By Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, September 3, 2006
Rules of the Game
A few weeks ago, I came across a photograph of movie star Grace Kelly with Frances Scott Fitzgerald, the famous writer's only daughter. It was taken in 1955, at a meeting before a multiple sclerosis benefit dinner here in Washington. Pasted on the back of the photo was a faded clipping from The Washington Post: a 1958 book review of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Afternoon of an Author . This is how the review began:
"Just 36 years ago, my mother, Zelda, reviewed the latest F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Beautiful and the Damned , for a New York paper. She went to the point with a directness I admire.
" 'To begin with,' she writes, 'everyone must buy this book for the following esthetic reasons: First, because I know where there's the cutest cloth of gold dress for only $300 in a store on 42d St., and also, if enough people buy it, where there is a platinum ring with a complete circlet, and also if loads of people buy it my husband needs a new winter overcoat, although the one he has has done well enough for the last three years.'
"Here it is 36 years later, and as I sit down to review my father's last, posthumous book I can't help thinking how valid the points my mother made back in 1922 still seem today. Why, I'll even bet that dress she mentioned was cut like the chemise I want so badly."
I have no idea who thought of asking Scottie to review her father's book -- or Zelda her husband's. All for a lark, I'm sure. In writing their reviews, they may have remembered a line from his story "Winter Dreams": "He wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people -- he wanted the glittering things themselves."
Oh, why not, I thought, Gatsby would have understood.
During my long stint here at Book World, I do not recall whether we ever assigned a book to such close kin of an author: friends, enemies and lovers, yes, but always inadvertently. Thirteen years ago, we asked a prominent professor to review a biography of a well-known American figure. In the review she wrote, "The strengths of this exquisite biography . . . are innumerable . . . an engrossing masterpiece . . . a dazzling feat of scholarship." We had no idea that the reviewer and the biographer were good friends, perhaps more. We heard from academics and publishing insiders who knew the nature of their relationship and what a hoot our assignment was.
To protect ourselves from such blunders, for some time we have required reviewers to sign a contract that says in part: "If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book, if you have been asked by the publisher to write a blurb for the book, or if there is any possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest in the assignment of this review to you, please let Book World know immediately." But even with this advisory, we still discover an occasional reviewer who has been all too cozy with the author. The rules of the game are different in England, but that's another story.Scottie and the Foreign Student
In 1967, I was a college student from Japan, still struggling to connect with a new culture, meandering down the academic corridors at George Washington University with many interests but no aim in sight. By chance, I saw a card on a campus bulletin board advertising a part-time job at The Washington Post. I applied and passed a test to work as a copy aide in the newsroom. What delighted me most in my new environment was the discovery that the daughter of one of my literary heroes worked there. Scottie was a society columnist for the women's section, For and About Women, in the days before it was transformed into the trendier Style. I fetched coffee for Scottie and the other society reporters and helped write the weddings and engagements column. Judith Martin, who later became more famous as "Miss Manners," was a reporter for the section, too. At a recent Book World party, she told me that the daughter of Scott and Zelda preferred to be known as Scottie Lanahan Smith (taking on the names of her husbands, whom she eventually divorced), to avoid the inevitable comparisons with her parents' all-too-famous works. The unbearable heaviness of being an offspring of such glamorous parents was chronicled by Scottie's daughter, Eleanor Lanahan (in Scottie: The Daughter of . . . : The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith ). "In my next incarnation," Scottie said, "I may not choose again to be the daughter of a Famous Author. The pay is good and there are fringe benefits, but the working conditions are too hazardous."
Some years after Scottie's death in 1986, a group of us in Book World had a heated discussion concerning the meaning of text in literature. This was during the heyday of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Perhaps it was Michael Dirda, my longtime colleague in Book World, who brought up the famous last line of The Great Gatsby (engraved on Fitzgerald's tombstone in Rockville, Md.): "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
No, no, there is no sexual meaning here, one editor said. "Beating on" is a nautical term that means sailing against the wind, tacking or beating the sails, another chimed in. If only we had Scottie around for her inside scoop on the famous novel. I could have told her about my own epiphany when our ship sailed into the Hudson, past Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyscrapers and arrived at New York harbor after a week-long trans-Atlantic trip. Awaiting at the end of the pier was a green light, its reflection flickering on the water. In an instant, I made that connection to Gatsby , with the light that still beckons lovers of Fitzgerald's romantic prose. And I thought of all the immigrants who had arrived from faraway shores with so much hope, so relieved at last to find the green light.A Beginning and an Ending
Recently, struck with the reality of my impending retirement, I pored over some faded and crumbling back issues of Book World. Like tasting madeleines dipped in fine aromatic tea, this brought back some very pleasant memories. I recalled how, in 1972, The Washington Post stopped producing a book section in New York in collaboration with another company and started its own. That year Herman Wouk's The Winds of War hit the bestseller list along with Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull . The Vietnam War was still raging when David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest came out that fall. William McPherson, who was the daily book editor in Style, headed the new section and hired his former assistant -- me -- along with far more competent writers and editors.
As I looked back, one piece in particular caught my attention. On Jan. 18, 1973, we published historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s review of The Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . No one but the former adviser to President Kennedy can vouch for whether he had read every word in all 12 volumes of that collection. But his words, written in the parlous time when Richard Nixon was president, still gleam with pertinence and scholarly passion:
"The publication . . . induces melancholy reflections about the moribund condition of the presidential press conference, an institution that only a short time ago was supposed to have become a permanent part of our unwritten constitution. Roosevelt held 1,011 press conferences during his 12 years and one month in the White House -- an average of almost two a week. . . . But from the perspective of our quasi-monarchy it is striking to note FDR's disarming informality, his openness. . . . And it is impressive to observe the wide range of information at his fingertips, the skill with which he simplified complex issues, and the immense flow of fact and attitude he sent out twice a week to the American people."
On the back of that same issue is an advertisement that reads: "Invest $6.95 in a better marriage." A young couple sitting on a tree trunk in the middle of the woods is shown locked in passionate embrace. Book World still runs similar ads -- these days touting tapes and DVDs that cost a lot more but still promise, if not lasting happiness, some form of temporal satisfaction. As the French saying goes, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
So with these brief recollections from the past, I bid you farewell. It's been great working among people with such deep passions for books.
But do read once again the ending of The Great Gatsby , especially the part that comes after "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.
". . . And one fine morning -- "
Notice that dash? What a masterful stroke that is. For what is left unsaid will speak volumes. ·
Kunio Francis Tanabe retired as senior editor and art director of Book World last Friday, after working for the section since its inception in 1972. His e-mail address is email@example.com.