GENERAL ARTICLES

PRODIGY AT SIXTY

As a boy in Brantford, Ont., Tom Costain loved history . . . As a man he guided authors . . . At 55 he borrowed a typewriter, and last year coined $200,000 with "The Black Rose"

Merrill Denison January 15 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

PRODIGY AT SIXTY

As a boy in Brantford, Ont., Tom Costain loved history . . . As a man he guided authors . . . At 55 he borrowed a typewriter, and last year coined $200,000 with "The Black Rose"

Merrill Denison January 15 1946

PRODIGY AT SIXTY

As a boy in Brantford, Ont., Tom Costain loved history . . . As a man he guided authors . . . At 55 he borrowed a typewriter, and last year coined $200,000 with "The Black Rose"

Merrill Denison

BECAUSE a towheaded hoy in Brantford, Ont., 50 years ago found real people walking through the pages of his history books, a white-haired former Canadian has become the writer of the season’s best seller. The novel is “The Black Rose,” and the man is Thomas B. (for Bertram) Costain, onetime sports reporter, onetime editor of Maclean’s Magazine.

One of the most amazing factors in his success is that he didn’t start writing novels until he was 55, a time when most men are looking forward to retiring—if they can make it. Tom Costain laughs at that idea. Tall, well-built and handsome at 60, with a pink out-of-doors complexion, a quiet genial manner, and a shock of white hair he has had since his early thirties, he is already half through his fourth book. And he is positive it will he the best one yet—even better than “The Black Rose,” his third novel, and the one which catapulted him to fame.

Adopted as a Literary Guild choice, and sold to the movies soon after publication last. August, “The Black Rose” was well on its way toward sales of one million copies within six months of the first printing. It seems destined to take its place; alongside “Anthony Adverse,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Robe” as one of the great literary successes of our time. With $87,500 from the movies, plus book royalties, plus hook club sales, the Costain income was around $200,000 for 1945, of which comfortably sized fortune Uncle Sam, in his least attractive role as tax collector, would lay claim to about 90%.

Not that Tom Costain is grumbling over Uncle Sam or worrying too much about the tax levy. Like all authors, whether fabulously or only moderately successful, he thinks there is something cockeyed about the principle of assessing in one year income that may have been many years in the earning, but he bows cheerfully to the inevitable. As he summed it up for me in his New York apartment overlooking the sun-splattered East River, “It is much nicer to have to hand over $180,000 or more in income taxes than not to have them to hand over.” Mrs. Costain and daughter Molly, listening from the nearby couch, nodded their agreement, hut smiled, this interviewer thought, with just a trace of wistful ness. As for the interviewer, he doesn’t mind confessing that he heaved a heartfelt sigh. Onehundred and sixty thousand smackers seems such a lot to pass on after earning them by writing.

Horrid Shock

HPHERE is nothing insincere about Mr.

X Costain’s cheerful, philosophic attitude.

He is a simple, straightforward person from whom sincerity shines like a visible aura. It is hard to imagine any situation that would not find him cheerful and urbane, although Mrs. Costain recalled one for me. That was when a picture about Alexander Graham Bell w'as shown at the neighborhood movies in Bethavres, the Costain home, outside Philadelphia. The whole family sallied proudly forth to see it, expecting to be rewarded by some shots of Brantford, Tom’s old home town in Ontario. When the film reached the scene of Tom’s—and the telephone’s-“nativity, these words flashed upon the screen, “A little town in Canada called Brant wood.”

“Tom couldn't get over it,” said Mrs. Costain. “He was dejected for days.” Loyalty, it’s evident, is another of his characteristics.

Preceding “The Black Rose” Mr. Costain wrote two other historical novels: “For My Great Folly,” laid in 17th Century England, and “Ride With Me,” a swashbuckling tale of the Napoleonic Period. Both were book club choices; both were successes by all reasonable standards, although neither blew the lid off as “The Black Rose” has done. Now', while the fourth is on its way, under the white thatch and behind the kindly blue eyes the plot of a fifth book is already germinating. When that one is finished there will be a sixth book and a seventh and an eighth . . .

Launching on a writing career at 55 in itself calls for

admiration; but hitting the bull’s-eye is something to shout out loud about, if only for the encouragement it brings to every writer young or old. There is the added satisfaction that it should have happened to a man who always wanted to write but who seemed by fate to be cast in the role of helping other writers. As a senior editor of The Saturday Evening Post, Tom Costain read and liked the first story of an obscure; young advertising man named John P. Marquand. Also, he assisted Earl Derr Biggers at the birth of a pleasant Chinese detective, Charlie Chan; and discovered and brought into the limelight Charles Francis Coe, William Hazlett (Alexander Botts) Upson, Canada’s Mary Lowrey Ross, and a score of other famous fiction writers.

When he hit the jack pot himself, the dozens of writers who knew him and had worked with him cheered as delightedly as if they had pulled off the trick themselves— which is probably one of the most revealing comments that could be made about Author Costain as a man.

No successful novel springs miraculously from the typewriter as Venus from the sea. Such phenomena usually require preparation, and in Tom Costain’s case it appears to have been the best part of his life. He was born in Brantford in 1885. His father, John Costain, was born in the Isle of Man, his mother in Canada. The eldçr Costain was an inventor but not a very good one. He never made much money; and his children—Tom; William, now a surgeon practicing in Toronto; Cora, now Mrs. David Andrews, also living in Toronto; and Edith, now Mrs. James Milne, London, Ont.—never suffered from indulgence in luxuries.

At the precocious age of nine there dawned on Tom the interest in history that was to pay off' so handsomely later. He has forgotten what the first book was, or wherein lay its fascination, but from that time he became a voracious reader, first of history, then biography. Now he has a library of thousands of volumes dealing with those two subjects.

Long Walk

JOBS were hard to get when Tom was a boy. At 16 he heard of a job 25 miles away and walked all the way to apply for it. When he was told there was no job he turned right around and walked back again. But he finally did land a spot as a reporter on a Brantford paper—strangely enough, not because he then wanted to become a writer. In high school at the time and a good debater, he was actually headed for the ministry or law. But around the turn of the century Brantford had one of the best lacrosse teams in the Dominion. Eager to follow the local boys on jaunts out of town, but lacking money, Tom concluded that the practical thing would be to report tfie team’s doings for the local paper. He applied for the job and got it. Other reporting jobs on the Guelph Courier and Guelph Mercury followed: and in 1911 the MacLean (now Maclean - Hunter) Publishing Company brought him to Toronto and made him editor of one of its trade magazines— Hardware and Metal. Later he took over Plumber and Steamfitter (now Sanitary Engineer) and Drygoods Review (now Stylewear). That was the beginning of his magazine training, the start of a career which later carried him to the top of the field.

People who worked with him in those days remember him as even-tempered and easy to approach but stubborn in defense of what he considered a good idea —and he had many of them.

He went up swiftly. In 1914—only 2^ years after he started in the magazine businesshe was made general managing editor of all MacLean publications, and in mid-1915 he was appointed editor of Maclean’s Magazine. In that capacity he attracted such attention that in 1920 George Horace Lorimer asked him to join the Saturday Evening Post.

There he quickly built up a reputation as an outstanding editor and talent scout. At the time talent scouting was a relatively new idea, and it was Tom Costain’s genius for spotting and encouraging hitherto unknown authors

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that made his name a legend in the writing world of the twenties and the thirties. The experience also worked two ways. The years of working with other writers undoubtedly helped Novelist Costain to gain the sure storytelling sense he has now.

His marriage had its beginning in Guelph, when he took L:z mother to see a performance of Gilbert r.d Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” in which the part of Ruth was sung by a lovely young person named Ida Spragge. Tom bad never spoken to Ida, but before the first act curtain he turned to his mother and whispered, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Three weeks later they were engaged, and in six months married. They have two daughters, both married now.

Mrs. Costain was part of his success from the beginning. Gatherings at their Toronto home still are remembered by his Maclean’s colleagues of that period, and it was the same later when the Costains moved to Philadelphia. Many famous writers today remember visits to the big stucco suburban home at Bethayres which Tom and Ida purchased soon after moving from Toronto — a friendly ample house, with square, high-ceilinged rooms, set in eight acres of ground 14 miles from Philadelphia. Outside were vegetable and flower gardens, a croquet court, with an outdoor fireplace in the spot where the»centre hoops should have been, and a bowling green. Inside were big, comfortable rooms, 14 of them—filled with books, inviting furniture, bridge trophies (Mr. and Mrs. C. were topflight tournament players before the war), children, and innumerable household pets. There were lordly cats with dignified names like Mr. Brown, Mr. Smith and Miss Mitty; a dog or two; a parrot named Caramba; and John Bunny, a rabbit which acquired local notoriety as a coffee drinker, but finally went native.

When Tom turned to writing, he chose for his workshop a room adjacent to the kitchen, where he could keep an ear on the family’s doings and they on his. Food, incidentally, vies with writing as a major interest, but for some reason Tom has a deep-rooted aversion to pumpkin pie. On one occasion he bet he could name 48 different kinds that were superior. A family argument is still raging as to who really won the bet, since he had to ring in red raspberry, white raspberry and black raspberry to fill his quota.

Interludes in the Bethayres period included summers in New Hampshire while the children were growing up, and cruises to the West Indies and Quebec. On more than one occasion Tom indulged in a busman’s holiday by reading history or writing some short stories—which sold. The serious business of writing did not begin, however, until he had left the Post, spent two years as Eastern Story Editor for 20th Century Fox, edited for eight months a magazine, called Cavalcade, which flopped, and moved on to become part-time editor for his present publisher, Doubleday, Doran Co.

The last association, which was only dissolved at the end of 1945, meant split ting the wrok between Philadelphia and New York, but it also provided time for the writing Tom had long in mind. When the die finally was cast, he set to work with a minimum of fuss and commotion. At the time typewriters were rationed and impossible to come by, but one of the girls had a portable. So her father borrowed it

and moved into a room off the kitchen.

Three and a half books later I glanced at the same typewriter in Costain’s New York apartment, now his permanent domicile. In the collegiate-sized machine was a page of his new novel and I commented on the unusually narrow margins at the edges of the paper. “I know,” he laughed, “but the typewriter was that way when I got it and I never have found out how to change it. I’ve never been much of a mechanic.”

Lest the reader miss the point, let me confess that writers, by and large, are the worst procrastinators known. We will clean pipes, sharpen pencils, empty ash trays, fix typewriters, clean out drawers, read the paper, sort out files— anything to avoid the ordeal of creative writing. Not so Tom Costain.

In his first venture he tried to rescue from oblivion some half dozen fascinating characters he’d discovered in his voluminous historical reading but whom history, for some reason, had passed by. He finished the book, called it “Stepchildren of History,” and consigned it to his agent. The agent read the six essays, wept, reached for the telephone and called Bethayres. There is no record of the conversation, but the gist of it was that the agent told Tom he had enough material there for six novels—and how about getting down to them?

With as much heroics as the ordinary man devotes tö shaving, Costain sat down and produced “For My Great Folly.” It had a good sale: 12,000 bookstore and 120,000 club; but it was too long and becostumed to interest the movies. “Ride With Me” followed, with four times the bookstore and double the club sales but again no movie interest. Then came “The Black Rose”—but you already know that story. This time the movies had to take an interest.

Ordinarily, the reading of between 400 and 500 books goes into the making of a Costain novel. At the end of this basic research he is more familiar with the background of the period, its speech, ways of life and manners, than he is with his own neighborhood between the East River and First Avenue. Then he begins writing. At first the plot of his story is only vaguely in his mind, but it grows out of character and situation as the novel develops.

True to the Bethayres tradition, the whole family shares in the exciting business of creation, and trouble arises only when Mrs. Costain, Dora, or Molly, or their husbands, prematurely fall in love with some character whom Tom has earmarked to become a dirty rascal. Then words fly as bitterly as any in the current novel, and Miss Mitty’s innumerable descendants retire fearfully beyond the fireplace to await the outcome.

But such scenes only add spice to what is a rewarding and absorbing occupation. Ordinarily Mr. Costain gets to his typewriter around nine in the morning, knocks off at noon for lunch, resumes work afterward, and calls it a day around five or five-thirty, with anywhere from 500 to 2,500 words added to the story. He is a hard and enthusiastic worker, completely untemperamental and—outside of his own study—unnaturally tidy. In New York he writes in a corner of the living room, and when anyone comes into the room will talk amiably, as if he had nothing more demanding on his mind than a game of solitaire. He finds his relaxation in playing bridge, walking and parlor games like “Twenty Questions,” or “Who Am I?” which he plays with fierce concentration. Now and again he goes to the movies, because he finds them stimulating. But he finds writ ing the greatest fun of all.