By the summer of 1978, I had already launched the first season of my touring repertory company, The Hamlett Players. Our excerpts from classic plays were met with mixed reviews; we did a nice job with the material, the audience said, but it was disconcerting to only see 15 minutes of a story and then move on to something completely different.
The solution, obviously, was to switch to a series of one-acts, complete tales that could be told from beginning to end and afford my actors the chance to play multiple roles over the course of the evening. Since I was already writing a number of monologues and practice skits for the acting classes I was teaching, it seemed a natural progression to start composing longer works for performance.
The audiences loved it. In fact, the feedback was so positive that my first ex-husband (who had not yet become an ex) suggested that possibly some of these plays were good enough for publication. After all, what better forum if you’re going to write for the theater than to have an actual theater company work out all the bugs for you during development.
The first script I sent out for consideration in December of 1979 was a Medieval comedy called The Knight of the Honest Heart, a whimsical romance about mistaken identity.
Much to my delight, a letter arrived the first week of January from Mrs. Sylvia Burack, the owner of Plays, Inc. She had enjoyed the story very much and, accordingly, had enclosed a check for the sum of $65.
I was elated, especially since she also inquired as to whether I had written anything else. I was not so happy, however, with her request that I change 4 lines in the script prior to publication. While I don’t even remember what the 4 lines were, I do recall being miffed that I was expected to alter anything.
My spouse instantly rallied to my side. “I agree with you,” he said. “Don’t change a single word if you don’t feel like it.”
“I’m glad you think so, too,” I said.
“Of course, you’ll have to send the $65 back,” he added in postscript.
“She’s paying you $65 to get what she wants,” he replied. “If you don’t want to change it, that’s fine. It just means that you may have to wait awhile longer before anyone ever reads or performs it.”
Although I didn’t appreciate his remarks at the time, they eventually turned out to be one of his more profound pieces of advice. Little did I know that the future path to fame and fortune would be liberally strewn with editors who would write, “I loved your latest book. Now if you can just change pages 7 through 398 and come up with a different ending…”
Sylvia had let me off the hook easy, promising to put my play in print if I just tweaked a couple sentences. Her interest in reviewing further Works by Hamlett also encouraged me to dash off pages and pages of scintillating dialogue which, I was certain, she’d grab up as quickly as the first one.
In fact, it was at least two dozen scripts later before I ever saw another check. I often wonder what might have happened to my playwriting career had all of those rejections come first. The funny thing is, though, that I began to learn more about the craft of writing plays from all of the ones she said ‘no’ to than those that were actually purchased.
Because not only did every one of those letters come with an insightful explanation of what didn’t work and/or how to fix it, but each was personally typed by Sylvia herself…on a typewriter.
Mind you, typewriters were still in vogue in the early 80’s. Much of my own work was done on my old college Royal and, later, a sleek black model with a dazzling assortment of printwheels. It wasn’t until 1989 that I finally acknowledged that typewriters were getting passé and plunked down $650 for a dedicated word processor. Four years later, I abandoned the word processor altogether in favor of a brand new Mac that could do everything but make toast.
Sylvia, however, continued to send me correspondence composed on her vintage IBM Selectric. It should also be pointed out that hers was a model which didn’t even have the convenient back-space correction key designed to eliminate the need for White-out.
Either that, or the cumbersome exercise of threading new spools took too much time in the estimation of a woman who had a very full plate as leader of a prestigious publishing realm. I really can’t recall if I ever received a letter from her that was error-free; most of them had cross-outs, strikeovers, globs of correction fluid, or whimsical “oops” notes in the margins.
What kind of person, I thought, could demand so much perfection from her contributing authors and yet turn out letters that looked like the product of a beginning typing class?
The first of only three occasions that I was privileged to spend time with her in person was in the fall of 1986. I was to meet her at 11:30 at her office on Boylston Street. I had also planned the trip to coincide with her review of my latest script submission. I was so certain she would like it that I was even planning to buy us each a glass of champagne at lunch to celebrate another brilliant Hamlett sale.
Now it’s a very curious thing to have corresponded with someone for a little over 6 years at that point and have absolutely no idea what she looked like. I assumed someone would point her out to me when I got there; they were, after all, expecting me.
In my mind, however, I had conjured someone who was a cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Nancy Marchand. Her office would be impeccable, a testament to the grandeur and style of Old Boston money. Perhaps she even had one of those magnificent antique partner’s desks and would invite me to sit across from her and discuss my future contributions to the publishing community.
I actually saw her office before I saw her and was instantly taken aback. Her desk, if indeed she had one at all under the copious stacks of books and papers, was a disaster. I could almost hear the file cabinets groaning under the pressure of the bulging contents within and the messy piles of more papers and books they held on top. What wonderful view she must have had out her window was all but obscured by - yes, more stacks of stuff.
And what was the persona like who habitated this space, you may ask?
To say that she reminded me of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would be an understatement. Here was a woman of commanding presence, penetrating eyes, and enough energy to run circles around her much younger staff. She was also someone who was impossible to say ‘no’ to.
As we were leaving for the restaurant, she impulsively decided to invite one of her assistants to join us. The young woman was sitting at her desk in the midst of a romance novel and an egg salad sandwich as Sylvia and I passed by.
“Miss So-and-So,” Sylvia addressed her, “We’re going to lunch. You’ll be joining us, of course.”
The startled young woman nearly dropped her sandwich in her lap in her haste to grab her purse and coat. Just like Merrill Lynch, when Sylvia Burack spoke, everyone listened. Never before had I been in the company of someone who could inspire love, fear, respect, angst, humility, and total awe all at the same time.
“About my latest play – ” I started to say soon after we had ordered our entrees.
“Terrible,” Sylvia said at once.
“Terrible?” I squeaked in astonishment. Had I heard that correctly?
“Not up to your usual standard, dear,” she continued with a cluck of her tongue. “But not to worry. I’m sure your next effort will be much better. Shall we have some wine?”
Such was the way of our relationship for the next 14 years. She also bought over 80 plays of mine and published 2 anthologies, which leads one to assume that I must have been doing something right all those years.
When I heard the news that she was finally retiring, I couldn’t believe it. In my mind’s eye, Sylvia was such an icon of all that was good in the publishing world, I assumed that she would just continue doing it forever.
“She is in her 80’s,” my friend Liz, the managing editor, diplomatically reminded me. This was a surprise, of course, as I would’ve estimated much higher. Maybe around 110, yet possessed of a countenance that would never look a day over 60. The fact that she rarely left her office suggested it was some kind of Shangri-La; as long as she stayed there, time as we know it would never catch up to her.
I admitted to my husband (not the two exes but the third, current and final one) that it would be hard to continue to write scripts with Sylvia no longer there to read them. Even though my friend Liz was still going to be there – and would eventually buy the company - I was going to miss all those quirky little typewritten notes that either told me I was right on target or still had much to learn.
My fingers were itching to give her one last script, to bring to some kind of closure what her 20 years of guidance and encouragement had meant to me.
And then the answer came.
The first script I had sold to Plays in 1980 was the story of a young shoemaker named Crispin who had pretended to be a knight in order to woo a young woman he believed to be a princess named Lady Eileen. When it was revealed that his lady love was, instead, the royal’s rather bored lady-in-waiting, Celia, the couple rejoiced that they were both of peasant status and could live happily ever after.
But did they?
The Knight of the Honest Heart Returns picks up, coincidentally, exactly 20 years later on the day of their daughter’s wedding. Celia is relating the tale of how her former employer, angered at losing such good help, orchestrated a kidnapping to get her back.
The despondent Crispin, at wits’ end on how to rescue her, falls under the tutelage of a genuine knight, Sir Goodfellow. When such association inevitably dictates that he accompany his friend to the Crusades, Crispin quickly learns that there is more to the code of chivalry than simply donning the clothes.
He returns to England to finally free Celia from her life of servitude, having actually become the gallant knight she believed him to be when they first met at the story’s beginning.
Sylvia’s response to the sequel resulted in a nice-sized check for its sale. What she doesn’t know, however, is that I would happily have let her have it for free, just as my way of saying thanks for the privilege of being her long-distance student.
Our second face-to-face meeting came at brunch at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in August 2000. This time, I had brought along my husband, Mark. “This man is definitely a keeper,” Sylvia said, reminding me that she had the distinction of having known me through the prior two and categorizing/dismissing both of them as “rehearsal for the real thing.”
Mark was as struck by her indomitable spirit and command as I had been in all the years before, commenting later that she should be running her own country somewhere. Certainly if one had ever become available somewhere, her name would have been at the top of our list. In the years following her retirement, I always suspected that if I read in the newspapers about a spritely widow going off to Machu Picchu or racing camels across the Sudan, I wouldn’t have to read any further to guess who it was.
I will also have a permanent reminder of Sylvia to keep with me for all of the years ahead that I claim “Writer” as my profession. In the final week before the office on Boylston Street closed forever, a big box was specially packed in preparation for shipping to California. It was Sylvia’s IBM Selectric, speckled and crusted with correction fluid on its keys and platen, and proudly showing its age after so long an illustrious career.
She even threw in a new typewriter ribbon and a bottle of White-out.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world.