Ode to the Author’s Query

They fueled her childhood dreams; now they’re vanishing.
January 1, 2007

It was tiny, the slightest piece of prose ever published under my name. If you were nearsighted or preoccupied, you might easily have missed it. It probably went unnoticed by many readers of The New York Times Book Review when it appeared, at the foot of page twelve, on March 14, 2004, under the heading “Author’s Query.” What followed was a variation on a standard theme:

For a biography of the legendary fashion editor Carmel Snow (1887-1961), editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1957, I would appreciate hearing from anyone who might have relevant personal recollections, memos or other correspondence, photographs

or other material.

Penelope Rowlands

22 Hamilton Avenue

Princeton, NJ 08542

It was the very last time that one of these long-familiar author’s queries—diminutive written requests by writers seeking help with their research—appeared in the Book Review. According to a Times spokeswoman, they were dropped because of space constraints.

Such requests first ran in the Times’s book review section in about 1949. Their authors, over the years, ranged from the celebrated—the biographer Richard Ellman; Ralph Ginzburg, the controversial publisher—to the now deeply obscure, such as Dorothy Laughlin McGuinn and the wonderfully named Ernest Earnest.

As a book-addicted teenager growing up in New York, I thrilled to those items, which provided a clue to the mysterious process by which books actually got written. Their very matter-of-factness seemed delicious to me. That one could secure a book contract and soberly announce it to the world! And now and then, to my delight, I’d spy a favorite writer’s name—Janet Malcolm, for one—sometimes, amazingly, with an address attached. I felt privileged to be able to learn what an author I admired was working on, long before the book itself appeared in stores.

The queries turned up frequently back then. There might be several, even as many as five, in a given week—more in summer than in other seasons. (I pondered this, too. Was it because academics, having summers off, tended to begin their book projects then?) The formula behind them rarely changed. Even so, in this tight format, personalities burst through, as in the case of a writer named Pearl Sieben, engaged in researching Al Jolson, who sounded almost pleading (and can’t any biographer relate?). “Any material sent to me I would promptly return,” she swore. In 1956, Wallace Stegner, requesting correspondence by Bernard De Voto, oozily promised to handle it “with gratitude and alacrity.”

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I sent my own query in, rather late in the process of writing the biography it described, blindly, and with little expectation of seeing it published; I’d noticed fewer and fewer author’s queries in the Times. Even so, I dropped a letter in the mail and was pleasantly surprised to learn a few weeks later, via a call from an assistant editor, that my item would run in several weeks.

Although I’ve worked as a journalist for more than twenty years, and have written several illustrated books, A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters, as my biography came to be called, was my first full-length project. I found its subject endlessly fascinating. At Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow’s mandate was to create a magazine for “the well-dressed woman with a well-dressed mind.”And she did, bringing the newest in not just fashion, but photography, art, fiction, and more to her magazine. She was an extraordinary person, larger than life, funny, domineering, imperious, generous, infuriating. People who encountered her rarely forgot her. She filled the room.

Which I think explains what happened after my author’s query ran. Although a fellow biographer had warned me that the response was likely to be underwhelming, that wasn’t the case. It began with a trickle, then widened to a stream. There were letters, e-mails, and telephone calls, even though my number wasn’t included in my query.

I began to feel that A Dash of Daring might not—every writer’s worst fear!—sink without a trace. Its subject had, quite simply, meant too much to too many. I heard from a wide range of people, among them the composer Ned Rorem and a noted biographer, Nicholas Fox Weber. I had a letter from a man who’d grown up down the road from Snow and one from a woman whose long-ago lover had had, infuriatingly enough, an ongoing crush on the editor. One man hinted darkly that she might have been a target for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; still another correspondent, a housekeeper, led me to her boss, a key editor at Snow’s Harper’s Bazaar.

Those disparate voices enriched my book, published in November 2005. Even those who approached me, professing to have little to report, came through with something valuable. One woman, who had been a young secretary at another Hearst publication in the protracted, agonizing period when Carmel Snow, then in her seventies, simply refused to leave her post at Bazaar, recalled how this diminished (and by then frequently tipsy) former legend had still caused rooms to fall silent as she passed through. What this correspondent gave me was just a glimpse, a mental snapshot, but it rounded out the story of my subject’s last years.

The response to my query wasn’t just about work: several old friends of mine also surfaced, longtime fans of author’s queries who were delighted to find one containing a familiar name.

Like any biographer, I worked against time, and not just the looming publication date. A disconcerting number of the people I interviewed, Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson among them, died not long after we spoke. I raced to interview as many people who had worked with Carmel Snow as I could; I wanted to hear their voices, cull their stories, before they, too, slipped away.

For more than half a century, in innumerable author’s queries, legions of writers have tried, as I did, to bring back the dead, to reconstruct their lives. Many of their projects have been forgotten by now, their subjects seemingly erased. Whatever happened to “Madeleine Smith, who was tried in Scotland for the murder of her lover in 1857,” the subject of one request? And what of the American writer Benjamin de Casseres, whom Upton Sinclair was researching back in 1957? Was he once a household name?

I knew all those years ago, curled up on a sofa on the Upper East Side in my school uniform, simultaneously full of both ambition and ennui, that I wanted to be an author. What I couldn’t have guessed was how much things around me would change by the time I became one. How relentlessly the world, reinventing itself, moves on.

Biographers will now take their queries elsewhere, and they’ll probably have to pay for the privilege—a delightful, anachronistic aspect of the Times’s notices was that they were printed free. The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement still print such queries in their classified sections. (Jumbled among other ads, these requests never have the stature that those in the Times Book Review had, where they stood alone, islands in an editorial sea. And the fact that the Book Review is contained in a newspaper seems to guarantee a broader audience.) No doubt the Internet, as it does so often, will help to fill the void. But it seems safe to say that literary projects will never again be launched with such understated elegance as they were in the Times’s pages for so long, when scores of writers, year after year, appealed for help—soberly, even majestically, and in just a few narrow lines.

Penelope Rowlands is a freelance writer who lives in Princeton, New Jersey.