Swanson and the Brits
There is a story about H.N. Swanson making a phone call to a producer that goes like this:
Producer: “Yes, Swanie?”
Swanie: “I’m taking over representation of your writer, Blodgett. You’ve been paying him $150 a week.”
Producer: “Yes, Swanie.”
Swanie: “You’ll have to raise him to $500. I don’t represent any $150 a week writers.”
Producer: “Yes, Swanie.”
True story? I don’t know. It could be. Swanie certainly had all the musculature to enforce his will on the biz. I don’t know how long Swanie had held the rights to some of the greatest properties of all time. I don’t know who his very earliest clients were — H.G. Wells, probably, Joseph Conrad, some Kipling, why not? — though I do refuse to believe in Beowulf. And what I especially don’t know and never did was what advantage Swanie saw for his own high-voltage agency coming to be known as the West Coast branch of mine. Of course the association wasn’t likely to make a lot of work for Swanie. At that point in the development of my agency the number of film sales had reached a grand total of zero.
But now everything was different. What I said to Swanie’s associate was, “I want Swanie to handle it.”
“All right,” she said, a little doubtfully, I thought. “I guess he’ll do that.”
And she told me that British Redifusion, the name of the people making the offer, was a London outfit that took TV channels from one place and transferred them to another. This, under the English licensing laws, gave them enough money in the bank to contemplate new careers as movie producers. So, contemplating the prospect of what an unplanned thousand dollars or two might mean to my own solvency, I went about my business.
That week my business included four or five stops on an abbreviated lecture tour to the Midwest and the Coast. I don’t remember what my first stop was — perhaps some management conference in Chicago — but when I got to my hotel, there was a message waiting:
Mr. Pohl —
Now that we have made contact we would prefer that future discussions take place between the two of us, rather than through a third party. As an evidence of good faith we are prepared to increase our offer to $10,000. Please let us have your acceptance by return.
When I called Swanie’s office the next morning, he wasn’t surprised that they would have preferred to dicker without him. “Wouldn’t you?” he asked. “Anyway, they’re up to $12,500.”
And when I checked into my Denver hotel, they were at $22,500, and at $27,500 in Seattle, and by the time I was home the price was up over $30,000, and British Redifusion was trying to beat some sense into me — “Swanie is going to ruin the whole thing for you, you know. We can just walk away.” — and failing to beat sense into me.
Even Arnold Perl was showing some concern: “You did say that the Kornbluth family had some money concerns. It could be quite a while before our negotiations began to reach this kind of number.”
And when I called Swanie the next day, he said, “They’re at $50,000. What do you want me to do?”
I said — or screamed — “I want you to deal with it! Take it, leave it, whatever. I want you to make the decision.”
“Well,” he said, “I am encountering some resistance. I could go for $100,000, but I think it’s better to take the $50,000.”
How much is the $50,000 of the 1950s?
It’s enough that my share paid for a convertible, our first color TV, a dining-room chandelier that my then-wife Carol had her heart set on, and a few other odds and ends. I should say that $50,000 then was worth at least a quarter of a million now, but for the Kornbluths, the story was somewhat different. That great loving Mom that is the state of New York makes sure that the needy among us is cared for by rigorous laws, especially if they are lawyers. Since Cyril had not planned on dying but had let himself go intestate, the New York government appointed a lawyer to protect his interests — by which I mean the lawyer’s interests. So the Kornbluth half was not quite as big as my half. . . .
And if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure how I would do it.