I was having the second cup of coffee and reading the Times and planning a leisurely December 23 when the phone rang. My old friend and first book editor, Tom Congdon, was dead.
As John Lennon said in one of the last songs he ever recorded, just before he was killed, about this time of year, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
The last time I had spoken to Tom’s widow, Connie, was this past August, when I called her to report that our friend-in-common Rust Hills, another great editor, had just died. It seems that so many phone calls these days are about this. The last two years have seen so many departures of people who for most of my life seemed imperishable. All the grown-ups are leaving.
All the grown-ups are leaving.
Tom published my first book, but he is slightly more famous for having published another book about the sea. It’s called Jaws.
He was a gentleman, and a gentle man. He graduated from Yale, served as a deck officer in the U.S. Navy. How dashing he looked in his uniform, which still fit him 20 years later when he would wear it for his Christmas party! At the time, he and his beautiful, Philadelphia-born wife Connie, along with their enchanting and pretty daughters, lived in a brownstone in Manhattan’s west 80s. I mention this otherwise unremarkable detail because Tom had the distinction of being Manhattan’s only bee-keeper. As I say, he was a gentle man.
Tom had had a perfectly distinguished literary career as an editor. Then, in the mid-‘70s, he published a book by his friend Peter Benchley about a vengeful shark that terrorizes an island quite like Nantucket, where in later years Tom would take up residence, and where, this morning, he died, in Connie’s arms after a long illness.
Tom had become fascinated with sharks when, some years earlier, he and Connie and the girls were picnicking beneath the cliffs at Siasconset, on Nantucket’s eastern shore. They looked up from their cucumber sandwiches and saw, 25 yards off, an enormous fin slicing the water. Tom leapt into his dinghy and began rowing out to investigate, Connie shrieking after him, “Tom Congdon, you come back here! You have two small daughters!”
Tom's shark book became one of the biggest publishing phenomena in American history.
After that, Tom Congdon could pretty much write his own ticket. His next great success was publishing Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg, a brilliant young talent fresh out of Princeton. Scott has gone on to winning the Pulitzer Prize and writing mammoth, definitive biographies of among others Sam Goldwyn, Katherine Hepburn and Charles Lindbergh. Tom published pretty much everyone over the years, but he seemed to take a special delight in publishing first-timers.
My own experience with him was akin a four-year college course on “How To Write a Book,” compressed into one year. At the end of it, I triumphantly handed him a 680-page manuscript, expecting to be told that this was the greatest book about the sea since–if not Jaws, certainly Moby-Dick.
He called me a week or so later and purred. (His voice was pure velvet.) “It’s just wonderful,” he said. “Wonderful. It’s even better than I had dared hope it would be.”
A week later arrived a memo outlining what he thought the book needed. It was 50 pages long. Single-spaced. Among his suggestions was that Part One, consisting of 150 pages that had taken me three, sweaty months of 18-hour days to write, be cut down to–one and a half pages.
I read it, trembling. I called him. “But—I thought you said it was ‘wonderful’?”
“It is,” he said. “It’s so good. And it will be even better!”
Our friendship lasted over three decades. In later years, he was struck with a succession of cruel maladies, including a form of epilepsy that robbed him of long-term memory. He delighted, when you were with him, of being told stories that he had told you.
One time, I reminded him of a key moment in his life that the epilepsy had removed from his hard-drive: he was mustering out of the U.S. Navy. His ship was in Athens at the time. Much of his Navy time had been spent in Japan, and he had more or less decided that he would devote his life to becoming an Orientalist, and live in the Far East, perhaps even becoming a Buddhist.
Then, as he was packing his duffel, the ship swung at anchor. He looked up through the porthole and saw, perfectly framed, the Acropolis. It was an epiphany. “It said, ‘ Choose the West.’ So I went to New York.” As he told the story, his lidded eyes would crease into a warm, delighted look.
So I’m one of many who is grateful that the ship swung at anchor that day.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Rest well, dear friend.
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.