One of the joys of reading literary biographies is the discovery of what writers did for work before they decided to devote themselves to making literature. Currently I am reading The Talented Miss. Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenker. After graduating from Barnard, the ambitious Highsmith went around New York City and applied for staff jobs at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, Time and Fortune. She was turned down by all of them despite her good looks, connections and her successful academic career. For years, many of these magazines would also reject her creative work. In need of a job so that she didn’t have to return home humiliated, she accepted a position as a scriptwriter for Timely Comic (later renamed Marvel). She worked there for seven years during what was considered the golden era. Her most successful superhero invention was the Black Terror. After a life-changing lab accident Bob Benton is left with bullet-proof skin that allows him to battle injustice as his alter ego, the Black Terror. Modeled after Superman, Bob Benton never reached the success of Clark Kent, but the character’s creation did lay the groundwork for the dual nature of one of literature’s most famous sociopathic aesthete, Tom Ripley.
Patricia’s acquaintance and occasional drinking partner Dorothy Parker didn’t have the benefit of a college education; as she liked to say she attended the “school of hard knocks.” After her father died, leaving her very little money, she scrambled for work and found it playing the piano for a dance school and occasionally helping to teach the turkey trot, Castle-walk and tango. Eventually on the strength of the acceptance of her first poem “Any Porch” by Vanity Fair, she walked into editor Frank Crownsheld’s office and told him that she wanted a literary life. Appreciating her gumption, he placed her with Vanity Fair’s sister magazine Vogue. She was paid ten dollars a week to copy edit and write photo captions.
Dorothy’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved early success with This Side of Paradise but before the novels publication he was failing at everything. Because of his poor academic record, he left Princeton without a degree and took up a commission in the U.S. Army. He was never sent to the front because he was so hopeless as an officer that his commanders worried about friendly fire. Demobilized, he went to New York and worked for an advertising agency for $90 a month and wrote at night. In one year he racked up 122 rejection letters, which he tacked on the walls of his one-bedroom apartment. Finally he sold his first story “Babes in the Wood” to Smart Set for $30. Eventually he attracted the attention of Maxwell Perkins, who shepherded the young writer along.
Early on J.D. Salinger thought he wanted to succeed Robert Benchley as the New Yorker’s drama critic. If he didn’t land this job, his back-up plan was to become an actor. He made the rounds of New York theaters, hoping for a break. But nothing. The closest he came was landing a job in the entertainment industry as the activities coordinator on the cruise ship MS Kungsholm. He was in charge of shuffle board games, deck tennis and filling in as a dancing partner for unattached ladies. Frustrated with him, his father, a successful importer/exporter decided Jerome should follow in the family business. He packed him off to Vienna to learn the ham trade. After a few months it was clear that he was not cut of for the business of slaughtering pigs (Salinger was a life-long vegetarian).
Kerouac never really held a nine-to-five job, but before he hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S., he did a stint in the Merchant Marines. For a man who hated being given orders (he gave up his football scholarship at Columbia in part because he hated the coach barking at him), it was an odd career choice. He was also a pacifist and deeply troubled by the shift in morals brought about by the Second World War. He simply didn’t understand the new prosperity or what he called the “gold rush” that was sweeping the country. He was temporarily put in a psychiatric ward and would eventually receive an honorable discharge.
And the list goes on. Joyce worked as a language teacher for the Berlitz School in Trieste, William Carlos Williams doctored the sick and infirm, and, of course, Wallace Stevens always kept his job as an insurance salesman while jotting poems at his desk.
Since only the rarest authors can live by writing alone, most of us have had to take various jobs or join the ranks of academia in service of our art. I’d love for our readers to add to list. Tell us a tale or two about your favorite writer before he or she made it.
Kris Somerville is the marketing director of The Missouri Review