Harold Ober, born circa 1881, was a rare and precious human being. I should know, because I lived with him for four years during World War II; shared his anguish every morning as we turned on the radio, hoping neither of his two sons (nor my husband) was involved in some new parachute landing in Europe or Pacific island invasion; walked with him through the woods every morning from his enchanting house to the Scarsdale railroad station; learned everything I know about music from him—Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev were his favorite composers at the time, though his wife, Anne, tells me that later he preferred Gustav Mahler to them all; and played terrible tennis with him on the court belonging to our neighbors, Bob Haas of Random House and his wife Merle, our closest family friends. Though I didn't know it at the time, it was Bob who had lent “Gramps,” as I called him for some long-forgotten reason, the money to see my father through during the depression years.
Though he had been a fine tennis player (he was good at all sports except golf, which he was too impatient to enjoy), he then played a wicked “veteran's game,” lobbing balls high into the air to catch his younger opponents off-base at the net. He played with the same intensity of purpose with which he often disappeared into his darkroom at night, after he was tired of reading manuscripts, to develop his near-professional pictures. Of all his many hobbies (he was a skilled carpenter), his pet, his dream, his love was his garden. Later, after I had left, he grew prize gladiolas, but during the years when I helped him occasionally, it was succulent vegetables of every variety. His garden was his great escape from the woes of frustrated authors—for all his authors, not just my father, brought their personal problems to him—and from the war. He often pretended he was going out to work in the garden when he was, in fact, found stretched out, sound asleep in the sun, on his favorite deck chair behind the asparagus.
I certainly didn't know, back when I was fourteen or fifteen and Daddy decided to dump me on the Obers for a summer month— Hollywood being no fit place for a growing girl in his opinion—that Harold Ober was the most celebrated literary agent of his time. Actually, he hated the term “agent,” smacking as it does of contracts and money. He preferred the term “author's representative.” Corey Ford, one of his favorite authors, goes one step further in his book The Time of Laughter: “A seventh [of the great editors he had known] would be Harold Ober, whose infallible judgment and taste and rigid integrity made him the greatest editor of them all.”
My reluctance to be sent to Dromore Road, when all the teen-age action was in Baltimore where my friends were, was matched only by the reluctance of the Ober boys—Richard, my own age, now the most responsible of government officials and owner of a small farm of his own in the country outside Washington, D.C., and Nathaniel, two years younger, now a superintendent of schools in Minneapolis —to accept this “instant sister” who had been thrust upon them. It was more through luck than cunning that I was eventually able to win a certain grudging acceptance of my presence. There was a movie house in White Plains that their father refused to go to, and in the next block was a Schrafft's which served “dusty sundaes,” a concoction made of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and powdered malt. Wanting to give Scott's daughter a good time, Gramps—I still called him Mr. Ober then—made the supreme sacrifice of taking us to the movies at least once a week, and watching us make pigs of ourselves afterward. I'll never forget Dick's pained expression when Nat said to me, the night I was leaving, as he rocked back and forth on the hind legs of the dining-room chair (a habit which drove his mother crazy): “Well, we sure don't much like having you here, but I'll say this for you: Father's a lot nicer to us when you're around.” The battle was clearly won, and from then on I was a full-fledged member of the household.
Hospitable as the Obers always were to me—and that very first summer I became hooked on the apple trees, the shaggy Briard dogs, and the New-England-in-Westchester-County atmosphere that captivated everyone lucky enough to be invited—it wasn't until I was graduated from Vassar, partly thanks to Gramps who advanced me most of the tuition money after Daddy died, that I really got to know Harold Ober as a friend rather than a parent-substitute. Most evenings during the war, we used to catch the 6:07 from Grand Central Station together, and I can still hear that sonorous litany: “One Hundred and Twenty-FIFTH Street, Mount Ver-NON,Brooooonx-ville, Fleet-WOOD, TUCK-ahoe, Crrrrrest-WOOD, Scaaaaaars-DALE.” He refused to look out the window as we passed the slums of Harlem and the Bronx because, as he said, “I don't like prying into their private lives.” The plain fact is that he was a terrible ostrich and didn't want to think about those miserable souls in their crowded, ugly tenements. He would bury himself in the World-Telegram, the Sun, and the Post until he came to Westbrook Pegler's column, which he would read aloud, eyebrows bristling with fury. We hated Westbrook Pegler because he attacked our hero, President Roosevelt, and made fun of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom we extravagantly admired. Gramps never tolerated any of those Eleanor jokes which were so popular at the time. He was a liberal Democrat to the core, and remained so, inflexibly, until he died in 1959.
Back at the house, if it was summer (“Auntie,” as I called her and still do, generally met us at the station, the walk home being largely uphill), we would hurry out of our city clothes and down to the garden to pick the supper tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, strawberries, or whatever was abundantly luxuriating in the garden. For this was no ordinary garden: my mother called it “the garden of the Three Bears.” It was a work of art, so perfect in detail you half expected to see Mr. McGregor come chasing out with a rake after Peter Rabbit. Walter Edmonds, author of Drums Along the Mohawk and a great personal friend, feels it was symbolic of him: “Everything about it was impeccable, for he would never let a weed grow larger than a hair. In the same way, he made me write and rewrite, for he always strove for perfection.”
After dinner, if it was winter, we'd sit in front of the roaring fire in the book-lined living room, with the music on (sometimes records, sometimes WQXR if we wanted to follow the news every hour, as for instance when Dick's 17th Airborne Division landed in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge). That was when Gramps read his manuscripts, for he found it impossible to concentrate with all the interruptions in the office. If he liked what he was reading, he was so cheerful he'd even get himself an extra piece of the delicious chocolate cake that Minnie Trent, the housekeeper, always kept in the pantry for him. Often, if he didn't like the book or story (for he detested bad writing and always claimed it gave him the ulcer from which he suffered intermittently for twenty years), the bushy eyebrows would form two arches of disapproval, and he would cough and go down to inspect the recalcitrant furnace or occupy himself in the darkroom. Occasionally, if he had doubts,he'd ask Auntie or me to read something for him. “I think this is trash,” I remember him saying about a lady novelist's pretentious effort, “but she's disguised it so cleverly I'm not sure.”
Anne Ober, always loyal, always devoted, and provider with the aforementioned Minnie of the most delicious meals I have ever feasted upon—shrimp curry was the specialite de la tnaison until Gramps developed his ulcer—had been an editor herself when they met, having quit her job on the magazine Suburban Life to go to Paris with the Red Cross during World War I. After being turned down by the Army for some slight physical defect, Harold Ober was sent to Paris by the War Department to decide whether dogs should be used by our armed forces, for he was by then a well-known dog fancier, owner of champions, and judge, especially of Airedales. He was thirty-six, a confirmed bachelor, living a virtually hermitic life in what was then the woods of Scarsdale and riding his horse to the station every morning, which his Japanese manservant would lead back. Auntie loves to tell the story of how this Japanese gentleman hid all his dishes because Harold gave them to his dogs to lick after he had finished dinner, and therefore the man no longer considered them fit for human use.
Having decided that dogs, though being successfully used by the French Army, were not practical for ours, HO signed on with the Red Cross in Paris and stayed until after the Armistice in 1918, when he and Anne made the return trip home on the Baltic together. “He spent the entire trip home reciting all the reasons why it would be bad for me to marry him,” she recalls. “All about the hardships I would have to endure in the country, and so on.” By the time the ship landed, he had her practically convinced, but married they were the following fall in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. It is characteristic that they began their honeymoon at the Forest Hills tennis matches, then picked up an ailing Airedale in Tarrytown and proceeded to his native town of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, where the Auberts, as the family was then called (later changed to Obear, then Ober), had moved some two centuries before. Anne remembers passing the small ancestral farmhouse where they were to spend their honeymoon three times before she grew suspicious that nobody who had grown up in New Ipswich could possibly be that lost. It was typical of Gramps to be scared that she might be disappointed. He hated imposing himself on people, just as he hated being imposed upon by any but those he loved.
He was his own man at any time, in any place, and under anycircumstances; no compromises to be contemplated. He never felt quite comfortable in the Madison Avenue two-martinis-before-lunch atmosphere, and his shy New England manner seemed strangely out of place on those few occasions when he felt he must attend the literary cocktail parties he so detested. As one of his closest friends, Randolph Compton of Scarsdale, puts it, “He was perhaps the most upright, forthright person I have ever known, with an infinite capacity for friendship and an infinite appreciation of values.” Yet he was never stuffy, except about the social scene in New York or Scarsdale; nothing could get him to a party, though I do think Auntie once succeeded in getting him to the wedding reception of the daughter of a friend. As I remember—perhaps I am flattering myself—he took one sip of champagne and never left my side during the entire reception. He hated mobs of people; he preferred sitting under his apple trees with cozy friends like the Comptons or Horton and “Vio” Heath, two of his favorites.
Asked for an anecdote about him, the Heaths wrote: “Harold was simply the opposite of the type of person who builds a personal legend of anecdotal material. He was too gentle, too sensitive, too self-effacing. He did not lead crusades, make wisecracks, get drunk, or go in for brawls and vendettas … but he was lots of fun!” Horton Heath also recalls that Gramps used to run up the nine flights of stairs to his office on 49th Street, to the consternation of everybody else in the building. He was something of a health addict, and Merle Haas remembers his running around her meadow with Nat, then a chubby twelve-year-old, before breakfast. After skiing with the Comptons in Vermont when he was over sixty-five, he returned to the Harmon, New York, station in a cast and on crutches to greet Auntie with the remark, “What an old fool you married!”
He was personally fond of many of his authors, of whom Daddy was undoubtedly the most demanding. Catherine Drinker Bowen, Paul Gallico, and Philip Wylie are among those who used to be part of our bucolic life in Scarsdale. Walter Edmonds told this story as one of a group of recollections of him published in Esquire (under the title “The Saint”): “I learned indirectly that Harold had been a varsity oar, just as his son, Dick, was to become one in his turn at Harvard. For many years their crimson-bladed varsity oars lay across two beams in the living room of the red house in Scarsdale which had been built round the frame of an old barn … when Nat made the junior varsity, Harold and Dick fashioned a half-sized oar and slung it on a wire cradle between their own.”
I want to guard against making him seem perfect, however; hewas too disagreeable at the bridge table ever to qualify for that encomium. Whenever their friends Mabel Baldwin or Helen Noyes would appear for the week-end bridge game, I would run for cover, unless I was drafted as the figurative, and usually literal, dummy. “It was the only time he was horrible,” says Auntie. He taught her to play bridge but, according to their friends, pupil outdistanced teacher and Gramps found Auntie's supremacy intolerable. I can remember one argument about who should have bid three no-trump instead of four spades that went on for two days. There, in a nutshell, was the dichotomy: the man of the soil and the outdoors, who should have been a farmer, a musician, or a teacher, yet whose competitive instinct was so strong that he was able to build a business which still bears his name and has tentacles all over the world.
I adored Harold Ober. I wish I could climb on the 6:07 with him again and say, “Hi, Gramps!” I don't know whether he did more for my father or for me, but as I think of him in his New England heaven, surrounded by rocks and rills, fresh tomatoes, and Briard dogs, wearing a threadbare tweed jacket and peering at the world from under those expressive, bushy, pepper-and-salt eyebrows, I remember him not only with love but as one of those rare people in this world of whom it can be truly said that he was a man of TOTAL integrity.