The Pressure of Being a Legacy Writer
Following in the footsteps of a famous writer and grandfather seemed a daunting challenge, until I realized it wasn’t
The bar was set before I was born
The writing gene pool was pretty deep
My parents were wonderful writers, and through their encouragement and by their examples, my path as a writer was clear before I entered my teens. But following in the longer footsteps of a four-time Oscar-winning screen-writing grandfather really set the pace.
A gift from a friend illuminated the model I was following
A friend of mine emailed me a few weeks ago to let me know he had found a book he thought I might enjoy, one that could also be valuable to my research as I work on a biography. As any biographer will tell you, no piece of research is too little to ignore, and when my friend offered to send the book, I took him up on his kindness. The book, Hollywood Director: the Career of Mitchell Leisen, published in 1973 by David Chierichetti as part of the Curtis Film series, was, indeed, a treasure trove of interviews and background information about one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Among Leisen’s long line of films dissected in the book, there are five that are that have special meaning to me:
Midnight, 1939; Arise, My Love, 1940; Hold Back the Dawn, 1941; To Each His Own, 1946; and The Mating Season, 1951. The first four were Leisen-directed movies in which my grandfather, Charles Brackett, was a screenwriter; the last one, The Mating Season, was produced and co-written by my grandfather, who worked with colleagues like Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch, Richard Breen, and I.A.L. Diamond
Tributes to a gentleman
In Hollywood Director, Chierichetti quotes Leisen commenting on my grandfather’s style:
“Arise My Love was Charlie Brackett at his best. He had a facility with words that was fantastic, and I think his poetic sense came through particularly well in this picture. Billy Wilder was very emotional and would argue everything I objected to in a scene. But then he and Charlie would go out and put their heads together and come up with a superb scene. It wouldn’t be the scene we decided upon at all, but something much better. My philosophy regarding changing the dialogue was simply this, there was no tradition behind it and it had to be changed all right. But some of Charlie’s lines were so beautiful you just couldn’t tamper with them. Where Ray says he sees ‘Stately trees practicing their curtsies in the wind because they think Louis XIV is still king’: you just couldn’t cut a line like that! Ray had trouble saying all that, but we just went over it until he got it.”
About my grandfather’s screenwriting in the movie To Each His Own, Leisen said, “In this tale of almost epic sweep, every second counts. Every line of Charles Brackett’s dialogue a) provides plot exposition and b) delineates the characters and see establishes the milieu.”
Writing about Charlie Brackett and Billy Wilder’s partnership in his book Wilder Times, Wilder biographer Kevin Lally, writes, “The elder Brackett had been something of a father figure helping Wilder with his faulty English and protecting him from the paramount bureaucracy.”
“ ‘Billy was a little in awe of Charles and as far as I know he’s the only person Billy has ever been in awe of ,’ says Barbara Diamond the widow of Wilder’s other longtime writing partner, I. A. L. Diamond. ‘Charlie came from a certain kind of elaborate WASP background that Billy found a little intimidating.’ ”
What the legacy is all about
Ed Sikov paints an accurate picture
In On Sunset Boulevard: the Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Ed Sikov describes my grandfather, in 1935, as “[A] soft-spoken Republican gentleman from Saratoga Springs New York, the gray-haired, 43-year-old Charles Brackett, stood at nearly 6 feet and could look Billy Wilder directly in the eye. He was Billy’s senior by 14 years.
“In 1914, when Billy was still a child pool shark in Kraków, Brackett graduated from Williams College. In 1920, while Billy was a semi-delinquent Jewish teenager running loose on the depressed streets of postwar Vienna, the blue-blooded Brackett was finishing up at Harvard law, having already served a short stint as vice consul in St. is there, and as a liaison officer for French general during World War I. Charlie Brackett’s father was a prosperous lawyer, a state senator, and the owner of a Saratoga Springs bank.
“Brackett wrote because he was brought up to be a cultured man of the world and because he knew he was good at it. He wrote short stories during his time at Harvard, and when he graduated with his law degree, he returned home to Saratoga Springs and continued his nascent literary career while working in his father’s law firm. But first he had to get the war out of his system. He composed a story called War while he was serving in Nantes and, once he was safely back in law school, sent it to an agent, who promptly turned it down. He told Brackett that the story was censurable and therefore not publishable.
“The young writer may have been discouraged, but the writer’s mother was not, and she encouraged him to send war to the Saturday Evening Post. He did, anonymously, and they accepted it and asked for more. Brackett was ready for them. He immediately submitted his novella, Counsel of the Ungodly, which soon ran in the Post in three installments. Breezy, knowing, and exquisitely fashioned, Brackett’s literary works seem in retrospect to be the essence of their age, though their style is archaic.
“He moved to Manhattan and began writing full-time. His novel Weekend came to the attention of The New Yorker’s Harold Ross, who offered him a job as the magazine’s drama critic. With his golden touch Brackett wrote criticism and two more novels: the Last Infirmity, 1926 and American Colony, 1929, and then with the supreme confidence that old money can buy he left his plum post and went off to write more books.”
His work continued
Once my grandfather began working with Wilder, things only got better, with movies like Ninotchka, Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard — the last two earning my grandfather his first two Oscars.
After my grandfather and Billy parted ways in 1951, my grandfather went on to produce and/or screenwrite Niagara, The Wayward Bus, The King and I, Titanic (his third Oscar), and Journey to the Center of the Earth. He received his fourth Oscar, an honorary Academy Award, for his service as president of the Academy.
Early influencers, four decades of diaries, caring parents
Who he hung with shaped his worldview
The writers in my grandfather’s circle of friends, men and women I either knew of, or got to know, included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Faulkner, Steinbeck (who I did meet), E. B. White, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, most of the Algonquin Round Table, and, of course, his colleagues and writing partners in Hollywood.
Journals spanning a life’s work
After my grandfather’s death in 1969, I inherited his diaries. They were scrupulously written daily (often after midnight) from the late 1920s until the early 1960s. Those diaries alone, as key sources for the biography I am writing, have kept me occupied for the past ten years.
The vast compendium of journals, short stories, plays, drama critiques, novels, and movies written by my grandfather over a forty-five year span was impossible for me to ignore as I came into my own years of learning to write, beginning to write, and finally becoming a paid writer.
Two key models
Many thanks must be paid to my parents for their roles in guiding me toward my profession as a journalist and photojournalist. It helped that my mother — my grandfather’s youngest daughter — was not only a good writer in her own right, she was a good editor and writing coach. During his military career, my father was a speechwriter for two Air Force chiefs-of-staff, and while he was a fine technical writer, his personal letters to me were tender, lyrical, and meaningful. With two writing parents to guide me, I had a fighting chance to at least produce publishable materials.
The legacy looms large
Nonetheless, there was a larger legacy to uphold: my grandfather’s. For me, the ongoing challenge as always been to honor the legacy without trying to become the legacy. I cannot be a Charles Brackett clone. But not emulating someone whose body and style of work is so ingrained in family and professional lore — particularly when you idolized them in life — is so much harder than one might think. Look how many children follow their famous parents who are legendary politicians, musicians, artists, explorers, doctors, lawyers, military leaders, etc. And the whole idea of being a “legacy” student at a parent’s university is just one step along that road to becoming a familial chameleon.
The urge to mimic, when reinforced by so many advocates — time-silenced models, or active and vocal champions — was so strong in my life, that at those times when I was faced with other very interesting choices — archaeology, anthropology, geology, even military service — the pull of the pen re-centered me and kept me on my writing path.
Hearing my grandfather’s voice
The trick for me was to find a writing voice that was informed by my grandfather’s love of the English language, but which transcended his late-19th to mid-20th century application of English. The following passages, unedited, are taken directly from his mid-1930s diaries:
I am of course an old whore in my ability to like people — there are almost none that I really dislike, and a kind word weakens my latent softness to the mawkish point….
As I write, I am just about passing into my 40th year, and I am as discouraged about my career as one can be who is cursed with a foolishly sanguine disposition. I have an interesting, scattered life, and I have gotten nowhere and I am getting nowhere. I wish I knew the answer.
I found in myself a Victorian regret or rather shame that members of the supposedly upper class should have so behaved themselves before the servants.
After Sunday dinner with the family they went to a rehearsal, while we went to a reading by T.S. Eliot. He proved to be a languid young man with a constipated voice, very utter, without being effeminate. I believe I should have written young-looking rather than young, since he graduated from Harvard in 1910. His Poems strike occasional sparks of beauty, but their importance eludes me.
When style gets in the way, and time moves on
For his time, my grandfather’s grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and overall flow were exemplars of his Ivy education and upper-class delivery, and those attributes served him well as a writer for directors and actors who were from the same socio-economic strata, or who learned to sound as if they were. However, unlike the up-and-coming younger writers of the 30s and 40s, my grandfather was reluctant to embrace popular or evolving social concepts and words and phrases that were coming into vogue, patterns of thought and speech that would eventually fill the easy dialogues of the post-World War II generations. In short, as fine a writer as he was, he was stuck in a rut out of which he chose not to climb.
You can’t write if you don’t read
My grandfather and my parents believed that one of the keys to becoming a good writer is to be an avid reader of great writers. I hammer that thought home at every opportunity — whether I’m lecturing an Intro-to-Journalism class, or responding to a Quora question, or offering advice to my own children. No matter how wonderful your high school English teacher was, no matter how deeply you were taken with your college English Lit professor, no matter how wide your bookshelf (real or virtual) is lined or stocked with style guides and well-intended books on how to become a great writer, there simply is no substitute for immersing yourself in the universe of classic, 20th century, and contemporary authors.
My boyhood books tended to reflect my parents’ and grandfather’s favorites, so for me, the works of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Poe, Verne, St. Exupery, Orwell, Woolf, Asimov and Bradbury, Heller, Wharton, and Baum were worn down to their spines. History was a never-to-be-neglected part of my daily education, and the writers of the Revolution — American, British, and French — were rarely below the top ten must-reads on my list.
When I discovered the towering passions of Jefferson’s, Hamilton’s, Paine’s, and Madison’s lessons in democracy, I was hooked. Add to that collection the works of Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and Montesquieu, and I was immersed in styles of language that are, admittedly, dismissed today, not because the power behind the words changed — it did not — but because the styles changed with the times. In my grandfather’s case, his ability to craft a beautiful phrase was his gift; his inability to adapt his skill to changing times was his undoing.
The basics count, but the times dictate style
When I began writing with a purpose, I was in my early teens — back in the 1960s. Although contemporary literature was part of my school work, my models for writing remained my grandfather and my parents, who were relative throwbacks to a time when personal letters were handwritten, words were carefully chosen, and manners — the comity of language —expected. Complete sentences containing all the appropriate parts of speech were struggling against populist winds filled with more informal, breezy mannerisms, with their contractions, incomplete sentences, wayward prepositions, and unchained exclamation marks.
A great editor changed everything
Back when daily newspaper experience was a must
I might have bent in those winds more readily had I not landed a job as a reporter in a local daily newspaper overseen by an old-school managing editor. Her name was Carol Griffee, and for my last two years of high school, she became my mentor and guide along the writing trail. My grandfather would have loved her. My parents were thrilled that I was under her tutelage. Their affection for Carol would not have been because she saw language their way, but because she was a bridge of understanding between their past and my future.
Knowing my audience and learning when to bend the rules
Carol was Strunk & White to the core, but she also recognized, and knew how to apply, the lighter, more socially-connected language of the American street. By the time I headed off to college, I’d learned enough from Carol to be able to break the rules and still stay true to illuminating the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a news story. Carol knew my roots. She respected them. But she also knew that if I had any chance of growing as a journalist in a newspaper market trying to adapt quickly to their readers’ shorter attention spans and the reality of truncated television news, I could give a nod to my grandfather and my parents, but I needed to break out with my own voice.
New vistas and an improving tool kit
I wandered in the wilderness for a while, signing on to another daily newspaper near my university. It was a paper influenced heavily by the region’s agriculture and mining interests, interests that responded well to stories about soy beans, sugar beets, meat prices, farm equipment costs, and rural water rights. The issues I’d covered in Carol’s newspaper — national politics, urban education, suburban growth, student unrest, Vietnam and other national and international stories — did not make a dent in my second newspaper’s blue collar, low-income, hard-working world. Writing for that newspaper market really got me down to basics, and eliminated virtually all the frills of excessive descriptions. Subject, verb, object, and maybe a modifier or two. “Wheat prices hit new lows yesterday in Chicago.” That’s all a farmer needs in a headline, and really not much more in the following story.
A political jolt
Selling a little of my soul
When I returned to Washington, D.C., I was hired by political committee to knock out talking points and briefing books for Congressional candidates. Now everything I wrote had fit on 3-by-5 cards, or in a handy binder filled with voter profiles, local and national issues, opposition research, soundbite-fodder, locale-specifics, VIPs to coddle, etc. Now I was so far away from my grandfather’s voice, I could barely hear him encouraging me to make every word count. It was a writer’s trial by fire to get through a campaign season, and I managed to do it until something better came along…and it sort of did: speechwriting.
Speechwriting at Mach 3
As a Congressional speechwriter, I was knocking out two or more speeches a day, some barely longer than a minute (about 100 words), some about ten minutes long (1,000 words), and quite a few in the 20- to 30-minute range (2,000- to -3,000 words). With secondary duties as a press secretary, responsible for putting out a newsletter and prepping my various bosses for interviews, the writing workload was unlike anything my newspaper experiences had prepared me for, except for two things: working on deadline, and clarity of message. The one person in my family who completely understood my work was my father who had been a speechwriter for high-level military leaders, and knew full well the demands of the job.
Where the hell is my grandfather?
By that point, any thought of mimicking my grandfather’s gentle, elegant voice had been overwhelmed by the daily demand to produce hard-hitting, clipped, on-point speeches written to reach not the avid reader of classical literature, but the man- or woman-in-the-street whose skeptical views toward politicians required quick but memorable positions and promises.
I enjoyed a side job as a frequent columnist for the up-and-coming national newspaper, USA Today. My columns were usually assigned with often only an evening’s notice of x-number of words on a topic due for the next morning’s paper. Writing on such tight deadlines, with a specific word count (not much more than 400 words), does cause a writer to focus. It’s also a great way to learn to self-edit and to be brutal about it.
The journey begins to settle down, and a voice comes through
After a few Congressional campaign seasons during which I built a new skill set, I was hired to write speeches for a string of cabinet secretaries, and that transition managed to bring me full circle back to a place where I could begin working on my own style while respecting the groundwork my grandfather and parents laid for me.
Some luxuries creep back in
The upside of speechwriting for a cabinet secretary is having more latitude to develop long-form, deliberate writing. Speeches of 30- to 50 minutes (3,000–5,000 words) are not uncommon, and the topics are as varied as the audiences. There is usually time to research, time to confer, and time to build a bond with your boss. If you are lucky — and I was — your boss becomes a partner in the writing process. He or she offers the broad strokes — the vision thing — and personal preferences in terms of favorite phrases, anecdotes, idioms, speaking habits. Your value as their writer is their faith in you to embrace those characteristics and weave them into the story of the speech, applying your own writing style to meet their needs.
He was with me all the time
The more speeches I wrote (more than 200 per year), the more it began to dawn on me that what I was doing was akin to being a screenwriter: writing words for directors and actors to perform. And the realization that that was exactly what my grandfather had done all those years ago in Hollywood finally connected me to him in a way that assured his legacy without sacrificing my own voice.
I retired six years ago and returned to writing for myself. The transition from being an on-demand, high-production speechwriter to owning my own work, setting my own schedule, and choosing the topics I want to write about has not been all that difficult. Between 1966, with my first job as a newbie reporter, and 2013, when I closed the door on a long and varied career as a multi-purpose writer, I learned a lot about myself and the writing legacy I once thought I had to emulate. The journey has been anything but predictable; it has included miserable failures, unexpected successes, and lots of introspection.
Listening to the lessons, choosing my own course
I learned to be grateful for the discipline my grandfather and parents told me would be necessary in order to endure the long uphill climb to my own personal peak of success; I learned that it is possible to write in someone else’s voice, but it is not possible to divorce yourself entirely from your inner creative voice; and I learned that success in the pursuit of writing satisfaction is tied to one’s ability to adapt and change with the times, to hold fast to high standards while being open to new approaches.
In the end, I recognize that my grandfather’s footsteps are not mine; his success came from his own inner voice, and while I admire what he accomplished, I have to let my voice speak for itself.