marquand's former editors at Little, Brown, Mr. Stanley Salmen of New York and Mr. Alexander Williams of Boston, for their insights and recollections. Thanks are due too to Messrs. Carl D. Brandt, the late Ewen MacVeagh, Warren Lynch, Leonard Lyons, and Evan W. Thomas III of New York; Mr. Brooks Potter and Miss Anne Ford of Boston, Mr. R. Minturn Sedgwick of Dedham, Mr. William Otis and Professor Roy Lamson of Cambridge, Massachusetts. John's publisher, the late Arthur Thornhill senior of Boston, was both encouraging and helpful. In Pinehurst, North Carolina, where John spent many winter months, a number of his friends, golfing companions, and former employees were helpful with reminiscences, including Mr. and Mrs. John Ostrom, Mr. George Shearwood, Mrs. Donald Parson, Mrs. Curtis Gary, Miss Mary Evalyn de Nisoff, Mr. Floyd Ray, and Mr. Robert (“Hard Rock”) Robinson. Each of these people has been helpful with anecdotes, insights, memories, opinions.

It goes without saying that I am overwhelmingly grateful to John's friend and literary agent, Carol Brandt, who, happily, has been my friend and agent also, and who has been pivotal to this book.

As she has done with three previous books of mine, Miss Genevieve Young of Lippincott has edited this book, using her exceptionally fine mind and customary fine-toothed comb.

I would also like to thank my three children, Mark, Harriet, and Carey, for considerately lowering the volume of their collective six stereo speakers when they hear the sounds of my typewriter, and last of all my wife, Nan, who types, reads, queries with an instinctive good sense, and has otherwise lived through the book all the way.

S. B.


Some Beginnings

Chapter One

They stood in the empty entrance hall of an enormous post-Victorian monstrosity of a house and roared with laughter, these three old and good friends who had shared so much, professionally as well as emotionally, over the years. The three were the author John Marquand, then at the height of his career, holder of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction; his literary agent, Carl Brandt; and Brandt's wife, Carol. Of that merry threesome, only one, Carol Brandt, is living now.

It was an afternoon of high hilarity. After all, what was one to make of such a house? To laugh at it was the kindest way to treat it. Outside, it had pillars, a porte-cochere, everything but a flying buttress; inside, a huge dark-paneled living room the size of a ballroom. It was overpoweringly ugly. And it was almost inherent in the house—part of the whole ludicrous joke—that it should have been another exploit, another ridiculous enterprise, of Adelaide Marquand, John's second wife.

“Poor Adelaide,” as people had begun to say. Of course one
could not call Adelaide Ferry Hooker Marquand poor, exactly. Her father had been president and principal owner of the Hooker Electrochemical Company, and, on her mother's side, she was an heiress to the Ferry Seed Company money. Seeds and chemicals—these always struck John Marquand as a droll combination of products to have made his wife a rich woman. Whenever he ridiculed her, which was often these days, he enjoyed bringing up the fact that she had “seed money.”

Furthermore, not only was Adelaide rich but she was surrounded by relations who were even richer. One of her three sisters, Blanchette, was Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, another fact that John Marquand liked to point out when anyone displayed anything that bordered on pity for “poor Adelaide.” But Adelaide had done a number of brash and aberrant things in recent months, and this was by far the most peculiar. Why would a wife buy, without consulting her husband—without even hinting that this was her intention—a new house for them to live in, particularly a house of this one's grotesque pretentiousness? Could she possibly have expected her husband to be pleased? On the contrary, when he learned of his wife's purchase, John Marquand, as any male might be, was furious. It was the early autumn of 1953, and Marquand, at sixty, was still recuperating from a heart attack, itself a fairly sobering experience, and one for which he indirectly blamed his wife and the trials she had been putting him through.

Since the attack he had purposely avoided seeing her, securing himself in his house at Kent's Island, in Newburyport, with Anna, an ancient and deaf retainer of the Hookers who had a year to work before she qualified for Social Security; with a nurse, Miss Malquinn; and with his younger daughter, Ferry. Those had been peaceful days during that early recovery period, with three pairs of feminine hands to tend him, but all that peace disappeared from Kent's Island when Adelaide informed him that she had bought a new house in Cambridge and had entered the children at the Shady Hill School. To Carl Brandt, Marquand had commented tersely that he doubted he would join the little group for many months—if ever.

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