Swanie

HNSwansonI 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.