Publishing Genius
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Publishing Genius

"I am a genius in a nice, small way."

—Horace Liveright to Lucille Liveright, January 13, 1922

The history of film is filled with many memorable films about writers—both real and imagined.

On the imaginary side there is As Good as it Gets (1997), Barton Fink (1991), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Finding Forester (2000), Heartburn (1986), Love and Death on Long Island (1997), My Left Foot (1989), The Third Man (1949), and Wonder Boys (2000).

On the real side, there is The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), Balzac: A Life of Passion (1999), Henry and June (1990), Jack London (1943), Kafka (1991), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999), Shadowlands (1993, on C. S. Lewis), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Tom and Viv (1994), Oscar Wilde (1960), and Wilde (1997).

We could spill a lot of ink debating how realistic are the imaginary writers and how imaginary are the real writers in these films.

We could also carry on quite a bit about "Top 10" films about writers and writing as there are literally hundreds of films in this category.

But when we move from one side of the publishing fence to the other, that is, from writers to publishers and editors, the list of films is much shorter—and far less memorable. How many films can you recall about editors or publishers? Let alone films with strong claims to cinematic greatness like Shakespeare in Love or The Third Man?

The earliest film about a book publisher was The Scoundrel released on April 30, 1935.

That year, Franklin D. Roosevelt was halfway through his first of four terms as president and the best selling book was Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglass.

Co-directed and co-written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Scoundrel was inspired, in part, by the life of the famed publisher, Horace Liveright, who had died two years earlier.

Liveright, the publisher of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925) as well as first books by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Hart Crane, and Dorothy Parker, co-founded Boni & Liveright in 1917. He also founded an inexpensive reprint line called "Modern Library" the same year.

Five years later, based on the flip of a coin (according to Bennett Cerf), Liveright bought out his partner Albert Boni, after their relationship broke down. Two years later, in 1925, he then infamously sold Modern Library to his vice-president, Bennett Cerf, because of personal financial difficulties.

In 1924, Liveright became stage-struck and started to produce plays, including Dracula, which featured Bela Lugosi in the lead role. But the plays and lavish parties he was known to hold took their financial toll on him and in 1928 he lost control of Boni & Liveright, and by 1930 was out of the publishing company entirely. Years of alcoholism then took its physical toll on him and he died of pneumonia three years later, penniless, at the age of forty-nine.

The rise and fall of Liveright is a legendary story in the publishing world. Whereas in July of 1928, his company was publisher of six of the top ten best-selling books in America, five years later he was broke and dead with only a handful of people attending his funeral.

A letter dated September 27, 1933 to Una Jeffers, wife of Robinson Jeffers, by Cerf, who attended the funeral, sums up well the rise and fall of Liveright:

What a tragic end it was for this man whose star was so high in the heavens only a few short years ago! He died penniless and utterly broken in spirit, and even authors who owed their whole start in life to him didn't have the grace to turn up at the last services. Upton Sinclair spoke a few words, and very badly too, I thought. The only newspaperman present was Harry Hansen, the reviewer for the Evening Telegram. As Hansen put it, Liveright had no more advertising appropriations to hand out.

In The Scoundrel, the publisher in the...


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