Writing a Juvenile Biography on President Hayes
By ELISABETH P. MYERS
Volume 1, Number 3
For centuries it has been customary for patrons of the arts to provide a milieu in which their protégés could meet others of their persuasion and possible sponsors as well. In Chicago, nowadays, the annual Miracle of Books luncheon serves such a purpose. It was on such an occasion in the autumn of 1967 that I was introduced to Henry Regnery, publisher and general editor of The Henry Regnery Company and its juvenile division, Reilly and Lee.
“I’ve heard of you,” he said promptly. “You wrote the biography of Maria Tallchief, I believe.”
I assented, and went on to tell him briefly how much I had enjoyed my association with the ballerina while I was researching and writing her life story.
“Are you tied up with a project now?” he asked.
I said that I was in the final stage of doing a book on Edward Bok, after which I would be looking around for another subject.
“Ever hear of our presidential biography series?”
I told him that I had, and that I admired Edwin Hoyt’s work.
To my astonishment, Mr. Regnery then said Mr. Hoyt was tired of the series and that someone else was needed to carry it forward. Was I interested?
I did not even have to wonder. My answer was a firm “Yes.” He smiled, but advised me to take more time to think about the matter, and to choose a President I would like to investigate first if, after consideration, I still wanted to undertake the assignment.
Again, I was sure---I could have said “Rutherford B. Hayes” at once---but I did not do so. I waited a full week before writing to Henry Regnery and suggesting my subject.
People often ask me why Hayes came to my mind so fast when, presumably, I had not even been considering a presidential biography. The answer is: Because the name of Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes had come up in connection with an article I was planning to write for the Chicago Tribune Magazine. It concerned Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance movement. The W.C.T.U., it seemed, claimed Lucy Hayes as one of its own, because she was instrumental in keeping a “Dry White House.” It was the W.C.T.U., in fact, that commissioned the official portrait of Lucy Hayes which hangs in the White House.
Frankly, I was interested in finding out what sort of man “Lemonade Lucy” had married. All I knew to begin with was that Hayes had figured in a disputed election---and that he had been secretly “sworn in” as President on the night of Saturday, March 3. Incumbent President U.S. Grant had been worried because his term would expire at midnight---and the following day would be a Sunday, when no business, not even an inauguration, could take place. Grant feared that Tilden’s men would yet pull some trick and seize the reins of government during the interregnum. Hayes had not fully approved of the special oath-taking ceremony, but he had consented. Because of this, for a few hours, the United States had two duly sworn Presidents at one time. I had always thought that was interesting, I remembered!
Mr. Regnery passed my letter on to the juvenile editor at Reilly and Lee. She contacted me---and that is how my book on Rutherford B. Hayes was conceived.
Getting it to term in manuscript form took eight months---two longer than any of my previous books. That was because it was completely different from anything I had done before. My other nine biographies had been highly fictionalized, with might-have-been scenes and imagined conversations. That was what my other editors---at four different publishing houses---had wanted. Not so at Reilly and Lee! Now, I must write a wholly factual biography, showing the man against the social, political, and economic background of his times. It must be geared for young adults, be colorful and fast-paced enough to hold the reader’s interest---and be told in not less than 50,000 words.
The rigidity of that format may have been why Mr. Regnery insisted that I “take time to think about it.” Well, I love a challenge of an intellectual nature, and I was determined I could meet this one. The editor, naturally, wanted to assure herself that I could---so she wanted to see three sample chapters of the book before we talked about a contract.
I buried myself in the Deering Library stacks at Northwestern University and did background reading for three solid months. I started with William Dean Howells’ official biography of Hayes assuming that it, being “authorized by the Hayes family,” would give me a good overview of the man. Next, I read the five volumes that comprised Hayes’ Diary and Letters, and then the Life, Public Services and Select Speeches arranged by J.Q. Howard.
At that point, I felt I was ready to write the required sample chapters, so I took time out to do that. I submitted them, and then waited (somewhat anxiously, I will admit) for the editorial verdict.
It was five weeks in coming, but it was satisfactory. The editors had a few suggestions for changes, but the last paragraph of the letter said this: In general, the chapters are colorful and well-written, and we’d like you to do the book for us, aiming for spring ’69 publication. Let us know when you think the manuscript could be finished, and whether you’d like to contract for the book now or upon completion of the manuscript.
I replied that I preferred to work under a contract, with an advance against royalties, and that I thought I could finish the manuscript in six months---my usual timing.
The contract and the advance arrived, and I got back to work, reading for two more months on a wider range of topics, Berky and Shenton’s Historian’s History of the United States, Burgess’ Reconstruction and Union and The United States in Our Times (1865-1920), Hirshson’s Farewell to the Bloody Shirt, and Barnard’s Rutherford B. Hayes and His America were the most helpful of all the books I studied. I took reams of notes, scribbled all kinds of “helpful hints” for chapter divisions, considered possible provocative titles for the chapters---and finally felt I was ready to get back to my desk and write.
Once I got started, the writing went smoothly. I write in longhand and correct and revise as I go, so when I reached typewriting stage I considered the manuscript in presentable shape. I finished it well ahead of schedule and sent it off for its editorial reading.
The verdict on it came in four weeks---one less week than the three sample chapters had been under consideration. My editor said: I have finished reading and rereading the Hayes manuscript. I thought it read well and I enjoyed it. I had no idea Hayes was such a fine man!
What sweeter words could I hear? I had met the challenge successfully, it seemed.
Of course, I had a little “polishing” to do on the manuscript, but that was easily done. It went back to the editor in less than two weeks---and I expected that would be all I would hear about it until I saw it in galley proof some months from then.
Not so. I learned shortly that Watt P. Marchman at the Rutherford B. Hayes Library and State Memorial when queried by Reilly and Lee, had cordially offered photos to illustrate the book, but wished to see the manuscript before it was published. My editor tried to set my mind at rest about that development, saying: We feel the manuscript is in fine shape, but I am sending Mr. Marchman a copy for his comment. If he gets picky, we’ll cheerfully ignore it.
In spite of her assurance, the news made my heart plummet. Would Mr. Marchman pick my “baby” to pieces? Could it stand up under really authoritative scrutiny?
Well---Mr. Marchman did not pick it to pieces. Instead, he professed himself “greatly impressed at the fine job of research and writing which Mrs. Myers has accomplished.”
I considered that comment an accolade, and frankly I was thrilled. I immediately decided I had to go to Fremont sometime and meet “that wonderful man”.
I am happy to say that critical acceptance of my biography was very good. It was declared “clearly written and fast moving, a good portrayal of Hayes, his cultural interests, leadership and times.” That is exactly what my editors wanted and what I strove to give.
After publication of Rutherford B. Hayes, I wrote three more presidential biographies for Reilly and Lee. Then, unfortunately, The Henry Regnery Company was reorganized as Contemporary Books, Inc. A presidential series no longer had any place in their plans---nor has yet.
However, of all the presidential biographies---mine and Mr. Hoyt’s---the one about Rutherford B. Hayes proved to be the best seller. Evidently, a lot of people had not known he was “such a fine man.”
My main regret is that the book is now out-of-print and Contemporary Books has no plan to print a new edition.