A Farewell to Max Brand
By Steve Fisher
Bryce's note: A eulogy for one of the pulp era's most prolific authors, written by a long time coworker. Originally published in the August 1944 Issue of Writer's Digest.
"… when the doughboys (on the Italian Front) plunged into the thick of battle, Faust went right along. He was killed … either by German artillery or mortar fire. He was the fifth man to jump off in the attack and died in the forefront of the battle within 30 minutes after the offensive opened."
—Los Angeles Times.
His real name was Frederick Faust. He wrote stories under it, too, some of his best stories, and his best were very great. In all he wrote over 200 books, and I don’t think anyone has ever counted all of the short stories and novelettes. It is estimated that in his lifetime he wrote 27 million words, as much, and more perhaps, than any man who has ever lived. In addition to his numerous shorter pieces in the magazines, he averaged one complete novel every three weeks.
He created "Dr. Kildare," of magazine and movie fame; he wrote "Destry Rides Again," and his last screenplay for the studio where I work is the current Errol Flynn film "Uncertain Glory." He lived in Italy for 12 years, and loved Italy; he traveled the world, and in his obituary the papers said, “He was one of the last true soldiers-of-fortune — a globe-trotting writer with worlds of information at his fingertips;” they said, too, that he was “a man of mystery,” and reflecting back, I guess he was. Millions of readers loved him, and he was one of the annointed—a “writer’s writer” as well. But only a rare few knew him intimately, and you never heard anything about what he was like in person, or how he lived—except for an anecdote once in awhile from Jack Byrne at the time when he was editing Argosy. Byrne would refer to him by his nickname “Heinie,” but his voice was one of admiration, and I think awe. Yet the actual, living Max Brand you never really saw. He was legend.
I remember that now, very well: those years in New York, when I idolized his work. One of his Saturday Evening Post stories, “Johnny-Come-Lately,” I read so many times I almost knew it by heart. No one knew anything about the author.
So I consider it a privilege that I learned to know him so well out here. He was a very dear friend—an immense man, with an immense capacity for work, and an immense heart and soul, and the most extravagantly generous person I have ever known. Yes, I knew him. It was in my office at Warner Brothers that his mission to Italy started. I was working on an army picture, and a Colonel Nee, from Washington (Nee is now overseas) was a sort of technical advisor to me for a few days. Heinie met him in my office. Then one afternoon—
"Remember, old boy, remember Heinie? —how you sat there, your long legs crossed, leaning back on the red divan, one eye squinted, looking thoughtfully at Colonel Nee, and then saying, finally: ‘You know what I'd like to do, Colonel? I’d like to go to the Front. I’d like to travel with a company of doughboys—not as an officer, you can’t get close enough to the men that way, but as a civilian. I’d like to eat with them, sleep with them, sit down nights and talk to them; I’d like to fight with them, go with them into action—and then write a book which would be the story of that one company.’
"That was your idea, Heinie, your mood of the moment, as you sat there, your hair tousled, your suit looking like you’d slept in it. You had, I think; you’d just taken a nap. You were almost 52, and it was a reckless thought, more of a dream than an idea, really. But you lived on dreams and by them. You walked on the stars as no other man I have ever known. Warner was paying you $3,000 a week to put some of those dreams down on paper. You wanted to give up $3,000 a week to go to the Front? I'm afraid I smiled to myself. I never thought you’d actually do it, you fabulous so-and-so! God, but the magic you had, though! You even talked like a poem. You were a good man. A decent man. None of your characters were ever any different either! They were all as fabulous and as magic and as eloquent as you. Adventure and heart and music. That’s the way your prose read. It is difficult to imagine anyone in actual life who is like that. But you were.”
On the day Heinie said this about wanting to go overseas, Frank Gruber was there, too. I’ve just talked to Frank on the phone. We agreed that there is so much to write and say about Max Brand it seems almost as though, incapable of doing the subject justice, one should write nothing at all. But I am compelled to.
Heinie told us a great deal about himself. But only when we asked. First let me stop for this—the picture of him doing it is so clear; he used to write at the studio sitting in his shirt sleeves, his immense legs straddling a small coffee table, pounding on a portable typewriter. His office was a mess —there’d be paper all over everywhere. But no matter how absorbed he was in what he was writing, when you opened the door to peak in, he’d immediately stop, push back the coffee table, look up smiling and say: “How’s it go, Steve? Here, boy, sit down and tell me about it;” and if you tried to back out, saying you’d catch him when he wasn’t busy, he’d refuse to hear of it. He’d insist that you’d stay and discuss with him whatever it was you wanted to discuss—and it was always something you wanted, help you wanted, your problem— nothing that could benefit him in the least. He is the only writer I have ever known who would drop everything—deliberately and unselfishly interrupt his own train of thought for a friend.
I am sure that if it were not for him I’d never have written my last novel. I was doing the story as a picture and had only “talked” of developing it as a book, too, the way writers talk sometimes, needling themselves. But Heinie pounced upon the idea. He saw in it powerful things that had never even remotely occurred to me. He said it was an opportunity to write with my guts, the way I should. He hounded and tormented me to start the book, then came in every day to see how many pages I’d done. It was published, and I sold it in addition as a serial, but I don’t think Heinie liked it. I could never have come up to the expectations he had for me.
He did almost the same thing for Frank Gruber. Frank has a detective character named “Johnny Fletcher,” and one Sunday afternoon Heinie plotted an entire Johnny Fletcher novel for him—and Gruber wrote it. It was always you Heinie talked about. It was always you who was being helped. There was no exchange. It was one-sided, lopsided, whole-hearted generosity. He would accept no help on his own work. The most he ever said about his stories was once, about one thing: “Junk. Sheer junk. Gibberish.” Yet when he talked stories (and when he wrote them, too, never fear) he was a wild man, tender and passionate and fierce, and his ideas soared!
He told us once that he wrote 14 pages every day of his life. Sometimes he wrote much more (one day at the studio he wrote 50 pages before lunch), but never less than 14 pages. His prose was poetry, but he wrote actual verse too, and it was published in magazines like Harper’s, Vogue, and Story. One day at lunch he scribbled off a little scrap of a sonnet, which he had composed just that minute. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever read. I carried it for months in my wallet—the corner off the back of a menu—and I would like to include it here. But now, now that he is dead, I can’t find it.
Heinie was a highly literate man. In a class with Aldous Huxley. He could talk intelligently on any subject—history, religion, war, life, death and love. I don’t think he knew what hatred was. I am not saying this to eulogize. I swear that it’s true. He loved, did Heinie.
He had a peculiar habit, though. I’ve heard that professors sometimes do it. His power of concentration was intense—especially when he was walking. Often, his mind miles away, he would walk past you on the sidewalk looking stonily ahead, so absorbed that if you said hello he didn’t hear you. You’d have to call his name. But one writer, upon bidding Heinie “Good morning” and getting no response felt it was a personal slight. He was an extremely sensitive guy, and began to form a hatred for him. He told people he was a “snob.” Heinie heard about it and one day walked into the writer’s office.
The writer was bent over his desk working, and when he didn’t look up that was the well-known signal we have that means “Lay-off, I’m hot on something… don’t want to lose the thought. Come back later,” the whole thing unspoken. Heinie never practiced it himself, though he knew very well what it meant. But now he paid no attention. He leaned over the desk, affectionately put his two big hands on either side of the writer’s face and lifted up his head. He said: “Listen, you son-of-a-bitch, I hear you hate me.” Under the writer’s protestations he hauled him out of there, off the lot, and across the street to a bar where he stood him two quick drinks. I saw them when they returned. They were arm in arm—pals.
That’s Heinie. It’s him a thousand times.
In earlier days he wrote for the pulps at four and five cents a word. (The rest of us were averaging a cent and a half a word top rates.) He was king of the pulps, the biggest and best and most famous writer of all. Most of his stories and serials appeared in Argosy— where he often had four serials running at once under Max Brand, Evan Evans, George Owen Baxter, and George Challis. In all, he told me, he had used at one time or another 17 different nom-de-plumes. He never talked of any of his work and didn’t even vaguely remember "Johnny Come Lately" the story I’d thought was so wonderful. Once, he entered my office as I was telling a group about one of his Colliers’ serials, "Six Golden Angels," and when he heard what the conversation was he turned and walked out, and refused to come back. He was inordinately shy.
It was in the 1930s, under the supervision of his agent and close personal friend, Carl Brandt, that he landed in the slicks. One month I counted his name on the covers of seven different slick magazines. Two of the stories were book-length. It was in 1938 he came to Hollywood. Of this town he is said to have told Carl Brandt, “I like it because I can get all my work done in the morning and have the entire afternoon to write poetry.”
If Heinie were here right now, he’d be making wry faces at me for trying to write this. “You’ve got a nerve,” he’d say affectionately. “What the hell do you know about me?” And it’s true. I don’t really know anything about him. He was the man of mystery. Moral, idealistic, a poet and a dreamer. Of tremendous energy, and tremendous emotion. When he spoke of his love for Dorothy, his wife, and this was frequently, he’d make tears come to your eyes. “I’m the meanest guy in the world— and she’s put up with me all these years.” I doubt, though, that he was mean. His love for his children was great, too—Judy Faust who is in boarding school, a big girl, like her father, and very pretty. I saw her once or twice when she picked him up after work. His son, John—who is in the army; and a married daughter who lives in Santa Barbara.
I have used the word affectionate twice, and this makes the third time. Heinie was affectionate. He had a great love and a great spirit and a great, beautiful talent. It is trite to say but true, that he made millions of people laugh and millions cry, and all of them loved him. He was truly a great man. The literary critics may never know how great—that novel of Italy, and the front lines. He had in him power and depth and beauty he’d never even tapped. And now he’s been killed in action. Frederick Faust and Max Brand are dead.
Heinie gave you his heart, and it was a very good and gay and bold and generous heart. No man, I am sure, has ever given more.