Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
I'd been reading Daniel Fuchs's Homage to Blenholt, one of the trilogy of novels that made Fuchs, along with Henry Roth, one of the earlier Jewish-American novelists still to be reckoned with. He had long since drifted out to Hollywood and had hardly been heard from since, other than as the screenwriter of Panic in the Streets. But in his preface to the new edition of the trilogy [reprinted by Basic Books in 1961], he wrote, "The popular notions about the movies aren't true" and went on to point out how the problems of the screenwriter are often the same as those of imaginative writers everywhere. I sent him a letter saying that I had a hunch that he had much more to say about writing for film and the culture of Hollywood, and how much we would welcome such a piece. One morning, two months later, I found a letter from him sitting on top of a pile of incoming mail:
Dear Mr. Solotaroff:
Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I've encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I'm so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture--in return for your warm letter--to send you the completed essay. But it's taken me longer than I thought it would....
When I turned the page there was another lying beneath it, then another. Virtually the whole stack of mail proved to be the essay as a letter to me. And it was a honey, both an up-close and introspective account of his experience working with major producers, directors and writers in Hollywood (one of the latter likely being William Faulkner), culminating in two of the epic battles he had witnessed between virtuoso talent and no less egomaniacal producers. There was also an unforgettable vignette depicting the loneliness of a formerly world-famous actress and sex symbol who had called Fuchs's home late one night looking for the previous owners, then continued to call at that time, as though making the same mistake, but so as to continue conversing with his wife. (She turned out to be Rita Hayworth.)
Written with ardor and insight, traversing the Hollywood process from script to production to pre-release screening, the memoir overturned most of the canards about Hollywood moviemaking. Its pitch of passion reached perhaps its highest note in writing about the film Fuchs most wanted to write, one he was challenged by a studio executive to write on speculation:
I sometimes think a successful motion picture story is so complex and impossibly constituted that you don't really write them--that they already exist and that you find them, that they're either there, somewhere, or else you're doomed. This was one of those stories, touched with grace and blessed. It went kindly. It became vigorous and spunky with life. I found, and firmly, the dramatic incubus, that enveloping cloud of anxiety against which a man moment by moment pits himself and which thereby gives a story its never-ceasing, insidious thrust. I found the theatrical image of my hero, the humor--that dancing bundle of slants, deceits, stratagems by which a man conceals his despair and which gives him an instantaneous hold on the attention of the audience. Best of all, what delighted me, was a lyricism--I caught, and was able to show, those innermost dreams and raptures the steady dissolution of which infuses a man's despair with meaning and a piercing, significant emotion.
Everyone was thrilled by the piece. There was virtually nothing to do but run it. Norman said, "Of course, you need to get a new lede."
"Pity. I kind of like it this way," I said in a mostly kidding voice.
It turned out that Fuchs did too. When I suggested we begin with the fifth sentence, "I've always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood," he replied, "I'm sorry you object to the Dear Mr. Solotaroff. That of course is the way the piece began and it seems very right to me. It gives the article a clear, sensible reason for having been written. I would hate to lose this support."
I showed the letter to Norman, who was, as I expected, adamant. I said, Rather than buck Fuchs, when we're all so pleased otherwise, why don't we compromise and start the piece "Dear Editors"? He reluctantly agreed, and I wrote back to Fuchs suggesting the compromise and figured that was that. But when he sent back the galleys, it turned out it wasn't:
Would you bear with me if I nag away some more on the dear Mr. Solotaroff and the original lines? The present opening paragraph isn't, alas, very good. It should be fat and it isn't. It doesn't ring true. The reader has a way of knowing. It's part of the shy, cockeyed charm of the piece, let's say, that a man with the wonderful name of Solotaroff wrote to me and that I answered him and that this was how the piece came to be done.
I took the letter to Norman. "Why not humor him," I said. "Besides, it would give our format a touch of variety." He handed the letter back to me, shook his head at the folly of some people and went back to what he was doing.
I didn't care that much about being named, but there was still the matter of Fuchs's reiterated request and how to let him down without antagonizing him. Also I was irked by being rudely dismissed by Norman. "Why don't you tell him then?" I said. "Coming from me he'll be offended, since I've already turned his lede down once. Coming from you he'll be less offended, and I'd like to keep him writing for the magazine."
"So he'll be offended," Norman said, going on with his work, ending the discussion.