A Movie About an Editor—Plus Nicole Kidman and Lots of Writers

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.11.31 AMBack in the 1970s my sense of how an editor should work was shaped by Max Perkins, Editor of Genius. The biography, by A. Scott Berg, brought to life one of the great book editors, whose genius was his ability to inspire writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, and others—to do their best work. Perkins helped create great books, but to the outside world the finished book always was the author’s.

Berg describes Perkins, late in life, talking about his work:

“The first thing you must remember,” he said, without not quite facing his audience, “an editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.”

He warned the students against any effort by an editor to inject his own point of view into a writer’s work and to try to make him something other than what he is. “The process is so simple,” he said. “If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”

The New York Times review of Max Perkins, Editor of Genius described it as “A fully achieved biography of a man whose career and life were marvels of self-effacement.” Columnist Russell Baker said, “A lovely book about the age of giants and the extraordinary man in the shadows behind them.”

Max Perkins, a marvel of self-effacement, a man in the shadows. And now a movie about him. As part of A. Scott Berg’s presentation at tomorrow’s Library of Congress National Book Festival there will be a sneak peek at “Genius,” a movie starring Colin Firth as Max Perkins, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe, Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway. Plus Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein and Laura Linney as Louise Saunders. Bernstein was romantically linked to Wolfe. Louise Saunders was Perkins’s wife.

The drama, as it should be, probably will be much more about the writers than the editor.
Here, from Berg’s book, is Perkins writing to Scottie Smith, daughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, after Fitzgerald died:

When the estate was being probated, Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie, had no income, so Perkins arranged with Judge Biggs, Gerald Murphy, and Harold Ober to loan her enough to pay her way through Vassar and provide her with a monthly allowance besides.

“I can’t thank you enough for the flowers,” she wrote Max, “for coming down to Baltimore, and most of all for your kindness in lending me the money to go to college….If the world hasn’t completely collapsed by 1944, I’ll be able to repay the loan. I hope by then to have produced a novel for your inspection, too.” Max sent Scottie some literary advice, the same dictum he gave every college student who called on him. He stressed the importance of a liberal arts education but urged her to avoid all courses in writing. “Everyone has to find her own way of writing,” he wrote to Scottie, “and the source of finding it is largely out of literature.”

In 1970 I worked with Scottie Smith on two stories she wrote for The Washingtonian. One was “How Washington Women Stay Young.” And here’s a recent Washingtonian story about the final resting places of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
Max Perkins died in 1947 in Stamford, Connecticut. His home in Windsor, Vermont, has been restored and reopened as the Snapdragon Inn, which has a Maxwell Perkins library and a lot of literary history.


  1. Interesting. Didn’t know about the forthcoming movie. I loved the Max Perkins biography, which I read in my twenties when I was learning how to be an editor. Like many good editors, he was a Virgo, and I was very encouraged to discover that his birthday was just one day apart from mine. Hmm, it so happens I will be in Vermont this weekend . . . didn’t know about the house/inn in Windsor.

  2. James MacPherson says

    Interesting, interesting, interesting. I arrived at this site via a study of convergence, the emerging science of why people suddenly and independently come up with the same idea. We are, I suspect, all trying to figure out the consequences of the existence of the smoking crater that used to be conventional reporting. We are all journos now, tho it also seems like there is a need for some buffering process (which ain’t gonna happen – the proles got their mits on the printing press, ain’t giving it up). My unedited take on consequences is it looks something like the bible. Luther, the church, et al, were very opposed to the bible being translated into the vernacular, and distributed to the untrained. Presumptive and arrogant, but their success might have avoided the havoc from any number of biblical literalists.

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