New-York Daily Tribune, Saturday, September 24, 1910.
A Lovingly Drawn Portrait of
a New York Literary Agent.
P. G. Wodehouse, in The London Globe.
Properly, this sketch should open with the words, “I call upon heaven to judge between this man and me.” But I do not look upon Abe as a man. More as a sort of beetle: one of those unclassified crawlers you see when you turn over a flat stone in a field. A kind of Thing wriggling on the prismatic surface of New York life. An old actor told me once of a certain club which used to exist during Buckstone’s days at the Haymarket. At the meetings of the club the members sat round a big barrel, which had a hole in the top. Through this hole they were wont to throw any scraps and odds and ends they did not want. Bits of tobacco, bread, marrow bones, the dregs of their glasses—anything and everything went into the barrel. “And,” said my informant, “as the barrel became fuller and fuller, strange animals made their appearance—animals of peculiar shape and form crawled out of the barrel and attempted to escape across the floor. But we headed them off with our sticks, sir, and we chased them back again to the place where they had been born and bred. We poked them in, sir, with our sticks.”
Abe would have gone back into that barrel.
The casual reader may jump to the conclusion that I do not like Abe. The casual reader is entitled to a cigar or cocoanut, according to choice.
Abe is essentially a product of New York. In our slower London atmosphere he could not live a month. Long ere that period was over, a callous law would stretch out an arm and jerk him before a tribunal. But in New York everybody is in too great a hurry to trouble about the Abes. You have no time on Tuesday to think about the man who buncoed you on Monday. All your attention is rivetted on the bright boy who is plainly preparing to have a dash at buncoing you on Tuesday afternoon.
My first dealings with Abe were through the medium of the post. (Charming letters he wrote, charming. I have them still). I had sent the MS. of a novel of mine, “Love Among the Chickens,” to an English friend living in New York. Pressure of business compelled him to hand it over to a regular agent—Abe! I will say this for Abe: he placed the book. In the letter (a delightful letter) informing me that he had done so he said that the cheque would arrive on October the 15th. October came and went. “These busy New Yorkers,” I said to myself, “they have so little time; I must be patient.” By Christmas I was inclined to restlessness. In March I cabled and received the reply: “Letter explaining. Cheque soon.” In April, with a passionate gesture, I packed a toothbrush and caught the Lusitania.
Abe came into my life in the flesh heralded by a cloud of smoke and the penetrating aroma of one of the most spirited young cigars I have ever encountered: a little vulture-like man with liquid green eyes, yellow hands, a blue suit and white hair. Quite a color scheme he presented that pleasant April morning. He sat right down and told me all about it. Such a sad story! He had given the cheque for the novel to a young lady of his acquaintance, who was going over to England, to take to me. She was to meet me, present the cheque in the course of conversation, and all would be joy, jollity and song. But no! On her way to England she touched (one would, of course) at Monte Carlo. That fatal spot! She herself would have scorned to cash a stranger’s cheque. But her brother had fewer scruples. He gambled at the tables! Lost!! Swiped sister’s little bit of jewelry! Lost again!! Merciful Heavens, what shall I do? Ha! The cheque! Swiped it and lost that, too!!!! “But, never mind,” said Abe, soothingly, “you shall be paid. I will pay you myself.” And he gave me a hundred dollars on account and told me to get my hat and come along and see editors.
Abe had magnetism. In his presence I was but as a piece of chewed string; There were moments before we separated when I almost believed that story, and thought it rather decent of him to let me have a hundred dollars. His generalship was, I admit, consummate. He never ceased to keep moving. All that day we were dashing into elevators, dashing out, plunging into editorial sanctums (“Shake hands with Mr. Wodehouse”), plunging out, leaping into streetcars, leaping out, till anything like coherent thought was impossible. He only made one tactical error. That was when he introduced me to the man to whom he had given my cheque.
He was a brother author, from Kentucky. His experience had been practically identical with mine. He had sent his stories from Kentucky to Abe in New York, and Abe had done everything except let him finger the rich, red gold. When he was about six hundred dollars down, my friend, breathing hot Southern maledictions, packed a revolver and started for New York. I think Abe must have been a little out of sorts the morning he met him. The best he could do in the way of a story was a narrative of losses in Wall Street. Later, being pressed, he handed him the cheque he had received from the magazine for my story, asserting that he had sent me another for the same amount.
I did not see that there was anything to be done. New York is full of men who do not see that there is anything to be done with Abe. He is so friendly about it all. When unmasked he betrays none of the baffled fury of the stage villain. He listens to you, and considers the matter for a while, with his head on one side. “Why, say, yes,” he says at length: “I want to talk to you about that some time.” You intimate that there is no time like the present. You press him, but somehow—for the life of you you can’t say how—you find all of a sudden that the subject of your cheque has been permanently shelved and that you are accepting, with every sign of friendliness, a poisonous cigar from his waistcoat pocket. Yes, Abe has magnetism. Clients may come in upon him like lions, but they go out like lambs. Not till they have parted from him a good hour does the realization of their imbecile weakness smite them.
There are moments, when I am feeling unusually charitable, when I fancy that deep down in his heart Abe means well. What he would really like would be to hold a sort of paternal patriarchal position to his clients. He owns what he calls a farm on Staten Island—it looks, as a friend of mine says, as if there had once been a house there, and somebody had pulled it down and left the tool shed—and he is very urgent in inviting each new client to live at this curious residence. His ideal, I know, is to have the place full of eager young men, all working away and running to him whenever they wanted a little pocket money. He would have charge of all the money accruing from their writings, and would dole it out bit by bit as needed. So far, he has induced few authors to see eye to eye with him in this matter.
To-day’s mail has brought me a letter from my Kentucky friend, who is still a substantial sum out as the result of his dealings with Abe. “I wrote Abe a note yesterday,” he says, “informing him that unless he came across I must put our matters in the hands of an attorney.” It sounds all right, I own. It has the aspect of being a clincher. But Abe will wriggle out somehow. He will see that attorney and bring his magnetism into play. He will talk to him. He will give him a near-cigar. I should not be at all surprised if, before the interview was over, he did not borrow money from him.
• • • • •
When Abe retires with a fortune, he may need a motto to put under his crest. I would suggest those beautiful and impressive words, “There is one born every minute.”
This article on Abe refers to Abe Baerman. I seem to recall that an article about PGW’s view of Abe appeared in the last few years written by Gus Caywood – and referred to the fact that the money due to PGW had gone to Charles Neville Buck, a contemporary author in the US who was also agented by Baerman.
Note the barrel as described featured in Not George Washington: see Part II, chapters 8 and 9.
Much of the material in this sketch was reused in the chapter “Archie Had Magnetism” in America, I Like You (1956), with the agent renamed Archie Fitzmaurice. That account mentions that Archie copyrighted Love Among the Chickens in the USA under his own name, which Abe Baerman indeed did do. This chapter seems not to be included in the British equivalent autobiographical work Over Seventy.
AK has found the original Globe version of this article; it is now also available on this site.
Karen Shotting points out that Wodehouse’s essay “The First Time I Went to New York” tells a similar tale about an agent named Jake Skolsky, who Wodehouse based on Abe Baerman and Seth Moyle, his successor as PGW’s American agent. The essay appears in the British edition of Week-End Wodehouse (Herbert Jenkins, 1935) and in The First Time I..., edited by Theodora Benson (Chapman and Hall, 1935). See also McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life, pages 89–90 and the notes thereto.