Esquire (January 1938)
Finnegan and I have the same literary agent to sell our writings for us — but though I’d often been in Mr. Cannon’s office just before and just after Finnegan’s visits, I had never met him. Likewise we had the same publisher and often when I arrived there Finnegan had just departed. I gathered from a thoughtful sighing way in which they spoke of him —
“Ah — Finnegan — ”
“Oh yes, Finnegan was here.”
— that the distinguished author’s visit had been not uneventful. Certain remarks implied that he had taken something with him when he went — manuscripts, I supposed, one of those great successful novels of his. He had taken “it” off for a final revision, a last draft, of which he was rumored to make ten in order to achieve that facile flow, that ready wit, which distinguished his work. I discovered only gradually that most of Finnegan’s visits had to do with money.
“I’m sorry you’re leaving,” Mr. Cannon would tell me, “Finnegan will be here tomorrow.” Then after a thoughtful pause,“I’ll probably have to spend some time with him.”
I don’t know what note in his voice reminded me of a talk with a nervous bank president when Dillinger was reported in the vicinity. His eyes looked out into the distance and he spoke as to himself:
“Of course he may be bringing a manuscript. He has a novel he’s working on, you know. And a play too.”
He spoke as though he were talking about some interesting but remote events of the cinquecento; but his eyes became more hopeful as he added: “Or maybe a short story.”
“He’s very versatile, isn’t he?” I said.
“Oh yes,” Mr. Cannon perked up. “He can do anything — anything when he puts his mind to it. There’s never been such a talent.”
“I haven’t seen much of his work lately.”
“Oh, but he’s working hard. Some of the magazines have stories of his that they’re holding.”
“Holding for what?”
“Oh, for a more appropriate time — an upswing. They like to think they have something of Finnegan’s.”
His was indeed a name with ingots in it. His career had started brilliantly and if it had not kept up to its first exalted level, at least it started brilliantly all over again every few years. He was the perennial man of promise in American letters — what he could actually do with words was astounding, they glowed and coruscated — he wrote sentences, paragraphs, chapters that were masterpieces of fine weaving and spinning. It was only when I met some poor devil of a screen writer who had been trying to make a logical story out of one of his books that I realized he had his enemies.
“It’s all beautiful when you read it,” this man said disgustedly, “but when you write it down plain it’s like a week in the nut-house.”
From Mr. Cannon’s office I went over to my publishers on Fifth Avenue and there too I learned in no time that Finnegan was expected tomorrow.
Indeed he had thrown such a long shadow before him that the luncheon where I expected to discuss my own work was largely devoted to Finnegan. Again I had the feeling that my host, Mr. George Jaggers, was talking not to me but to himself.
“Finnegan’s a great writer,” he said.
“And he’s really quite all right, you know.”
As I hadn’t questioned the fact I inquired whether there was any doubt about it.
“Oh no,” he said hurriedly. “It’s just that he’s had such a run of hard luck lately — ”
I shook my head sympathetically. “I know. That diving into a half-empty pool was a tough break.”
“Oh, it wasn’t half-empty. It was full of water. Full to the brim. You ought to hear Finnegan on the subject — he makes a side-splitting story of it. It seems he was in a run-down condition and just diving from the side of the pool, you know — ” Mr. Jaggers pointed his knife and fork at the table, “and he saw some young girls diving from the fifteen-foot board. He says he thought of his lost youth and went up to do the same and made a beautiful swan dive — but his shoulder broke while he was still in the air.” He looked at me rather anxiously. “Haven’t you heard of cases like that — a ball player throwing his arm out of joint?”
I couldn’t think of any orthopedic parallels at the moment.
“And then,” he continued dreamily, “Finnegan had to write on the ceiling.”
“On the ceiling?”
“Practically. He didn’t give up writing — he has plenty of guts, that fellow, though you may not believe it. He had some sort of arrangement built that was suspended from the ceiling and he lay on his back and wrote in the air.”
I had to grant that it was a courageous arrangement.
“Did it affect his work?” I inquired. “Did you have to read his stories backward — like Chinese?”
“They were rather confused for a while,” he admitted, “but he’s all right now. I got several letters from him that sounded more like the old Finnegan — full of life and hope and plans for the future — ”
The faraway look came into his face and I turned the discussion to affairs closer to my heart. Only when we were back in his office did the subject recur — and I blush as I write this because it includes confessing something I seldom do —reading another man’s telegram. It happened because Mr. Jaggers was intercepted in the hall and when I went into his office and sat down it was stretched out open before me:
WITH FIFTY I COULD AT LEAST PAY TYPIST AND GET HAIRCUT AND PENCILS LIFE HAS BECOME IMPOSSIBLE AND I EXIST ON DREAM OF GOOD NEWS DESPERATELY FINNEGAN
I couldn’t believe my eyes — fifty dollars, and I happened to know that Finnegan’s price for short stories was somewhere around three thousand. George Jaggers found me still staring dazedly at the telegram. After he read it he stared at me with stricken eyes.
“I don’t see how I can conscientiously do it,” he said.
I started and glanced around to make sure I was in the prosperous publishing office in New York. Then I understood — I had misread the telegram. Finnegan was asking for fifty thousand as an advance — a demand that would have staggered any publisher no matter who the writer was.
“Only last week,” said Mr. Jaggers disconsolately, “I sent him a hundred dollars. It puts my department in the red every season, so I don’t dare tell my partners any more. I take it out of my own pocket — give up a suit and a pair of shoes.”
“You mean Finnegan’s broke?”
“Broke!” He looked at me and laughed soundlessly — in fact I didn’t exactly like the way that he laughed. My brother had a nervous — but that is afield from this story. After a minute he pulled himself together. “You won’t say anything about this, will you? The truth is Finnegan’s been in a slump, he’s had blow after blow in the past few years, but now he’s snapping out of it and I know we’ll get back every cent we’ve — ” He tried to think of a word but “given him”slipped out. This time it was he who was eager to change the subject.
Don’t let me give the impression that Finnegan’s affairs absorbed me during a whole week in New York — it was inevitable, though, that being much in the offices of my agent and my publisher, I happened in on a lot. For instance, two days later, using the telephone in Mr. Cannon’s office, I was accidentally switched in on a conversation he was having with George Jaggers. It was only partly eavesdropping, you see, because I could only hear one end of the conversation and that isn’t as bad as hearing it all.
“But I got the impression he was in good health . . . he did say something about his heart a few months ago but I understood it got well . . . yes, and he talked about some operation he wanted to have — I think he said it was cancer . . . . Well, I felt like telling him I had a little operation up my sleeve too, that I’d have had by now if I could afford it.. .. No, I didn’t say it. He seemed in such good spirits that it would have been a shame to bring him down. He’s starting a story today, he read me some of it on the phone. . . .
“ . . . I did give him twenty-five because he didn’t have a cent in his pocket . . . oh, yes — I’m sure he’ll be all right now. He sounds as if he means business.”
I understood it all now. 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.
I spoke my mind to Mr. Cannon. “If this Finnegan is a four-flusher you can’t go on indefinitely giving him money. If he’s through he’s through and there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s absurd that you should put off an operation when Finnegan’s out somewhere diving into half-empty swimming pools.”
“It was full,” said Mr. Cannon patiently — “full to the brim.”
“Well, full or empty the man sounds like a nuisance to me.”
“Look here,” said Cannon, “I’ve got a talk to Hollywood due on the wire. Meanwhile you might glance over that.” He threw a manuscript into my lap. “Maybe it’ll help you understand. He brought it in yesterday.”
It was a short story. I began it in a mood of disgust but before I’d read five minutes I was completely immersed in it, utterly charmed, utterly convinced and wishing to God I could write like that. When Cannon finished his phone call I kept him waiting while I finished it and when I did there were tears in these hard old professional eyes. Any magazine in the country would have run it first in any issue.
But then nobody had ever denied that Finnegan could write.
Months passed before I went again to New York, and then, so far as the offices of my agent and my publisher were concerned, I descended upon a quieter, more stable world. There was at last time to talk about my own conscientious if uninspired literary pursuits, to visit Mr. Cannon in the country and to kill summer evenings with George Jaggers where the vertical New York starlight falls like lingering lightning into restaurant gardens. Finnegan might have been at the North Pole — and as a matter of fact he was. He had quite a group with him, including three Bryn Mawr anthropologists, and it sounded as if he might collect a lot of material there. They were going to stay several months, and if the thing had somehow the ring of a promising little house party about it, that was probably due to my jealous, cynical disposition.
“We’re all just delighted,” said Cannon. “It’s a God-send for him. He was fed up and he needed just this — this — ”
“Ice and snow,” I supplied.
“Yes, ice and snow. The last thing he said was characteristic of him. Whatever he writes is going to be pure white —it’s going to have a blinding glare about it.”
“I can imagine it will. But tell me — who’s financing it? Last time I was here I gathered the man was insolvent.”
“Oh, he was really very decent about that. He owed me some money and I believe he owed George Jaggers a little too — ”He “believed,” the old hypocrite. He knew damn well — “so before he left he made most of his life insurance over to us. That’s in case he doesn’t come back — those trips are dangerous of course.”
“I should think so,” I said — “especially with three anthropologists.”
“So Jaggers and I are absolutely covered in case anything happens — it’s as simple as that.”
“Did the life-insurance company finance the trip?”
He fidgeted perceptibly.
“Oh, no. In fact when they learned the reason for the assignments they were a little upset. George Jaggers and I felt that when he had a specific plan like this with a specific book at the end of it, we were justified in backing him a little further.”
“I don’t see it,” I said flatly.
“You don’t?” The old harassed look came back into his eyes. “Well, I’ll admit we hesitated. In principle I know it’s wrong. I used to advance authors small sums from time to time, but lately I’ve made a rule against it — and kept it. It’s only been waived once in the last two years and that was for a woman who was having a bad struggle — Margaret Trahill, do you know her? She was an old girl of Finnegan’s, by the way.”
“Remember I don’t even know Finnegan.”
“That’s right. You must meet him when he comes back — if he does come back. You’d like him — he’s utterly charming.”
Again I departed from New York, to imaginative North Poles of my own, while the year rolled through summer and fall. When the first snap of November was in the air, I thought of the Finnegan expedition with a sort of shiver and any envy of the man departed. He was probably earning any loot, literary or anthropological, he might bring back. Then, when I hadn’t been back in New York three days, I read in the paper that he and some other members of his party had walked off into a snowstorm when the food supply gave out, and the Arctic had claimed another sacrifice.
I was sorry for him, but practical enough to be glad that Cannon and Jaggers were well protected. Of course, with Finnegan scarcely cold — if such a simile is not too harrowing — they did not talk about it but I gathered that the insurance companies had waived habeas corpus or whatever it is in their lingo, and it seemed quite sure that they would collect.
His son, a fine looking young fellow, came into George Jaggers’ office while I was there and from him I could guess at Finnegan’s charm — a shy frankness together with an impression of a very quiet brave battle going on inside of him that he couldn’t quite bring himself to talk about — but that showed as heat lightning in his work.
“The boy writes well too,” said George after he had gone. “He’s brought in some remarkable poems. He’s not ready to step into his father’s shoes, but there’s a definite promise.”
“Can I see one of his things?”
“Certainly — here’s one he left just as he went out.”
George took a paper from his desk, opened it and cleared his throat. Then he squinted and bent over a little in his chair.
“Dear Mr. Jaggers,” he began, “I didn’t like to ask you this in person — ” Jaggers stopped, his eyes reading ahead rapidly.
“How much does he want?” I inquired.
“He gave me the impression that this was some of his work,” he said in a pained voice.
“But it is,” I consoled him. “Of course he isn’t quite ready to step into his father’s shoes.”
I was sorry afterwards to have said this, for after all Finnegan had paid his debts, and it was nice to be alive now that better times were back and books were no longer rated as unnecessary luxuries. Many authors I knew who had skimped along during the depression were now making long-deferred trips or paying off mortgages or turning out the more finished kind of work that can only be done with a certain leisure and security. I had just got a thousand dollars advance for a venture in Hollywood and was going to fly out with all the verve of the old days when there was chicken feed in every pot. Going in to say good-by to Cannon and collect the money, it was nice to find he too was profiting — wanted me to go along and see a motor boat he was buying.
But some last-minute stuff came up to delay him and I grew impatient and decided to skip it. Getting no response to a knock on the door of his sanctum, I opened it anyhow.
The inner office seemed in some confusion. Mr. Cannon was on several telephones at once and dictating something about an insurance company to a stenographer. One secretary was getting hurriedly into her hat and coat as upon an errand and another was counting bills from her purse.
“It’ll be only a minute,” said Cannon, “it’s just a little office riot — you never saw us like this.”
“Is it Finnegan’s insurance?” I couldn’t help asking. “Isn’t it any good?”
“His insurance — oh, perfectly all right, perfectly. This is just a matter of trying to raise a few hundred in a hurry. The banks are closed and we’re all contributing.”
“I’ve got that money you just gave me,” I said. “I don’t need all of it to get to the coast.” I peeled off a couple of hundred. “Will this be enough?”
“That’ll be fine — it just saves us. Never mind, Miss Carlsen. Mrs. Mapes, you needn’t go now.”
“I think I’ll be running along,” I said.
“Just wait two minutes,” he urged. “I’ve only got to take care of this wire. It’s really splendid news. Bucks you up.”
It was a cablegram from Oslo, Norway — before I began to read I was full of a premonition.
AM MIRACULOUSLY SAFE HERE BUT DETAINED BY AUTHORITIES PLEASE WIRE PASSAGE MONEY FOR FOUR PEOPLE AND TWO HUNDRED EXTRA I AM BRINGING BACK PLENTY GREETINGS FROM THE DEAD.
“Yes, that’s splendid,” I agreed. “He’ll have a story to tell now.”
“Won’t he though,” said Cannon. “Miss Carlsen, will you wire the parents of those girls — and you’d better inform Mr. Jaggers.”
As we walked along the street a few minutes later, I saw that Mr. Cannon, as if stunned by the wonder of this news, had fallen into a brown study, and I did not disturb him, for after all I did not know Finnegan and could not whole-heartedly share his joy. His mood of silence continued until we arrived at the door of the motor boat show. Just under the sign he stopped and stared upward, as if aware for the first time where we were going.
“Oh, my,” he said, stepping back. “There’s no use going in here now. I thought we were going to get a drink.”
We did. Mr. Cannon was still a little vague, a little under the spell of the vast surprise — he fumbled so long for the money to pay his round that I insisted it was on me.
I think he was in a daze during that whole time because, though he is a man of the most punctilious accuracy, the two hundred I handed him in his office has never shown to my credit in the statements he has sent me. I imagine, though, that some day I will surely get it because some day Finnegan will click again and I know that people will clamor to read what he writes. Recently I’ve taken it upon myself to investigate some of the stories about him and I’ve found that they’re mostly as false as the half-empty pool. That pool was full to the brim.
So far there’s only been a short story about the polar expedition, a love story. Perhaps it wasn’t as big a subject as he expected. But the movies are interested in him — if they can get a good long look at him first and I have every reason to think that he will come through. He’d better.