It’s easy to imagine how a novelist might use a real person as a basis for a fictional character. It’s equally easy to imagine how such a person could notice the similarities and perhaps become offended. After all, the fiction writer has pledged an oath to serve a calling higher than mere feelings. Why should F. Scott Fitzgerald worry over the sensitivities of Max Gerlach in creating Jay Gatsby?
Bruised egos and frayed friendships often follow the publication of a novel. In a 1949 letter included in a new edition of his correspondence, Saul Bellow described how acquaintances “draw off into coldness and enmity who’d have kinder feelings toward me if I were a photographer of dogs or a fish-expert.” Sometimes there are lawsuits, although they are notoriously difficult to win. In a case brought against Joe Klein and Random House by a woman who believed she was the model for a character who has an affair with a Clintonesque presidential candidate in Klein’s “Primary Colors,” a New York court ruled that superficial similarities were not enough: the depiction “must be so closely akin” to the real person claiming to be defamed that “a reader of the book, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two.” After all, who says the minor socialite Gerlach, just one of many candidates, really was the model for Gatsby?
Thankfully, few fictional representations are so offensive to their (reputed) models that actual violence ensues. The notable exception — perhaps the most spectacular crime in American literary history — took place 100 years ago this month when Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough expressed his supreme displeasure with what he believed was the depiction of his family in the novel “The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig” by pumping six bullets into its author.
David Graham Phillips, the author in question, had just been christened by H. L. Mencken as “the leading American novelist.” Now largely forgotten, he was a star of the first decade of the 20th century, a sort of Progressive Era Tom Wolfe — right down to his white suits that set him apart in the newspaper offices where he first made his mark.
Like Wolfe, Phillips was a biting social critic who used his journalistic renown to mount a successful fiction career, churning out some two dozen page-turning novels that wrapped exposés of the worlds of insurance, finance and politics into tales of romantic love. And like Wolfe, who laid out his complaints in the much debated 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Phillips believed that too many American novels were “largely imitative of ideals and methods that are narrow and that are totally inadequate as a description of life as it is in America today,” and instead set out, as The Saturday Evening Post put it, to “master” America, “to learn her by heart, inspired by the task of expressing and interpreting her.”
As a journalist, Phillips was the quintessential crusader. In 1906, he wrote a famous series of articles on several United States senators who he alleged (in language “longer on adjectives than facts,” Upton Sinclair said) were corrupted by the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Carnegie. The series inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to attack Phillips as “The Man With the Muck Rake” in a speech at the Gridiron Club, introducing the term “muckraker” into the language. (In a private letter, Roosevelt went further, calling Phillips a “foul-mouthed coarse blackguard.”) The articles, for which Phillips was paid handsomely by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine, helped secure the passage of the 17th Amendment, which, to the lament of some Tea Partiers today, ended the role of state legislatures in selecting senators.
But in Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, Phillips found an enemy even more formidable than Roosevelt. Goldsborough hailed from the gilded aristocracy that Phillips regarded as so destructive to America. The Goldsboroughs of Maryland were venerable. An ancestor was a delegate to the Continental Congress who just missed out being a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another was a commander in the War of 1812 who later became a senator. Fitzhugh’s father, a doctor and Civil War veteran, relocated the family to Washington, D.C., where Fitzhugh was raised in a home a few blocks from the White House.
“The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig,” published in 1909, was a brisk satire of that world. It features a romance between a rugged yet brilliant political appointee from Minnesota (Craig) and Margaret Severance, a member of a “frivolous, idle” family dwelling in a “sickly, sycophantic atmosphere.” Like all of Phillips’s novels, this one sold well, but The New York Times was certainly speaking for Goldsborough, who had by then embarked on a career as a concert violinist, when it called the work “unnecessarily crude” and “unnecessarily rude.”
Not only did Goldsborough believe that Margaret Severance (described as one of the “fashionable noddle-heads”) was based on his beloved sister. He also came to believe that Phillips had the power to read his mind, what he called in his diary a “lucrative method of literary vampirism.” Increasingly unstable, Goldsborough abruptly quit his position as a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and moved to New York, renting a room on East 19th Street with a view of Phillips’s south-facing apartment in the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. “He is an enemy to society,” Goldsborough reportedly said. “He is my enemy.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1911, Phillips left his apartment, skirted the western edge of the park and turned right on East 21st Street, bound for the Princeton Club, then located near the corner of Lexington Avenue. He was confronted at 115 East 21st Street, steps from his destination, by an armed Goldsborough, who shouted, “Here you go!” before pulling the trigger. “After firing the sixth shot Goldsborough paused an instant to glance at his victim through the cloud of powder smoke, then stepped to the curb,” The New York World reported under one of the many blaring headlines that appeared throughout the country. “Without glancing again at Phillips he put the weapon to his right temple and exclaiming, ‘Here I go!’ sent a bullet into his brain, causing instant death.”
Phillips, rushed to Bellevue Hospital, knew he was dying. “I could’ve won against two bullets,” he said. “But not against six.” He expired the next day. He achieved some measure of posthumous fame from the manuscript that was on his desk at the time of his death, “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise,” a portrait of an unrepentant prostitute. First condemned as obscene, it was later sanitized in a 1931 film starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. One of Phillips’s eulogists wrote that while his books “may not survive him many years,” his “eager eye to the future and clear voice for what he saw there” should be honored. “He contributed to that future, helping to create the America now forming, and he belongs to it and to us in a very beautiful way.”
But what of Goldsborough’s charges? Had a distinguished Washington family really been libeled? Phillips’s friends and family insisted he had never heard of the Goldsboroughs. The newspapers all spoke of the “fancied grievance” of a “crazed violinist.” And Phillips, in the minutes after he was shot, offered his own response to the question of whether he was acquainted with the assassin.
“No,” he responded, as if speaking for every novelist who has ever been accused of callous indifference to the reputations of real people. “I don’t know the man.”