Novelist Anton “Tony” Myrer was waiting apprehensively for his agent to finish reading his new manuscript, The Last Convertible. “It’s dazzling,” she gushed finally. “The device of the car is marvelous, and I’m really pleased at the way you use a variety of characters to point up the theme.”
“Okay,” replied the author, waiting for the other shoe to drop, “what’s wrong?”
Well, said the agent, some heavy cutting of the campus scenes might help the pacing. Rewriting one whole chapter would be necessary: “It’s terrible, Tony, simply terrible.” The way a female character responds to an attempted seduction in a late scene is unrealistic.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Myrer protested. “Surely that’s how she would have reacted.” Later he would change the scene.
That sort of critical ordeal might have been harder for the author to take except for two reasons: His agent has helped him create three best-sellers. His agent is also his wife.
Pat Myrer, 55, is president of McIntosh and Otis, a 50-year-old New York literary agency whose clients include John Hersey, Walker Percy, Harper Lee and Phyllis Whitney.
Tony Myrer, also 55, wrote The Big War and Once an Eagle before Convertible, which this week is eighth on the charts. With movie rights (to Universal), the book stands to enrich the Myrers by at least $1 million. “I predicted it would be a commercial success the instant he mentioned the idea,” Pat says. “That’s something I’m known for in the trade.”
The novel follows five Harvard classmates, class of ’44, and their convertible (a 1938 Packard Super-eight) through college, World War II and its aftermath. Though Tony never actually owned a convertible himself, he explains, “Before the war we really did believe America was an open road. Afterward we came back and rushed into everything: marriage, jobs, parenthood. Sex was a holy grail, a trial by fire, an athletic contest—consummation was an indissoluble commitment. A lot of us married very badly, the first women we had sex with. We made a lot of mistakes.”
Pat and Tony (whose own first marriage ended in divorce after 22 years) met in 1957 when she was editor in chief at Appleton-Century-Crofts. Tony submitted The Big War, Pat read it, and after she had won a few editor-author skirmishes (she did protect most of his then daringly coarse GI language) the novel became a best-seller and a 1958 film, In Love and War. “Pat was the first woman editor I ever worked with,” laughs Tony, “and, while it sounds fantastic to say these days, we fell in love at first sight. But we distrusted our feelings and for a long time neither of us said anything about it.”
Though Pat and Tony’s literary interests coincided (“If they didn’t we never would have made it,” she says), their backgrounds mix metaphors.
Pat Schartle grew up in a “more or less happy” Southern family in Asheville, N.C., youngest of seven children of a drug wholesaler and his wife. At 19 she married a submarine sailor, who was killed in the war six months later. She went on to earn a master’s in English lit from the University of North Carolina and in 1947 moved to New York—”the great golden city for Southern girls in those years.” At Appleton she held every position in the firm, including advertising director. “That was the year they decided I was too literary,” she recalls, “and made me ad director so I’d have to sell all the books I’d bought the year before.” She became the first woman editor in chief in New York publishing in 1954, but shifted to agency work, taking all of her top writers with her (including Tony) in 1958.
British novelist Victoria Holt, who, at Pat’s suggestion, almost singlehandedly revived the gothic novel in the early ’60s (her latest: My Enemy the Queen), says, “She started my career as a bestseller. I’ve heard she’s the best agent in the U.S., which would mean the world, wouldn’t it?”
Tony and his older sister were raised on Boston’s Beacon Hill and Cape Cod. Their father, an investment broker, eventually ran his own mutual fund. Tony began writing short stories in grammar school and entered Harvard in 1940. After the Marines and the invasion of Guam, he returned to Harvard to graduate in 1947. He and his first wife set out in a battered Plymouth for California, where he wrote, unproductively, and survived on odd jobs—house painter, cannery worker, bookstore clerk. He returned East in the mid-’50s whereupon The Big War gave him the financial freedom to write full-time.
Tony and Pat finally married in 1970—13 years after they met. One reason their marriage has flourished, they insist, is the weekly separation. While he writes in their quiet 1830s farmhouse in the New York Catskills, Pat is in Manhattan, negotiating with publishers, cajoling writers to meet deadlines and wining and dining clients and editors. Her weeknight habitat is a Brooklyn Heights apartment, where she is often up until 2 a.m. reading manuscripts. (She never sees her husband’s until the third draft.) Pat also dips into at least 30 nonclient books a week. Among her favorite authors: Bellow, Mailer and Styron.
On Thursday night Pat chugs up the Hudson by train for their weekend reunion. “By then we’re thrilled to see each other,” she says. Though the two occasionally entertain, they prefer being alone. “I don’t want to see all the people I fight with during the week,” laughs Pat. (They have no children, which they say is a major regret in their lives.)
Work is put aside, and they dance the shag and lindy to an ancient record collection (heavy on Artie Shaw and Count Basie 78s), play ferocious chess (“He usually wins, but I put up a damn good fight”), argue Pat’s smoking or Tony’s penchant for tailgating with his ’69 Buick, and analyze American and world history. They frequently disagree on contemporary writers, of course, and their debates occasionally reach the snarling point over, say, John Fowles. Pat loves his cunning, Tony feels he is taking advantage of the reader.
Tony knows from experience he better have his arguments in order. “Pat is an unsparing critic,” he explains. “If she thinks something is bad she’ll say so. She’s usually right too.” There’s no argument this time from his wife. “I’m a mean lady with a manuscript,” Pat Myrer says.