ITS A ROUGH GUESS, but I'd say that three out of four book editors over the age of 40 came into the publishing business with the image of Maxwell Perkins in their heads. Max was the invisible, legendary editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, through whos literate mind and able fingers passed the manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Perkins's death in 1947, the tradition of literary desk editing began to erode, yet the flame, the tourchstone, the very feel of Perkins lives on in the hearts of a dedicated handful of people in this business, the people who care about the printed word with a passion usually reserved for money. That's why it's satisfying to have, at last, a full-scale biography of the man himself and doubly satisfying that it has been written by a very young man, so that a new generation of editors may be re-inspired.
If you have been named for Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps you too, would consider no university other than Princeton, no eating club other than Cottage, major other than English. At 21, A. Scott Berg, a Princeton senior, helped and guided by Professor Carlos Baker, the biographer of Hemingway, turned in his undergraduate thesis on Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins. He had been working on the research so long that he had "hung up his brassiere and retired the best pair of leg in the Traingle Club."
The normal Princeton undergraduate thesis runs to maybe 75 pages; Berg's was 250. It received the theses prize, was graded A-plus, and Berg was on his way to a book. He was graduated on June 8, 1971 and entered the Library june 9, to continue the research that would take the better part of the next three years and more.
Max Perkins was a shy man, who spent his life covering his tracks, says Berg, and his family respected that desire for privacy even after his death, so they had turned away a number of other would-be biographers by the time that Scott came knocking at their door. Visiting Perkins's eldest daughter, Mrs. Bertha Forthingham, who was living at the Perkins's ancestral home in Windsor, Vermont, he spent two days walking with her through a very special part of the acreage, paradise. At the end of the visit, Scott, unaware that he was being "tested," had been the first visiting writer to walk through Paradise, Max Perkings's favorite haunt, without a notebook in his hand. This impressed Mrs. Frothingham and, remembering that her father always loved working with very young writers, she opened the family doors to 21-years-old Berg, and the family archives and remembrances.
Each day brought fresh material to light. Although Perkins had been most celebtated for Hemingway and Fitzgerald and particularly for creating a kind of monolithic order out of the chaos of thomas Wolfe's mammoth manuscripts, Perkins had edited other authors of note. Ring Lardner, for one, and Nancy Hale, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sherwood ANderson, and James jones. Scott learned that it was Perkins's suggestion to Winston Churchill that he write a history of the English-speaking peoples.
In late 1973, Tom Congdon, then an editor at Doubleday, was visiting the Berg family in Los Angeles, talking business with Scott's father, a television producer. Scott was dragged away from his typewriter to meet Congdon, and the editor caught his first, staggering glimpse of the manuscript - eventaully to run 3000 pages long.
An unofficial relationship between them began; the book was not signed by Doubleday because Scott Berg was still leaning toward Scribner's as the natural publisher of a book about that house's famous editor and his famous authors. It was not until 1974 that Tom Congdon, who has his own imprint, Thomas Congdon Books, under the E. P. Dutton aegis, actually signed Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.
Then began the . . . dare we say it? . . . manuscript to publishable proportions while retaining its fidelity to history. Congdon, with whom Berg fell "in literary love at first sight," has been cutting the book since 1975; in its present and final form, it will come to about 500 printed pages and be published in March of 1978, with a David Levine drawing on the jacket.
In the course of his search for the elusive Mac Perkins, Berg spent some wonderful afternoons with authors, including the late James Jones in what may possibly be the last interview he gave; Nancy Hale, Marcia Davenport, ALice Roosevelt Longworth and other.
To his surprise, he discovered a facet of the man's life hitherto unsuspected, even by Perkins's family. Over the course of 25 years, Perkins had carried on a passionate love affair by mail with an extraordinary woman, the great love of his life, Elizabeth lemmon, now 85. Berg describes it as "a totally platonic love affair, a great 19th century romance." In a bedroom in Virginia, tucked away in an old shoe box were the collected outpourings of the heart and mind of an otherwise laconic Yankee.Before seeing these letters, Berg had "Max skeleton, all the bones. This was really the flesh and the soul. It was chilling."
As soon as he had read the letters, Scott called Mrs. Frothingham and told her about the letters and the affair. The first reaction of Max Perkins's daughter was one of horror and disbelief. Then she came down to Middleburg to read the letters for herself, in her father's own handwritting. Her next reaction was "glorious," says Scott. "Perkins had a rather stormy marriage, and Mrs. Frothingham called me up and said, 'I'm so glad daddy had somebody to talk to.'"