Imagine hosting a dinner and inviting Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh to sit side by side and they both cheerfully agreed. Hard to picture? Well, that’s the type of thing George Bye pulled off all the time.
If you wanted to publish a book in the 1930s and 40s, Bye was the man to know. He was a one-time newspaperman whose career took him from Stars & Stripes to the New York World. There, he was assigned to ride along and report on the first flight from the United States to Brazil – a stunt that ended with Bye and aviation pioneer and showman Walter Hinton fending off sharks in the waters off Cuba and searching for a plane to replace the one they crashed.
But by 1925, Bye turned his attention full-time to being a literary agent. He liked reporters and adventurers, and those made up the bulk of his clients. Plugged in to every network, Bye worked the publishing world like a snake charmer.
He made his home in New Canaan, Conn., with his wife Arlene. His authors called his home Ten-Percent Hollow, and laughingly joked that they thought his middle initial, T., stood for Ten-Per-Cent. (It was actually Thurman.)
But Bye had a remarkable gift. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He didn’t knock down editors’ doors to pitch work, the editors came to him to see what he had on offer. Milton Sanford Mayer, long time columnist for The Progressive, signed on happily as a Bye client, but lamented: “If I wrote anything down – a grocery list, for instance – I had to be careful to destroy it or it might fall into George’s hands and appear in a magazine.”
Bye went into New York City on Wednesdays, and then only occasionally. Most of his business was conducted elsewhere, often at picnics or ballgames in Connecticut. Bye organized softball games and assembled his clients into a team, The Prehistoric Sluggers. Heywood Broun might be pitching to Westbrook Pegler while Eleanor Roosevelt watched from the sidelines.
Broun was a progressive. Pegler was a red-baiting firebrand. And Roosevelt was the activist first lady, revered or derided depending upon where you stood on the issues of the day. Pegler, who could be vicious, dubbed Roosevelt ‘La Boca Grande’ (the big mouth) in his columns.
Broun, meanwhile, hated Pegler, and the feeling was mutual. Yet they all co-existed peacefully in Bye’s remarkably diverse stable of writers that also included Army General John Pershing, Alexander Woolcott, child author Patience Abbe and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Bye could occasionally be blind to the potential for stories that didn’t flow from politics, bizarre tales or modern adventuring. When one client, Rose Wilder, brought Bye a collection of stories written by her mother, Bye rejected them. He only reconsidered and agreed to represent Laura Ingalls Wilder if she would punch up the works, which the world would come to know as the Little House in the Big Woods series.
In 1954, Bye stunned even his colleagues when he persuaded Hollywood to spend over $1 million for the rights to Charles Lindbergh’s story, The Spirit of St. Louis.
When he died at home in 1957 after a fight with cancer, Mayer eulogized Bye in print:
It was impossible to say when George retired from business – there were so many Wednesdays when he didn’t come in anyway…There was a legend that he never read anything; just sold it. And another that he studied every manuscript very carefully, with his genius for figuring out just which magazine it was best suited to, and then sent it to the Reader’s Digest, where he got the most money.