Thinking of Anais Nin: Durrett & Betty Wagner and Swallow Press

Durrett & Betty Wagner and Swallow Press

Caxton Club Talk

“Nothing gave him more joy than the work at Swallow.”

My husband never had a job he didn’t love. Nothing gave him more joy than the work at Swallow. Working closely with authors to make their works as flawless as possible was a great satisfaction to Durrett, as authors he edited attest.

When Ed Quattrocchi first asked me to tell about this remarkable publishing house, I knew it was too soon. I would have cried through the whole talk. But Pablo Neruda’s lines are what Durrett might have told me:

“If I die, survive me with such great force
That you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold. . .
I don’t want your laughter or steps to waver,
I don’t want my heritage of joy to die.”

So in that spirit Michael and I are going to tell some stories today—stories that I hope will bring to you some of the joy and, yes, heady chaos that characterized those years when he and Durrett and Mort Weisman were at the helm of Swallow Press in Chicago.

Swallow, for those of you who don’t know, was started in my home state of Colorado by an amazing poet and English teacher, Alan Swallow, who slumped over his typewriter on Thanksgiving Eve and died exactly 35 years to the day before Durrett did. Alan was only 50, and way too much of what Durrett and his colleagues needed to know was only in Alan’s brain. But we didn’t learn that until the press was bought and moved to Chicago.

Alan Swallow’s death in 1966 was received in the literary world as the end of an era. Swallow Press was unique—a small commercial publisher dedicated to three fields: literature, especially poetry, Western Americana, and Belles Lettres. Alan himself printed limited editions of poetry on a Chandler Price press, which we donated to the Platen Press museum in Beach Park, Illinois.

Our venture with Swallow Press began when Durrett was happily working away as Dean of Kendall College, then a fine liberal arts school in Evanston. It all began with the legendary snowstorm of 1967. Stay tuned. Our friends, Mort and Judy Weisman, decided they had to get out of town, and all the flights to Florida were booked. “Just get us someplace warm,” they pleaded, and the travel agent ticketed them into Las Vegas.

Mort went out on the golf course the first morning and picked up a partner, and off they went. He introduced himself as “in the book business,” as he was then President of A.C. McClurg, book wholesalers. The lawyer whom he met, responded, “Well, I guess I’m in the book business myself at the moment. I am representing the estate of a publisher in Denver. Maybe you could help me; I have three offers, and I don’t which one to take.” So Martin Miller, the Denver lawyer, told Mort in detail about each of the bids. Alan’s wife Mae did not want to sell to a New York house that might not continue the western and poetry focus or the tradition for high quality that Alan had established. By the fifth hole, Mort gave Mr. Miller this response: “Wait for a fourth offer.”

We learned about all this at our friend Mort’s house a few days later. I could tell by the gleam in Durrett’s eye that there was no way I was going to talk him out of such a cockamamie idea, and the deal was sealed. I lobbied hard for moving to Colorado, but Mort and Durrett wisely overruled me since Chicago was clearly the better home because of its solid roots in the printing, graphic arts, and book-making trades. In the Chicago Daily News, Van Allen Bradley announced the new publishing house as an ambitious venture and Durrett as a quiet academic sort who is the editorial sparkplug. We were soon welcomed into the publishing community by the publishers of Quadrangle, Regnery, Follett, and the university presses of Chicago, Northwestern, and University of Illinois, Chicago, who shared our dream of making Chicago a major book-publishing center.

From the moment the large semis arrived—loaded with copies of over 350 different titles of Alan’s backlist in various stages of completion—Durrett was swamped amid a mass of unsorted stacks of unbound pages, completed books, and boxes of assorted papers (they could hardly be called files), all this arrayed on skids at their loft on the sixth floor of 1139 South Wabash. This was in the days before publishers were taxed on their inventories and before on-line publishing, so there was a lot of paper moved from Denver to Chicago.

Because the estate had failed to list the Swallow and Sage books in Books in Print in 1967, many bookstores, libraries, and schools thought the era of Swallow Press was over. Even more troublesome was the fact that Alan’s royalty contracts with authors were incomplete; far too many crucial facts had been buried with Alan Swallow. In a 1968 letter to the Swallow authors, Durrett wrote:

Alan Swallow had a wonderfully personal relationship with his authors. One facet of this was the verbal agreements he made with some of you. The unfortunate aspect of this virtue, combined with the fact that he carried much of the business in his head, is that naturally it is difficult to reconstruct fully his operation.

It was clear that the days were over of a one-man publishing company, which Alan Swallow was. Durrett needed help, so the next year he hired Mike Anania to work part time with the poetry and literature, and by January 1969 Mort left A.C. McClurg and joined him full-time.

Despite this chaos, Durrett and Mike were able to do what they most loved—solicit new manuscripts and work with authors to make their books as perfect as possible. That first year Swallow came out with only four new titles, but by the next year, 1969, they were somehow able ambitiously to publish over 30 new books. Business doubled each year after that, and by 1974, they had expanded from doing $200,000 worth of business to almost a million.

A big problem was getting the writers of Swallow’s backlist to trust these new owners. Some weren’t sure that these “city slickers” from Chicago would keep the Sage line of scholarly western history thriving and expanding. Sage was Alan’s imprint for books about the West. That’s when Durrett donned his cowboy hat and drove around Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming to meet these authors. While the kids and I visited my parents near Denver, he tooled around to Western Writers and Western History Association conferences and assured the Swallow authors and potential writers that Swallow was not in the hands of some Chicago mafia. Soon many were calling him Tex (he grew up in El Paso), and handing him manuscripts for their next books.

This trust with the authors was cemented in 1969 when Swallow sued World Publishers for plagiarism and won. Harry Chrisman had published The Ladder of Rivers, a scholarly biography of I. P. (Print) Olive, in 1965. Print Olive was a controversial and colorful nineteenth-century Texas pioneer cowman. Chrisman had based his account on a thorough study of district court records, War Records in national and state archives, old newspapers, pamphlets, maps, plus previous books on Olive and private letters and documents from the family. A new book on Olive came out with World Publishers in Cleveland: Empire on the Platte. Chrisman knew it was plagiarized, but World insisted their author had gone to the same sources as Chrisman. The case was won on the basis of one fictitious name Harry had inserted in his book. Because a certain hired hand figured so prominently in one part of the accounts, and no one remembered his name, Harry called him by the name of his old platoon sergeant in World War II. Sure enough, the World Publisher author had copied that name along with all the factual material. So Swallow won its suit, which declared Chrisman “the sole proprietor of the copyright.” Harry was awarded $10,000 (which was real money in 1969).

To characterize the authors of the Sage line as colorful would be to underestimate their charm. Muriel Wolle, professor at the University of Colorado researched for her books by hiking up to abandoned mines and drawing pictures of wooden structures, now collapsed, and collecting stories. These resulted in Stampede to Timberline, which she published with Alan Swallow, and Timberline Tailings, she did with Durrett.

Then there was Roger Welsch, a philologist who went to Nebraska to research German dialects. I don’t remember how Durrett got onto him, but by the time I met him—at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where we often spent the night on the way to and from Colorado, he was the designated state folklorist. He collected songs and tales of the plains, and the last I heard, he and his wife are living in a sod house as part of a reconstructed pioneer village in Dannebrog, Nebraska. From time to time he appears on the CBS News Sunday Morning show in his bib overalls to give a bit of wisdom from the plains. He is not just a hayseed, however; his scholarly credentials include a doctorate in linguistics, with a specialization in the German dialect common to parts of Nebraska, and extensive research on the history of Nebraska.

As Mike Anania said to me the other day, he and Durrett were made for each other. There is no way I can recreate the succession of practical jokes those two men sent back and forth. He was the one who created that Ski Nebraska poster, which is a straight line across a white field. At the time Durrett was editing Roger’s collection of folk tales and stories, Roger was a folklore and history professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. His home on a corner lot in Lincoln was the only one that had gotten rid of its lawn and had gone back to native prairie. He loved weeds, and so when he decided to run for Lancaster County Weed Control Board Commissioner, he ran on a pro-weed platform! This was the early ‘70s, mind you, so it was not hard to garner votes among the undergraduates if you were pro-weed. They registered in record numbers and so put him into office where he worked to turn areas along the railroad tracks and public highways from water-gobbling grass to native weeds.

When Roger came to Chicago, Durrett, as Deputy Sheriff of the Westerners organization, put him on the program to sing songs, play his guitar, and tell stories. This was, as you may know, and all male bastion at the time, but Durrett integrated the club that night by taking our ten-year-old daughter, Kendra. He introduced her as the entire Roger Welsch fan club, so the men had to accept her. This was at least a decade before the Westerners changed their by-laws to allow women into their sacred chambers. This is the organization that opens every meeting by pulling a buffalo hide off the buffalo skull and chanting in unison, “Hello, Joe, you old buffalo!”

One more Roger Welsch story: He was even more notorious than most authors in not meeting deadlines. Durrett had been badgering him for several months to get a photo of himself for the dust jacket of his collection of Nebraska tales, titled Shingling the Fog and Other Plains Lies. The title came from the old joke about the men who were shingling a roof, and the fog was so thick that when they got to the eaves, the just went right on shingling. Well, first, Roger sent a photo of himself in a enormous raccoon coat fastened in the front with huge safety pens. Durrett cajoled. “Get me a usable photo and quick.”

The next photo was cut out of a sex manual with the note, “I’m the one on top.”

Durrett wired back: GOT PIC. STOP. NEW TITLE. STOP. SHINGLING THE FOG AND OTHER PLAINS LAYS. A decent photo arrived by return mail.

The press continued to grow in reputation and success. Doretta Fuhs joined the staff to introduce some sense of order in the place. John Jenkin helped Durrett oversee the Sage line, and Frank Gallati joined on as shipping clerk—yes, the same Frank Gallati who is now renowned as a director and scriptwriter. Mike Nussbaum introduced Durrett and Mort to Frank and asked if Swallow could help him out. He needed a job. Lou Matis designed books; Shirley Kopatz came from Basic Books in New York to work with promotion and advertising. Saundra Smith and Donna Ippolito came aboard, and this cohesive book-loving staff managed to keep up and expand Alan Swallow’s tradition of high-quality publication.

During the next few years, Swallow’s reputation increased among the academic community, and they also made a substantial number of sales to libraries, many of which would buy any new book Swallow published because they knew their books would be fine ones. We began to get reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books as well as in such places as Journal of the West or the Denver Post, where Swallow books long had been reviewed. Durrett wrote in their catalog: “Swallow books are aimed at the imaginative, the adventurous, the thoughtful. With emphasis on honesty and a fresh approach, the two imprints, Swallow Press and Sage Books, provide the color of diversity along with up-to-the minute awareness.”

Durrett got deeply involved in the books he loved, working closely with authors. For example, a manuscript came over the transom from an unknown writer, Virginia Irving Armstrong. For many years she had been collecting Indian speeches. What they needed was some serious research as to the circumstances under which each was delivered, and Durrett much enjoyed helping her dig into history to add the scholarly addendums to this collection, which was published as I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Durrett asked Frederick W. Turner III of the University of Massachusetts to write an introduction.

Probably Durrett’s favorite book to edit, however, was Dave Dary’s The Buffalo Book. It was chosen as an alternate for the Book of the Moth Club and was a selection of the Natural Science Book Club. He got into the research for that book in a big way. One of the curiosities for Durrett was an illustration in Dary’s book that showed a buffalo being killed with a pistol. He didn’t think it possible, so that began a long search that ended in an article on “Shooting Buffaloes with Pistols” that he published in the Montana The Magazine of Western History. When we were vacationing in England, he spent an inordinate amount of time going through nineteenth century shipping logs at the port to figure out how they kept the buffalo from ramming through the hulls of the sailing ships. He never did find out what they did. The buffalo were brought over from the New World then for the wild parks of the rich country lords. Two other books Durrett much enjoyed editing were John Meigs’ Cowboy Prints, and the limited edition of Catlin prints. Durrett immersed himself in Frank Waters’ fascinating Mexico Mystique and other books; he was a very interesting man to work with him.

Not all of Durrett’s favorite editing jobs were about books of the West, however. He found it stimulating to edit Roy Mackal’s The Monstersof Loch Ness, which was actually taken seriously in the scholarly community. Roy had used sonar to identify large eels lying at the bottom of Loch Ness; he made a case for their having migrated from the Sargasso Sea in the north Atlantic. Roy is a fascinating crypto-zoologist at the University of Chicago who has spent his life investigating problems associated with ‘hidden’ or little-known creatures such as the abominable snowman or the Mokele-mbembe believed to be a living sauropod dinosaur that lives in the Likouala swamp region of the Republic of Congo. He is still traveling around the world with his investigations. He is still grateful to Swallow for promoting his Loch Ness book, which sold quite well.

Another set of books that intrigued Durrett were ones on contemporary issues, such as Bill Zimmerman’s Airlift to Wounded Knee. Bill was one of the organizers of the rescue effort that dropped more than 2000 pounds of food and supplies to a group of defiant Sioux who were cut off when federal troops blockaded the historic village that the Sioux had seized in 1973. Bill left our house where he and Durrett worked on the book to go to California to manage Tom Hayden’s campaign for the Senate.

Judy Weisman and I never worked at the press; we were in charge of parties–the celebrations of a book’s publication. We always invited the book reviewers–Studs Turkel, Robert Cromie, Hoke Norris, Herman Kogan, Van Allen Bradley, and others, including friends of the author. Sometimes the author spent the night in our son’s bedroom; then parties included breakfast and lunch as well. I loved talking with the writers, and there are just a few tidbits about these celebrations I’d like to share.

I’ll not forget the cake baked by that great Chicago restaurant, The Bakery for the Peter Hurd party. The frosting was an exact duplicate of Hurd’s portable silver watercolor box that was made for him by a group of Hindu silversmiths under an banyan tree in what is now Pakistan back when he was on assignment for Life magazine during World War II. (Show book.)

The most poignant moment at a party was when we were celebrating the revised and enlarged edition of Allen Tate’s Essays of Four Decades, which sold 3000 copies in the first three months. Allen was 70 years old at the time of the party, and he looked frail. He was flying back to Texas the next day to join his young wife and two-year-old son. I was standing next to Henry Rago, editor of Poetry Magazine, as he was telling Alan goodbye, and it was clear from his warm handshake he knew he might never see Allen again—because of his advanced age. He, like all of us, greatly admired his contribution to the literary world. Who would have ever believed that it was Henry, then 52 and looking very vigorous, who would die on the way home from that party! Tate lived for another decade.

The apex of parties, however, was the one we gave at our house for Anaïs Nin (she pronounced it as Anaïs Nin) in January 1972. Durrett and Mort had gone to New York to try to talk her into publishing her diaries with Swallow rather than with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. After all, Alan had published all her fiction and Swallow had kept it in print. She was then our best-selling author, and Swallow was coming out with a new book, the Anaïs Nin Reader. According to her, she had originally taken the diaries to Alan Swallow, but he advised her to go with a bigger publisher, and she felt obligated out of loyalty to him to take his advice. Obviously, if Swallow had gotten those diaries, they might still be in business!

So, the object of the New York trip wasn’t achieved, but what did happen was that both Durrett and Mort were smitten by Nin’s charm. I could not believe that for weeks all Durrett was talking about was a woman the age of my mother! When I met her in 1972, I could see why. She came sweeping into our front hall with her signature cape to the floor. At that time, none of my friends wore eyeliner, which made her eyes absolutely riveting. When Durrett took her cape, there she stood in her luminous red velvet dress that swept the floor, and then she glided through the house like the dancer that she was. From that moment I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

We had a little supper in the kitchen before her lecture at Northwestern, and when our girls came in from ice-skating, they joined us. She later described in a letter both the rosy cheeks and skating outfits of our daughters and the glow of candlelight in our living room, which is the closest to real fame I’ll ever get! Years later, when Kendra was reading Nin at Evergreen State College, she asked me why I never told her that the woman she met back then was so famous, and I assured her that from her point of view, this was just another grown-up who was taking her parents’ attention away from her!

The auditorium at Northwestern was packed that night with 1000 students standing all around the back as well as sitting all over the stage around her podium. Many of the young women there were deep into their bra-burning anti-feminine bravado, and she, as their champion woman’s libber, presented a striking contrast to the jeans and t-shirt-clad crowd. I remember the question period well. An edgy anti-male young woman asked her how she could possibly praise a writer like D. H. Lawrence, who presumed to know how women feel and write about it? She wisely said something like, “If we put everything we know and feel through a political tunnel, we will miss the richness and nuances of life.” As she wrote, “There was no declaration of war between the sexes in my work. There was a desire to show that relation is only possible if one understands the emotional crystallizations of both men and women.” What I respond to in her writing is her belief that “the personal life deeply lived, takes you beyond the personal.” In the offices of Swallow, she ruminated on the violence she saw in this country. She wondered if it was because people need to feel. She said then what needs to be said now: “this American cult of toughness [c]ould really do harm, and I think it has: it has disparaged sensitivity.”

Swallow parties continued, and the press thrived unabated until 1974, when the Nixon Administration dealt Swallow a mighty blow. They cut off federal funding to libraries. A large part of Swallow’s sales were to libraries. Over 900 of them bought every book Swallow published because they knew they could count on its quality. At the same time paper costs soared; they went up 45% in 1973 alone. For the first time, the Swallow staff had to consider seeking material that might merely be commercially successful. Up to that time, they had the luxury of focusing only on the quality of the manuscripts they solicited—like the New Poets series or such avant-garde books such as Robert Theobald’s An Alternative Future for America or George Anastaplo’s Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom, and the Common Good.

Pushed by an adverse climate for all presses In the mid-seventies, Swallow decided to publish a few pot-boilers—books considered the most likely to make some money, such as the paperbacks: Ana Moldafsky’s The Good Buy Book, a guide to outlets and inexpensive sources of goods, which sold, at $1.95, 75,000 copies in the first few months, and Jill and Ron Rohde’s The Good But Cheap Restaurant Book. The best part of the latter was that little ethnic restaurants all over the city were happy to give Durrett and me a free meal on the hope that we’d put in a good word with the authors about their cuisine.

To overcome some of their financial problems they sold paperback rights to mass-market publishers. Three of Frank Waters’ titles were sold to Ballantine, (which also did a paperback of Henrietta Mertz’ Pale Ink) and Pocket Books (which also bought Virginia Armstrong’s I Have Spoken. Curtis Books did a paperback of Cyrus Colter’s The Rivers of Eros, and Comstock did Perry Eberhart’s Treasure Tales of the Rockies and C. L. Sonnichsen’s Outlaw. Avon brought out Philip Jason’s Anaïs Nin Reader. The Press turned over the warehousing and shipping to Follett in Chicago, but they kept their own sales force and continued to be the distributor. In January, 1976, they moved their offices to the third floor of Mort Weisman’s home and Durrett continued, as he always had, to do a lion’s share of his meticulous editing from home.

All this activity was not enough. however, to restore the financial health of Swallow Press. By 1979, the die was cast. Mort and Durrett couldn’t go on without more support. That was when Swallow entered into a unique 100-year licensing agreement with Ohio University Press, which is where it continues to thrive. Their web site currently lists 67 fiction titles, including Anaïs Nin, Janet Lewis, and Frank Waters. They also have 59 books of poetry in print including such Swallow notables and Lucian Stryk, Janet Lewis, J. V. Cunningham, John Matthias, Tom McGrath, and James Shevill, but the glory days of publishing a dozen books of poetry a year are long gone. Dick Ellman once called Swallow “the publisher for poets.”