Spink, Vondy, the March ‘50 NA
by Thomas B. Whitbread
Helm Spink and Edna Hyde (“Vondy”) McDonald, two of amateur journalism’s all-time greats, became the closest of friends, at conventions and in letters. From Helm’s joining NAPA in 1923 until Vondy’s death in 1961, they corresponded with increasing frequency and mental intimacy. Spink saved every letter and post card he got from Vondy, plus carbons of each letter he sent to her. After Helm’s death in 1970, his widow, Bernice McCarthy Spink, gave this epistolary trove to Ralph Babcock, who found it behind his press when he moved said press in 1998.
Inspired by Leland Hawes’ recent Gator Growl honoring L. Verle Heljeson, Ralph contacted Lee about his discovery, suggesting, perhaps, that Lee and I might read through the Spink-Vondy correspondence and shape highlights of it into a publication. When I visited him in January 1999, Lee involved me in this project. The letters are many, and most are truly fascinating. At least one large Gator Growl is in the works.
In the meantime, this article is devoted to an exchange, regarding a 1950 National Amateur, in which Spink and Vondy play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
In 1949-50, when Ralph Babcock was NAPA’s official editor, job changes made him peripatetic. His first two National Amateurs, widely disparate in typography and design, were mailed from different locations; the December issue was printed on a proof press kept under Ralph’s bed in a Topeka, Kansas, boarding house, and contained two blank pages (representing a missing report from then Secretary-Treasurer Al Lee).
When the March 1950 NA appeared, it was in yet a third set of typefaces, and was mailed, first class, from Great Neck, N.Y., home of Ralph’s mother. Furthermore, this March 1950 official organ had only four pages, very few of the usual reports, and a strange feature article puffing a lightweight member named Carrier. Page four had an ad for Tobene, a preparation for skin rash, screaming “Ease That Itch!” In the lower right-hand corner of page 3 was a coupon to be clipped and sent to Ralph with an Official Organ Fund donation, to prevent future advertisements and four-page NAs.
What was going on? How could Ralph, known for occasional eccentricities (and for the “Bull Moose” Scarlet Cockerel, satirizing “craptsmanship” through deliberately exemplifying it) in the past, do this? These mysteries engaged the sharp minds of Vondy and Helm, as a slice of their correspondence reveals.
Vondy to Helm, 4/9/50: “We need a thorough purge – at least I think so after seeing the March NA. It is disgraceful.
“I am all for leaving the National to the juveniles and creating a worth-while amateur library organization out of The Fossils and with definite standards of membership, even if we have no more than 100 ever.”
Helm to Vondy, 4/16/50: “By this time you surely know that Ralph had nothing to do with the four-page National Amateur. It was a skillful job, but I fear that it has done considerable harm. Knowing Ralph as well as I do, I could not be sure that it wasn’t his. But the more I examined it the more it looked like a hoax. The burlesque of Cornwall, those fake appointments by Ellis and the mischievous gossip, the tongue-in-cheek praise of Carrier – all sounded counterfeit. Though dispatched in Great Neck, it was not mailed as second-class matter, and no one is more aware than Ralph of the value of that mailing privilege.
“Of course the printing wasn’t Ralph’s – unless he wished to turn his back on all standards of craftsmanship. But who is guilty? If you all compare notes at the Fossil dinner I hope you’ll let me know your conclusions.”
Also, ending his letter: “I hope Alf can be elected president, not just because he’s earned it but also because I think he could pull us out of the doldrums. We’ve had a disappointing year, and it’s not entirely Al Lee’s fault.”
Vondy to Helm, 4/19/50: “This whole year in NAPA has been such a huge burlesque that I am not surprised to learn the March National Amateur is a hoax, though I confess I did not think so until your letter arrived. True, I did not analyze it too carefully, having other things to do, and I did harbor the thought for a few moments, but I did not ‘put it past’ Ralph to issue just such a number in a pique. I am aghast at the ethics of the association but I certainly do not know who can possibly be so low as to spend valuable cash on such a fake as this. Who? I’m sure I haven’t the slightest idea unless it is Wesson. And I doubt Wesson because I think he has his hands full with two children, a big house, and a job. Neither Alf nor Roy would perpetuate such a deed – or would they? – thinking it was damned clever.
“I have a Bellette in process which won’t be out until I get the April Fossil out of the way. I can now change some of it to conform to what I think is one of the dirtiest tricks of the history of amateur journalism.”
In the above excerpts, Vondy clearly plays the role of Dr. Watson – the more emotional of the duo, given to fantasizing apocalyptic scenarios. Helm, though at first partly taken in and fearful of “harm,” is a perfect Sherlock Holmes: calm, analytical, rational. He cites hoaxy stylistics, poor printing craft, and in particular the first-class mailing. Vondy scores, too – at the end she thinks of Roy.
Nearly 50 years later, a confession. Roy Lindberg and I noticed the differences between the September and December 1949 NatAms. Let’s put out a phony March 1950 issue! we cried. What a great opportunity! Let’s call it “MatAn”! We shared the writing, trying (and failing with Sherlock Spink) to imitate the styles of Prexy Harold Ellis, Recorder Earle Cornwall, etc. Then a college sophomore living in Amherst, Mass., I had the text set at nearby Northampton Intertyping Co. After a failed try on my 7×10 C&P Pilot, I employed a professional Amherst printer, Hamilton I. Newell (who would probably not appreciate Helm’s criticism of his “standards of craftsmanship”). Ham smiled as I explained the caper, and charged $27 for the 400 copies.
Roy thought of using the Great Neck post office, since Ralph had lived at or visited his mother’s in the recent past. A fatal flaw in our scheme, the first-class postage was necessary because (1) we had no second-class permit and (2) we wanted copies to reach members before Ralph’s authentic March issue did. Roy made addressograph labels and bought envelopes. We stuffed, sealed, stamped, and labeled at Roy’s Brooklyn home, then drove in my car to Great Neck and did the deed.
So, using Vondy’s scathing words, Roy Lindberg and I were the culprits who were “so low as to spend valuable cash on such a fake as this.” At that time, in 1950, we were 21 and 18, and gloried in our prank – especially when, a few days after the Great Neck mailing, we telephoned Vondy from the office of the Summit (N.J.) Herald, where the New York Enquirer (Roy’s employer) was printed, and where Roy got the Tobene ad cut. Vondy asked if we had seen the new NA. We played dumb. (Actually Roy did our talking; I listened on an extension.) Vondy was less outraged than excited. She said either Ralph had gone over the deep end or someone had put out a phony. As she described the dreadful specifics of the travesty, she sounded delighted. Little did we know then that Vondy was writing to Helm Spink to suggest “leaving the National to the juveniles.” Or that Cool Hand Helm, an impish participant in a 1943-44 controversy that caused Edward H. Cole to call in print for all solid NAPA citizens to “Spank Spink,” would calm his dear gossip-loving friend’s melodramatically moiled waters with his implicit fiat, “Let There Be Logic.”
So reason then prevailed. Vondy turned her mind to “Whodunit?”; Ralph’s real National Amateur soon appeared; the Cleveland 1950 convention was a huge success; the National not only survived, but prospered. And Roy and I did a (compensatory) good deed: sometime in the merry winter of 1950 we visited Al Lee at his apartment and got him to dig out the missing secretary-treasurer records and funds out from under his bed. He turned them over to Roy, who mailed them to Al Lee’s replacement, Bernice Spink. Helm and Vondy wrote each other about it. And in 1950-51 Vic Moitoret hand set and printed a fine volume of the National Amateur, each issue similar in typography and design, mailed rigorously on time.
To market, to market…
by Susan Duffey
It’s done. Finished. It’s mid-December, 1998, and the 400-plus-page manuscript is ready to roll. It’s been re-read, re-fact-checked, and edited for typos and stupidities by your ultra-literate boss who would, incidentally, like you to get back to work – it’s been five months away from the day job. You’ve neglected your livelihood, your mate (who’s heard it read aloud, then read it again, himself) your friends – all of the late Twentieth Century. For you, it’s been the 1900s.
Your mate has called it “the last great book of the Twentieth Century,” and deep down, you agree. But, nobody else knows that your masterpiece exists, and now it’s your job to spread the word.
You delve into the list of publishers in your 1999 Writer’s Market – this book has already explained how to set up your masterwork. Surely it will tell you how to persuade someone to buy the rights.
It tells you that you haven’t a chance of getting in the door of any of the big publishing houses (where, of course, a showpiece like this should go) on your own. An author with a big book must be “agented.” You sneer at the slaughtering to the language, but you concede; you must play by their rules.
You read how to obtain a literary agent: examples of query letters; what agents hate and what they love. Describe your novel in one succinct page.
No problem. You craft a grabber of an introductory paragraph, provide a thorough enough description, and – important – reserve space for that one paragraph that tells each agent why your manuscript is just the match for his or her agency’s “needs.”
Then, you list potential agencies, tossing out those who accept only formula, fantasy, romance, religion, and the like. Your work could be literary, historical, or even mass-market fiction. You adopt a scorched-earth policy and go for all of these, selecting 20 agents. You prepare the letters, include the requisite SASEs, and commence to wait.
Then, good fortune strikes. Ron Patel, the Sunday Editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, suggests to your mate that you give him a call. You do, most impertinently one Saturday evening, at the busiest minute of his life. He kindly accepts your call, then calls you back from the paper’s library with the name of a resource – the Literary Marketplace – from which he suggests a possibility or two. He gives you tips – beware of reading fees, etc., and wishes you well.
From the Literary Marketplace you glean 71 agencies. You spend a couple of days preparing the letters. You look them over, so pleased that you’ve bettered your chances. Then, you toss them all into the recycle box. The date’s in the wrong place on every one, below the agency address – how long has it been since you learned to type a $%^#@ business letter??? You quickly check the files of the initial 20 letters that are already on their way – they are fine. You pour a cup of coffee and start over.
New Year’s Eve 1998 – symbolic, because the novel’s action begins on New Year’s Eve – on the way to the dentist for a checkup, you place the letters one-by-one into the slot at the post office. Please. Please. Seventy-one times please.
In just three days, a hit! There’s an e-mail from Bob Diforio of “d4eo Unltd.” in Connecticut. Please send the first four chapters, he writes, and you do (once the dancing and shouting stop).
The next day, Bob writes back. For an agent to give his all toward selling a book, he must love it, and surely one will. But it isn’t him.
Why? For Deforio to have leapt at the chance to read the manuscript first, and then turn it down flat, something must have failed. Not the concept, he liked that. Not the writing style, you’re sure. You mull this over with your mate. Something lost Diforio right off the bat. If it lost him, it’ll lose others, as quickly.
Aha! While the first four chapters might’ve seemed to be a good lead-in, they are, in fact, peripheral matter that would fit better at other places in the manuscript. You spend an entire day reshuffling, repaginating, and now you’ll have a manuscript that presents the four main characters and the beginning of the action where they should’ve been – in the beginning!
You e-mail Diforio. You thank him for the tacit lesson. You’re not trying to beat life into a dead horse, but here, for his free-time reading pleasure only, are “the big guns, the real folks, the four main characters.”
“Aha!” says Diforio. “Now I like it. Please send the next five chapters.”
You send the files with a teaser paragraph that hints of coming attractions and an offer to send the full manuscript.
“Send it,” says Diforio.
After the dancing and shouting stop, panic sets in. There is no full manuscript. The master you’d copied (with many thanks to your old boss from the printing company where you’d started as proofreader years ago) is now in the wrong order! The current boss had printed that one on her laser printer, and your bubble-jet just won’t do the job.
You call her – Eileen, I’m in a real fix! E-mail the files, she says, and it’ll be there by the time you get here. (“Here” is two hours away, at her home office in Pennsylvania.) One last page check and the files are in the ether and you are in the car – along with your mate who’s decided it’s best that he drive today. The manuscript – and a fresh new master – are ready by the time you get there. Bob Diforio has the manuscript the next morning.
Meantime, SASEs appear in the mailbox. William Morris in New York would like the full manuscript. So would the Austin Wahl Agency near Chicago, exclusively not possible at this point. You write to Thomas Wahl explaining the delay and promising it to him next. Toni Mendez would like chapters, as would Perkins, Rubie and Associates. Later, Arthur Fleming in San Diego would like the full manuscript, as would Chris Cooper of Manos & Associates in New York.
One Saturday in January brings eleven rejections. No. No. No. Eleven times no. Some are form letters purposely kind so as not to wound the sensitive writer, you guess. Some of the biggest guns do the best letters – individual comments, with original signatures – Aaron Priest, of Angela’s Ashes for one, Mel Berger, the vice president of William Morris, for another – quick turnaround. Toni Mendez rejects it, but invites you to call her – she’d like to see more of your work, just not this one. Some agents, pressed for time, you guess, manage to scrawl, “not for me” right on your query letter. That one Saturday, as the mate later describes, you “take to your bed.” Things will get better. The file of rejections grows.
Bob Diforio sends a copy of a letter that he submitted with the manuscript to Hilary Ross at Penguin Putnam on January 11. “It will draw you in,” he tells her. At the end of April, she responds. The plot is too broad for the mass market. Susan Duffey is a talented writer, she says. “Treasure those words,” says Bob. You do, but ego aside, you’ve heard them before, and they and fifty cents…. You thank Bob for his effort; he sends the manuscript back, and offers anything he can do in the future.
The next day, you send Thomas Wahl his exclusive. Spring goes by. Summer begins to pass.
On surely the hottest day of the year, on the way to your next dentist checkup, you walk to the mailbox first. There is an envelope with the Austin Wahl Agency logo. Thomas Wahl has called your book “a beautifully written literary novel,” with tidy dialog and visually evocative narrative. He wants an 18-month representation contract.
Doesn’t matter that the car’s A/C is on the fritz. You get to the dentist in a heat all your own. You beg the technician’s patience when you can’t suppress the smiles that send her cleaning instruments awry.
You overnight a letter – yes, please send the contract. You arrange for the publicity photo for the marketing campaign, suppressing bursts of laughter while the makeup artist spends a meticulous hour for the photo that could end up – well, you don’t go that far. You’ve spent months riding the peaks and valleys and you know how to enjoy the peaks, just as they come, one at a time.
The contract arrives, along with another confident, complimentary letter. You appreciate Thomas Wahl’s courtly approach to business prose, and you begin to calm down, realizing that now, someone actually has chosen to obligate himself to “do our utmost on your behalf.” No more dancing, no more shouting (for now). You think of all those who’ve helped you get this far: the patient, supportive mate; the diligent, demanding editor/boss; the accommodating printer; and the agent who already gave it his best shot and taught you to begin at the beginning. Life has changed, and you have possibilities. And sheer glee and indescribable pride. And humble, head-bowing gratitude.
CAMPANE has been published since 1941 in the interest of the National Amateur Press Association (est. 1876), the pastime of amateur journalism and hobby printing and publishing (electronic and letterpress) by HAROLD SEGAL Philadelphia, PA 19115-4503. Composition in Baskerville 353 is computer generated, copies run off on a laser printer. Color is letterpress.
Manuscripts on any facet of the hobby are always welcomed. Articles must be typewritten and should be at least 1000 words.