Hola amigos, as I’m still busy at the fabulous San Miguel Writer’s Conference and pushing my enchilada consumption count past a dozen, Curtis Brown agent Mitchell Waters was kind enough to step in with a tribute to longtime Curtis Brown client Louis Auchincloss, who recently passed away at age 92 after an incredibly prolific career, including the novel LAST OF THE OLD GUARD, which came out when he was 90, and his memoir A VOICE FROM OLD NEW YORK, which will be published this Fall.
CATCHING THE LAST ACT
Several weeks ago I accompanied Susannah Carson on an afternoon visit to my venerable 92 year-old client Louis Auchincloss. She was here on tour for the anthology A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, for which Louis had contributed an old essay, “Jane Austen and the Good Life.”
We took the elevator up to his Park Avenue penthouse, where the front door was left ajar so that we could enter the large vestibule without requiring him to walk to the door. Louis was fully ambulatory, but moved more tentatively since a fall and hip replacement surgery. Louis invited us into the living room where he was seated in his favorite chair and we sat on the nearby couch. Susannah had brought Louis an inscribed copy of the anthology as well as one she hoped he’d sign.
I asked Louis if I might show Susannah some of the first editions in Louis’ vast library.
“What’s that?” asked Louis.
“Can we see your first editions of Jane Austen?” I shouted.
“Oh yes, yes, of course…” He waved a hand behind him to the bookshelves.
Louis admired Austen as much as he did any writer. I’d once asked him for a recommendation of the best criticism on Austen. Apparently, Louis felt that criticism of Austen was almost impertinent. Reading the author again was the only recommendation I received.
I took down volumes of Pride and Prejudice and Susannah and I sat there reading the first few pages, pretending we had just brought them home, unwrapped them, and were among the first eyes to read those famous opening lines. Louis got up to show us more from the seemingly endless rows of beautiful volumes as well as the complete leather bound collection of his own books (more than sixty, in all). Though I’d experienced this privilege before, I still felt like a kid in a very expensive candy shop, trying to get a taste of as many of these rare treats as possible in the time allowed, and still managing to savor each.
“Oh my god, I’m holding a first edition of Wuthering Heights,” I said, while Susannah read Jane Eyre. There were extensive collections of Wharton and James, Proust and Trollope. Where else could one find such a personal collection. And then to be able to handle the books — without gloves! Louis would sometimes replace or duplicate a valuable first edition, in order to have one that he would feel was sturdy enough to be comfortable reading. This was no musty museum exhibition, but rather the living room library of a truly great lover of books. The apartment itself was a kind of library and Louis had more to show us in his office.
“Quick,” I thought, “it should be just about here — and there it was: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!””
Well, as close as I’m ever going to be and I handed Louis back the volume and we continued our tour. Who knew when the shop would close?
I became Louis Stanton Auchincloss’ agent nearly ten years ago, after he’d already had a long and distinguished career, both as a lawyer and author of nearly sixty books by then. It certainly was the most anxious I’ve ever been about a new client, both because of the imposing literary figure he was and the fact that I was inheriting a client who had been very well served by his agent of longest standing, James Oliver Brown, as well as the retiring head of Curtis Brown, Perry Knowlton.
For many agents, the most gratifying aspect of our work is discovering and nurturing young talent. Is there a more exciting moment than calling that client and telling her or him that you’ve received an offer for a first novel? Such bonding moments would have long faded from Louis’ memory (I never asked) and would not be the part of the foundation of any relationship we might have. I knew that Louis had spoken to Jim Brown on the phone almost every morning over their first cups of coffee and that they would have been to many of the same parties and literary events together.
I wanted Louis to feel that, while things might not be the same (when are they ever?), that he would be hard put to see or feel any real diminishment in how he and his work were treated. I would continue to do some things the old-fashioned way: his manuscripts would be picked up by hand, photocopied and hand delivered to him and his editor the next day; they would be read within a day or two. Louis wasn’t looking for much in the way of editorial input from me and I rarely presumed. He did want his manuscripts to be read promptly and was not averse to hearing how much I loved them — and I did.
My input was mostly confined to wanting more — that the manuscripts should be longer. I came to realize that this may have been too much to ask of a client well into his eighties. Despite my best intentions, it appeared that we were off to a rough start. Whenever I received a call from Louis, he would tell me why he had called — asking questions, alerting me that a manuscript was ready or soon-to-be, and then he would hang up. There was never any “goodbye,” “speak to you soon,” or “take care” and I often found myself mildly sputtering on my end, “but, Louis…”
I soon learned that if I had something to discuss with Louis, I had better initiate the call, make my points and be prepared to have the call come to an abrupt end. All of this only increased my anxiety about working with this “Living Landmark”, until the day Louis called to thank me in particular for something I’d been able to accomplish on his behalf. He was nearly lavish in his praise, and then he was gone. And though I continued to find myself hanging there with another question or comment for years to come, I never took it personally again. I told this story to his son Andrew recently and learned that, while his dad was scrupulously courteous in every aspect of his life, I was far from alone when it came to this one quirk.
I represented Louis Auchincloss for ten books. His current editor, George Hodgman, asked Louis to write a memoir and, after some initial resistance, we persuaded him to do it. I’ll never again have the opportunity to chat with Brooke Astor, dance alongside Kitty Carlisle Hart, or listen to the most sophisticated observations about important political, social and literary figures of the past century over lunch at one of his clubs, as I had courtesy of my relationship with Louis Auchincloss. But we will still have the chance to partake of A Voice from Old New York when his memoir is published this Fall.
After showing us many of the inscribed first editions he had received from many of his contemporaries (John Updike, Norman Mailer) and looking at photographs of generations of his family (and hearing gossip about a certain 19th Century monarch), Louis escorted Susannah and me to the front door. Louis said “goodbye” (of course!) and then we were gone. Two weeks later he died.