H.N. Swanson, the Agent Who Made Gatsby 'Great,' Is a Past Master of the Hollywood Deal
01/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EST
In 1924 the 27-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald asked H.N. Swanson to read his just-completed novel, Trimalchio in West Egg. "I told him it was the best thing he'd ever written," says Swanson, now 91, sitting in the parlor of his Beverly Hills mansion. But, he claims, "I told him he had to change the title. The one he had wouldn't sell eight books. He asked what I had in mind. 'Gatsby.' I told him. 'The Great Gatsby? Scott was a smart man. He took my advice."
H.N. Swanson has been dispensing such shrewd advice since Sunset Boulevard was just a half-paved road. During his six decades as Hollywood's top literary agent, he has served as liaison to the movie industry for many of the century's most-heralded writers—Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Pearl Buck, Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson among them. His hold on the Hollywood trade was once so strong that in 1939, when 110 screenwriters were under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, 80 were represented by Swanson.
It has been a rich life, in memories as well as commissions. In his heyday Swanie—as he is called by studio heads and parking attendants alike—was Clark Gable's friend and golfing partner. He lunched with Disney, barhopped with Bogie and partied with the wild Fitzgeralds. (At one soiree, he remembers, Scott gleefully emptied guests' handbags into a kettle of water, then brought the brew to a boil.) Now, slowed by age but still plying his trade—he supervises all of his office's major deals—Swanson has put his memories to paper in an autobiography called Sprinkled with Ruby Dust. "My publisher actually thinks it might sell," says Swanie, who wrote two novels and a play in the '20s. "Would be nice. I haven't cashed a royalty check in 60 years."
Writing, of course, isn't his specialty. It's selling—and battling with producers on his clients' behalf. "Selling stories is the easiest thing in the world," he says. "Have a good story, know the market, know what people are buying, corner the buyer, make the sale. Nothing more to it. Never was, never will be."
Harold Norling Swanson developed his flair for cashing in early. Born in Centerville, Iowa, to a poor Swedish tailor and his wife, he earned pocket money as a newsboy, and later as a teenage court reporter and railroad clerk. At Grinnell College, which he entered on scholarship in 1919, he even rented his raccoon coat to friends—-making sure to drive up the bidding. "Got two good winters out of that coat before it fell to pieces," he says.
Always a voracious reader, Swanson began writing short stories and poetry in college with an eye to pursuing a writing career. After graduation, with financial help from an uncle, he became the editor and half owner of College Humor, a Chicago-based monthly that became a showcase for such writers as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott. "That magazine was the one true love of my life," says Swanson, who spent eight years there. "It remains my happiest time."
But the call of Hollywood proved stronger. In 1931 RKO Studios head David O. Selznick, impressed by Swanson's work at College Humor, offered him a career producing films. Swanson turned out 13 features, most of them low-budget and forgettable. He learned plenty about the movie business, but eventually realized he missed working closely with writers. In 1934 he rented a building on Sunset Boulevard and set up shop as a literary agent. "He would go from lot to lot, his phone directory under his arm, a fresh carnation in his lapel, like Willy Loman peddling his wares," remembers producer David (Jaws) Brown. "He had the ear and respect of the studio bosses. They knew Swanie was honest, tough and fair. You never needed a contract with him—just a handshake."
Swanie had found his calling. In the early 1940s he negotiated a $750-a-week screenwriting contract for Raymond Chandler, then an unknown. ("He was an odd man, but he could write like a fool and had a great cynical flair for screenplays," Swanson says.) Hemingway (who he claims "didn't have a friend in the world and couldn't write without booze, which was true of many of my writers") came to Swanson when he wanted to sell the screen rights for A Moveable Feast. Swanie introduced Faulkner to producer Howard Hawks, gave screenwriting tips to Fitzgerald and discovered Elmore Leonard in the mid-'50s. "He was a pup writing Westerns," Swanson says. "I told him to forget the cowboy stuff and write stories with women in them. He did, and I made him a millionaire."
Over the years Swanson made hundreds of millions for himself as well. Today he lives in an antique-filled mansion with his second wife, Norma, 71. (His first wife died in 1982 after a 52-year marriage. They had no children.) He rises every morning before 7 and heads for the office to begin making phone calls: to producers, directors and writers. He remains a formidable negotiator. Just this October he landed a $4.5 million, two-book contract for Elmore Leonard. "I get top dollar for all my writers," says Swanie.
And he doesn't intend to stop. He works eight hours a day, has never taken a vacation and thinks retirement is fine—for other guys. "I've always worked hard," he says. "I was never a great writer, and I wasn't that great a producer. But give me a good story and a phone, and I can sell it. I'll make the deal. That I can do. That, I guarantee, I can do."