Low Concept

Editing Adolf 

He’s feisty about semicolons. He explodes when you step on his voice. He’s Hitler—and when you rewrite this guy, you’re in for a war. 

“Though Hitler was for a time a favorite commentator of Hearst’s because he produced headlines and sharp, incisive copy … he was never quite broken in by Hearst and his editors.”

—from The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, a new book by David Nasaw, that  recounts Adolf Hitler’s tenure as a columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain.

Aug. 13, 1931

Hello, Mr. Hitler!

As you’ve heard, Chief is beet-red embarrassed about the clumsy editing job you got from Mr. Potler, and I’ve been assigned to shepherd your next lamb. You don’t know me, but the Gus Boyd style is to be very honest and very direct with his writers, so I’m going to tell you something straight off: I’m a fan. I’ve been privileged to work with several world-class leaders who write for the Hearst chain—among them Mr. Mussolini, Mr. Lloyd George, and Mr. Franco—but I’ve always felt that you and only you craft your writings with a level of pep, lilt, and insight that says statesman. “Unfulfillable Versailles Pact, Dictatorially Imposed on Germany, ‘Threatens Extinction,’ Blasts Hitler” was a particular favorite.

Now for the less-good news: As much as I admire “Hitler Blasts Geneva Ratification Agreement as ‘Unfavorable to Germany,’ ” Chief feels it best to back-burner that one for now and crash-edit something fresher. Time is short, so you and I have to hurry.

After eagerly reading through a pile of your not-yet-published finest, we both find ourselves smitten with “MY Vienna!”—though we also think the piece needs work. (Starting with the title, which feels … too urgent. How about something simpler? À la: “Vienna!”?) You’re aiming high here, which means great potential and great risk. In 15,000 tightly packed words, you’re stepping into the ring with history’s top memoirists—guys like Cardinal Newman, Lippman, and Aristotle—to all-at-once work through your painful feelings of loss and ruin during your student-flunkout days in the timeless, gaudy City of Pastry, confront your passionate feelings about that proud burg’s uncertain future, and weave in this imaginary (I hope! [grin]) dream-sequence in which Christ, Arminius, Goethe, Wagner, and Little Hans (real kid? Legal Dept. needs a signed release if so) proclaim through word, deed, song, and volkdance that you are the Chosen Whosis destined to lead Pan-Germany to its appointed so on and so forth.

Much of this is working already, but there are missteps. Let’s start at the beginning, which, in my experience, usually sets the tone for all that follows. You wrote:

Vienna spat out Hitler! BLIND and WRETCHED, clothed in the ragged raiment of IGNOMINY, POVERTY, and DEFEAT, he did perforce find the will to survive in a DECAYING world! Now Hitler is STRONG and can SEE, and he will RETURN to POSSESS it!

Hey, I like a jolt of morning fortissimo as much as the next guy, but take it easy. And while “possess it” is lovely—a deft flourish that captures an older man’s longing for the unattainable past—you’ve lost me by then, because you’ve been boxing my ears with all the complaining. As Ye Olde Rhetoric Prof used to put it: Show me, lad, don’t yell at me. I’d try this:

O, Vienna! While it is true that no man can possess you, perhaps, having scaled those heights which I never dreamt possible when I was a tyro—poor, and lost in her cruel, lyrical streets—I now must blah blah …

That’s still a little raw, but you get the idea. As you’ll see from my follow-up cable, I’ve made similar small tweaks throughout. But (important!) I’m not Hitler, you are, so please take these emendations in the spirit intended: as mere daubs of modeling clay, with the real spit-and-polish work still to be done by you, The Master. Whatever happens, for the sake of your work please try not to restore wording I already crossed out or fly off the handle. I don’t agree with Potler on many issues, but he’s right when he says that it simply does not help the process when you phone us and splutter and fire pistol shots into the receiver.

Onward. You ran with the artsy crowd in Vienna, right? That’s not coming through at all, and I notice that you never describe the weather, name any streets, eat any meals, or talk to any people. Were you in Austria from 1905-14, or just waving at it from a dirigible? Where are the poets, rogues, dames, diamond thieves, painters, madmen, and lovers? Though I’ve never had the pleasure of going there, Vienna conjures up such a rich palette of images and associations—the mighty Danube swelling its banks, the rhythmic clop clops echoing from the Spanish Riding School, the wiener stands billowing cozy aromas in front of the Gothic majesty of St. Stephen’s—that I went ahead and slotted some of that stuff in. I also added a couple of characters who, I hope, are similar to the colorful types you might have known in your day. (If not, I need new colorful characters from you—pronto.)

Well, that’s about it. The research nannies are griping about a few tiny points—such as: What’s your source for the Earth being “hollow”?—but to be honest, Chief doesn’t seem too worried. As for me, I gotta run! Thirty thousand words of unedited Winston Churchill just crash-landed on my desk, it looks to be about his vacation in Manitoba and Alberta (zzzzz), and I can’t even read the $#@!& thing for all the Scotch stains and cigar burns. Do you know this guy? He tends to be stubborn, so I have a feeling I’m in for an uphill fight.