Block’s early fiction appeared in the 1956 February and June issues of Manhunt. Unknown to him, there was a Scott Meredith connection.
In the summer of 1956, after my first year at Antioch College, I went to work in the mail room at Pines Publications. One of Antioch’s chief attractions was its co-op job program, designed to furnish students with real-world experience in their careers of choice; I wanted to be a writer, so I picked a job at a publishing house.
Pines had a paperback line, Popular Library, and a whole string of magazines and comic books. The job experience was reasonably interesting, but the chance to live on my own in Greenwich Village trumped it. I shared an apartment at 54 Barrow Street with two other Antiochians, and I hung out a lot in Washington Square and the Macdougal Street coffeehouses, and one Sunday afternoon I stayed home and set up my typewriter in the kitchen and wrote a story about an amoral kid who lives by his wits, runs a mail-order scam, and like that. End of October I went back to college and took the story with me.
Earlier, I’d read The Jungle Kids, a paperback collection of some of Evan Hunter’s short stories, packaged to capitalize on the success of The Blackboard Jungle. One thing I’d noticed was that most of the stories had appeared in a magazine called Manhunt. I’d never seen a copy, but I got the address someplace, most likely Writer’s Market, and I mailed in the story I’d written on Barrow Street.
Now I’d submitted my work before, and indeed had a burgeoning collection of rejection slips taped to the wall of my dorm room. But what I got this time, along with my manuscript, was a note from one Francis X. Lewis, Manhunt’s editor, saying that the story just sort of trailed off, and needed some kind of a snapper ending. If I could come up with something suitable, I might have a sale.
There was a magazine rack in the Yellow Springs drugstore, and, mirabile dictu, they carried Manhunt. I bought it and read all the stories in it, and I tacked on an O. Henry–type ending which saw the little bastard hoist on his own petard.
Off it went and back it came, with another note from Mr. Lewis, this one rather less heartening. The ending was too pat and predictable, but thanks for trying.
A week or so later I got a short note from a man named Scott Meredith, a New York–based literary agent. One of your recent magazine submissions was close, he wrote. This is to express interest in your material.
Well, I already knew that. Close, but no cigar. The enclosed brochure went on to invite me to submit my story for Mr. Meredith’s appraisal for a mere $5.
Yeah, right. I tossed it in the trash and forgot about it.
In June I went home to Buffalo. I’d decided to go to Cape Cod for the summer and find some sort of job there instead of filling any of the slots the college had on offer. Night before I drove there, I saw how to fix that story. I drove to the Cape, found an attic room above a barbershop in Hyannis, and right away wrote the story and sent it off to Manhunt. I got a job as a dishwasher at Mildred’s Chowder House, worked like a dog from four to midnight, and was told to report the following day at 8 a.m. I decided against setting my alarm clock, and I never did return to Mildred’s joint. (I think I must have been afraid to go back and ask for my pay. “But you quit, you bastard! You didn’t come in at eight!” I scored high on IQ tests, but in certain respects I have to say I was a moron.)
For two weeks I stayed in that room, and every day I pounded my typewriter. Three or four days in, I got a note from Francis X. Lewis’ assistant. Mr. Lewis was away for the next several weeks, but the assistant had read the story and was pretty sure Mr. Lewis would want to buy it on his return. It was, certainly, under serious consideration.
Gosh. . .
I didn’t quite turn out a story a day, but I must have finished, oh, nine stories in two weeks. I remember I aimed one of them at Boy’s Life, and there was at least one slanted toward Manhunt, but that’s all I recall about them. I stayed in that attic and lived on Maine sardines, a tin of which cost 15 cents. Right before the money ran out, and before I died of sardine poisoning, I took a horrible split-shift job at a fancy resort in Osterville that had me working from 7:00 am to 9:30 pm, with a two-hour break in the afternoon. It’s good I’d run out of story ideas by then, because the time and energy I had left would have limited me to haiku.
Ten days of that was plenty. The summer help had a tradition of quitting the joint, and every few nights another bellhop or bus boy would tie his uniform to a tree and be gone by daybreak. I left at a more conventional hour and drove back to Buffalo, cracked up the car en route, limped home with it, and took a train to New York. I got a room at 105 East 19th Street, at what years later would briefly serve as MWA’s headquarters. And I set about looking for a job, and wished Francis X. Lewis would get back from the Catskills or the hospital, wherever he was, and buy my story.
My father had gone to Cornell, and stayed in touch over the years with several of his fraternity brothers. One was Morton Tolleris, who became a prominent judge in New York. Morty had a younger brother named Ralph, and Ralph’s wife Beatrice worked at Time magazine. After a few phone calls, I found myself on the phone with Mrs. Tolleris, who was able to offer me a position as a copy boy on Time. The pay was $60 a week, and because of their publishing schedule my work week would run from Wednesday through Sunday.
I decided I didn’t want the baggage that came with any job I got through a friend of my folks. Suppose I screwed up? Suppose I wanted to quit? So I turned it down, and I’m sure Beatie Tolleris was as relieved as I was, for about the same reason.
A few days later I followed a New York Times classified to the offices of Qualified Employment, on West 42nd Street, where I inquired about their listing: Associate Editor, Literary Agency. And there must have been something suggesting that the position was entry-level, or how would I have had the nerve to offer myself up for it?
The chap who interviewed me seemed bemused, and his attitude only deepened as I answered his questions. I wanted to be a writer, I admitted, and had a story under consideration at a national magazine. Which magazine? Manhunt, I said. He nodded sagely. Did I like any particular Manhunt writers? Well, Evan Hunter. And, uh, Ed McBain.
Next thing I knew I was on the 18th floor at 580 Fifth Avenue, where Sidney Meredith sat me down at a desk with a story to read. My task was to write a letter to its author, telling him one of three things—it was great and we’re going to market it, it needs fixing and here’s how, or it’s hopeless and here’s why.
The story was “Rattlesnake Cave,” and the byline read Ray D. Lester, whom I subsequently learned was the science-fiction writer Lester Del Rey. He’d deliberately written it to incorporate every structural flaw he could think of, and he’d done his work well. I sat down and read it, and wondered if anyone had ever taken this test and found the story acceptable. (Happened often, I was to learn.)
The story had a frame device, told years after the fact, so we knew the narrator survived, so where was the suspense? It was about snakes, and lots of people, especially women, didn’t want to read anything about snakes, ever. And it turned out there weren’t any snakes, so the plot was a paper dragon, and the reader felt like an idiot for having been all exercised over nothing. And the regional dialect was spelled phonetically. And...
I didn’t have trouble writing a letter that spotlighted these faults. I handed it in to Sid, who looked like a cross between Jack Klugman and Louis Quinn. (Louis Quinn played Roscoe on 77 Sunset Strip. Jack Klugman you know.) He told me I’d hear from them if there was anything to hear. Yeah, right, I thought, and went back to my room on East 19th.
The next day I got a phone call. It was the bemused fellow from Qualified Employment. I had the job.
I went right to work, and that work consisted of doing for the genuine creations of hopeful men and women what I’d done for “Rattlesnake Cave.” Across from my desk stood a file cabinet, its top drawer jammed with file folders. Each held a story, no longer accompanied by a check. I’d pull the foremost folder and take it back to my desk.
I’d read the story, and then I’d make a sandwich of a sheet of Scott’s letterhead, a sheet of carbon paper, and a sheet of copy paper, and roll all of that into the Remington office model typewriter on my desk. The letter I’d write would start halfway down that first page, and finish close enough to the bottom of a second page so that my subscript would just clear the bottom of the page. (The subscript read SM:lb, suggesting to the world that Scott had dictated his remarks to Lydia Baker or Linda Brown or Lorelei Benatovich, but indicating to anyone in the office that it had originated with me.)
Scott was out of town when I was hired, on his summer vacation, and it was several weeks before he returned. The whole fee report process worked just fine without him. I wrote my reports, and Brother Sid read them and signed Scott’s name to them. And off they went.
It generally took a new man a while to get the hang of it, but I hit the ground running, and got out eight reports the first day. I saw right away that I could do this, and it was clear I could learn an enormous amount, and I was grateful for the perverse streak that had saved me from becoming a Time copy boy.
After I’d been there a few days, two of my colleagues started a conversation they made sure I overheard. One was Henry Morrison, then handling Foreign Rights, and the other would have been either Jim Bohan, the Pro man, or Ivan Lyons, the Personal Collaboration guy. They were talking about Manhunt, and I specifically recall Henry saying something caustic about the magazine. And he roped me into the discussion: Didn’t I agree that Manhunt was fit for nothing more than lining birdcages?
I hadn’t yet said a word about my writing, but how could I resist? “Don’t knock Manhunt,” I said. “They’re about to buy a story of mine.” And I explained how I was awaiting final word from Francis X. Lewis, as soon as he got back from Bermuda or Boise or Bellevue.
Henry seemed to find this hysterically funny. Or maybe something else had him all giggly. I had a story to read and an author’s heart to break, and no time to pay attention.
And why was what I’d said was so amusing?
Manhunt didn’t have an employee named Francis X. Lewis, his name on the masthead notwithstanding. His name had recently replaced that of John McCloud, but he didn’t exist, either. The magazine was in fact edited by Scott Meredith, and this was one of the agency’s deep dark secrets. The clients from whom he bought stories didn’t know it, and the other agents he dealt with didn’t know it, and God knows I, sitting at my desk and banging away at my typewriter, didn’t have a clue.
While I did my work, Henry ducked into the back office, eager to show up the brash new kid. When he and Sid searched the appropriate file, there was my story. Before he left for vacation, Scott had already bought it for inventory; he’d postponed telling me because the magazine was having a not uncharacteristic cash-flow problem.
I learned all this from Sid. “Now your story runs to 2600 words,” he said, handing me a sheet of paper. “And ordinarily you’d get $52 for it. But as our client you get a hundred bucks.”
I’d sold a story? I was being signed to an agency contract?
I signed the thing. It was just a couple of paragraphs, with a clause stating it would renew automatically unless either party canceled it. For God’s sake, it could have included a chattel mortgage on my grandmother and I’d have signed it.
“So the story’s sold,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” Sid assured me. “You bet.”
“My first sale.”
“First of many, would be my guess.”
“And I’ll be getting a hundred dollars.”
He shook his head. “You get 90,” he said firmly. “We get ten.”
End of Part One
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #121.