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Paying the Price in Posterity

The Late John Marquand By Stephen Birmingham J.B. Lippincott Co., 322 pp., $10.00

By Whit Stillman

GEORGE KAUFMAN and John Marquand became friends in 1943 when they collaborated on a stage version for Marquand's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The Late George Apley. Writing and friendship had gone easily until one Saturday morning Mrs. Charles Lindbergh, wife of the allegedly pro-Nazi flying hero, telephoned for Mrs. Marquand at the Kaufman's country home. "Adelaide." Beatrice Kaufman told her when everyone was gathered in the living room, "while you were asleep this morning. Mrs. Lindbergh telephoned you here." Adelaide said that she would ring her back. "You may call her back if you wish." Mrs. Kaufman said, "but you may not do so from this house." Adelaide burst into tears and ran from the room, returning packed and dressed a few minutes later to get her husband to drive her to the train station.

For two men of radically different backgrounds. Marquand and Kaufman shared surprisingly similar careers. Both had unselfconsciously gone the popular route as writers, succeeded with a vengeance, and by 1943 they both shared the summits of their professions with a handful of others and the others weren't nearly so rich. It is often said, however, that writers who succeed commercially pay the price in posterity. Judging from the recent biographies by Howard Teichmann and Stephen Birmingham, they are paying dearly.

Kaufman pays most and it is hard to imagine that his reputation as a humorist will ever fully recover. Although his numerous hit comedies are often revived they are a fragile literary legacy and he needs a talented biographer to appreciate his personal wit. Instead he has Teichmann.

For some reason recently, biographers have gotten snotty about chronological order and prefer instead their own, sometimes psychedelic approaches. Teichmann's book is an "intimate portrait," so he packs a series of topical chapters ("...The Playwright, The Wit, The Cardplayer...") between two very thin slices of reminiscence. While the reminiscences are very good, the stuff in between would be bad filler for the Reader's Digest. In each chapter Teichman sloppily recounts a few Kaufman anecdotes, comes up with a few obvious generalities and sometimes even tacks on a list of short witticisms. The purpose of this approach is understandable; he is trying all along to give an impression of Kaufman as a great wit, but instead Kaufman comes off as the author of tired wisecracks.

ALTHOUGH SOME lofty literateurs might think that John Marquand deserves a similar sort of treatment, he luckily escapes it. When Marquand graduated from Harvard in 1915 he did not set out to become a starving novelist and it would often seem that the literary world has never forgiven him. Instead he drifted casually onto the staff of the Boston Transcript, then served with the army in the Mexican border conflict and overseas and finally landed in the offices of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. When Marquand was fired from J. Walter Thompson his reason for becoming a writer was forthrightly opportunistic: he needed to make a living and the Saturday Evening Post would pay him one.

Stephen Birmingham is a much better writer than Teichmann, but the two men still share not only a marked preference for froth over substance, but also what can only be an underlying indolence. Rather than doing the whole job necessary for an objective biography, Birmingham relies so heavily on the testimony of Marquand's paramour that the book at times seems like a long apology for a swinging lifestyle.

Yet the story of Marquand's relationship with Carol Brandt has enough facets to fill a book of its own. When they met in 1926 she introduced him to mass-production by encouraging him to dictate his stories for her to type. Later she married his agent Carl Brandt, and by the time she inherited this role from her husband, she and Marquand were already lovers. Birmingham has uncovered valuable material from Mrs. Brandt's recollections but too frequently he slides into details (about how overjoyed the Brandt children were that Marquand and their mother were again lovers) and be has a difficult time climbing out.

Birmingham's past experience as a novelist and the author of such pop sociology as The Grandees and The Right People has given him biases that he has a hard time shaking. While as a fictioneer he likes to wallow in romance, as a social commentator he writes an analysis of Harvard club life which is the sort of hogwash upon which climbers thrive. But just because this isn't the sort of biography that will endear Marquand to posterity doesn't mean that it isn't entertaining.

IN 1934 MARQUAND completed his first "serious" novel, The Late George Apley, the curious masterpiece that has made critical appreciation of his work so difficult. The book is in the form of one of the posthumously written "memorials," privately printed, that were in vogue in the early part of the century. Horatio Willing, one of Apley's oldest friends and a clubmate at Harvard, writes a commentary on a chronology of letters written to and by George Apley. Through Willing's amusing pomposity and old Boston's strange attitudes, Marquand filters a story that is unexpectedly but tremendously moving. When Apley was first published it was appreciated for its humor and satire. But since 1936 the world Marquand lampooned has passed away and so the satire is left without a target. While it is still amusing that George Apley "looks the other way" when passing what he considers the wanton materialism of the Harvard Business School, a modern Apley would be more tolerant of man's vanity.

After Marquand had driven his wife to the train station that Saturday in 1943, he drove back to the Kaufmans'. For awhile the two collaborators stood silently on the front porch, until Kaufman finally said, "John, why do you associate yourself with people like the Lindberghs?" Marquand thought a moment and replied, "George you've got to remember all heroes are horses' asses." Marquand makes fun of Apley's inhibitions and his struggle to fit the grip of Boston tradition and his struggle to fit the grip of Boston tradition and not betray it. Yet all his life Marquand sought roots where family life and tradition would be important. But instead he broke two marriages and scattered his homes and children across the East. Birmingham stresses Apley's failure to escape Boston conformity; but really Apley has not failed at all. Instead he has painfully cultivated his own roots and succeeded at just those things at which Marquand failed. While with one hand Marquand makes Apley look like a horse's ass, with the other he has pushed him forward as the final hero.

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