A few days after the interview Fitzgerald asked me how I had gotten that long letter from Bernard Shaw in 1932, and what had led to its being reprinted on the dust jacket of Dr. Archibald Henderson’s “authorized” biography, Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet. He was curious to know why Shaw had chosen “this obscure math prof at the University of North Carolina to become his Boswell.”
As early as the fall of 1931 in Chapel Hill, all of us at Contempo had been puzzled by the choice and thought it would make a good story for the magazine. We didn’t follow up on it until the day Professor Henderson, a Victorian gentleman who had a high forehead and wore high celluloid collars, first breezed into our bookshop there. But before we could ask him, he had chosen an armful of mystery novels from our rental shelf, plunked down his dollar deposit, and floated down the campus street like a kid who had stumbled on a treasure.
Keeping the professor in the latest thrillers, I told Fitzgerald, was like Scheherazade dreaming up new tales to save her head. During a weekend of relaxation reading he could consume a batch of whodunits which took weeks to get and the writers collectively months to write. And like the princess we had to keep pleasing, if not a capricious emperor, our mystery-devouring professor—in order to get our story.
Soon we looked upon him as our ally. Not only did we expect him to tell us the story of his Shaw association but we thought he might help us get an article from the literary genius whose well-publicized fee was a dollar a word. Fitzgerald remembered reading on our masthead, “Contempo does not pay for contributions.”
One morning Dr. Henderson was checking our dwindling titles; we cornered him and told him of our extravagant dreams. He nodded vaguely, with his eyes fixed on a book jacket that showed a red daggersunk in a victim’s back. We were impressed. He promised to tell us the story, but warned us that he had no influence with the Prophet of Ayot St. Lawrence. We were delighted when he invited us to Fordell, his mansion on the campus edge. Fordell housed the largest private collection of Shaviana in the world.
As we sat in the cozy, oak-paneled room, much like Fitzgerald’s at the Inn, but overflowing with books, magazines, newspapers, and scrapbooks—all in apple-pie order—the professor told us of his dream about Shaw. He had started collecting his work before that historic night in Chicago, 1903, when he saw Shaw’s new comedy, You Never Can Tell. Convinced of his hero’s many-sided talent, he decided to hitch his star to Shaw’s. He wrote him a long letter expressing unqualified belief in his genius and asked to become his official biographer.
“It was that simple,” Dr. Henderson told us. “Months later I received a postcard from Shaw. It said, ’Send your photograph.’ That is all. I was thrilled.”
We laughed and the professor went on. “I sent him my photo along with five pages to show my qualifications. I waited. There was no airmail those days. Months later another postcard. It said, ’You’ll do.’ ”
“Couldn’t Shaw have sent a cable?” I remember Fitzgerald asking. “It was only two words.”
From that day Henderson had Shaw as his daily companion for the rest of his life. During two decades, with Mrs. Henderson as librarian and researcher, he had written millions of words published in eight volumes covering all aspects of the man and his work. Fitzgerald was surprised to hear that the professor had written so much; he had never heard of him.
“He was then editing an expanded and completely rewritten version of his earlier biography of Shaw,” I said, pointing to the big volume in my private collection which Fitzgerald had seen. “Perhaps the most comprehensive work by a modern Boswell.”
This had been Professor Henderson’s documented answer to Frank Harris’s recently published “unauthorized” biography of Shaw. Less scurrilous and sensational than Harris’s Confessions of Oscar Wilde, the book had a vogue on two continents, giving Shaw’s friends and enemies a few laughs and snickers. For a time it seemed the rascal Harris had brought the Prophet down to the level of a mortal whose only claim to fame was an extraordinary ego that had crystalized in an overintellectualized body.
We had stumbled on a first-rate controversy—Shaw versus Harris via Henderson. We had asked the professor to answer Harris for his “assembled pseudo-biography” of Shaw. I showed Fitzgerald the Henderson article in Contempo and he read it with interest. He seemed delighted with the controversy, and added that he had disliked Harris for his kind of pornography.
The gods were on our side helping to boost Contempo. As this article appeared, Harris collapsed and died. We sent condolences to his widow, Nellie, in Nice and mailed copies of the issue to several writers and editors, asking them to defend or further damn Harris in our forthcoming Harris Memorial Number. We received eulogies, comments, blasts from friends and enemies, and from Lord Alfred Douglas, key figure in the Oscar Wilde biography.
Fitzgerald noticed that we had headlined Lord Alfred’s letter, “Mass for Harris.” He read it with relish. I quote from it: “I have made friends with Shaw after a twenty-year feud, and have several letters from him. Shaw sent me a copy of Harris’s biography of himself inscribed as follows: ’To Lord Alfred Douglas another victim of Frank’s failings as a biographer from G. Bernard Shaw.’ Harris’s death removed the last of my enemies. I cannot pretend to feel any regrets at the old ruffian’s departure. But I had a Mass said for him in the Catholic Church.”
I told Fitzgerald that for an epitaph we had run the last two lines of a page-long poem submitted by a persistent poet. We used it as a “filler.” The two lines which brought, not an angry reply, but a grateful note from the poet, were, “You died in time, Frank. / You died in time.”
Fitzgerald reminded me that I hadn’t yet explained how I got that letter from Shaw. I told him that among all the authors to whom we had written for material, in addition to Wolfe, Hemingway, and himself, Shaw was another who had ignored us. At one time or another all of us took a fling at writing Shaw and sending him Contempo. It had become a game: who would be the lucky one to hear from him? Henderson’s story of how he had succeeded with Shaw spurred me to try the Prophet with one last tug at his beard. I told Fitzgerald this was the gist of the letter:
“Dear G.B.S.: Who the hell do you think you are, not answering us? We’ve heard from Saint Joan, Methuselah, Antony, Cleopatra, Caesar, Liza Doolittle, and Mrs. Warren. Glance at the Contempos we sent you for their sassy remarks about you. We’ve wasted thirteen letters asking for a bright gem or a faded fragment. This may be your lean year. In that case I suggest five ideas: What does eating carrotshave to do with the color of your beard? Is it true your sex life began at twenty-nine, as that louse Frank Harris claims? What do you think of your Boswell and our neighbor Dr. Archibald Henderson? What about Joyce’s singsong dillydallying with your language? Are London fogs really good for Irish wakes?”
Whether it was my letter or the professor’s forthcoming book, Shaw replied within a month with a full-page, single-spaced, four-hundred-word letter, with corrections in his own hand. I told Fitzgerald that we had gone dizzy looking at it. Word got around fast. Students flocked in to read it. The bookshop suddenly became a literary mecca.
Henderson was not long in coming to see it. For once he forgot his thrillers. His eyes shone as he read the page, his hands trembled. He gasped, “I must have this letter for my collection!” We were in debt to the Orange Printshop and let him have it for the printing cost of a Contempo number. He rushed a photostat to his publisher, D. Apple-ton and Company; and when the book was published that summer, the letter was reproduced on the back of the jacket.
“Let me see that book again,” Fitzgerald said as I reached for it. He took the thousand-page volume from me, turned to the back, and glanced at the letter. He read a bit of it, and I quote the first paragraph:
Professor Henderson’s first biography in 1911 did me a signal service. Up to that time I was the victim of half a dozen reputations which seemed to be hopelessly insulated from one another. I was a man who wrote about pictures, a man who wrote about music, a man who wrote about the theatre, a man who wrote novels, a man who wrote plays, a man who wrote about economics, a funny man, a dangerous man, a man who preached at the City Temple, a Shelleyan atheist, a street corner agitator, a leading spirit in the Fabian Society, a vegetarian, a humanitarian, and Heaven knows what else besides; but nobody seemed to know that these men were all the same man. It was Henderson who effected the synthesis. After 1911 the Shaw of the newspapers, though still always fantastic and often absurdly fabulous, got pulled together into a single character. I became an individual where I had not been even a species: I had only been uncollected odds and ends. Henderson collected me, and thereby advanced my standing very materially.
“Sounds as though he wrote you that letter to promote the professor’s book about him,” Fitzgerald said with a thoughtful smile. “He has more of a knack for exploiting himself than I did.”
“I think Shaw called himself a ’publicist,’ but the word may have another meaning to the English.”
Weeks before the Shaw issue appeared with the letter, Dr. Henderson had gone through our whodunits at least two or three times. Unable to get new ones fast enough, we had slipped him titles he had read earlier. It was simple: he didn’t remember them and we kept a card on the titles and dates. It wasn’t trickery. We were merely playing his Scheherazade, supplying him with thrillers to keep him happy. The professor read solely for relaxation. More than once the learned man, who taught math and explained Einstein’s theory of relativity, made us feel that the jig was up and he was ready for our scalps. Handing me a thriller he had read twice before, he proudly said with a glint in his eye, “I almost figured this one out—about halfway.”
Fitzgerald grinned, handed me the heavy book, and reached for my worn copy of Isadora Duncan’s My Life, saying he would prefer it. He had chosen the book before asking me about Shaw. In fact, it had reminded him to ask about Shaw because of Isadora’s legendary letter to him about the kind of child they might produce—and Shaw’s unkind reply: “What if it had my beauty and your brains?”