The True Story behind Genius

Wolfe was all about appetite and satiating himself. He traveled extensively, had adventures and engaged in barroom fights. Perkins wasn’t a prig – he didn’t sit back resisting it disapprovingly – he just didn’t do it. But he lived in books like ‘War & Peace’, and he dreamt about it.

Genius is a stirring drama about the complex friendship and transformative professional relationship between the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and the larger-than-life literary giant Thomas Wolfe.

Thomas Clayton Wolfe

Finding fame and critical success at a young age, Wolfe is a blazing talent with a larger-than-life personality to match. Perkins is one of the most respected and well-known literary editors of all time, discovering such iconic novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Wolfe and Perkins develop a tender, complex friendship. Transformative and irrepressible, this friendship will change the lives of these brilliant, but very different men forever.

William Maxwell Evarts Perkins was born in 1884 in New York City, and grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. He took an economics major at Harvard University and worked as a reporter for The New York Times before he joined Charles Scribner’s Sons – a venerable NYC publishing house that survives to this day – in 1910.

He was a family man, married to Louise Saunders, a playwright, and with five daughters.

Scribner’s was already a renowned organization when Perkins joined, publishing great works from established authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. But Perkins had a passion for discovering young authors, whose work was ahead of its time.

In 1919, Perkins persuaded his bosses to take a chance on a young writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald. When Scribner’s published “This Side of Paradise” in 1920, it heralded the arrival of a new literary generation that Perkins worked tirelessly to help define.

In his time at Scribner’s he shepherded the works of Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, J.P. Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones, Marguerite Young and many more.

But perhaps his defining relationship was with an author who was in his mid 20s when his 1,100-page first work landed on Max Perkins’ desk.

Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1900. A prolific writer, his manuscripts would arrive at Scribner’s by the crate, with sentences that could last entire pages, and a mellifluous, deeply autobiographical style that immediately piqued Perkins’ interest, even as he knew he’d have his work cut out trying to rein it in to the publishable standards of the day.

The two men formed a bond that ran deep, collaborating on the first two of Wolfe’s four novels, “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River”. Their professional relationship lasted for less than a decade, but its impact would resound on both men’s lives until their deaths. Against Perkins’ protestations, Wolfe dedicated “Of Time and the River” to his editor.

“This book is dedicated to Maxwell Evarts Perkins,” it read. “A brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness. The author hopes this book will prove worthy of him.”

It was a rare public acknowledgement of the work Max Perkins had dedicated his life to. “If you go back to the beginnings of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe, they were all three of them rejected writers,” notes A. Scott Berg, who published the definitive biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” in 1978 and began this story’s 35-year journey to the screen. “Fitzgerald, in fact, had been turned down by Scribner’s three times before Max Perkins laid his job on the line. Hemingway was about to be dropped by his publisher, and Thomas Wolfe had been rejected all over town. This was a man who saw genius in all three of these writers, and worked with them, often in his own time. Scribner’s wasn’t even interested; Perkins had to say to each of them, ‘Even if you have to go elsewhere to get this published, I’m going to help you.’”

Berg’s choice of title is no accident. By the Latin definition, “genius” refers to a guardian deity that watches over a person. “Perkins literally became that person to these writers,” he notes. “Who was the genius in this relationship? Was he an editor that possessed genius, or did he edit the work of geniuses?”

Perkins wasn’t simply a copy editor, like his contemporaries. He changed the role of editing beyond simple correction of spelling and grammar. “He was the first to make a really major creative contribution,” says Berg. “And beyond that, he was able to realize that the time an author really needs an editor is not when the work is finished, but when that author is struggling with the manuscript.”

He continues: “Perkins was a friend, a marriage counselor, a psychiatrist and a money-lender. He fulfilled these roles not just for Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe, but for a hundred other writers.”

MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 23, 2011 John Logan, playwright and screenwriter, is seen at the Mondrian SoHo Hotel in Manhattan, NY. Logan wrote the Broadway play Red. 11/23/2011 Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times

Screenwriter John Logan

John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for Genius, notes that the intensity of Perkins’ relationship with Wolfe was based on how different they were as people. “You couldn’t imagine two more polar opposites than Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe. Max was a buttoned-up, conservative Yankie book editor who literally and figuratively wore a tie. Thomas Wolfe was a mad, North Carolinian animal. You only need to read five pages of ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ or ‘Of Time and the River’ to see the passion in the words he chose and the way he told his stories. The novels reach out and slap you with so much emotion and passion.”

What they shared, though, was an appreciation for art and for great literature. “They built a vocabulary, both as editor and writer and as a pair of human beings, that allowed them to grow very close.”

Agrees Berg: “Max Perkins needed Thomas Wolfe as much as Thomas Wolfe needed Max Perkins. What is an editor like Max Perkins without a Thomas Wolfe? This word-machine that just churns out work, uncontrolled and uncontrollably. It was a great symbiosis between these two men.

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Based on the biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, the film stars Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Max Perkins, alongside Jude Law (Anna Karenina, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Thomas Wolfe, with Guy Pearce (The Rover, Lawless) as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dominic West (Testament of Youth, Pride), as Ernest Hemingway.

“Something of the spirit of his writers was alive in Perkins too,” notes Colin Firth, who is charged with bring Perkins to the screen in Genius. “Berg points out in his book that he came from two very different families, and it was as though the English Civil War were raging inside him. The Perkins side was artistic and flamboyant and bohemian to an extent, and the Evarts side was the conformist, puritanical, reserved side. That’s the side, I think, that would probably have met the eye when one first met Max Perkins, but this other aspect engaged with the likes of Thomas Wolfe.”

He continues: “Wolfe was all about appetite and satiating himself. He traveled extensively, had adventures and engaged in barroom fights. Perkins wasn’t a prig – he didn’t sit back resisting it disapprovingly – he just didn’t do it. But he lived in books like ‘War & Peace’, and he dreamt about it. I think he did it through Wolfe and his other authors.”

Perkins shied away from the attention that greeted the publication of these great works, and correctly feared the backlash from critics that would result from Wolfe’s dedication in “Of Time and the River”. “Max Perkins always said his only job was to put brilliant books in the hands of readers,” notes Logan. “He wanted to be invisible. He was deeply involved in the creation of these books, but his goal was for Thomas Wolfe’s voice to soar, not his own. And he faced the insecurity all editors face, which is, ‘Am I making this better, or am I just making it different?’”

“That self-abnegation is something I think many English people – and certainly those of my background – will recognize,” Firth continues. “The idea is that you’re only doing something worthwhile if you’re not enjoying it. He chose economics at college precisely because he hated it, and I think he regretted that somewhat. He didn’t think there was any achievement in doing what he loved, so he helped other people do what they loved instead.”

The passage of time has done little to dull the impact of Wolfe’s work, but his canon is certainly not as highly regarded today as that of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. “You’d have to be a real literary buff to know of Max Perkins, but I think it’s the same, now, for Thomas Wolfe,” notes Jude Law, who plays Wolfe on screen. “He’s not in the modern consciousness in the way Fitzgerald and Hemingway are, but that’s a plateau for a very exciting story. It’s not only a very interesting dynamic between them to explore, but our story sits on the shoulders of two great men who are little known.”

The intensity of the relationship between Wolfe and Perkins took its toll on the other relationships in their lives. “For Tom, in the end, the only thing that mattered was the work,” says Law. “It was a huge act of selfishness, and in the end selfishness bred indulgence. He became an indulgent man at the expense of others, but he still felt he was doing it for the work, and that the work was important.”

Aside from Wolfe’s parents and Perkins, Law notes, the author’s other essential relationship was with Aline Bernstein, one of the most renowned theatrical costume designers of her day, with whom he had a tumultuous affair. “Wolfe had copious lovers,” he says, “but Aline was his love, his muse, and his champion.”

“They were addicted to one another at a certain point,” says Nicole Kidman, who plays Bernstein in Genius. “She was a formidable woman – an incredibly strong career woman who was ahead of her time – which is fascinating because she was in this obsessive, dependent love affair with Thomas Wolfe.”

“Aline was desperate and she was passionate,” says Berg. “When Aline loved, she loved 200%. She was anxious to hold onto that, and she was threatened by Wolfe’s relationship with Perkins.”

Perkins’ family life was threatened too, by the enormous strain Wolfe’s personality and prolificacy placed on his editor. For Perkins’ wife, Louise Saunders, herself a published author, supporting her husband’s work was both her pleasure and her hardship. “People of a certain era knew of Louise Saunders, but she’s all but forgotten today,” notes Laura Linney, who plays the role in Genius. “Max’s relationships with his authors took up a huge amount of his time, and while there was an understanding from Louise, and a respect, there was also, frankly, a jealousy. She was an artistic person herself who had been relegated to the suburbs. She would forego her own artistic journey to have his children and live his life.”

She summarizes: “The relationship between these men was so intense and it took up all of their time. The women in their lives both felt their absence keenly.”