April 23, 1944
590 North Rossmore
Dear Mr. Loeb:
I hope you will forgive me for my long silence—the length of this letter will serve as explanation and, I hope, as apology. You said in one of your letters that you have no ability for small talk. My trouble is that I have no ability for small letters—that is, I cannot answer casually and carelessly, particularly when there is a serious subject such as writing to discuss. I must always make a thorough job of it. So I delayed answering you until I could do it right. Please forgive me if I took too long. It was not indifference on my part—but a miserable struggle against the California climate. After coming home from work I could do nothing but go to sleep and my mind simply refused to function. I am better now—and getting slowly used to it.
I am ashamed to say that I have seven letters of yours to answer. I was selfishly glad every time I heard from you—but failed in my part of it. Now I shall attempt to answer everything, in the order received. Before I come to the literary dicussion, let me say right now that your dialogue scene is very good, much better than I expected from a first attempt.
Thank you very much for the booklet “The Battle for Investment Survival” which you sent me. It is really excellent and helped me a lot to understand the situation. I was deeply touched by your offer to give me advice on investments. I appreciate it more than I can say. When I’ll know what my financial future is to be, I would like to ask your advice in a general way and would be very grateful for any suggestion you can give me. But I would not think of asking you to open an account for me and handle it and do all the work, on a friendly basis. When and if I can venture into Wall Street, I would like very much to become a regular, business client of yours—if, however, I am not too small an investor for that. I frankly know nothing about the stock market—and I suspect that your firm handles only large accounts. My situation is very peculiar—I don’t know to what financial class I belong, whether I am a small “nouveau riche”, with more riches coming, or a big “old poor” who got just one major break and will get no more. As things look for me in Hollywood at the moment, it seems that I’ll make more money than I ever expected or would know how to handle. I’ll have to get used to the situation. And I simply have not had the time to think it over carefully.
Now, to your next letters. “Life in a Tower” is very charming and witty—in a peculiar way of your own which I can’t quite define—you probably know what I mean. It has a kind of dry humor that can’t be classified, it’s not quite
like any other manner of writing. That, precisely, might be its commercial draw-back; an editor might be baffled and not know how to classify it—it is not an essay nor an article. I think it would be good for the New Yorker, in manner and intention, but it might be too short. As it stands, it is just a brief vignette, like a speech by a witty man giving his general impression. I think that the New Yorker would want it expanded into a more complete essay. I know I’m late with this opinion—so let me know what you have done with it. Have you tried it on the New Yorker? If not, I think it would be definitely worth trying. Incidentally, I was amused by the reference to Wynand and the psychological interpretation you put on his glass cage. Maybe it’s so.
Thank you for going after Greta Garbo for me. I was glad to hear that she has read my book. Mr. Blanke, my producer, knows her personally—and I asked him what he intended to do, after I received your letter. He said he would speak to her—but that it is too early for us to begin any business negotiations with her.[*] He cannot start on the casting until my script is finished—because when he talks to actors he must give a definite shooting date, and this cannot be set, even tentatively, until the script is done. No, we have not decided on a leading man either—and have no one definite in mind. The whole casting will be a difficult problem—a bad cast could ruin the story.
I’m glad you agree with me about the review of my book in the Architectural Forum.[**] Do you see what was disgusting about it? Not that they condemned the book, but that they did it in such hooligan, corner-lout manner—which is the present manner of all the pink intellectual vermin. It’s not the reviewer I blame, but the editor. A reviewer might be a minor punk—but an editor should have some sense of intellectual decency, which Mr. Nelson does not have. I think he has lied to you—any magazine always keeps track of who wrote what in its pages. Such a record is always kept on file. If Mr. Nelson said they could not trace it now—I believe he was simply afraid of you and trying to save his own face.[***]
I was amused to hear about your conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright. A few weeks ago, he came to Los Angeles—and I got to see him.[****] I spent a whole hour talking to him, and was very much impressed. I may be wrong, but he seemed to be a very sincere kind of man. At least, sincere in his devotion to architecture. No, he hasn’t read my book as yet—I had the feeling that he resented an outsider’s attempt to treat of his subject. But he said he wanted to read it, so I sent him a copy. I haven’t heard from him yet. I mentioned to him his conversation with you—and he laughed about the “orange hair”, he said that I owed it to him because if he had seen the book in advance, he wouldn’t have let me give my
hero orange hair—it was unnatural. He’s wrong there, and I’m sure he couldn’t have talked me out of it.
Thank you for sending me your article on “A Layman looks at Building.” It is excellent—thorough, complete and very clearly presented. I enjoyed reading it. And I agree with everything you said, except for one point. You are right when you say that so-called modern architecture is “too bare and too cold. If persisted in, this tendency will kill off modernism and functionalism altogether in time.” But I do not think that the solution is, as you say, to preserve “the attractive features that have lived through the years and can be adapted to inclusion in the postwar functional building.” That would mean a modern building trimmed with simplified Greek pilasters, flattened-out pediments, semi-Classic ornament and so forth. There are quite a few such buildings—and they are worse than anything else. They’re neither fish, flesh nor fowl. Like all compromisers, they’re inferior to both types which they’re trying to mingle—inferior to the strictly period house and to the bare modern house. There is a housing project here that is a simply ghastly example of just such an adaptation. And all the worst kinds of cheap-priced apartment buildings in New York are such adaptations—look at the Bronx modern on the Grand Concourse. But you are right that plain “shoe-box” modernism is cold, boring and has no human appeal whatever. I like your term for what the moderns lack—“human functionalism.” The solution, however, is in an architecture such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s—that is, buildings which are not plain and bare, but with a complicated, ingenious pattern and an ornament of their own, but an ornament designed for that particular structure, strictly original and not borrowed from any established historical style. Buildings do need beauty and ornament for their human appeal—but why must the ornament be an eternal repetition of and variation upon old Greek trimmings? There is such a field open for true creative originality. But—with the exception of Wright—I don’t know any architect capable of creating it. The trouble, I think, is still the same as it always was: before the advent of modern architecture, mediocre architects simply copied what had been done before; now, they simply put up shoe-boxes of concrete, which require no more originality or imagination than the copying did. What we need is more Wrights or Howard Roarks. But where to find them? I have no solution for that. It’s the same in every line of endeavor. The original talent is the rarest thing in the world. But in architecture, mediocrity is more glaringly obvious than in other lines—because there’s a huge, physical object such as a building to demonstrate it.
Now—to your dialogue scene. You said in your letter that it seemed amateurish to you. It is anything else but.
Your approach to dialogue is thoroughly professional. Apparently, you have done it unconsciously, not knowing the rules, which proves that you do have a talent for writing. The rule is simply this: an amateur writing dialogue will go on with it forever and will have his characters talk lengthily, pointlessly, at random—under the mistaken impression that it must sound exactly the way people talk in real life. The fact is, of course, that if anyone attempted to transcribe real life dialogue in short-hand and then put it into a story, as is, the result would be the worst kind of writing imagineable. People do talk at random, and seldom make a clear point in a few words, simply because nobody can make a brief formulation of a thought in conversation. So a lot of words are naturally wasted in real-life talking. Therefore, the problem of a dialogue writer is a subtle one: he must make his dialogue sound as if this is the way people really talk—and yet write it with a brevity, clarity and economy of words never achieved by anybody in real-life talk. He must never allow an extra line which has no specific purpose. He must have every line carry either exposition or characterization—and usually both. But he cannot allow his characters to talk so precisely that they will sound stilted. The trick is to select out of people’s normal expressions those lines that are representative, that can give you—in one flash—the whole idea of the person or subject discussed, while sounding completely natural. It is a very difficult trick—and I was surprised to see how well you’ve done it.
I can clarify this best on the example of your own dialogue. Take your first line. When Tom enters, Olivia says: “Well, I never.” That is all—and it’s perfect for its purpose. It shows surprise, and rudeness, and a woman who talks in bromides. In real life, she would have said that and a great deal more. But you omitted the “more”; that line was enough, it said everything, yet was natural. You could have selected another popular bromide—but most of them would have been meaningless—you picked the one that was characteristic. This is true of all your dialogue in the scene. All of it is the natural expression of a person and suggests a lot beyond the actual words used. “Come over now and sit on the bed and watch me dress but be a good boy”—is a swell line. It gives you the complete picture of a sloppy little tart without taste or manners.
I could see that you were afraid of dialogue—because you ventured only a few lines, with explanatory narrative in between. I would like to see you try a whole page of dialogue—straight conversation without explanations. It would not be necessary for your short story—but when you come to writing your novel, you will have to do it. Don’t be afraid of it—you’ll do it all right, I can tell that by the sample. Did you notice that in your scene there are very few places where the characters exhange talk?
Most of it is just one line, then a narrative interruption. Only on pages 4 and 5 you have a straight exhange of line and answer—and it’s very good. So why were you afraid of it? I would suggest that you forget all self-consciousness about dialogue—and just write it as you did here. Follow your natural feeling about it. It’s good. You don’t have to run from it back to narrative all the time.
Incidentally, this little scene does more to bring your short story alive than any amount of narrative could do. I remember the story itself—and this one scene gave it more color, gave it a reality it did not have. Now I would suggest that you go over the story, select the key spots and present them in dialogue, like this scene, and with less hesitation. I believe the result would astonish you. You will have a complete, professional short story.
Well, I think I’ve covered all the objective, business-like answers I owed you—now to a personal remark. I liked what you wrote about competence. You said that you love competence as Howard Roark does—and as I do. I can’t tell you how much I love it. It’s the only thing I love or admire in people. I don’t give a damn about kindness, charity or any of the other so-called virtues. (Besides, I’ve never encountered them in the form they’re supposed to exist, the way they do in books.) Competence, talent, efficiency, ability are the only values I recognize. Plus the first and most important one—integrity. But I’m profoundly convinced that integrity is a quality possessed only by competent human beings. A man doesn’t have to be a genius—he may be only a good bricklayer—but if he’s good at his work, any work, he will have spiritual integrity. A kindly, mushy, sloppy individual who loves everybody, but cannot do a good day’s work at whatever it is he’s doing—will never have any kind of integrity, and will prove himself to be a weakling and a coward in any crisis.
Why did you write that you are “poor at games, at social small talk, at telling jokes, at heavy drinking” as if this were a defect in you? I think you ought to be proud of being poor at those things. The people who’re good at that are usually very worthless human beings. And as to small talk—that’s the particular abomination of my life. I hate it, am utterly no good at it and have given up the attempt to put up with it or tolerate it in others. I’ve been too busy all my life to want to waste time on listening to or uttering small talk. And so have you, I suspect. Incidentally, the Sunday when you visited us here, you talked a great deal and all of it was very interesting—but it was not small talk. So why should you wish to acquire a small-talk talent?
This letter is already abominably long, so I’ll add only a few words about myself. Everything is going very well for me at the studio. I will have my script finished soon—and
then I’ll know more about the actual plans of production, the casting etc. I would have finished by now—only I was interrupted by being taken off my script for three weeks and assigned to rescue another picture already in production. They had started shooting a picture with such dreadful dialogue that the director refused to do it. I was given the job of re-dialoguing the main scenes—and had to do it while running a race with the camera. I liked doing it, and they were all very pleased with my work. But that, among other things, kept me in such a rush and nervous tension that I could not do anything else, had no time for any private life at all—or any of the letters I wanted to write (that’s for a hint of apology). Now I am back on my own script and it’s going very well. I am afraid that I won’t be back in New York for a long time. It looks as if they’re going to keep me here at my fancy salary. I will stay—but arrange to have enough time off for my own writing. I won’t give that up for any salary—and I have my next novel in mind already, and it’s bothering me, I’m anxious to start it.
If you get tired of reading this letter—forgive me that I had to do it all at once, like this. At least, you’ll know that I was not indifferent. I am deeply grateful for one sentence in your letter written from your country house: “I will be very happy if all this doesn’t disturb you, as I enjoy writing to you.” No, it does not disturb me—and I’m glad if you like writing to me—and I enjoy very much hearing from you. The length of this letter will show you that I enjoy writing to you, too. Will you please overlook this one long delay—and write to me again? Now that I have caught up with things, I will try not to be so slow again, and will answer more “competently.”
With best regards from both of us,
P.S. You asked that I introduce you to my agent, when you finish your short story. I’ll be very glad to do it. My agent is Curtis Brown, Ltd. They specialize in novels, but they do handle short stories also for their clients. I don’t know whether they would undertake to start with a short story, but it would be worth your while to talk to them about it. Let me know when you wish to see them and I’ll be glad to write to them.
*Garbo was AR’s first choice for the role of Dominique, as AR recalled in her biographical interviews, but director King Vidor (who knew Garbo) told AR that Garbo “had called him, and she was enthusiastic about the script, and wanted to do it. And the next day changed her mind, because, she said, she couldn’t play with Gary Cooper.”
**The review, in the August 1943 issue, was, if anything, written on an even lower level and with more venom than suggested by AR’s comments. It was, in fact, the most vicious of any review of the novel and echoed (fourteen years earlier) the most vicious reviews of Atlas Shrugged: After recognizing the theme as individualism vs. collectivism, the reviewer wrote: “Her contempt for people—the plain, ordinary, average people—is appalling in its fanatical intensity and to match it one has to turn to Mein Kampf.”
***“Mr. Nelson” refers to George Nelson, co-managing editor of the Architectural Forum. Loeb responded that he was sure that Nelson himself wrote the review.
****The get-together was at the West Hollywood home of Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. In her biographical interviews, AR discusses this event at some length.