Vanity Fair, July 1916
A PRICELESS BOON FOR AUTHORS
How They Can Prosper in Literature, Advertising and Public Speaking
By P. Brooke-Haven
REGGIE was seated in the club smoking-room when I found him. He was reading an illustrated paper. He extended it towards me, showing the photograph of a brutal-looking man, in the early thirties, who scowled from the page in a ferocious and aggressive manner.
“Do you know him?” asked Reggie, keeping his hand over the name.
“I’m not quite sure,” I said, scrutinizing the creature. “Isn’t it Battling Blodger, the fellow who’s trying to get a match on with Jess Willard?”
“It’s Algernon Primrose, the author of that book ‘Songs of a Soul in Anguish,’ which the critics say is unmatched in its tender fancy and poetic charm.”
“He doesn’t look much like his work.”
“No author does,” said Reggie, “except at great inconvenience to himself. That is why my “Authors’ Understudies’ Bureau” is going to make so much money. I have long contemplated starting it, and this photograph has decided me. It will supply a long-felt want, and when you can do that you’ve got a cinch. My prices will be a bit stiff, but there isn’t an author in the country who won’t have to come to me. It will be a choice between coming to me and being driven out of business.”
“I don’t think I quite understand,” I said. “What is the Authors’ Understudies’ Bureau?”
“It’s quite simple. In the old days an author was not expected to do anything but write. He wrote his book, and if the public liked it they bought it. But that simple old regime is a thing of the past. Papers now want photographs of authors, because the public wants to know what they look like. And, because as a rule they look like nothing on earth, the result is discomfiture for the author and disappointment for the reader.
“Suppose you read a novel full of what appears to be first-hand knowledge of the feminine soul, and discover, on the following Saturday, when you open your illustrated literary supplement that the man who wrote it has a face like a rabbit and wears large spectacles and a low collar!
“Naturally your faith in the book is going to be shaken. You know perfectly well that no woman ever bothered to speak to a man like that, much less lay bare her soul to him, and—consequently—that the whole thing was guess-work and unreliable.
“Next time that man writes a sex novel, you are going to keep your dollar thirty-five in your pocket.
“NOW, when my Bureau gets to work, all that will be changed.
“The low-collared rabbit, who is, of course, perfectly aware of his physical shortcomings, comes round to me, explains the nature of his book, and asks me what I’ve got in stock. I parade my corps of gentlemanly assistants, and he takes his pick. He hesitates for a moment at the one who looks like a Roman emperor who’s been doing himself a shade too well, and settles on the one with the dark, mysterious eyes and the cruel, cynical mouth. We send this man off to the photographer’s, and the author goes away perfectly happy, with nothing more to do but cash his checks for royalties.
“Modern civilization is nothing but an energetic correcting of Nature’s mistakes, and Nature never bungled worse than when designing the exteriors of great minds.
“To take the case I have just cited, my assistant with the cynical mouth looks like a sociological novelist and is really a ribbon-counter clerk, whereas the rabbit-faced author is really a sociological novelist and looks like a ribbon-counter clerk. My task is simply to fuse the two into one agreeable whole.
“THE more you look into the thing, the more evident does it become that the Bureau is destined to alleviate the lot of authors to an almost incredible extent. Think of the writers who now have to go through a perfect martyrdom in order to try to oblige their public.
“Look at Jack London, for instance. You don’t suppose the poor man likes looking like that? You know what I mean—that sport-shirt, that hero collar, that head-thrown-defiantly-back stuff. London is a man of almost passionate attachment to a high collar, pomaded hair, and a silk hat, but his public would quit him in a body if he ever let himself be photographed in his favorite costume.
“They like to think of him as a strong, rugged, civilization-defying man, so he is obliged to spend hours cultivating an appearance midway between that of a lion surprised while drinking and a miner interrupted at a free lunch. If my Bureau had been in existence when he first began to achieve fame, London would have been a happier man.
“LOOK at Bernard Shaw, for instance. I just happen to know that his life’s ambition is to be clean-shaven and it is only by the exercise of jaw-muscles trained to the strength of steel by a million socialist speeches that he is able to keep that smileless expression on his face long enough to get it photographed. When not facing the camera he has a grin that meets at the back of his head.
“It is positive torture to him to have to look as if the bran and excelsior which he had at lunch had not agreed with him, but what else can he do when he writes like that? The public expect him to be saturnine, so he has to be it. Irvin Cobb is another example.
“Life is a constant struggle for him between his fondness for the severer forms of athletic sports and the fear that if he reduces it may hurt him in his public capacity. His breezy, cheery humor creates a demand for an appearance that is in keeping with it, and he simply dares not diminish himself.
“In this respect G. K. Chesterton is an even greater sufferer. If he were to begin publishing photographs of himself as a slender, athletic young man, his livelihood would be gone. It would be as great a disaster for him as the changing of its trade-mark would be for the Dohavea Biscuit.
“Think what it must mean to Chesterton to be invited to play tennis, a game of which he is inordinately fond, or to take a Turkish bath, his passion for which amounts almost to an obsession.
“All over the place the same sort of thing is going on. It nearly breaks my heart to look at a literary supplement nowadays. Every photograph I see in it is either an awful disappointment or has so much effort at the back of it that the mere contemplation of it makes one tired.
“IT is not only literary supplements, either. There are tobacco advertisements as well. The proprietors no doubt think it is a recommendation for their stuff to print a photograph of Mr. Eustace Bingley Borrodaile, author of ‘Hearts Aflame,’ with a legend under it running:
“ ‘I shudder to think what the world would be like without Lenox Tobacco. Not only is it conducive to old age, bright eyes, and a healthy skin, and a sure preventative of mumps, measles, beri-beri and blind staggers, but it also enlarges and improves the soul. Abraham Lincoln would have been a better man if he had filled his jimmy-pipe with good old Lenox.’
“But what is the result, really? You look at the photograph of Eustace Bingley Borrodaile, and you see a meager, wizened, hollow-cheeked man apparently about to die of anaemia. Naturally you say to yourself, ‘If that’s how Lenox Tobacco makes you look, none of it for me.’ Now suppose my Bureau were running. I should make a specialty of hale, hearty fellows who would spend their whole time being photographed as great authors for tobacco advertisements. Their mere appearance would send you rushing round the corner for a ten-cent package, and you wouldn’t have a happy moment till you had torn open the wrapper and filled your jimmy-pipe (whatever—if anything—a jimmy-pipe may be).
“THEN, of course, there would be other developments. Authors, notoriously the most tongue-tied section of the community, are constantly being requested to make after-dinner speeches. Instead of undergoing the weeks of misery in which they now watch the horrid date drawing ever closer, they would simply pay me a visit and I would tell off a competent and good-looking talker to deputize for him.
“The author would be happy because he would not have to speak, the diners would be happy because they would not have to listen to him, and my employee would be happy because he would be pouching a fat fee. Everybody happy, in short. And what more could you want?”
“Where would you get your competent and good-looking talkers?” I asked.
“Actors out of a job. I could probably get them for a reduced sum, because they not only love dining but they also love the sound of their own voices.”
“But,” I said, “there would certainly be difficulties—”
“There’s only one difficulty—the scheme needs a little capital. Which reminds me. Can you lend me a five-spot, dear boy, till next Wednesday week, when it shall be returned to you positively without fail.”
Printer’s error corrected above:
Missing closing single quote inserted after “none of it for me.”