65: Genius

2016’s Genius tells the story of book editor Max Perkins and the authors he discovered, including Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. These four are pictured above, left to right, in the same order mentioned.

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Episode Transcript

On May 11th, 2014, Showtime’s original series Penny Dreadful premiered. The final episode aired on June 19th, 2016 as the end of the third season brought a close to the series. With 27 incredibly creepy episodes, Penny Dreadful brought a new spin to such classic characters like Dorian Gray, Van Helsing, Count Dracula, Frankenstein, his monster and more.

The show’s creator was John Logan, who also managed to write two James Bond movies while Penny Dreadful was still running. That’d be 2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s Spectre.

But James Bond wasn’t the first movies John has written. In fact, you’ve probably heard of a few more of the films John has written. From a 1999’s made-for-TV movie called RKO 281 which is about Orson Welles making Citizen Kane to that same year’s football film, Any Given Sunday. Then there’s Gladiator, The Time Machine, The Last Samurai, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the animated film Rango and the five-time Oscar winner Hugo.

Oh, and that first film? RKO 281? That was produced by none other than Ridley Scott. So it’s probably not much of a surprise that with John’s talent and connections to Ridley Scott that John also wrote the screenplay for the latest in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant.

Sandwiched between the end of Penny Dreadful and the release of Alien: Covenant, John Logan wrote a film you may not have heard of.

Well, technically Genius was released first in Germany in February of 2016 and then in the U.S. on June 10th, 2016. That’s nine days before Penny Dreadful’s final episode aired. So maybe not quite sandwiched, but you get the point. Maybe it’s an open-face sandwich.

Anyway, Genius has an all-star cast that includes Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Laura Linney and Dominic West.

While John may have written the screenplay, the story for Genius came from a thesis paper in 1971. That paper belonged to A. Scott Berg, who went on to expand on that thesis to turn it into the book that John adapted into the movie. If his name sounds familiar, you might’ve heard his name from his book Lindbergh, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

With so much writing talent behind the movie, it’s no wonder the movie itself is based on even more writing talent. The true story of Maxwell Perkins, the editor who discovered the legendary authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.

So let’s take some time to dive into the world of writers as we compare history with Genius.

The true story behind Genius

New York. 1929.

The movie fades from black and white to color as it bounces back and forth between two shots. The first of those shots is an anxious and smoking Thomas Wolfe as played by Jude Law. The steady rain is forcing him to cover his cigarette with his hand to avoid it being snuffed out. His eyes are steadily looking up.

The second of the shots is an extreme closeup on a printed sheet of paper. Red pencil lines are being marked through the words on the sheet, but the cinematography for the shot is such that it’s really hard to see the words themselves. The idea, though, is that it’s a book being edited.

Then we see what Thomas was looking at. It’s a white building with big letters on the side: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Publishers and Booksellers. Founded 1846.

After this, we’re introduced to some of the main players in the movie. It starts with actor Corey Johnson’s character, John Wheelock. He plops down a massive stack of pages on Max Perkins’ desk.

John suggests Max take a look at the book. Max, who’s played by Colin Firth, asks if it’s any good. Oh no, it’s not good. But it is unique.

The title page says simply: O Lost by Thomas Wolfe.

Oh, and as a little side note here, we can see the words on the pages behind the title page. It looks like they’re typed with a typewriter. That’s different than the book John Wheelock was editing earlier. We can tell just by the different type used.

Anyway, for the next few shots we see Colin Firth’s version of Max Perkins reading the stack of pages. It lasts on his train ride home. While his wife, Louise, who’s played by Laura Linney, and their five daughters are listening to the radio. Late that night. Finally, on the train ride back into work the next day, Max finishes the book. He smiles and the movie’s title comes into view.

Like we’ve seen for many movies, the specifics of these scenes may have been made up in the film, but their purpose is to tell a story that did happen.

Let’s start with the characters.

Jude Law’s character, Thomas Wolfe, was a real person. He was born on October 3rd, 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina. A few years after graduating from Harvard in Boston, he moved to New York City.

By the time we meet Thomas in the movie, it’s 1929, and the implication we get from the film is that he’s already submitted his massive book to many publishers, each time getting shot down.

That’s true.

Thomas had spent almost two years writing it, but in the early months of 1928, he finally finished a manuscript for a book he entitled O Lost. Like the movie shows, Thomas had indeed been rejected by many publishers. We don’t really know the reasons why, but it almost certainly didn’t help that the manuscript was a massive 1,114 pages.

For some comparison, later on in the movie, Jude Law’s version of Thomas Wolfe mentions Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. That weighed in at 1,225 pages for its first edition.

So it’s no surprise that not many publishing companies wanted to take the amount of time it’d take to edit down the works of an unknown author at the time like Thomas Wolfe.

But Max Perkins was different.

As you can probably guess, like Thomas Wolfe, Colin Firth’s character, Max Perkins, was also a real person.

Born on September 20th, 1884, Max was just over 16 years the senior of Thomas. Unlike Thomas, though, Max was born and raised in New York City. He rose through the ranks of publishing by way of a career as a reporter for The New York Times. In 1910, Max left The Times and joined the publishing house we saw in the movie, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Like the movie indicates in the introduction, Max did indeed have five daughters with his wife, Louise. The couple was married the same year Max joined Scribner’s in 1910.

Nine years later, Max made a name for himself in the annals of literary history when he discovered and signed F. Scott Fitzgerald to Scribner’s. Of course, no one knew who F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Scott as he was called, was at the time.

If that name rings a slight bell but you’re not sure where you’ve heard it, you probably have read his novel The Great Gatsby. Or maybe you’ve seen the recent movie of the same name with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Or maybe his name rings a bell because of the man that Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after—that’d be his second cousin, three times removed on his father’s side—Francis Scott Key. It was Francis Scott Key who wrote the Star Spangled Banner, the official anthem for the United States of America.

Francis Scott Key passed away in 1843, over 50 years before F. Scott Fitzgerald was born.

The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but it was through this connection with F. Scott Fitzgerald that Max Perkins met another author that we do see in the movie. That’d be another young writer at the time, Ernest Hemingway. His first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published by Max Perkins at Scribner’s thanks to a meeting through F. Scott Fitzgerald. That was published in 1926 and while it was a decent success, it was in 1929 when Ernest’s next book, A Farewell to Arms, became a best-seller and cemented him as a household name.

And that brings us up to date with the movie’s timeline.

In fact, if you pause the movie like I did to look at the printed paper that we see getting marked by red pencil in the beginning of the movie just after the movie’s title, you can clearly see that the book being edited is A Farewell to Arms.

That’d be very accurate since that book was published in September of 1929, which would’ve meant by the time Thomas’ massive manuscript plopped down on Max Perkins’ desk, he would’ve already been working on editing Ernest’s second novel.

Oh, and even though we don’t meet Ernest Hemingway in the movie until much later on, when we do meet him he’s played by Dominic West.

Back in the movie, after Max Perkins agrees to publish Thomas Wolfe’s novel—as long as he’s willing to edit it down, of course—we see Jude Law’s version of Thomas go back home to another major character in the movie. It’s Nicole Kidman’s character, Aline Bernstein.

Like the other characters we’ve seen so far, Aline was also a real person. And while we learn little bits and pieces about the relationship between Aline and Thomas, let’s lay it out here up front.

Aline Bernstein was, like the movie says she was, a very successful stage designer. She was born on December 22nd, 1880, making her three years and eight months older than Max Perkins and almost 20 years older than Thomas Wolfe. 19 years, nine months and 11 days to be precise.

Way before the timeline in the movie, Aline Frankau—that was her maiden name—married a stockbroker named Theodore Bernstein in 1902. So the movie is correct when Nicole Kidman’s version of Aline casually mentions her husband working on Wall Street.

For the next two decades, Theodore and Aline had a happy marriage. Two years after their marriage, their son was born. He was also named Theodore after his father. Then two years later, their second child, a girl, was born. Her name was Elda. Those would be the only two children Theodore and Aline had.

Aline’s career was taking off and she was becoming one of the most prominent stage designers in New York City.

Oh, and as a little side note, Aline’s family had what her doctor described as a genetic deafness that would most likely start to become more severe in Aline as she aged. Determined woman that she was, Aline didn’t let this stop her. She simply learned how to read lips and carried on.

OK, maybe not simply. But you get the point. Even though she wasn’t showing major signs of being deaf, and amidst being a mother and a massive success behind the scenes at the budding Broadway scene, she thought ahead.

The height of her success on Broadway was in the early 1920s, and Aline often traveled to Europe to gather materials and inspirations for her designs. At some point after one of these trips, Aline met the dashing, young Thomas Wolfe. They started seeing each other in 1925.

So by the time we see her in the movie in 1929, the two had been dating for about four years.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, Aline was still married to Theodore at the time. According to some, Aline struggled a lot with her love for both Thomas and Theodore. It was something that Theodore appeared to have been very patient and sympathetic to.

Just like the movie shows, Thomas lived with Aline while he was writing his first novel that ended up getting accepted at Scribner’s.

In the movie, after accepting Thomas Wolfe’s book, Max says he has to cut down the size of the book. He mentions 300 pages they have to cut out.

That’s a little off. Well, Max might’ve told Thomas that’s how much they had to cut out, but based on the final size for the novel we know there was more than that cut out.

As we learned earlier, the first manuscript was almost the size of War and Peace at 1,114 pages. After countless hours, Max and Thomas worked together to take out about 66,000 words. The first edition published at 544 pages.

If you’re interested, though, in 2000 the University of South Carolina Press published for the first time the entire, original edition—adding back in those 66,000 some words that Max and Thomas cut out all those decades ago. It’s called O Lost: A Story of the Burial Life and comes in at 736 pages. I’ll add a link to that in the show notes.

Oh, and Thomas Wolfe did change the name of the manuscript. We saw it transition from O Lost to Look Homeward, Angel. That’s true, but the movie doesn’t mention that even earlier, the first title for the then-work-in-progress was The Building of a Wall.

So it went from The Building of a Wall to O Lost and finally to Look Homeward, Angel. The latter of which is what we know it by today, since that’s what it was published under.

Like the movie shows, after this first book was published, Thomas Wolfe broke up with Aline Bernstein. That was in 1930, and while we don’t know the specifics of how it affected them both, we know they were both deeply affected. Probably moreso Aline since it was Thomas who had ended it with her.

Back in the movie, after the release and initial success of Look Homeward, Angel, we meet Guy Pierce’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. He’s in Max’s office asking for money for his wife, Zelda. According to the movie, she’s staying in an asylum and, as Scott says, Gatsby didn’t make any money.

Zelda Fitzgerald is portrayed by Vanessa Kirby in the film.

There’s a lot the movie doesn’t mention, so let’s try to fill in some of those details without getting too sidetracked. Even though the movie doesn’t really focus on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, he had plenty going on.

As a brief overview, Scott’s wife, Zelda, was a socialite who turned her attentions to Scott after the success of his first book, This Side of Paradise. They’d met before the book, and Scott actually even modeled one of the characters in the book around her, but she had agreed to marry him after it was published. The two were married just days after it was published.

For a while things were great. Scott wrote many more short stories and published another commercially successful novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in 1922.

Despite their love, Zelda and Scott had their fair share of marital problems. Perhaps chief among these was how absorbed Scott would become in his writing, often ignoring Zelda for extended periods of time. She, in turn, grew bored and isolated and resented him for it.

Her constant interruptions of his work made it increasingly difficult for him to write, driving him to the bottle and pushing her away even more. That, in turn, only caused her eccentric behavior to increase. She became obsessed with ballet, something she had been praised for as a child. But this only pushed Scott further away, and for lack of a better term he completely dismissed her obsession.

This sad situation came to a head in April of 1930 while the couple was living in France. Zelda was admitted to a mental facility and after months of treatment, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Since the movie doesn’t really mention how much time has passed since Thomas’ book was released, this admission in France is likely what the movie’s referring to.

As for the Fitzgerald’s hurting for money, that’s also true.

Even though we know about The Great Gatsby today, when it was first released on April 10th, 1925, it saw poor sales numbers. Scott had hoped it’d sell around 75,000 copies, but instead it struggled—selling only about 20,000 copies by the time it’d run its course.

So by the time 1929 would’ve rolled around, Gatsby was still his most recent novel and it was making next to nothing. F. Scott Fitzgerald was living mostly on money earned from short stories he was writing, many of which were published by Scribner’s magazine.

Here you can see that Scribner's Magazine is more a book than what we might think of as a magazine today.
Here you can see that Scribner's Magazine is more a book than what we might think of as a magazine today.

By the way, Scribner’s magazine isn’t a thin magazine like we’d think of with the word today. It was really a large-bound book that was published periodically with numerous original short stories.

Oh, and not to get too far off the path here but Zelda actually wrote her own book as well. The movie doesn’t mention this, but it was something Zelda wrote while being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Without her husband’s knowledge, she wrote it over the course of six weeks and sent it to Max Perkins at Scribner’s.

When he found out, Scott was furious. The book was essentially a fictional autobiography of Zelda and Scott’s marriage, and much of it overlapped material that Scott himself had planned on using for one of his books. He forced Zelda to take out the parts he was going to use in his book, no doubt hurting the story along the way.

Max did agree to publish Zelda’s book in 1932, but it sold just over 1,000 copies, earning Zelda only about $120.

That’s about the same as $2,000 today.

On top of that, Scott openly blamed Zelda for plagiarism and put her writing down. Zelda was crushed. It’s a sad story. If you want to learn more about her, I’d recommend picking up Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. It’s not a biography by any means, but in movie terms, I guess you could say it’s “based on a true story.”

Oh, and yes, Zelda Fitzgerald’s first name was the inspiration for the character in Nintendo’s video games.

Going back to the story in our movie, we’re back in Max Perkins’ office when Thomas walks in and says he’s got his new book. Then a few assistants walk in carrying multiple wooden crates filled with pages.

It’s another massive manuscript that Thomas and Max have to cut down. And so begins a musical montage as they begin working on editing the book.

The movie doesn’t really mention how much time is passing. The only mention we get is a very casual one at one point in the montage when Colin Firth’s version of Max Perkins replies to a frustrated Thomas that they’ve been working on it for two years and they’ve only managed to cut about 100 pages.

So if we were right with our guess at the timeline earlier in 1930 when Zelda Fitzgerald was admitted into a mental facility, that’d mean a couple years later would be 1932—the same year Zelda’s own novel was published. But of course the movie doesn’t mention that.

We can give the movie some leeway, though, because there’s still more time that passes in the movie after this mention of two years passing by Colin Firth’s character.

But as we’ve done before, looking at history we can get a sense for the timeline.

Of Time and the River was published on March 8th, 1935 and even though it was cut down to be a quarter of the size it was before editing, it still ended up being a hefty 896 pages. Like his first book, and like the movie indicates, Thomas’ second book was a massive hit as it told a fictionalized story of Thomas’ own life. It’s this book that has helped cement Thomas Wolfe as a legendary writer and an unofficial father of the fictionalized autobiography.

That timeline is interesting, because in the movie, after the book is published and Thomas goes off to Europe for a vacation of sorts, this is when we meet Ernest Hemingway for the first time. If you recall, he’s played by Dominic West in the film.

We meet him as he’s wrapping up a fishing trip with Max. The two pose next to a huge swordfish for a photo.

While it’s entirely possible there were multiple fishing trips—in fact, there are indeed multiple photos of Ernest Hemingway next to massive swordfish—the only one I could find of both Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins together with a swordfish like we saw in the movie was dated January of 1935.

So that’d be about two months before Thomas’ book was published, which would flip around the timeline we saw in the movie. Or maybe there is another photo out there I couldn’t find.

Anyway, that’s a minor detail, but I’ll add a link to the swordfish photo in the show notes if you want to see it.

Back in the movie, it’s after his second book is published that things start to unravel for Thomas. High on his success, he starts to push Max away when he shows up drunk at Max’s home for a dinner with Max, Louise and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Then he shows up at Scott’s home in California later to apologize, and Guy Pierce’s version of the author scolds Thomas for biting the hand that feeds him. Well, it’s said much more eloquently in the movie, but that’s the gist.

The specific details were dramatized for the movie, of course, but the spirit of Thomas Wolfe’s decline is sad, but true.

By the time 1936 rolled around, despite his success, Thomas was apparently frustrated with his editor. He sent a letter to Scribner’s in November of 1936 claiming a difference of opinion and fundamental disagreements as his reason for wanting to end his working relationship with the publishing house. It probably didn’t help that there were some rumors floating around that the success of Thomas’ books were largely due to Max’s edits and not Thomas’ own writing.

In the first month of the next year, 1937, Thomas Wolfe officially cut ties with Scribner’s and instead signed a deal with a competing publisher, Harper & Brothers. His editor there was a man named Edward Aswell.

Seemingly not wanting to be involved in the editing process, Thomas sent his new manuscript to Edward in 1938 and then promptly left New York City to go tour the west coast of the United States.

Oh, and that manuscript was well over 1,000,000 words long.

In the movie, it’s while he’s out west that something goes wrong. We see Jude Law’s version of Thomas walking on a quiet beach. Then he puts his hand to his head in agony and collapses on the sand.

Only after we see Max and Thomas’ mother in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the next scene do we find out Thomas has been diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain.

Sadly, this is true—but there is more to the story than we saw in the film.

In July of 1938, Thomas contracted pneumonia while he was in Seattle, Washington. This illness forced him to spend three weeks in the hospital there before complications in his recovery forced the doctors to take a closer look.

During this time, two of Thomas’ siblings, Fred and Mabel, arrived to help look after him. Then the doctors diagnosed him with miliary tuberculosis. That’s essentially a number of small lesions in the body about the size of millet seeds—hence the name miliary TB. It only exists in about 2% of all tuberculosis cases.

After getting this diagnosis, like the movie implies, Thomas was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital on September 6th, 1938 so he could be placed under the care of the world’s foremost neurosurgeon at the time, Dr. Walter Dandy.

Fred and Mabel joined Thomas for the train ride from Seattle to Baltimore. Along the way, they stopped in Chicago where their mother, Julia, joined them. Aline Bernstein tried to join them, too, but she was asked not to—Julia, who never really liked Aline, said it’d be too upsetting for Thomas.

Oh, and in the movie, Julia is played by Gillian Hanna.

So the movie is correct in showing that Thomas’ mother was there at Johns Hopkins. It just doesn’t show the other siblings there. But it was also correct in showing that Max Perkins was there. He joined the Wolfe family at Thomas’ bedside along with Thomas’ editor at Harper, Edward Aswell, and Thomas’ agent, a woman named Elizabeth Nowell.

As a side note, it was Elizabeth who would go on to assemble many of Thomas’ letters into collections that have helped us understand his life today.

Almost immediately after arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas underwent surgery, and it was found that the tuberculosis had spread to cover the entire right side of his brain. Dr. Dandy also determined that apparently the pneumonia Thomas had contracted in Seattle had irritated a pre-existing tuberculosis lesion on his lung. The disease had then traveled through his bloodstream to his brain.

He slipped into a coma and despite a second surgery to try to remove the lesions, Thomas never recovered.

In the movie, after his funeral we see Max back at his office. When the mail arrives, there’s a letter from Thomas. It’s the letter we saw Jude Law’s version of Thomas writing from his hospital bed in Johns Hopkins.

As a little side note, there’s a continuity issue here in the movie. You can tell that when Jude Law starts writing the words, “Dear Max” in the top middle of the paper. But then the letter that Colin Firth’s version of Max Perkins reads has “Dear Max” on the left-hand side along with the rest of the text.

Anyway, as far as history is concerned the letter itself was very real.

There’s a few changes made in the movie version of the letter and the real one—for example, the version of the letter in the movie mentions Max meeting Thomas at the boat in November but the real letter mentions it being on July 4th.

Suffice it to say, the spirit of the letter is conveyed very well in the movie. Probably the biggest difference is that Thomas didn’t write the letter to Max while he was at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He wrote the letter almost a month earlier on August 12th, 1938 while he was still at Providence Hospital in Seattle.

Thomas Wolfe died way too early on September 15th, 1938, just 52 days before his 38th birthday.

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