Ann Watkins (1886–1967) was AR’s literary agent beginning in 1935 until AR switched most of her work to Curtis Brown, Ltd. in the mid-1940s. The Watkins agency still exists under the name Watkins/Loomis.
This letter was previously published only in the Winter 2017–18 issue of The Objective Standard.
349 East 49th Street
New York City
May 17, 1941
Miss Ann Watkins
77 Park Avenue
New York City
This is in answer to your letter of May 13th. I am afraid that our present situation is the kind of thing that happens when one allows others to step into a deal of which they are not an essential part. I find it simply impossible to deal with Miss Sorsby—and so we must clarify our position personally between you and me.
First, let me re-state in writing our conversation and agreement made verbally on April 21st. You remember that I asked you then for a written confirmation and you assured me that it was not necessary between us, since both of us would live up to our word. I still believe this of both of us. So I record our conversation to keep our agreement completely clear.
It was not, as you state in your letter, my request that you discontinue to represent me in the placing of my play. I intended to do that, of course, but when I came into your office—it was you who started the conversation by saying that you thought it would be best if I handled the play myself. So, it would be fairer to say that we terminated our deal by mutual agreement—and not by a one-sided desire on your part or mine, with the first suggestion coming from you. Then you said that you wished nothing but to help me sell this play and that anything I did to sell it would be most welcome to you; that you had no desire to make any difficulties or claims; in short, that you were turning the play over to me completely. Then, it was I who mentioned the Paramount deal and said that should my new agent find a producer who wished to use Paramount backing and should Paramount give him the partial backing you said they had promised—my new agent would give you 2½ per cent of the agency commission. I made this offer myself, voluntarily, without your request and not by way of bargaining. I felt that if the Paramount deal was a concrete, definite deal negotiated by you and if it helped the sale of the play to a producer—the new agent should give you a share, although, of course, you know that an author pays a commission only on the sale of a play to a producer, not on the finding of a backer; an author has nothing to do with the financial backing of a play and no commission for financing is ever paid to an author. You did not ask me for this offer—I made it myself. And you accepted. You said that you had always found me fair and honest in financial matters—and such was our agreement on the play.
Now, as to my novel [The Fountainhead], I had no desire or intention to take that
– 2 –
away from you. I wanted to have you continue as my agent on the novel, because it was being handled personally by you and Margot [Johnson]—and I had confidence in both of you. I did not hold against you in any way the fact that the novel had not yet been sold—because I knew you had both done your best and I realize the difficulties connected with that novel perhaps even better than you do. But when I asked you whether you wished to continue with the novel, you told me you did not. You said that you did not want to handle the novel further because I made it impossible for you to sell it. When I asked “Why?” you answered—here are your exact words, Ann, I remember them because they made a deep impression on me and I’ll remember them all my life—“Why? Why? You always ask me why. I can’t answer you. I don’t go by reasons, I act upon instinct.” That, Ann, was the epitaph on our relations. There was nothing I could say after that. Words are an instrument of reason, and instincts are unanswerable. So our interview ended right there, and this was our understanding on the novel. You added only that you wished to continue to represent “Night of January 16th” and such rights in my other things as you had sold.
This, then, is a complete account of our conversation and agreement. You will not find one statement in it which is incorrect in any way, if you carefully recall the conversation yourself.
Since then I sent you a formal letter stating the terms of our agreement. I believe you resented the fact that I did not mention the 2½ per cent in case of the Paramount deal. I did not mention it, because that was not a condition of our agreement. The agreement was that the play returns to me completely. The 2½ per cent was my own offer—subject to the new agent finding a producer who wished to use the Paramount deal. Since then, I have found that there is no Paramount deal; that is, when the new agent found a producer who was interested and who approached Paramount—the studio said that they had not committed themselves at all, that they would only send a script of the play to the West Coast and that they would probably agree to furnish half the backing. So none of us knows at present how this will come out and whether there even will be any Paramount deal to discuss. It is possible that we are disagreeing over nothing. My point at present is only that legally you have returned my play to me without any further claims upon it by you. I made no agreement with my new agent until after I had spoken to you on April 21st. Then I made the agreement with her on the basis of my agreement with you. And that is the agreement by which we all must abide now in all fairness.
I do not doubt your honesty in this matter. But what I do resent is that Miss Sorsby then tried to step in by telephoning me several times and by taking the attitude that she had to bargain with me over terms, particularly over the Paramount deal. I had never dealt before with Miss Sorsby personally and I had never even considered her as my agent on the play. YOU were my agent, and any connection she had with the play was only as your representative or assistant, not mine. I resented—violently and emphatically—her attempt to bargain with me the last time she telephoned me. When I stated to her that you and I had already reached a definite agreement, she took the position which amounted to calling me a liar, an attitude of “well, it’s your word against mine.” Do you see what happens when a third party steps in? I don’t know what she thought or why, but I think it was simply
– 3 –
a matter of the kind of mess that happens when conversations have to be held in a three-cornered way. That is why I insist that Miss Sorsby be kept out of it—since she was not in it from the beginning—and if you wish to discuss this further, it must be done personally between you and me.
This, then, is the business side of the matter. Now I’d like to take a little time on the personal side of it—because I think I can make it clearer to you in a letter than in conversation. You will have time to consider it without hurry and form your own opinion.
I want to repeat here once more that any criticism I might make of anyone in your office does not constitute a criticism of you personally. I think that your attitude on this point lies at the root of all our troubles. You have never done this before—and for many years our relations have been more than merely those of author-and-agent; we have been very good friends and we have had no trouble of any kind. But now you seem to have taken the position that’s best described by the old saying of “love me—love my dog.” I don’t mean this in any insulting manner, but I think you understand what this saying implies. You seem to have taken it as a personal insult to you or as lack of confidence in you if I criticized anyone in your office. And yet you know that no executive, however able, can always be right in the selection of his associates. The best and wisest make mistakes some times and to admit it is no detriment to you in any manner. But whenever I mentioned specific things which Miss Sorsby had done and of which I didn’t approve, you did not even do me the justice and courtesy of investigating the case on its merits and accepting my views or pointing out to me my error. Instead, you simply showed such bitter resentment, almost hatred, that I had no choice left but to leave you. This was one of the main reasons. Do you wish an example? I asked you whose idea it was to send the script of my play to Lionel Stander [who was pro-Communist]. You said it was your own—and you were very angry at me for asking. When, over the telephone, I asked the same question of Miss Sorsby, she said it had been her idea—as, of course, I had known all along. I have too much respect for your literary judgment to have believed that you would have done such a stupid thing. I have mentioned this submission to several experienced theatrical people. They laughed in my face. Now wouldn’t it have been fairer for you to investigate, ask other people in the theater and form your own opinion on whether such a submission had been wise or dignified? But you did not do this. You preferred to take my doubt of Miss Sorsby as an insult to you. That, of course, is your privilege. If you enjoy the thought that I have no confidence in you and have insulted you—you are free to think it. But if such a thought is not pleasant to you—and after the kind of relationship we have had for years, I don’t think that you can find it pleasant—then I want to say here that it is not so. I never doubted you personally or your intentions toward me. I do doubt Miss Sorsby’s efficiency. If you wish to make it one—well, I can’t help it. But I don’t accept it in this way.
To finish with the subject of Miss Sorsby, I want to say also that I have nothing against her as a person—since I do not know anything about her. I am willing to believe that she is honestly doing the best she can. But I do know that she is totally inexperienced as
– 4 –
a literary agent. I suspect that she has never sold a single play. This does not mean that she may not become an excellent agent eventually. But it does mean that she needs practice and experience—like a beginner in any line, no matter what latent ability she might possess. And I am not in a position to be the guinea-pig in the case. Particularly since Miss Sorsby has shown no desire to understand my view-point or even to inquire about it during the time that the play was in your office. Granting that she has to learn the business—how will she ever learn it if your clients are not allowed to point out her mistakes? If you do not wish to see mistakes corrected and only resent the client for complaining? Do you see how unfair this is—both to the client and to Miss Sorsby herself?
I don’t know whether this has become your attitude towards all your clients or only towards me. I simply don’t know what to think of your attitude toward me for the last year. The change in you began since the failure of “The Unconquered.” I don’t think that that was the reason. But I think it started something in your mind against me—doubt, weariness, or what—I don’t know. It became worse when I worked in the Willkie Campaign. I tried to take the American and democratic attitude that each man is entitled to his own opinions, and that our political differences have nothing to do with our relations. You know that politics are an important issue to me, but I never felt any resentment against your political viewpoint and, in all honesty, I know that I never gave you cause to believe I felt any such resentment. But I felt resentment in your attitude toward me, a bitter, quiet sort of resentment. Whether it was because I supported Willkie or whether there were other reasons—I don’t know. I noticed only that the question of Willkie was always brought up by you and always bitterly or sarcastically. I didn’t know what to think. I spent a year making my own apologies for some of the things you said to me. I kept saying to myself that you didn’t mean it the way it sounded—and what did it have to do with our relations and with business? And then the time came when I couldn’t do it any longer—and so I had to leave. I still don’t understand what exactly happened between us.
But I think that something has happened in your own life, something that has made you very unhappy—and it has changed your whole attitude towards things and people. I don’t know what it is. I know only that if it were I who had disappointed you in some manner—you would have told me so frankly. You would have had facts and reasons and stated them to me and given me a chance to explain and listened to my explanations. But you never did. In fact, the thing that was hardest for me was that I noticed your desire to avoid any serious conversation with me. Instead, you really tried to go on and do your best for me—with the most frightening sort of resentment growing in you against me. I believe in all sincerity that you honestly tried. I even think that you didn’t want to show the resentment and tried to hide it. But I felt it. More and more every time I saw you. That’s what made it so baffling for me. I still ask: Why? An instinct? What instinct, Ann? Even instincts have reasons behind them.
You know, Ann, business is business, but aren’t there other things besides that are important in life also? You have many clients who bring you more money than I did, but you’ve never had one who was as
– 5 –
devoted to you, who had the complete, enthusiastic, personal faith in you that I had. You know the kind of earnest person I am. And you were something serious to me, serious and important besides any questions of business. One doesn’t find that sort of feeling often in life—nor a person for whom one can feel it. I know you wouldn’t want to destroy that—just like that, without any reason. There must be a reason. What was it? To me—this is a funeral. The funeral of a person who meant a great deal to me. I am really writing this to the Ann Watkins I met five years ago. I think she would have wanted to understand. And, perhaps, you still care to understand. I even admit the possibility that you might feel exactly the same way about me—that it was I who let you down. But if so—why don’t you say it? Why don’t you explain it—for your own sake, if not for mine? Do you really think that one should end a relationship such as ours with a reference to an “instinct”—and nothing else?
Now, to come back to your letter, your saying that I “regard this office in the light of dirty kikes or reds” is just another little example of the whole situation. Wouldn’t it have been fairer to ask me about my side of the conversation with Miss Sorsby before you made conclusions and quotations? I did not refer to your office as “kikes” or “reds.” I merely told Miss Sorsby the story of our old friend Satenstein and told her what I thought of agents who tried to get unearned commissions. Which is what she was trying to do—on the old Satenstein technique of “your word against mine.” If she represents the attitude of your office—then you make the definition, not I. But I still don’t think that she does. It was not your attitude when I saw you last. That is why I don’t even consider your last letter as coming from you. I think you let her talk you into it—without taking the time to think it out. You state that you wrote me another letter, but changed your mind after you spoke to her. That, Ann, is the whole story. You have never acted like a Satenstein type of agent before. Why do you want to let someone else try to do it in your name? If you are not clear on the situation, why not investigate—yourself and in person?
You close your letter by saying that you regret there should be in the end repeated misunderstandings between us. That is exactly my own feeling. If you really mean it, if you do regret misunderstandings—please let us clear them up. I am more than willing. But any problem can be cleared up only in person, directly and on the basis of facts. If you wish to tell me your reasons for your changed attitude toward me—I’ll be more than willing to listen. But it must be a sincere conversation, Ann. Without resentment, without generalities and without “instincts.” What do any of us know about instincts? What do they mean? What do they prove? Only language can be a means of communication between people and a means of understanding. Words, thoughts, reasons. If we drop them—we will have nothing but misunderstandings left. If we want to face things honestly and reasonably, we can still end up as friends, and I think we both deserve that much—after the years we have behind us.
P.S. I am sending a copy of this letter to Margot—because she has been extremely nice to me and I want her to know the reasons for my leaving.
The Ayn Rand Archives contains no written response from Watkins. However, her agency continued to handle Night of January 16th and the foreign rights to The Fountainhead, though Miss Rand’s particular agents were people other than Watkins. Ayn Rand’s daily calendars contain several entries for phone calls and meetings with Watkins from 1943 to 1948.