I always wanted to be a writer. Fresh out of college, I took a job as a high school English teacher in Virginia, hoping to write during my off-time. It didn’t work out. I couldn’t make a living on teacher’s pay and I didn’t have much to say as a writer at the age of 22. So I went to law school and joined a law firm in Los Angeles. I still secretly wanted to be a writer, but the law is a jealous mistress, who left me no time to do anything else.
In 1989, a lawyer in my firm asked me to handle a case for one of his clients, H.N. Swanson, Inc. The company’s offices on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood looked like a library in dire need of a big clean-up. Wall-to-wall shelves and rows of big tables were stacked with musty books, velo-bound documents, and loose papers, some caked with decades-old layers of dust. Upstairs, behind a massive desk, also piled high with papers and books, sat a short, frail, ancient man with bright eyes, the hint of a smile, and a full head of snow-white hair combed straight back.
I sat down across the desk from Harold “Swanie” Swanson and we began to talk. I asked a few get-acquainted questions and his story came tumbling out like a waterfall. He was just shy of 90 years old. Born in Iowa, he worked as a writer in Chicago and moved to Hollywood in the 30’s to produce movies, but he realized his talent was in sales and he became a literary agent, representing screen writers and novelists in negotiations with studios about movie rights. “Give me a good story and a telephone and I’ll sell it every time,” he said.
“So, Harold,” I said. “You represent any writers I might have heard of? Anyone famous?”
I now rank this as one of the dumbest questions I ever posed to anyone (and believe me, this is a competitive field). Swanie’s answer went on for about an hour, a parade of hall of fame writers with colorful vignettes about each one. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Pearl Buck, Hemingway, Faulkner.
“You read any of Dutch Leonard’s books?” he asked.
By then I was staring at him blankly. My jaw went slack back there at the mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I was incapable of forming words. He mistook my paralysis for confusion and added by way of explanation, “You probably know him as Elmore Leonard. His friends call him Dutch.”
I emitted a guttural utterance meant to convey that I’d heard of Elmore Leonard, like everyone who wasn’t in a coma from 1975 on.
Swanie shook his head and smiled. “Man, he can spin a story, can’t he?”
I miraculously found the presence of mind to vocalize another dumb question, which launched Swanie on a story spree. Fitzgerald asked Swanie to read a novel he’d written. The title was Trimalchio in West Egg. Swanie liked the book but told him he’d never sell it with that title. He suggested he call it “Gatsby.” Fitzgerald settled on “The Great Gatsby.” Swanie followed this up with hilarious tales of drunken antics at the Fitgeralds’ parties.
I nudged the conversation toward Hemingway. He didn’t have any friends, Swanie said, and he couldn’t write until he’d downed a few.
Raymond Chandler? He didn’t like literary agents, except for Swanie, and didn’t have much respect for their judgment. His practice was to thank them politely for their advice and to do the exact opposite of what they said.
About two hours into our conversation, Swanie looked at his watch and said, “We’ve been talking for quite a while, but we haven’t discussed my case at all. Are you billing me for this time?”
Needless to say, I ate the time. In fact, if I’d had good sense I would have paid him to keep talking, but hey, I was a lawyer back then and that sort of thing is against our religion, so we moved on and talked about the law, which was, of course, mind-numbingly boring to both of us.
As the case plodded along over the following weeks, more of Swanie’s stories came out. He was very fond of Elmore Leonard and it appears the feeling was mutual. Early in Leonard’s career, Swanie sold several of his western novels to studios for movie production, including Hombre, which starred Paul Newman. When Leonard switched to crime novels, his regular publishing agent passed away, and he brought The Big Bounce to Swanie. When Swanie read it, he told Leonard, “Kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.” A long line of best sellers followed. The dedication to Leonard’s La Brava reads, “This one’s for Swanie, bless his heart.”
Swanie was buddies with Humphrey Bogart, Walt Disney, and Clark Gable and friends with Gloria Swanson. He negotiated the contracts for the movies The Big Sleep, Old Yeller, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Butterfield Eight, and many others. Memories of his dealings with other authors rolled out – Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Paul Theroux, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Wambaugh, Ross MacDonald, and on and on.
My short time with Swanie was precious and priceless. He was a great guy, unfailingly generous in sharing his memories with me, and he was always warm, friendly, and patient. I never heard him say a rude word to anyone. His charm eventually tamed the attorneys who had sued him, and we settled the case. In our last meeting as we said good-bye, I screwed up my courage to confess my secret dream. “Long run, I want to be a writer,” I blurted out with a tremor in my voice.
He shook my hand and gave me a wizened smile. “Keep your day job, kiddo.” It was good advice. I followed it. For a while.
Swanie died in May, 1991. Elmore Leonard wrote an affectionate tribute to him for the L.A.Times. You can read it here. As I was writing this, I discovered that Swanie left behind a memoir, Sprinkled With Ruby Dust. It’s only available in hardcover and its sales rank on Amazon is about 3,000,000 with no reader reviews or ratings. It was panned in the only published review I could find, but I ordered it and I’m going to post a positive review. I owe him way more than that for the fascinating stories. Swanie’s forgotten now by most, I guess, but I’ll never forget him or the day I stepped into that musty old treasure trove of literary history.