A Movie About Max Perkins and His Writers: “The Tactile Feel of Typewriter Keys and Actual Words”

By Jack Limpert

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Colin Firth as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in “Genius.”

The movie Genius, about book editor Maxwell Perkins and some of his famous writers, is out this week and Los Angeles Times book editor Carolyn Kellogg has a good Q and A about it with A. Scott Berg, the Perkins biographer, and John Logan, who made the movie.

Berg’s biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, was published in 1978 and Logan almost immediately saw the movie potential in two of the main characters, editor Perkins and author Thomas Wolfe. But it wasn’t easy to get the movie made. As Logan told Kellogg, “…how the heck do we shoot this movie, how do we present this physically, we talked about words on pages, the tactile feel of typewriter keys and actual words and red pencils. Scott said to me once, there’s nothing more boring than watching a writer write…”

Berg talking about Perkins and Wolfe: “They’re wildly articulate, each of them in a different way. And I think what John jumped on was this is an immediately dramatic situation between Max Perkins the laconic Yankee, introverted, and Thomas Wolfe, this loudmouth drunken extrovert from the South…”

Logan on Perkins and Wolfe: “I see Thomas Wolfe as one of those great flamboyant Shakespearean characters that I love to pieces….To have a character that large is like red meat to me. In a way I think Max Perkins is just as large, because his eccentricities were so marked and so unique. A man of regular habits to an insane degree, who always wore the hat [the same hat, even indoors] and took the same train every single day, a methodical man who runs against a tempest, a whirlwind of a human being. I think Thomas Wolfe was savage. It’s like Cocteau about Piaf: the sacred monster. I think he was a sacred monster.”

At the Roger Ebert film site, reviewer Glenn Kenny said he greatly enjoyed Genius but does point out one oddity:

“I’m not the only one who was at least slightly taken aback, though, by a persistent quirk in the movie’s casting, which is that not one of the Lions of American Literature in this picture was played by, well, an American. Firth is British, Law is British, Dominic West is British, Guy Pearce is Australian and so is Nicole Kidman. “What about Zelda Fitzgerald, you sexist?” I can hear somebody saying. Well, yeah. She IS depicted in the movie also. By Vanessa Kirby. A British actor. They all do their jobs pretty splendidly though so I can’t really complain.”
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From a post last September on this website:

Back 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 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.
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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. 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.
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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.

Scottie Smith—full name Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith—died in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1986 age at the age of 64. Though she wrote plays and some journalism, she never wrote the novel. Along with her parents, she is buried in St. Mary’s Church Historic Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

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