Chapter 1: Beginnings and Antecedents
Edward Eugene Tolliver, Gene, to his friends, graduated from the College of the City of New York with a BA in American History and a Minor in English in June, 1929.
That same month and year, Miss Cora Crown, of the Westhampton, Long Island Crowns, graduated from Swarthmore with a BA in English Literature. That was her third institution of higher education in five years. The fact that she graduated, and with a surprisingly high GPA, was a triumph of the persuasive power of her father's money and a belated dedication on her part to slack off on the partying and to actually buckle down to her studies. When properly motivated, Cora was smart enough and dogged enough to accomplish whatever she set her mind to.
More about Cora later.
For Gene, the circumstances of his arrival among the ranks of those seeking employment continued an unfortunate family tradition.
At the time of Gene Tolliver's graduation, his father Marcus Tolliver, was a coverall- wearing railroad worker,
His daily lot for 16 of the past 22 years was to walk the trackside in a New York Central Railroad classification freight yard armed with a large, heavy oilcan with a three-foot- long spout. He was an oiler, and he team-worked with another oiler on the opposite side of the track.
At each end of each axle of a freight car is a journal box, a cast iron structure filled with oil-soaked cotton waste. The cotton wicks the oil to the axle bearing surfaces to keep them cool and lubricated during the long runs across country.
As each railroad freight car slowly trundled by, Marcus would put his gloved hand against each of the wheel axle journal boxes that rolled slowly by his station in the freight yard. When one felt warmer than normal through the thick cotton material of his glove, he'd open the journal box lid and squirt in several generous dollops of lubricating oil.
Excessive warmth meant that the cotton waste that filled the journal boxes was dry and that the bearing surfaces of the axles in the journal boxes were heating up and wearing down. Adding more oil lubricated the bearing surfaces and cooled them back down.
A burning journal box might ignite the structure of the freight car, which might ignite its cargo, which might spread to other cars in the consist. In railroad parlance, a consist is the makeup of a train by classes, types, grades, and arrangement of the cars. It was every engineer's nightmare to look back and see one of his consist on fire.
The other job that Marcus did in the early part of those first 16 years was that of rider. Once a freight car has been uncoupled and pushed over the hump, gravity takes it down toward the switches that will sort it onto the correct track. The key concern is speed. One of the simplest ways to slow down a loose rolling freight car is to have a yard worker ride it and apply the mechanical brakes as needed.
Marcus did that when required, but he opted out of doing it as a regular thing when given the choice. He had seen too many accidents as the rider tried to hang on to a rocking car while working the brake wheel. Sometimes a man would fall off. The railroad was a dangerous place.
Marcus opted for the oil can. It was less exciting, but more likely to let him keep his limbs and his life.
The railroads were generally not the highest paying employers in the working economy, but were traditionally among the most secure. Once you passed your apprenticeship, and as long as you did your job and kept your nose clean, you had a job for life.
Twenty-two years before, Marcus had been a valued employee of the Knickerbocker Trust Company of New York, one of the largest banks in the United States. His Economics degree from CCNY had given him the necessary credentials to be entrusted in 1904 with an entry level position within such a prestigious institution.
By October, 1907, Marcus had become an associate investment counselor. He also had become a husband to a pretty wife and a father to a lusty bawling five-month old infant boy. They lived in a slightly run-down apartment building at the corner of Second Avenue and East 33rd street. It was clean, and relatively cheap, for Manhattan. On a nice day, Marcus could walk to work at the Knickerbocker Trust, which occupied much of the block at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street.
Marcus Tolliver was proud to be working for Knickerbocker Trust, considering it to be one of the finest, most ethical banking institutions in the nation. He had a position of considerable responsibility, and was considered a rising employee, due to his hard work and intelligence.
What Marcus could not know by October, 1907, was that during the past year, Knickerbocker Trust's funds had been diverted and illegally used by its then-president Charles T. Barney in a plan to drive up the cost of copper and corner the copper market.
What Mr. Barney could not know in October 1907, was that his unwise and illegal gamble was becoming undone. Across the continent, there was an attempt to stop a hostile takeover of an unrelated organization, which resulted in the dumping of millions of pounds of copper on the market. The cost of copper plummeted, and Mr. Barney's gamble had failed. He had planned to reimburse the Knickerbocker from his enormous profits; that plan was dead, too.
The substance of the Barney gamble and its unraveling was ferreted out by certain crusading newspaper financial reporters. They did what reporters do, made it public.
On Monday, October 21, 1907, the National Bank of Commerce announced that it would stop accepting cheques drawn on the Knickerbocker Trust Company, which triggered a run on the Knickerbocker; a deluge of depositors demanding their funds back.
They lined up in front of the Knickerbocker's headquarters demanding what no bank can ever give, even under the best of circumstances: a complete refund of all their deposits. The Bank officers closed and bolted the doors. An auditor was brought in to document what was obvious: there were no funds; Mr. Barney had embezzled them for his schemes. Mr. Barney shot himself to avoid criminal prosecution.
At 10 AM on that Monday, Marcus was told to stop his work and go home, along with all the other employees.
When he walked up to the building the next day, Tuesday, October 22, 1907, the big main doors were still locked and barred. He walked all around the building, looking for entry and for information. He did not find the former. He found the latter in the form of a brief notice nailed to a rear door.
"All employees of the Knickerbocker Trust company are terminated as of this date. It was dated the 21st."
Marcus walked up Fifth Avenue to the offices of the closest competitor bank. He had to push his way through a long line of frightened depositors to gain entrance. When he told the people on the door that he wanted to apply for a position, a harried-looking bank officer told him that they did not know if they would survive the week themselves.
Much the same was happening at every other financial institution that he trudged to, making his way all over the financial district, and he got similar responses. Although not too many ordinary citizens were aware of it at the time, the failure of the Knickerbocker was a tipping point for the Panic of 1907. The financial institutions were all beginning to be squeezed.
His trudging travels had taken him up Park Avenue to 42nd street, where Grand Central Terminal squatted athwart the intersection. It was noon, but Marcus had no appetite. He thought of his wife and baby, whom he was honor bound to support. Their family savings had been on deposit with the Knickerbocker. Their next rental payment was due at the end of the month, nine days away. Marcus had eight dollars in his wallet.
Marcus had read the Times carefully every day. He knew that unemployment had been rising as firms with idle inventory laid off production and sales personnel. People were not buying goods if they had any choice.
He walked up into the Terminal's Main Concourse and walked around, uncertain what to do, or even whether there was anything that he could do. Where else could he find work? He barely noted the travelers scurrying by, all blissfully unaware of the destruction of his own personal piece of the financial world and the National economy.
He came to a stairwell with a sign: New York Central Railroad Offices. Marcus went down, to find himself in a dimly lit lower corridor.
A roughly dressed laboring man brushed past him with a mumbled "Excuse me, Sir."
He followed the man, eventually coming to a doorway with ten or twelve laboring men lined up. There was a handwritten sign there: Hiring Today — One Job - Trackman. He watched. At intervals, the door would open and a doorkeeper would usher out a man with a glum look. Then the doorkeeper would hold the door open and the next in line would enter, only to come out looking unhappy himself a few minutes later.
Apparently the men were not passing some interview or test. Marcus got on the line.
The doorkeeper noticed him next time out, and sauntered over. He was a big brawny man with a kind map-of-Ireland face. "Sorry, Governor, this is a hiring line for New York Central Railroad trackworkers," he said. "It's laboring work; hard outdoor work. Not for the likes of educated men like you who wear suits. Sorry."
"Would you mind telling me what you are doing inside there?" Marcus asked. "Is there an interview? Is there a test?"
The doorkeeper laughed. "If you must know, they read each man a couple of sentences and he has to write them down. Then he has to read a few lines from a book. You have to be able to read and write to work for New York Central. Then finally there is a strength test. You have to be able to lift a hundred-pound sack of sand onto your shoulder and walk the length of the room.
"The strong guys, the goons, mostly can't read and write well enough, and the literate guys, the featherweights, can't heft the weight.
"A hundred pounds isn't that much when it's weights on a bar or your pretty bride as you carry her across a threshold, but as a dead weight in a sack, well, that's hard to heft. Most men could carry it if it's loaded onto their shoulder for them. It's the getting it up there that's hard.
"Now, excuse me, but I gotta get back to the door."
Marcus shrugged and went back down the hallway. At the stairwell at the end, he started up and then stopped. He took out his wallet and looked at what was left of his cash. And thought.
When the next failed candidate came up, Marcus eyed his general size and build and let him pass.
He let the next man pass, too.
The third man was about Marcus' height and weight, and Marcus offered him a dollar if he would talk to him. It was not charity, he emphasized, he was paying for information. The man shrugged. His name was Joseph Torino, he said. At Marcus' request, Joe Torino told him about the reading and writing test, and then the weight lift. It squared well with what the doorkeeper had said.
"Well, I'm not much with the writing," Joe said, "so I never got to the lifting part, but I watched the man ahead of me try it. He couldn't get it up to his shoulder. There's a trick to it. I used to unload concrete bags for my uncle's construction business, and I learned how."
Marcus handed him the dollar and asked for a demonstration. The man chuckled and showed him how to heft the sack. "You have to heave it up and then shift your body to get under the weight and get your legs into the lift." he said. Marcus, who was no weakling, and who had played football and boxed at CCNY, took careful note of the demonstration.
"What are you going to do now?" Marcus asked. "Are there any other places around here that are hiring?"
Joe didn't know of any. He said that this had been his last possibility for the day. He told Marcus of a couple of charitable missions that posted job openings for employers, and Marcus noted their locations in his notebook.
Joe said he could get room and board and a little pocket money by working for his uncle. "He's a stingy old tightfist, but at least I can have a roof over my head and a couple squares a day. I know some that are sleeping on the ground in the parks."
Marcus had a vision of Molly and baby Eugene shivering on the greensward.
He offered Joe another five dollars if he would exchange clothes. Six dollars was what the statistical average worker made in a day. But common laborers like Joe were fortumate to make three dollars in a day. Joe realized what Marcus was trying to do. He looked at Marcus' expensive shoes. "What about those?" he said, pointing at the Cordovan wingtips.
"Everything you can see," Marcus said.
A few minutes later, a shabbily dressed and shod Marcus got onto the end of the line. When his turn came at the door, the doorkeeper's eyes widened. "Someone steal your suit, Governor?"
Marcus nodded. "Something like that. You have a job here, and it's not for the likes of educated men who wear suits, you said. I can't uneducate myself, but I need a job. So, no suit."
The doorkeeper grinned and let him enter. They watched a man struggle with the reading and writing test, and get a marginal pass. Then the man, who looked big and strong enough, failed to get the heavy sack up and over his shoulder. Marcus could see what mistakes the man had made and how the demonstration by Joe had been right on.
The big doorkeeper showed the failed candidate out and shut the door. "No one left on line," he said. He watched Marcus sign in and write the dictated sentences, and then read the test sentences from the book.
"No surprises there. Ok, Mister Tolliver, heft the bag."
It had been some time since Marcus had done much heavy lifting, so he took his time. He thought of what he had seen the previous candidate do wrong. Then he thought of what Joe had shown him.
And then he pictured the faces of his sweet wife, Molly and little Gene.
Marcus took a deep breath, and grunted as he heaved the hundred pounds of dead weight sand up and stepped under it to bring it to his shoulder. He plodded the length of the room and back. The weight made his feet feel leaden, but doing it made him hopeful.
The doorkeeper laughed and helped him ease the bag down, then clapped Marcus on the shoulder. "Damned well done, Tolliver. In or out of a suit, you'll do. You'll be working for me, mind, and I'll work your educated ass off. If I had an office job, you'd have it, but all I can hire these days are the trackwalkers."
He fished a grubby card out of his vest.
"Well, you'll have to figure out how to get up to the White Plains Freightyard. Once you get past probation you'll have a pass that you can use to ride any Central train from the Terminal. There are trains that will let you off right at the freightyard. But for now, you'll have to hitch. Ever hitch-hiked?"
Marcus had hitched through high school and college. It was a common thing in those easier days. Most wagon drivers would give a lift to someone who looked all right. He nodded.
"All right, Tolliver, I expect you to report at 7AM tomorrow at the Main Gate. Stick around for a minute while I close up."
He told the elderly clerk who had administered the test to go on back up to the yard.
The big doorkeeper sat down and eyed his new hire. "My name is Dolan, and I'm the foreman of the trackmen. Welcome aboard the New York Central railroad, Tolliver. One big happy family." There was a trace of sarcasm in that last.
He asked about how Marcus came to be looking for work and about his family, then where they were living.
Marcus told him everything, and Dolan whistled. "Tough about the job. I don't think you'll ever see a red cent from them. When them white collar thieves get done they'll have sucked away all of the money.
"How long are you paid up through on the rent?" he asked. "I ask because you get paid on the first and the fifteen of the month. You won't get a New York Central paycheck until November 15th, and that'll be a half of a normal pay, about $20, because you're starting in the middle of the pay period: the 23rd to the 31st. So you'll be broke for a while. I'l bet you havn't but a couple of simoleons left in your wallet to get through til the fifteenth.
"So how long are you paid up through on the rent?"
"November's rent is due the thirty-first of this month," Marcus said. "They're holding a month's rent security deposit."
"Ok. That's pretty standard. You go tell them you're moving out. Because you are. You can't afford that rent on starting wages and you need to live closer to the yards. You'll have to kiss that security deposit goodbye."
He explained how New York Central had bought up the mortgage paper on a block of small single-family homes that went into default on the mortgages. That was when a local White Plains plant closed late in 1905. The houses were within walking distance of the White Plains freightyard ... if you didn't mind walking a couple of miles. Now, the big railroad was offering the houses to their employees at a discount price.
The Central used a sliding scale of payments to match the wages of the worker. And in consideration of the tough times, they waived the first month's mortgage payment and any closing fees. Even at his low starting wages, Marcus would be able to afford the modest mortgage, and his family would be secure.
Dolan pulled out his wallet and took out two ten dollar bills. "You owe me twenty-two dollars, with the extra two dollars being interest on this loan I'm making you. Pay me eleven on December 15th and eleven more more on January 15th. That'll get us all square. Go on, take it, man. You need food for you and your family. Like I said before, I'll work your ass off as sweat interest." That last was said with a wink.
"Well, trackman Tolliver, here's where we'll be going our separate ways. I'm catching a train up to White Plains."
Marcus walked home and told Molly what had happened, and they started packing little used things. The next morning, Marcus got up at 3:30AM and hitch-hiked north up the quiet predawn streets of Manhattan and into the Bronx and beyond. It wasn't as hard as he had anticipated, because there were a number of delivery vehicles out after 4AM.
Milk wagons, bread delivery wagons, and fruit and vegetable wagons were on the go to get their goods to the stores and markets before normal people got up.
In those hard times, the working people tried to help each other out. In his workman's clothes, Marcus found that delivery vans were always willing to give him a lift. And between rides, he would jog toward his destination, a habit he had maintained since his college boxing training days. He jogged up to the freightyard gate by 6AM.
A watchman let him in when he said that Dolan had hired him. By the time Dolan came in at 7AM, Marcus had been talking to some of the veterans and was learning the lingo. There was a little hazing, too, and Marcus went along, good naturedly. Dolan gave him some heavy lifting and cleaning up tasks, and watched Marcus tackle the unaccustomed manual jobs.
He also saw one of the freightyard bullies try to cow the greenhorn. Marcus tried to ignore the man, until he got insulting. He'd asked if Marcus was married and then started making remarks about how pretty his wife must be and how maybe she'd like to try a real man some time.
With that, Marcus stood up and punched the man with no warning or ceremony; a straight hard left jab to the nose that splattered the bully's blood all over. He followed it up with a powerful right to the breadbasket.
The bully was a big tough man and a bruiser, and game enough, but he was no match for Marcus' controlled fury and skill. It turned out that college-level boxing tactics trumped bull rushes and wild swings.
In the tough working world a man had to stand up for himself. By the end of the fray, Marcus was bleeding but still standing and the tough was being helped away by his friends. The other men decided to make friends with this compact, sturdy battler with the soft voice, classy way of speech, and precise punishing fists.
Dolan had seen it all and smiled to himself. He had a good feeling about Tolliver, had it from the start. There were not many white-coller workers who would have done what Marcus had done to support his family. Dolan didn't think there was a man in the New York Central hierarchy above him that could heft that bag of sand.
Marcus hitch-hiked successfully for the remaining four days, showing up early each day and getting an early jump on the crap jobs that, as a new man, were his lot. Dolan warned him that he had to clock in at 7 and out at the end of the the regular shift and he wouldn't get paid for the extra time he worked.
Marcus said he'd rather be busy than just sit around. Dolan grunted, but had a grin on his face when he walked away. He saw Marcus lend a hand here and there when another trackman was having a problem.
After his half-day of work on the following Saturday, a couple of his new friends among the trackmen helped the Tollivers move. Dolan donated his presence, his largely unneeded oversight and moving advice, and the use of a big New York Central stake- sided wagon with a two-horse hitch.
Once moved in, Molly began to make a host of new friends from amongst the trackmen's wives and Marcus found that his new friends appreciated his advice with their financial and banking problems.
After a couple of years, the elderly clerk took his pension and retired, moving back over to Ireland. Dolan offered the office job to Marcus, but the pay was less and there was no advancement. He recommended a friend of his who had worked at the Knickerbocker, and Dolan hired him on Marcus' say-so.
So that was how Marcus, with his college degree, took a low-paying job with the railroad so he could support his wife and child and weather the Panic of 1907.
As he worked, he gained seniority and higher wages, and his family's standard of living improved. But Marcus never got over the shock of losing almost everything while holding a cushy upscale job, and he never looked to get out of the blue-collar railroad job.
He read the financial pages almost every day and noted how the most secure of institutions continued to sometimes go belly up, throwing the white-collar employees out on the street...
After 16 years, Dolan was killed in a freightyard incident. A rolling freight car's rider had fallen off. The New York Central letter of condolence stated that Foreman Dolan, at hazard of his own life, had leaped aboard the train and slowed it down enough that a switch could be thrown to divert it from crashing into a consist of explosive chemicals.
Unfortunately, the errant freightcar then barreled into a steel and concrete stop barrier on the side track and Foreman Dolan was killed in the crash.
His widow, Amy Dolan was granted a condolence award of 50 percent on top of Dolan's normal pension had he retired after 20 years. The New York Central valued its best employees and took care of them and their families.
Marcus was awarded the Foreman's job.
That small house in White Plains was the only home that Gene remembered. Marcus often told his story to young Gene, so that his son could understand how life could derail a person's optimistic plans.
Young Gene listened, and pondered, and came to his own quiet conclusions. He loved his father, and realized that he had done an honorable thing at a critical point in his life.
But Gene also drew a different lesson from the experience. Marcus had been quite comfortable in his position with Knockerbocker Trust. He had never been placed in a position where he had to take a risk. Events had forced him to take one.
Gene drew from it that there was little virtue or security in merely being careful and conforming.
As noted, like his father before him, new graduate Gene Tolliver had unfortunate timing as he faced an uncertain work prospect.
When Gene had begun his undergraduate studies in 1925, the Nation was fairly prosperous and jobs were plentiful.
That was just about when Miss Cora Crown had flunked out of Sweetbriar and had provisionally been accepted at Bryn Mawr.
The economic climate by midsummer 1929 was growing bleak. Unsold inventories had begun to pile up in warehouses. Recessions were already under way in Great Britain and Germany. In August 1929, the United States was sliding into the recession that would ultimately become the Great Depression.
Jobs for History majors were nonexistent. Marcus said that he might be able to get him an interview for a clerking position with New York Central, and Gene was grateful to have the option. But they agreed that that would be a fallback position.
In his other possible career choice, Gene was more fortunate. The great trade slump had not yet hit the book publishing industry. During economic hard times, people had always turned to means of temporary escape. Films were one way, books were another.
Gene had literate parents who had encouraged his reading and writing pursuits from his first days of formal schooling on. He had taken a minor in English, and all of the papers he had researched and written in pursuit of both his major and minor had developed good writing and editing skills.
Around that time, a publishing rival had conducted a talent raid on the prestigious Crown Books Publishers that had stripped them of many middle rank Editors and Senior Editor/Readers. The junior people were being promoted to fill those positions and there were openings for manuscript readers, also called First Readers. In the publishing world, manuscripts were MSs, for short. Technically, First Readers actually bore the title of Junior Editors.
Gene passed the interviews and the editing tests. He was hired in late August. As a First Reader, he was assigned to reading the slushpile.
The twenties had brought a new generation of writers, and it seemed as if just about everyone with a typewriter or a pencil and some foolscap thought he or she could write a novel; something at least as good as what Hemingway and Faulkner and Glasgow and Fitzgerald were getting published.
So every publishing house received mailbags full of MSs daily, unsolicited, and unagented, and by complete unknowns. Most of the submissions were accompanied by self-addressed stamped return envelopes, known familiarly as SASEs.
These MSs constituted the slushpile, also known as over-the transom submissions. They were 99.99% dreadful, and a great waste of time. But every publisher knew that at least some of the current and former great writers' first published books had been discovered in a slushpile by a lowly First Reader.
It was every publisher's dream to find the next Hemingway or Faulkner or Glasgow or Fitzgerald. It was every publisher's nightmare that a rival would find the next Hemingway or Faulkner or Glasgow or Fitzgerald.
So there were always a number of low-paid people reading through the dreck, looking for the next great hot writer.
And Edward Eugene Tolliver was one of them. He quickly picked up the tricks of the trade. If a handwritten MS was illegible, and had a SASE, back it went to the author with a preprinted note advising that it be typed and resubmitted. (The E in SASE was generic; most novel length submissions came in a thick shipping package or a stationery box. In practice, most submitting authors would simply enclose sufficient return postage stamps and a self-addressed label to affix to the package.)
Typically, the reader would skim the first few pages, which would usually show whether the author had any hint of a style, or semblance of writing ability, or even any sign of a plot. If the MS had none of the above, back it went into its SASE with another preprinted note: "We regret that your MS does not meet our current needs." If the rejected submission lacked an SASE, it went in the trash.
The more conscientious readers, like Gene, might jump ahead some fifty or so pages to see if there was any improvement. Since the beginning was usually a fair sample of the overall quality, to read further was considered even a greater waste of time by many, but Gene and a few others knew that some beginning writers, ironically, had a problem with beginnings.
Gene averaged about 25 to 30 MSs per day, well above average for a First Reader. He could usually spot the dreck within three paragraphs.
If a First Reader thought that there was some merit to anything encountered, it would be sent upstairs to one of five Senior Reader/Editors. Anything that caught THAT Demigod's eye would be flagged for review and further consideration.
Anything thus flagged would generate a short form letter to the author asking him or her to call or make an appointment to stop by the offices to discuss possible editorial revision to make their work more publishable. The name to contact was that of the First Reader.
It was not a commitment to publish; merely an expression of cautious interest. Out of every 2,000 slushpile submissions, possibly one or two might get to that point.
On Black Thursday, October 24, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange began to crash. It did not immediately affect Gene or his father. Like most of their era, they did invest in stocks in a modest way, with some of their investments on margin. Unlike most of their era, they avoided the hot prospects and invested in railroad and basic commodities, such as coal and steel companies. Their stocks lost value, but not as deeply as the general run of the market, and the two Tolliver men were able to meet the calls for margin payments from their savings. In time, their stocks would be the type that led the recovery.
Many of Gene's colleagues were not so fortunate. Just like the high level speculators, when the companies called for them to meet their margin calls, they were unable to come up with the funds.
Investing on margin meant that when you bought a stock, you only had to put up a fraction of the cost, perhaps as little as forty to fifty percent of the stock's value. The rest was, in essence, loaned to the buyer by the stock brokerage. The value of the stock was collateral for the loan. The amount owed was the margin.
It was a promissory note that could be called in.
In good times, when the market was going up, the margin was rarely if ever called.
But now, as the stock prices plummeted, the value of the collateral stock plummeted as well. When it fell too low to be collateral for that loan, the Brokerages started demanding payment to make up for the devalued stock, sometimes up to the full fifty or sixty percent, immediately.
Most investors had been assured that they would never have to come up with the margin, but now they were. If they could not pay, and most could not, they were in default and the stock would be sold to make up for at least some of the defaulted loan. The original stockholder generally got nothing from the sale and his original investment was lost.
It was a time when some investors in default simply walked away from their homes and families and disappeared. In several very public events that were widely reported in the newspapers, the individuals committed suicide, rather than face ruin and go to prison.
The calamity even reached down into the slushpile readers. Two of Gene's coworkers who often had boasted of what deep players they were in speculative stocks, simply stopped coming to work one day. They had disappeared from their homes, leaving frantic young wives and fatherless children. Possibly they joined the swelling ranks of homeless, jobless men who roamed the nation looking for day work and/or handouts.
It was a sad business.
One day, Gene came to his desk and groaned at the sight of a large box sitting on his desk. Most writers would submit their MS novels in an empty stationery box, the ones that held a ream of typing paper. It was compact and protected the MS decently from the tumbling it took in the postal system.
This monstrosity was in a 12 x 15 x 12 cardboard packing box. It had been wrapped in several layers of butcher paper and tied securely around with heavy twine.
Please, God, let it be illegible, Gene thought. The MS had to be a foot high. Unwrapped, the MS was neatly hand written on legal sized pads of paper, dozens of them. With a sigh, he took up the top pad, noting that the pads were each neatly numbered.
He started to read. He was guiltily disappointed to find that the hand was quite legible, the product of a finicky penmanship teacher, he didn't doubt. He read to the end of page one and flipped it up to continue reading.
When a coworker stopped by to ask about going to lunch, he found Gene engrossed in pad number 3. Gene pulled some money out of his pocket and asked if his friend would bring him back a sandwich and a soda pop.
When the friend returned from lunch with the food and drink, he found Gene back in the middle of pad number 1, with a pad of his own open, on which he was making notes.
"Ron," he said, "I think I have something here. I really mean it. The guy is way too verbose, and will need a whole lot of pruning, but he has a hell of an ear for dialogue and a really good plot. A coming-of-ager, but very introspective."
His friend laughed. "What you have there is something that'll kill your daily numbers, Tolliver. Seriously, can you see any of the Senior Editors taking a great lump like that seriously?"
Gene grinned and nodded his head, then tore off a bite of the sandwich before going back to work on the document.
Early that afternoon, Gene took the bulky stack of legal pads and his own pad of notes and went up to the second floor, the sanctum of the Senior Editors. He approached the desk of Folger Parris, one of the Senior Editors that he knew fairly well.
"Mr. Parris, I have something here that I'd like you to take a look at."
"Don't you mean: 'At which I'd like you to take a look?'" the older man said, mock- reprovingly. "Can't end a sentence with a preposition, can we?" he chuckled. It was an old editorial joke.
He looked quizzically at Gene. The normal procedure when a First Reader found something he or she thought worth-while was to put it on a cart to be brought upstairs by an in-house runner. If his young friend brought it up himself, it must be something out of the ordinary, indeed.
Then he focused on the bulk of the MS and laughed.
"Someone's already published War and Peace, Mr. Tolliver, or is this something new? A rebuttal to The Decline and Fall, perhaps?"
Gene laughed along with him but held out the MS. "I know it will need heavy editing, but I've been making notes on the cuts and revisions. This is a writer with a true voice, Mr. Parris. There might be more than one complete novel in that stack."
Parris took the bulky mass from his younger colleague, with a promise to take a look within a day or two. No promises beyond a fair look, he cautioned.
That marked the beginning of an internecine struggle within the editorial ranks of Crown Books that would rage for well over a month. Folger Parris and one other Senior Editor championed the MS, but the other three disliked it.
Their superior, Mr. Collins, the Editor-in-Chief of the Fiction Department, was torn.
He agreed that the MS had merit, but doubted that the Publisher would agree. Mr. Thomas Crown favored the spare Hemingway prose style, of which the Webber MS, the Heap, as it was called by proponents and opponents alike, was the antithesis. And Mr. Thomas Crown would have the last say.
Mr. Crown was not usually that autocratic. If a consensus of his senior advisors pushed for publication of something that he himself did not fancy, he could be persuaded to go against his own instincts. But the Heap had no such consensus. It had defenders and detractors.
Even Mr. Collins, who championed the Heap, was nonetheless concerned about the amount of dedicated editing the MS would need to be made ready for publication. The management side of his mind didn't think he could justify the full-time services of an editor for the months it would take to edit it down and decide how to break up the body into several novels.
Mr. Parris explained that a Junior Editor named Eugene Tolliver had volunteered to edit the massive work on his own time, so as to spare the added expense. Since no one but him knew who Eugene Tolliver was, or had any idea of the quality of his editing skills, that notion quietly died.
At some point, someone belatedly realized that no one had sent the short form letter to the author asking him or her to call or make an appointment to stop by the offices to discuss possible editorial revision to make their work more publishable. That was done. The name to contact was Eugene Tolliver.
In the early hours of Monday, the 23rd of December, 1929, the day before Gene's crusade was to be rewarded or denied, Cora Crown, the only heir to the Crown Books publishing empire left the apartment of her latest lover. Her Deusenberg was parked on the quiet, dark street. After she got in, Cora sat unmoving behind the wheel. She began to cry.
She had just had a two-hour bedroom romp with Dudley Courtland, the son of her father's banker. It had been vigorous, athletic sex, the kind that she craved. Or at least what she thought she craved.
She had had three climaxes. She had been very satisfied, in the physical sense. And that was why one coupled, wasn't it?
But afterwards, after Dud had pulled out of her and rolled off her, he had said, "Damn, Cora. That was really something. Bart and Lloyd told me you were a great fuck, and you didn't disappoint me. Thanks, sweetie."
And he had given her a peck on the cheek and rolled away to settle down for some well- deserved sleep.
Cora had lain there, unmoving. She had grown up in the rebellious spirit of the age for privileged young women, the women called the Flappers. Unlike the repressed women of the prior generation, the flappers emulated the free-spirited actions and mores of men. They smoked, danced with abandon, drank, and had casual sex with many partners. For some, the use of cocaine, or Nose candy, as it was called was common.
Taking the trendy drug was about the only indulgence that Cora forwent. She was a rich, free young woman who did as she pleased, to the despair of her conservative parents. This latest tryst was typical of the life that she flaunted to the world.
But as she had lain beside this handsome young men that she casually knew, she had felt a wave of sadness slowly sweep over her. Something was wrong. She just wasn't sure what it was.
She got up, got dressed, and let herself out, as she had done so many times in so many apartments in the past three years. That thought in itself depressed her. Yes, she had the sexual freedom of her contemporaries, male and female. But not for the first time, she wondered why she was becoming so dissatisfied with the results. Her pussy had just been well filled. Why did she feel so empty?
She had just had a lengthy bout of very good sex. And she was profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled. In her sexual career, her partners had been handsome, pleasant young men, men who meant nothing to her. Maybe that was part of it, she thought. Maybe what was missing was that: someone whom she cared about. And who cared about her, and for more than just being a consensus good fuck.
Cora could not come up with the answers to her own questions, so she wiped her tears from her cheeks, started the car and headed out the familiar roads leading to Suffolk County, and her parents' home.
Some six hours later, Mr. Collins sent the Heap up to the Publisher's suite. The decision came down seven hours later in the form of a scribbled CrownGram. Rejected!
The Heap was carted back to Gene for disposition. He let it sit on the corner of his desk while he quietly seethed. That was in the late afternoon on Monday, December 23rd, two days before Christmas. Crown would be closed and people off on paid holiday leave the rest of that week. And that very evening the Crown Books Christmas Party was to be held in a nearby Hotel Ballroom.
Gene had no tuxedo to go home and put on, and no lady friend to pick up, so he went to the party directly from work, wearing what he had worn to work: his third-best suit.
When he walked into the hotel ballroom, there were quite a few revelers already there. Those with tuxes and/or ladies had ducked out early and gone home, and were back, getting a head start on the free bar. As he looked around, Gene knew that he looked a tad shabby in his wrinkled suit. In general, he was poorly turned out for a semi-formal party, but didn't much care.
He was troubled and angry over the rejection.
He had edited over sixty pages of the original and had neatly typed it to show the work's potential. It came to forty-three double-spaced pages. He had included his edited version along with the Heap, but had folded in a strip of paper in such a way that would show if it had been opened. It had not. Whatever attention Mr. Crown had given what had been placed on his desk had been given to the original. Gene wondered if he had even looked at that.
He got a glass of Champagne and wandered around in a sour mood. He found his name placeholder along with those of three fellow slushpile readers at a table hosted by Folger Parris. It seemed to be a stag table; like him, none of the other slushies had wives or girlfriends, and Folger's wife was not a socializing woman.
Eventually, he and Folger fell into a mutual commiseration session over the decision to reject the Heap. The other slushies half-listened, only marginally interested. They had never understood why the Heap engendered so much passion.
Then, after a while, the topic ran out of gas, and Gene turned to watching the people.
It was hard to ignore Miss Cora Crown, Mr. Crown's beautiful Daughter, and the heiress to the Crown Books publishing empire. Just now she was surrounded by young men eager to win her favor and hopefully, join themselves to her fortune. It didn't look to Gene as if she had any interest in that kind of commitment. From what rumors circulated around the office, she liked to share her favors freely, with no favoritism, and no ties.
He doubted that she would settle with any one man anytime soon. She obviously enjoyed the flirting and affairs, if her actions at the moment were any indication. Gene had a normal young man's reaction to her, of course; she was a beautiful sexy young Goddess. But he knew two things. One was that she was way out of his or any slushie's league under any circumstances. And the other was that due to his own personal history, he could never have a serious relationship with someone who had a history of acting like a slut.
At one point, later in the evening, he ran into Cora at the bar. She had shooed her suitors away to make a trip to the Ladies' Loo. Upon her emergence, she had come to the bar and had wedged herself between him and a pillar, trying to get a drink. He already had his drink in hand, but whistled for the bartender's attention so that she could get hers. She took it without any thanks, and swept her eyes appraisingly over him.
Her appraisal: Ordinary looking young man, average size, maybe a slightly more muscular build than most, wrinkled threadbare suit, limp shirt, and drab scuffed shoes. Her eyes swept on past him, dismissively.
"You're welcome," he muttered. The sarcasm brought her eyes back to him and she realized her gaffe. She belatedly tried to thank him. "Forget it, Miss Crown," he said and brushed past her on the way back to his table. She stared after him, annoyed, unused to such treatment.
Who was this jerk she thought? Curious, and uninterested in going back to being the center of attention, she meandered her way in the direction of the jerk's table. There were enough people milling around and enough abandoned seats that she was able to sit almost directly behind the jerk and unabashedly eavesdrop on his conversation. She had never seen him before in her occasional visits to the offices.
Her ears were soon burning, because she was the topic of conversation.
One of the slushies, Tommy, had a huge crush on her, going on and on about her attractiveness.
But then the jerk horned in. "Look, she's gorgeous, no question about it. And if all you want is pussy, she seems to be very available. Oh, not to the likes of you or me. To the upper-crust crowd, if you believe the stories that go around. All those guys who hang around with her are probably just waiting for their turn to get what looks like a great piece of ass.
"But let me tell you something, Tommy.
"When I was a teenager, I went after every girl who had a loose reputation. I was horny, and frustrated and looking to get lucky and lose my cherry. And it happened in high school. And it was a pretty disappointing experience for both of us.
"After that, I tried again and that time it was great. I wanted more. So I became a pussy hound. Now there were some girls like Cora, who wanted the good sex and that's all. But there were two girls who had real feelings for me, one in my junior year and the other when we were both seniors.
"They weren't loose, but they were infatuated and were available for me. They were both virgins. I behaved like a selfish jerk. I took their cherries, enjoyed them for a few months and then dumped them because someone hotter came along.
"One of them tried to commit suicide. They found her in time, and the family moved away. I didn't know about any of that until after I graduated.
"The second girl and I got unlucky. I guess I got a defective condom, and the upshot was that she got pregnant. Well, she and her family wanted me to marry her. I got scared. Jesus, I wasn't 18 yet and hadn't finished high school. I was scared and I listened to some people and did the rottenest thing I've ever done in my life.
"Well, I didn't do anything myself, but I stood by and kept silent while some of my friends spread it around that they had all screwed her and that she was a slut. She and her family moved away, too. A pregnant girl with a reputation like that, well, she and her folks needed to go someplace else and get a new start. I have no idea whether she had the baby or what happened to her.
"I was still brooding over how cowardly I had been, when I learned about the other girl and the suicide attempt.
"God, how low I felt. I was scum. I'd messed up two lives, and been such a selfish prick. I thought about throwing over my plans to go to college and just go to work with my Dad on the New York Central. I thought about joining the Navy. I thought about simply just chucking everything and taking off to bum around the country.
"I went into that summer disgusted with myself.
"Then something happened that turned everything around for me. I got incredibly lucky, and it started with a piece of bad luck for one of my mother's friends.
"Mrs. Dolan was a widow whose late husband had worked with my Dad; had been his boss, as a matter of fact. She was in her fifties, but was still youthful and lively. She was in an auto accident and was recovering from leg injuries. Her only son had joined the Army and had shipped out, so that had left her alone in her house.
Now, she needed someone around to do errands and chores for her, and help her out of her wheelchair and with her home exercises. I was just moping around the house, anyway, so my mom volunteered me as an all-around handyman and aide.
"Amy Dolan became my friend, and then my confidante. She was sympathetic and a patient listener. Between mowing her lawn and shopping, and helping her get up and exercise, we got closer, closer even than I was with my own folks. Even when she was back on her feet I kept going over. She got me to talk, and I told her all about the two women, and how I had ruined their lives. I was terribly depressed, just moping around.
"Amy told me that I was a typical selfish young guy, looking for my own gratification and ignoring everything else. That was the first of many long talks where she shared her view of life and love and sex. I got something of a crush on her, and eventually, we became lovers. I thought I was a real pistol in bed, and she taught me how little I knew. The differences in our ages didn't matter.
"At the end of the summer, she had begun to date her physical therapist, a widower more like her own age. She told me what was up and eased me out, with a smile and a few tears and a great goodbye fuck.
"But in the interim, she had taught me how to please her and any other woman. She taught me everything I know about sex.
"But she also taught me something more important than all the tricks of technique. I'm pretty average for size and all that; nothing to write home about. She taught me how little any of that matters. She taught me the secret of wonderful sex.
"It was her last, most lasting lesson, Tommy. Sex is good. A lot of pleasure. But sex with someone you have real feelings for is much better. And sex with someone you love is incredible.
"Amy said that when you love your partner, instead of trying to get what you want from her, you try to give her what she wants, and that leads to much greater pleasure for yourself. I've had two loving relationships since Mrs. Dolan, and I've never had greater pleasure. And they told me it was the same for them.
"In each case, it just wasn't in the cards. There were outside things that broke us up. In one I was too poor, out of her class, like you and I would be with Miss Crown. In the other I was the wrong religion. They were very observant Jews and it was unthinkable for her to marry outside of her faith. So they sent her off to Chicago to live with relatives.
"If I could have stayed with either of those women, I think I'd be happily married now.
"Maybe I'm just not destined to ever have real love and a marriage, I don't know.
"You can have sex without love, Tommy, and you can sure enjoy it. But I'm waiting for the real thing. And it sure as hell isn't with some society slut, no matter how beautiful she is."
Cora sat there, her face flushed with anger and embarrassment. A slut? Was that what he thought of her? Did her boyfriends, like Dudley last night think of her like that? Just an easy great piece of ass? She had always thought of herself as a liberated young woman. All the men she knew were forever in pursuit of as much pussy as possible. So she was doing the same, only in pursuit of cock.
It was always pleasurable, wasn't it? She got off, didn't she? Isn't that the point? Wasn't love for saps? Most of the people she knew who had married for so-called love were unhappy, except for her own mother and father.
Yet despite herself, Cora had listened to his story with more attention than had his fellow slushie. And despite her annoyance with him, she found Gene's assessment of his prospects for a love life troubling. He was a jerk, but even a jerk should be able to find love, shouldn't he?
Not that she cared, at all.