Perhaps the three most valuable attributes of an agent are his emotional detachment from a very emotional profession, his ability to organize the bargaining power of his clients, and his management of the businsss side of a writer's career.—Raymond Chandler, “Ten Percent of Your Life”
The terms of professional writing are these: that it provides a living for the author, like any other job; that it is a main and prolonged, rather than intermittent or sporadic, resource for the writer; that it is produced with the hope of extended sale in the open market, like any article of commerce; and that it is written with reference to buyers' tastes and reading habits. The problem of the professional writer is not identical with that of the literary artist; but when a literary artist is also a professional writer, he cannot solve the problems of the one function without reference to the other.—William Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870
Harold Ober was a conventional man who nevertheless had an extremely unconventional relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. But all relationships with Fitzgerald were unconventional. Ober always preferred to call himself an “author's representative,” which helps to explain why he departed from the business rules of an “agent” to serve as Fitzgerald's representative in the largest sense. Ober did not take an agent's 10 per cent and run; he became involved with his authors, most of all with Fitzgerald.
Harold Ober became emotionally involved with F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially after 1931, when the Fitzgerald dream of success became a nightmare. He lent him money when there was only a fifty-fifty chance that it would be repaid; and he assumed responsibility for Fitzgerald's teen-age daughter, Scottie. When in 1939Ober refused at last to begin a new cycle of debt, the resulting break was painful to both men. Perhaps Fitzgerald—on paper—understood their relationship better than did Ober. In his 1938 story, “Financing Finnegan,” Fitzgerald described the response of Finnegan's (Fitzgerald's) publisher (Maxwell Perkins) and agent (Ober) to the writer's appeals for money: “The two men had entered into a silent conspiracy to cheer each other up about Finnegan. Their investment in him, in his future, had reached a sum so considerable that Finnegan belonged to them. They could not bear to hear a word against him—even from themselves.” This story was published in Esquire while Fitzgerald was still paying off his debts out of his Hollywood earnings. Since Fitzgerald always dealt directly with Arnold Gingrich of Esquire, Ober did not receive a commission on the $250 sale, a matter of small financial, but great emotional, import between them.
Harold Ober did a superb job of marketing Fitzgerald's stories, which were, of course, the author's main source of income before Hollywood. Between 1919 and 1929, Fitzgerald's Saturday Evening Post story price went from $400 to $4,000. But during the Depression, when the magazines no longer paid big money, Fitzgerald began interposing himself between the editors and his agent and thereby weakened Ober's power to place stories. The only context in which Fitzgerald's behavior can be understood is his desperate frustration at having to pay his wife's hospital bills and his daughter's tuition out of sums he would have considered tip money a few years before.
Although Fitzgerald was hampered by his inability to handle money, it is utterly typical of him to have kept a detailed ledger for his 1919-1936 earnings. All the figures in the editorial notes are based on Fitzgerald's arithmetic. His total earnings before he went to Hollywood were $394,928 (after commissions), of which $225,784 came from stories. The sixty-four Post stories brought $193,300—of which Ober received 10 per cent.
Fitzgerald's book earnings through 1936 were $66,588 (including advances and serial payments). This is what the books made through 1931: This Side of Paradise, $14,372; The Beautiful and Damned, $15,994; The Great Gatsby, $6,889; Flappers and Philosophers, $3,813; Tales of the Jazz Age, $3,416; All the Sad Young Men, $4,012; The Vegetable, $1,242. After 1931 Fitzgerald stopped itemizing his book royalties because the yearly totals were so small. Ober received no commission on the book royalties, for Fitzgerald dealt directly with Scribners. Hehad already contracted for This Side of Paradise before coming to the Paul Revere Reynolds agency, which was primarily an agency for dealing with magazines; Reynolds had very little interest in handling books.
Ober, despite himself, became Fitzgerald's banker and accountant. He met almost all of Fitzgerald's endless requests for advances and somehow kept the family going during the terrible years of 1932-1937. But he was never able to keep Fitzgerald solvent. Even in 1930 and 1931 when Fitzgerald's income from stories was $25,000 and $31,500 respectively, Ober was advancing money against unwritten stories.
Their relationship was a mixture of business and the personal— as can happen between doctors and patients. The nature of Fitzgerald's literary relationship with Ober is in certain ways obscure. Their letters rarely discuss purely literary matters, apart from the marketability of Fitzgerald's magazine work; but Ober did not handle the novels. Clearly, Ober valued Fitzgerald's talent, but he nowhere indicated that he regarded Fitzgerald as one of the major American writers. The highest praise Ober gave Fitzgerald came on 19 May 1931: “I believe, and others who are much more competent judges than I, believe that you ought to go further than any American writer and I think now is the time for you to get down to hard work and finish the novel.” However, this praise must be considered in terms of Ober's obvious desire to encourage Fitzgerald to write Tender Is the Night. If I am right about Ober's estimation of Fitzgerald's stature—an estimation in which he was not alone (before 1945 almost nobody considered him a great writer)—his dedication to his friend Scott is the more moving. There is always a mixture of motives in helping one whose greatness is unquestioned; but Ober's goodness to Fitzgerald was not for the sake of posterity. It was a matter of humanity, of New England conscience. Like Nick Carraway with Gatsby, Ober was drawn into a relationship with a man whose life style he disapproved of. Ober saved Fitzgerald as best he could simply because there was nobody else around to do it.
Harold Ober was a Yankee from New Hampshire. He was born at Lake Winnipesaukee in 1881 and died in 1959 at the age of seventy-eight. A member of the class of 1905 at Harvard, he worked his way through college as a tutor and made the varsity crew. “I left Harvard with the idea of becoming an author. After two years in England and France I came to New York in 1907 and took a job with a literary agency, where I became so involved in the lives of authors that I abandoned all idea of myself becoming one,” he wrote in his Harvard 50th Anniversary Class Report. He went to France with the Red Cross in 1917 and became a partner in the Reynolds firm in 1919. Just before the Crash in 1929, he opened his own literary agency, which became Harold Ober Associates in 1949. Although the tradition exists that Fitzgerald's reply to Ober's announcement that he was setting up his own firm was to wire UNRESERVEDLY YOURS, the only surviving wire reads FOLLOWING YOU NATURALLY.
If there is an oversimplified key to Harold Ober's unlikely and brilliant career, it may be the fact that he had wanted to be a writer. Mrs. Ober, however, says: “I never felt Harold was a frustrated writer … His real wish was to study music and he would have liked to be a composer” (Anne Ober to the editor, 30 November 1970). There is no evidence that he made a real start as a writer. So he did the next best thing: He took care of writers—most of all, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Catherine Drinker Bowen has described his feelings about Fitzgerald:
Harold worried more about Fitzgerald than any author he ever took care of, and with reason. Yet even when Fitzgerald's drinking had brought him to near ruin, Harold kept on with him, hoping against hope. Once I walked into the office at 40 East 49th Street and found Harold at his desk, reading manuscript and looking depressed, a condition unusual with him. When I asked the reason, he passed me some typed sheets and asked what I could make of them. The pages were interlined, written over in red ink, blotched, almost illegible, and made no sense at all. Harold said that was the way Scott's stories had been coming in lately. He got up and stood with his back to me, looking out the window; I saw him take out his handkerchief and blow his nose. I think it was as though one of his own sons had defected and gone past the point of no return.—“Harold Ober, Literary Agent,” Atlantic Monthly, CCVI (July 1960), 35-40.
Most of the letters in this volume are owned by Mrs. Harold Ober, and are identified by “AO” (for Anne Ober). Unidentified letters belong to Frances Fitzgerald Smith. Most of the remaining letters are in the Princeton University Library: some with the Fitzgerald papers, some with the Scribner archive, and some donated by Harold Ober. All the Princeton Library letters are identified by “PU.” There are lacunae in both ends of the correspondence which our research has failed to fill. Many letters have simply disappeared. Ober's end of the correspondence is very thin before 1926, and the years 1931 to 1934 and 1940 are full of holes.
It is regrettable that this volume does not include all the surviving Fitzgerald/Ober correspondence. The economics of publishing compelled us to omit some routine business letters and many wires. These omitted wires are simple requests for money by Fitzgerald (SEND 500) and Ober's acknowledgments. But in some ways these financial wires are basic to their relationship. It is impossible to understand Fitzgerald's career without understanding his feelings about money. Nevertheless, something had to be cut; and we were obliged to omit 28 Fitzgerald-to-Ober letters, 109 Ober-to-Fitzgerald letters, 110 Fitzgerald-to-Ober wires, and 155 Ober-to-Fitzgerald wires. Wherever possible, wires that say something in addition to the money requests have been included; e.g., STARTING STORY SEND 500.
Unless otherwise indicated, the letters are ink holographs (i.e., hand-written). Thus, “ALS (pencil)” indicates an autograph letter, signed, written in pencil. “TLS” indicates a typed letter, signed, and “(cc)” indicates a carbon copy.
All the letters and wires are printed in diplomatic (exact) transcriptions. Since it is impossible to duplicate Fitzgerald's holograph letters short of reproducing them in photo-facsimile, some typographical accommodations have been required:
1. Interlineal insertions have been incorporated into the letters, but are always set in italic type—the only use that has been made of italics in the body of the letters. Underlinings in the original letters have been printed as underlinings.
2. Recoverable deleted words are printed within brackets. Obliterated words are indicated by the word “obliterated” within brackets. The only other use made of brackets is to supply Harold Ober's name at the close of carbon-copy letters.
No corrections of any kind have been made in the letters and wires. They are all printed here exactly the way they were written. A letter is a personal document and provides an intimate glimpse of the writer as well as insights into his writing habits. It would be a distortion to correct these letters for publication, precisely because they were not written for publication. The chief responsibility of an editor of letters is not to edit, but to preserve the character of the letters. The reader of a letter volume should be confident that he has the letters in the purity of their original form. The only textual emendations we have made relate to holographic problems —it has been necessary to cross a dot an i.
Normally a name is footnoted only the first time it appears. But sometimes the identification is repeated when there has been an extended period since the first note. Fitzgerald frequently neglected to date his letters, but nearly all were stamped with a received date at the Ober office. The chronology for transatlantic letters employs a ten- to fourteen-day interval.
I have many debts. First, this book would not have come into being without the generous participation of Anne Reid Ober. There is no way to acknowledge her help without using the conventional language of appreciation; but she has been special. Ivan Von Auw, Jr., of Harold Ober Associates wrapped the package. Genevieve Young, my editor, is a wonder. Nobody can do serious work on Fitzgerald without the help of Wanda Randall and Alexander Clark of the Princeton University Library.
I also thank H. N. Swanson, Jeanne Bennett, C. Grove Smith, R. L. Samsell, I. S. Skelton, John C. Guilds, Frances Kroll Ring, Catherine Drinker Bowen, William Dozier, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Hackett, Alan Margolies, Roger Mayer, Anne Louise Davis, Constance Smith Whitman, Dorothy Olding, John N. Wheeler, James L. W. West III, Betty Trueblood, Pam Barrett, Richard Taylor, and Arlyn Bruccoli. The English Department of the University of South Carolina provided me with a summer research grant for this project.
Published in As Ever, Scott Fitz—— collection (1971).