The Remarkable Story of Bodies Are Dust

P.J. Wolfson’s son, Michael, was gracious enough to fill in gaps in my research and help make corrections in my previous post The P.J. Wolfson Story- Bodies are Dust.

“Now to the remarkable story of how Bodies Are Dust got published.

When he finally finished writing the book, he put the manuscript away in a drawer and began writing a second book. Some months later, my Mother asked him when he was going to finish the book he’d been working on for the longest time, he told her he’d finished it, but had put it away because he wasn’t satisfied with the result. She became angry with him for working for so long on something and then not showing it to someone or sending it to a publisher to see what they thought. She became such a pest on the subject that, in frustration, he opened the phone book, looked under publishers, picked a publishing house whose name appealed to him (Vanguard Press), wrapped up the manuscript and sent it off in the mail. He thus satisfied and silenced my Mother. Naturally, when the unsolicited manuscript arrived at Vanguard Press it was immediately thrown onto the slush pile. What he only learned later on was that the head of Vanguard Press, Jim Henle, had a habit of scooping up several manuscripts from the slush pile whenever he had to go on a trip as a way of passing the time on the train. By sheer happenstance, my father’s manuscript arrived shortly before Henle had to take the train to Washington D.C. and Bodies Are Dust was scooped up along with other manuscripts to pass the time on the journey. When Henle arrived in D.C. he sent my father a telegram telling him to be in his office the next Monday morning because Vanguard Press wanted to publish his book. A moment of serendipity indeed.

My father was of the generation of writers that was heavily influenced by the emerging work of Hemingway – muscular, sparse and filled with dialogue. The advertising campaign developed by Vanguard Press for the book used the hook in many ads “Wolfson Isn’t Hemingway. Wolfson Is Wolfson.” (If you research the archives of major New York newspapers in 1931, you might find these ads.) The fact the book was heavy on dialogue and the gritty side of life was one of the many reasons Universal bought the movie rights. In the early 30’s, the studios were looking for writers and properties that could quickly adapt to the introduction of sound that occurred only a few years before. The reason Universal never made a movie of Bodies Are Dust was because shortly after they purchased the rights, another studio made a movie of Elmer Rice‘s work “Detective Story” and Universal felt that another movie on the same subject wasn’t a good idea at the time.

As part of purchasing the rights to Bodies Are Dust – the studio paid $500 which was a significant sum in the depression year of 1931 – Universal also gave my father a 10 week contract to come out to Los Angeles and possibly write screenplays. This apparently was a standard procedure for many properties the studios purchased right up into the 1950’s. My father said that what he was paid per week was a significant sum for the period and well worth the adventure of going out to California even if things didn’t work out after ten weeks. And so my father, mother and sister (age 3), drove out to Los Angeles to seek their fortune.

My parents enjoyed the first weeks of their adventure in movieland. But as the weeks went by, my father noticed that, even though he was required to be at the studio in the writers’ building each day, he wasn’t getting much in the way of assignments. By the fifth week of his contract it seemed clear that the studio wasn’t going to make use of him and would let his contact end after the full ten weeks. During the fifth week of his stint at Universal he met a fellow in the commissary at lunch and they quickly became friendly. The fellow was Allen Rivkin. Rivkin had been in Hollywood for a number of years as a publicist, but very much wanted to be a screenwriter. After meeting my father, he read Bodies Are Dust and made my father a proposal. He said that he thought my father was a terrific writer and that he, Rivkin, had been around the movie business long enough to know what the studios were looking for in stories and scripts. He proposed that they team up and in their off hours (evenings and weekends) they write a script. Then, when my father’s contract ran out and Universal let him go, he (Rivkin) would go out and sell the script to one of several studios he knew would be interested. And that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks after my father’s Universal contract ended and he was bid goodbye, Rivkin went out and sold the script and the two of them became a writing team that wrote a number of movies over the next few years. An unexpected meeting in the commissary at Universal led to a long career in Hollywood.” – Michael Wolfson

[source: Wolfson, Michael. “Re: P.J. Wolfson.” Email to the author. 30 July 2010.]

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