Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Ross and Tom: 2, Tom

Continued from yesterday….

Tom Heggen was, on the face of it, a much tougher and more street-wise character than Ross Lockridge. After college, where he did lots of journalism, Tom served in the Navy during the second world war, and you can’t spend a few years in the Navy without learning a little bit about life. (One former boss of mine told me that, during the war, he had been the only man on his ship who had never had a dose of the clap.)

With the war over, Tom began to put together some stories, based on his shipboard experiences, and he too found an enthusiastic publisher in Houghton Mifflin. The publisher came up with the title Mister Roberts, since Roberts was the character who linked the stories together.

Very early on in his relationship with Houghton Mifflin, however, Tom became aware of a circumstance which was to cause him endless trouble: the publisher viewed his first book as just that – the first in a series of novels. ‘Publishers are insatiable,’ Houghton’s editor-in-chief wrote to him, ‘and I am already beginning to think of the book that will follow Mister Roberts.’

Tom was thinking about it too, but he could not get started. ‘Honest to God,’ he told a friend, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

Mister Roberts was well received when it first came out, and before long the idea of adapting the book for the stage was raised. After a false start, Tom eventually formed a working partnership with Joshua Logan, who was then a highly prestigious and successful theatre director.

While Tom was trying to convert Mister Roberts into a stage play, in collaboration with Joshua Logan, he was still trying to write novel number two. But he couldn’t write and he couldn't sleep, and was prescribed fast-acting barbiturates as a cure. However, even Seconal did not work and he tended to drink his way into unconsciousness. He was only five feet eight to begin with, and he soon lost weight.

When finished, the stage version of Mister Roberts proved to be smash hit on Broadway. There was so much laughter during the last rehearsal that it added twenty minutes to the running time. Emlyn Williams (of all people) was drafted in to make some cuts, which he managed to do without damage.

Being the author of a Broadway hit meant that, like Ross Lockridge before him, Tom Heggen became rich and famous. Attractive women formed an orderly queue outside his bedroom door. He was earning $2,000 a week from the play, at a time when that was serious money.

But there were still some huge creative problems. Tom found that, as a writer, he had become dependent on the collaboration with Joshua Logan. His creative juices just did not flow without help. ‘I don’t know how I wrote Mister Roberts,’ he told a friend. It was spirit writing.’ And Joshua Logan, of course, had other fish to fry.

Tom tried psychoanalysis; and he was by now addicted to barbiturates, using twenty a day, on top of copious amounts of booze. He knew that he was doing himself irreversible damage.

On Wednesday 18 May 1949, Tom Heggen’s cleaning lady found him dead in the bath. The cause of death was described by the Medical Examiner as ‘Submersion in fresh water in bathtub. Probable suicide.’

As with Ross Lockridge, there really isn’t any doubt that Tom Heggen committed suicide. But even if we were to accept that either of these writers died by accident, the fact is that they were both dead men walking around like zombies. They had risen to dizzy heights. They each yearned to write another book. But neither of them knew how to do it. Success and all that goes with it had destroyed them completely.

Now –

What are we to make of these two grisly stories? They are such horrible case histories, so depressing to read about, that I wonder how and why I managed to read John Leggett's book about them. I suppose the answer to that conundrum is that the book confirms, with dramatic force, my long-held view that the ambition to be a writer can seriously damage your health. And in extreme cases it can even kill you. Hell, I even wrote a book about it: The Truth about Writing.

I defy anybody to read John Leggett’s Ross and Tom and tell me that they seriously want to be a famous writer. The dangers and disadvantages are great. And as for the rewards – well, they tend to be both brief and illusory.

Ah, you say, but if I was a big success I wouldn’t suffer the fate of Ross and Tom. I could cope better than they did.

Possibly. But I have to say that the recipe for disaster is a combination of factors which are really quite common.

To suffer the fate of Ross and Tom you need to be:

(i) wildly and absurdly ambitious;
(ii) the author of a first novel which makes heavy use of autobiographical material.

Ross Lockridge also had a head full of romantic nonsense about artistic integrity and writing the Great American Novel, which is again very common.

Those simple factors are all that’s required for you to become another book-world casualty.

If you are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you too could end up with a number-one bestseller, a Hollywood film contract, lots of new friends, and a score of people hammering on the door and demanding that you repeat the trick. And that you go on repeating it for the next twenty years. And yet you have no idea how you did it the first time, and certainly no idea how to do it again.

Oh, and one other thing is needed if you are to become an enormous success. You have to be the one person in a million or so whom the gods of the book world choose to honour with their favours. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’

Let us hope that you escape that fate. The next time you get a rejection slip, try to think of it as a merciful release.


Anonymous said...

Sad indeed, especially since these two books that cost their authors so much (cost them everything, in fact) are today just two more forgotten bestsellers of yesteryear. (It would be interesting and instructive to calculate the real "life expectancy" of your average best seller. "The grass which grows today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven" indeed!) A shame, because Mister Roberts (I haven't read Raintree County - hard enough to sit through the dreadful movie version) is an excellent book filled with finely observed characters. Heggen was a real loss.

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