The Captains, the Kings, and Taylor Caldwell
George F. Smith
Published in Writer’s Yearbook 1980
September, 1938. The economy is still on its back. In bookstores across the country, a new novel appears: Dynasty of Death, by Taylor Caldwell. At a time when little else is moving, this epic about a munitions empire quickly becomes a hot seller.
Scribners had introduced the author as a Buffalo housewife who’d written the story on her kitchen table while her family slept. But several critics weren’t buying: the book’s air of maturity is the mark of a “seasoned literary gentleman,” they believed, writing under a phony name.
In one sense they were correct. Taylor Caldwell was definitely seasoned -- she’d spent 30 years writing more than 100 novels, all unpublished, and estimates having destroyed “two or three forests” in the process.
Having tasted her first major triumph (she’d sold a few stories to confession pulps), she continued her exhausting pace and became one of the world’s most commercially successful authors. Like Dynasty, many of her novels are long and make appealing statements about the conspiracies behind wars, monetary crises, and political facades, while titillating the reader with the passions and pretenses of worldly affairs.
The critics were with her at first, describing Dynasty as “magnificent,” “fascinating,” “powerful,” and a close cousin of Gone With the Wind. But a decade later there was grumbling that her prose was “color-blind” and overloaded with adjectives, and by 1957 she was accusing New York Times editors of publishing “monotonously vicious” reviews of her books because of her unshakable opposition to communism.
Yet while author and critics warred, her books continued to sell. Her latest estimate, hardbound and paperback: 100 million copies.
About a year ago, Doubleday published her thirty-second novel, Bright Flows the River, a title with a Biblical derivation like many of her others. In keeping with tradition, it was on the Time’s bestseller list a month later.
To her satisfaction, Testimony of Two Men and Captains and the Kings recently appeared as TV mini-series -- a belated compensation for the mistreatment Hollywood accorded her in the ‘40s, when industry moguls bought four of her books but never produced them.
Born 78 years ago near Manchester, England, Taylor Caldwell came to the United States with her family in 1906 and settled in Buffalo, New York. She soon began writing stories and when she was 12, her father sent one of her scripts to her grandfather, who was on the staff of E. P. Dutton, then a Philadelphia publishing firm. Like the disbelieving critics of Dynasty, he said it was impossible for her to have written such a book and told her father to “burn it; she’ll cause you trouble.” But she saved it, and after 46 years and many rewrites, saw it published as Dear and Glorious Physician.
She married at 18 and again at 31, bearing a daughter from each marriage. “If one of my children were a writer,” she once wrote, “I’d say, ‘God help you. You’ll need it.’ There must be easier ways of earning a living, such as working in salt mines.”
While agonizing over her writing at night, she worked at low-paying jobs during the day and acquired the formal education her father never approved of for women. Today, along with countless literary awards, she holds three doctorates in English literature, granted from Niagara University, D’Youville College, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Her second marriage ended tragically in March, 1967, when a thug broke into her home, pistol-whipped her and fatally wounded her husband. The assault left Taylor Caldwell deaf.
She was married a third time in 1972, but divorced a year later. Then on July 6, 1978, she eloped in Erie, Pennsylvania, with her present husband, Robert Prestie, who’s also her business manager and a former Trappist monk. “I’m always committing matrimony,” she says. “My last husband had eight wives before me. If I had any sense, that would’ve been a lesson.”
Though writing is her life, she also enjoys cooking, and has often made stunningly accurate predictions. She had warned, for instance, of President Kennedy’s assassination and had forecast the fall of Khrushchev. And if her second husband had listened to her, they would have owned shares of Polaroid when it was only 31. (But her foresight is not 20-20 or there would be a Goldwater among American presidents.)
Recently, I spent two evenings with Taylor Caldwell at her North Buffalo home, listening to her candid remarks on writing and the world she writes about. On each occasion, she equipped herself with bourbon and a chaser, and plenty of low-tar cigarettes -- which she smokes without inhaling, I was told.
She’s a feisty woman who laughs deeply, sometimes at herself. Because of her hearing disability, my questions and responses had to be shown to her on paper.
WYB: On the copyright page of Bright Flows the River, it says Taylor Caldwell is a pseudonym. Someone goofed, right?
CALDWELL: What do you mean by pseudonym? A false name? Taylor Caldwell was my maiden name. I’m so sick and tired of hearing pseudonym! I was baptized Janet Miriam Taylor Holland Caldwell. I can get the baptismal certificate and prove it.
WYB: That’s OK. Let’s talk about writing. Why did you choose a career as a novelist?
CALDWELL: I didn’t choose it -- it chose me. My father was an artist, and I wanted to be an artist. I won prizes with art when I was a young woman, at the Buffalo Art Gallery. But then I started to write text explaining the pictures I painted. And my father said there was no money in painting -- I’d never make a living at it.
WYB: Did anyone encourage you to write?
CALDWELL: My parents were interested in my writing, but they expected me to be a world-famous writer by the time I was 14. And then when I wasn’t, they got mad and tried to stop me from writing. They took paper away from me, and pencils. My father destroyed nearly everything I wrote. I managed to save a few of my first novels, though, including Dear and Glorious Physician.
WYB: You wrote for 30 years before getting published, though. What kept you going?
CALDWELL: Well, I knew I was a writer so I knew it was just a matter of time. I had expected success to come earlier, but I had a family to support. I worked two jobs seven days a week and went to school nights.
But I never got discouraged. I got a little blue sometimes for two or three hours, but never depressed. Writing’s an obsession like any of the arts, and you can’t leave it alone.
About half of my published novels were written before I was published. So I didn’t write a book every two years, as some people think.
Writing -- I exist only for that. It’s the most important thing in my life. It’s not apart from me. I have no other interests, except cooking. I don’t belong to any organizations, clubs -- I don’t go to lunches. This is my life, the most important thing -- far more important than anything else I do. It has to be that way, otherwise you’re just a hobbyist.
Now, a painter needs only to know the technique of his painting, and he has to have a tremendous emotional response to it. Musicians, sculptors -- the same way. But they don’t have to know about everything. A writer does.
He has to do a tremendous amount of reading, too. I’d rather go without food, sleep, even cigarettes, than go without books. I read at least three of four books a week, plus all kinds of publications, some very weird. I like to know what’s going on, what people think. I read the far left, the far right, and in between, to see what people are doing and saying.
WYB: What are some of those weird publications?
CALDWELL: Oh, the tabloids. Newspapers, books. I spend a third of my time reading. The world is a terrible place, but it’s very interesting.
WYB: I take it you believe writers are born, not made?
CALDWELL: Yes. I’m sure you’ve run into people who’ve said, “If I just had the time, I could write a book.” Everybody thinks they can write a book. And everybody’s life story could be the subject of a book -- I don’t care who they are. It depends how you approach it. But writing itself, either you have it or you don’t have it.
Years ago, Sinclair Lewis was at some university speaking to would-be young writers. He said, “You all want to be writers? Then why the hell aren’t you home writing?”
WYB: Do born writers need three doctorates?
CALDWELL: Education is always a help. I didn’t complete high school, but I took the college entrance exam at the University of Buffalo and was admitted -- in spite of the fact that I could never get beyond long division. I still can’t.
I was never a good scholar, even as a kid. I liked to get on my skates and play hooky and wander all over Buffalo. I learned more that way than I did in school.
Once, when I was about nine, I went to a factory which was next to a creek. There were dead fish lying on the bank and the creek was covered with oil. I went in the factory and said, “What are you pouring all that oil out for and killing the fish?”” And I was thrown out.
Later I wrote a book about ecology, Tender Victory. It was published in 1956. Was I attacked by the liberal reviewers! “She’s trying to destroy the living of the poor working man -- with her demand that factories stop pouring out smoke and pollutants.” The New York Times raged and screamed. It was several book club selections, though.
I think I was the first voice raised in America against air pollution. But a reviewer said my hero -- a minister fighting the polluters -- should have been thrown out in the dung heap.
WYB: Besides stalling, what do beginning writers do wrong?
CALDWELL: I’ve read a few unpublished manuscripts by women who want to be writers. You don’t want to be a writer any more than you want to have blue eyes if you have brown eyes. You are a writer or you’re not.
But anyhow, they send beautifully typed manuscripts. Then they paste flower decals on their pages, or cut out pictures of children for the first page. That’s all right if you’re writing a child’s book, but not if you’re writing what you think is a mature novel. They’ve even punched holes in the manuscript and tied it together with a blue or pink ribbon.
WYB: What about their technique?
CALDWELL: Childish. Sentimental. Uninteresting. Full of maudlin gushings. I call them “mommy” novels. I’ve seen quite a number of male writers who I thought had something. Men are not that maudlin.
WYB: What other errors do you find?
CALDWELL: Well, each one’ll have a different error. A lack of structure. A lack of plotting. A lack of interest. Characters -- nothing. I don’t know why people think writing is so easy. Also, watch the cliches. The cliches will creep in. In the heat of writing, they will creep in. I go back over my material, and back, and back. I reread right from the beginning dozens of times, and the damn cliches still come in.
Writing isn’t fun. It’s the hardest work in the world. The very, very hardest. I mean creative writing. If it’s reportorial, it’s a different thing. When you have to create a whole milieu, with characters and background, that’s a different thing entirely.
WYB: Writing’s no fun at all?
CALDWELL: No, just labor. Oh, you start out all enthusiastic. But after two or three chapters it becomes plain drudgery. I worked about ten hours the other night just on correcting and rewriting, because what you write originally is just a shadow of what you had in mind.
WYB: I’ve read that you do much of your research by getting in touch with your many past lives. Is this true?
CALDWELL: No, I don’t believe in reincarnation. When you’re dead, you’re dead. At least, I hope there’s no such thing as reincarnation. I wouldn’t want to come back here. I’ve had it.
This world’s brought me very little joy, very little satisfaction. It’s brought me nothing but tragedy from the time I was born. I regret every day I live. The human situation is not as unique as you think it is. We’re all the same. We all get kicked in the pants, we all have our moments of elation -- though not much happiness. Happiness is a child’s word. There may be short periods of contentment, but very short. Life is mostly disappointment, tragedy, loss and failure.
It wasn’t until the last few years -- imagine, not till the last few years -- that I found out something that even a child knows. That money rules the world. That’s what nations fight about. I didn’t know it was that important. It came as a big shock to me.
WYB: You’ve written much about conspiracies in your novels. Do you think conspiracies in fact play a major role in history?
CALDWELL: Yes. And I think these are our last days. We’re going to have a terrible world holocaust. We’re building up to it.
Before Wilson’s war broke, the newspapers began talking about an energy crisis. I remember that very distinctly. I’ll never forget it -- and I never forget a damn thing, it infuriates me sometimes. The newspapers said we only had enough oil in the world to last till 1930, if we were careful.
WYB: In Captains and the Kings, and other books, you blame the conspiracies on international bankers.
CALDWELL: Of course. In 1912, the international bankers pushed for an amendment to the Constitution to create a private organization, the Federal Reserve System. It’s controlled by the bankers, who meet several times a year to decide what our dollar is worth. Our dollar, of course, is fiat money, not backed by gold or silver. And it’s printed by a private concern. The word federal is there just to deceive the people. The American people voted for the Federal Reserve without knowing what it was about.
Just as they voted for the income tax. It’s unconstitutional, but the United States and the international bankers wanted to get in the European war, so the amendment was passed. And this is what the government told the people: “It’ll never hurt you. You’ll never be taxed. It’ll just just be the very, very rich, and then only two or three percent.” And guess who pays the majority of the taxes? Then people earning under $20,000 a year. The very, very rich don’t pay taxes. Do you think the super rich are paying taxes? Of course not. They have big trust funds. It’s the working class who’s paying taxes.
I’ve stated a thousand times: the primary purpose of the IRS is not to collect taxes but to force federal controls upon the people. To bribe the obedient and destroy the dissidents. To elicit favors and impoverish independence. I have a friend who was murdered by the Internal Revenue. Outright murder. When they got after me, they suggested I commit suicide. I saw the letter.
I don’t know how I’ve survived the onslaughts of the government. It almost makes me believe in the Deity. I’m a Catholic, but I’m a Catholic-atheist, because the tragedies in life have overwhelmed me.
WYB: What’s a Catholic-atheist?
CALDWELL: It really means that, as the ancient Romans said, all roads lead to Rome. No matter what name you give to the spirit that rules law and order in the universe, it’s the same thing. But it’s forever shut out from man. It’s just the manifestations that we see. There’s really no such thing as an atheist.
WYB: Do you think your readers accept the idea of an international conspiracy?
CALDWELL: Yes, I’m very pleased. At least 50% of my readers now are young people, especially young men between the ages of 18 and 30.
WYB: In the forward to Captains and the Kings, you said that President Kennedy perhaps “knew too much” when he spoke of “the Gnomes of Zurich.” You were referring to a conspiracy?
CALDWELL: Sure. Only three weeks before he died, I warned him not to go anywhere. I sent copies of my letter to him to all the major newspapers in the country. Only one printed it -- The Messenger, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I’d known Kennedy since he was a freshman in Congress -- I knew the whole family. He wouldn’t listen. He wrote me and said the communists could get him in church if they wanted to. I said in my letter, “He’s being attacked by the liberal media, he’s in terrible danger, and I’ve got a terrible premonition something’s going to happen to him.” That was sent three weeks before he went to Dallas.
Old Joe Kennedy gave me a lot of information for Captains and the Kings. He knew what was coming. He set up enormous trust funds for his children. Tax-free.
WYB: Your main character, Joseph Armagh, was based on Joe Kennedy?
CALDWELL: No comment.
WYB: L. V. Roper, creator of Renegade Roe detective novels, says he gets his inspiration from George Washington because it’s “his picture on dollar bills.” What do you think of that?
CALDWELL: Quite true. Samuel Johnson, the famous English writer of the 18th century, said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” And Tolstoy said if you’re not widely read, you are a failure.
WYB: You agree?
CALDWELL: Of course. It’s just like anything else. Unless you have customers, your business is going to fail. Writing is a business -- all art is. When a man paints a picture, he doesn’t expect just to sit there and look at it. He expects to sell it.
It’s getting harder and harder to find time to work. There's too much other business going on in here, plus there’s a household to run.
WYB: Why do you write at night?
CALDWELL: Well, it was partly forced on me. I don’t like the daytime. I don’t like the summer, and I don’t like the spring. I like the night. And then I had to work for a living during the day, so I wrote all night and worked all day. I very seldom will sleep -- I don’t have the time. I only sleep when I’m absolutely exhausted, and then only for a couple of hours. That’s all I can afford.
When I’m working on a book, I’ll go from 12 to 24 hours at a stretch. I never stop. For instance, yesterday I didn't go to bed until one o’clock in the afternoon. And I’d worked from five the night before.
WYB: Writing always seems to come down to discipline.
CALDWELL: Of course. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job. I do most of my work in my mind at parties, when I’m among people. I watch them. Sometimes I can read their lips . . . You’ve also got to be a cynic.
CALDWELL: Because you’ve got to look at life clearly. No rose-colored glasses. The human race is not very admirable. It was a big mistake of God’s . . . The more I see of people, the more bitter I become. I think I appeal to readers because there’s nothing false or hypocritical in what I write. And they recognize themselves, and recognize their fears. And they know what bastards they are.
WYB: Can we get into the details of book writing itself? Do you work from an outline?
CALDWELL: No, never an outline. I have the general idea, then it works itself out. If I could do the outline, the book would be written. I do make notes about things I want to put in, in the next chapter. Writing is done in your mind. When I sit down to type, it’s just a matter of recording.
WYB: Do you do much rewriting?
CALDWELL: Quite a bit. That is sheer dull labor. And I’m an intrinsically lazy person -- very slothful. I hate physical movement. Except for cooking.
WYB: How does a writer create believable characters?
CALDWELL: Study people. Listen to their minds. Watch their expressions.
WYB: Your hearing problem has made that task even harder, I assume.
CALDWELL: Yes, I need to hear people’s opinions -- what they say and how they say it.
WYB: How do you do research?
CALDWELL: The usual way. It’s plain research -- hard, tough research. I have a whole library on every subject.
WYB: Ever lose interest in a book after working on it for so long?
CALDWELL: Sure, all the time . . . You just have to plug away. I’ve started quite a number of novels, and they just didn’t seem right to me, so I abandoned them.
WYB: Do you work on more than one book at a time?
CALDWELL: One’s bad enough. I hate to start writing. Always do. I’ll do anything possible to delay it, because I know once it takes me over, there’s no stopping.
WYB:: Ever experienced writer’s block?
CALDWELL: Sure, all the time. One lasted a year. Nothing was stirring. Happened a few years ago.
WYB: How did you overcome it?
CALDWELL: Let the field lie fallow. Wait. Chew my fingernails. Wonder when something’s going to happen. My subconscious mind works all the time.
WYB: You wrote The Romance of Atlantis with Jess Stearn. How did you break up the work?
CALDWELL: Well, I gave him the idea and wrote two chapters. He did the rest. I think it was the first big novel he ever did. After finishing, he said, “It’ll be a long time before I ever do anything like that again.” If we didn’t have to pay attention to petty things like houses and eating and sleeping, we’d be much better off. I’m a very good cook, by the way, though I don’t eat much. I have a very good cook here now, a young man. No women here anymore.
CALDWELL: Well, I don’t like women. I never did. That’s why I don’t belong to women’s lib. Most of my relatives were male. Women are the inferior sex. There’s no doubt about it -- women are the inferior sex, in every way. There’s never been any woman genius -- never. With all the opportunity in the world -- all the leisure in the world, all the shelter -- if women had any genius, it would’ve come out. It never did. There’s been no woman Michelangelo, or Beethoven, or Mozart.
WYB: What about you?
CALDWELL: It’s talent. It’s not genius. Only men have the gift of genius.
WYB: You don’t consider yourself a genius?
CALDWELL: Of course not. Of course not. No woman writer is ever a genius.
Women irritate me. I’ve met a few intelligent women -- not many. Maybe two or three. They’re usually after a man, that’s all. The more men a woman knows, the brighter she becomes. That’s true. I’ve been married many times, so I know.
WYB: And yet you dedicated your latest novel to journalist Rita Smith.
CALDWELL: She’s a very, very bright girl. She’s one of the few intelligent women I know. One of the few? Who’s the other? . . . I’ve never been popular with women.
There’s Margaret Mead. She became a big feminist. About 20 years ago she wrote an article, I think it was for Cosmopolitan, and said women should devote all their time always to nurturing their holy goddamn children. She named me and Edna Ferber -- said we’d be much happier if we just nurtured children. I wrote her a flaming letter. I said what about women who are not mommies? Not all women are mommies. I have two children of my own, but I was never a mommy. I said I don’t like children, I never wanted any children, they’re a waste of time. And they become your mortal enemies.
A stupid woman reporter, an American, I think it was in Singapore -- stupid thing -- she said, “Do you ever think of retiring?” I said, “Retiring to what?” A weak, silly smile. “You know, to give others a chance.” Well, what I said about that was unprintable. I picked up all my dirty words from my men friends. “Good God!” I said. “I’m not dead yet! Besides, there is plenty of room at the top. It’s only at the bottom where it’s crowded.” I told her that publishers were always looking for competent authors, who are few and far between, and age has nothing to do with it.
WYB: Are there any women writers you enjoy?
CALDWELL: The women writers today are doing their best work in the suspense field. That’s all I read. I don’t read other novels, except by men. Women in the suspense and murder field.
WYB: Who, for instance?
CALDWELL: One of my favorites is Mignon Eberhart. And of course Agatha Christie was excellent. Fine characterizations. The best writing in America is being done in the suspense field -- the very best. I tried it once. Never again.
CALDWELL: Too hard! The plotting is terribly intricate. And then there are all kinds of clues you have to scatter around. That’s too much -- too hard.
WYB: Not something you’d recommend for beginners?
CALDWELL: Well, I don’t know. It may be good discipline. At least they could work at it, like lifting weights or jogging. Anyone who can master that field can master anything.
WYB: Which writers most influenced your development?
CALDWELL: The old classics. Balzac, Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Walpole. And the Bronte sisters.
WYB: Any contemporary writers?
CALDWELL: John MacDonald. He’s a marvelous writer.
WYB: I understand you’ve had trouble with the business side of your writing.
CALDWELL: I get ripped off -- Oh! You have no idea! My husband has been going through all my files. He comes up from his office downstairs in a screaming rage -- “Look what so-and-so did to you!” And not just for a few dollars, but for tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Look what they did to you!” I said, “Well, that’s all love and trust.”
WYB: Ever have trouble with publishers?
CALDWELL: No. A lot of writers start to think they’re precious, and they get very temperamental about their publishers. I never had any trouble. Many publishers don’t like writers because they get too full of themselves -- they get too egotistical. If they have one bestseller, they think they’re on top of the dung heap. Which they’re not.
WYB: What’s your attitude toward sex in literature?
CALDWELL: Well, there’s sex in my new book, Bright Flows the River, but it’s not explicit. To eliminate sex from a book is to eliminate the great creative force in the world. Out of the sexual instinct rises all the art, you know.
WYB: So I’ve heard.
CALDWELL: Oh, it’s a well-known fact. No eunuch ever wrote a book. . . .
Young children today are bombarded by the sex revolution, and they need some protection. They need to know what it’s all about. I’m very conservative -- I’m really right-wing -- but there’re things that the right-wing does and says that make me angry. For instance, I’m Catholic, but I believe in rigid birth control.
When I was young, I had a priest who used to tell use girls, “You must exercise self-control. You must be disciplined. You must judge the result of your action.” Then he said, “No girl ever ran into trouble who kept her drawers on.” At home, I told my parents, and they were up in the air. He was censored by his congregation. But we girls knew exactly what he was talking about. Children know more about sex than their parents think they do.
I believe in abortion, too. I wrote to the Right to Life people and said, “You demand that every fetus that’s conceived should live. All right, you guarantee the mother of that fetus that you will take care of that child through college. Not impose that unwanted child on the taxpayer.” Silence.
But on the other hand, the pro-abortionists are all for abortions, but a criminal murderer, his life is sacred. A human life is sacred when a person makes it sacred. The man who caused my deafness and killed my husband is out on probation, by the way. The judge cried over him and let him loose. He sentenced him to four years then put him on probation. He’s now under indictment, charged with killing two more people. . . .
WYB: Are you working on another book?
CALDWELL: Yes, and after I get rid of the book I’m writing now, about a modern Job, I’ll write a book about the life of Christ, seen through the eyes of his mother.
WYB: Will the Job novel be finished this year?
CALDWELL: No. It takes about two or three years to finish a book. I’ve got about a third done. Since I had a heart attack a year ago, I’ve not only aged ten years but I’m exhausted all the time.
I read the book of Job over and over. Poor Job. He was afflicted. According to the Bible, he was a just man. But Satan said, “You put your finger on him, and injure him, and he won’t be such a just, devout man.”
So God said to Satan, “Do anything you want with him, but spare his life.” And so he was afflicted. His children deserted him -- he lost everything. He was reduced to sackcloth and ashes. Even his wife said, “Curse God and die.” But he didn’t. But he did rebuke God. He said, “I’ve lived a devout life. Worshipped You. I was just to my fellow man. Accomplished all I could in Your name. Look what’s happened.”
And God answered him, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Where were you when I created the galaxies and the universes? Answer as a man! Gird up your loins and answer as a man!”
That’s the subject of my next book.
WYB: You said that writing isn’t fun. Yet you seem to be having a good time. Are you glad you’re a writer?
CALDWELL: Let me answer you this way: I was talking to a woman last night. I said, “I’m not like other people.” She started to giggle. Then I raised my voice and said evenly, “That’s one blessing God gave writers -- they’re not like other people!”