She slept with Saul Bellow, but only once, and only at the very beginning, more than 25 years ago. During the night she kept asking for permission to touch him, "as if he were a museum objet d'art." She remembers the experience as "a comic nightmare." She recalls him saying "he hadn't had a date like that since under the Coney Island boardwalk when he was in high school."
Then the occasion was never mentioned again. "As if it never happened. At all. It wasn't in our eyes. It wasn't in our tone of voice. There was no flirting anymore. It was strictly business -- and a growing friendship."
That episode is perhaps the most juicy personal revelation in Harriet Wasserman's Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow (Fromm International, June), which chronicles her relationship as agent to the Nobel Prize-winning author. But for publishing insiders, Wasserman's slim (160-page) memoir -- what she calls "a carpaccio-thin slice of what was going on in the mid-20th century to the end of it, and how publishing has changed" -- holds even more interest.
"This is about the kind of gossip you don't really hear, what g s on between a writer and his agent," said Fromm International editorial director Fred Jordan, who signed the book for a five-figure advance from agent Georges Borchardt last spring and has set a first printing of 15,000 copies. "I thought it was fascinating," Jordan added.
Publishing types likely will find the final chapter most compelling, since it is here that Wasserman recounts her breakup with Bellow after infamous agent Andrew ("The Jackal") Wylie entered the picture in 1995. Wasserman said it was then that Bellow asked her, in essence, to fire herself as his agent.Upon reading an advance copy of Handsome Is, however, Wylie told PW that Wasserman's account of the breakup is "inaccurate" and that "she got the conversations wrong." He claimed that although he did indeed approach Bellow, it was for his backlist only and that Bellow insisted that Wasserman remain his U.S. agent and that Wylie split commissions on the foreign rights sales, which, to Wylie, was an untapped goldmine. "One of the things we noticed was that the majority of Bellow's books weren't available in major territories. Things had been allowed to fall out of print, licenses hadn't been renewed, translations had not been revised. We spent over a year cleaning that up. Gallimard is retranslating Augie March, for instance. We are doing a re-launch of the whole list internationally. The Actual [Bellow's new novella] is the book with which we've reentered the market," Wylie said.
Wasserman, however, couldn't countenance even a co-existence with Wylie. "You don't divide up lists. You can only have one agent," Wasserman told Bellow when he suggested the pairing.
Wasserman, who has a still-healthy client roster that includes Reynolds Price, Oscar Hijuelos and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, told PW that a combination of reasons finally compelled her to write what may well be her only book. Early in her career, a seed was planted by Scribner editor-in-chief Burroughs Mitchell (Max Perkins's successor), who offered her a contract to tell the story of the Russell and Volkening Literary Agency (where she worked as an assistant and first worked with Bellow before going off on her own) and its quirky way of doing business (Diarmuid Russell and Henry Volkening didn't speak directly to each other for years). Then she started feeling pressure from Delmore Schwartz biographer James Atlas, who has long been at work on a biography of Bellow. While she was repping Bellow, Wasserman refused to cooperate with Atlas, but when parts of his book began to appear in theNew York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, Wasserman realized, "That's not the Saul Bellow I know." And since she no longer represented Bellow, she thought, "Why not now?" and decided to provide her portrait of Bellow.
Though she is unhappy about the breakup, Wasserman, in her memoir, also pays tribute to Bellow (who has not seen the book). "He brought me out into the world," she said. "I rose up to his expectations."
The problem, said Fromm editorial director Jordan, is that expectations are different in today's publishing world. "There used to be a fair amount of loyalty," he said. "At Grove [where Jordan spent 36 years, most recently as editorial director], we published Samuel Beckett, and Beckett wouldn't dream of shopping around and getting someone new. Saul is perfectly within his rights to leave her; it's not a question of ethics. And Wylie is really no different than anyone else nowadays. But this is all an indication of how the world of publishing has changed."