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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 31
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
May 15, 2018
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New York City was searching for its identity in 1908.  Unemployment was rampant, there was talk of anarchy and, worst of all, brazen women were daring to smoke in public.

The first two problems were bad enough; the third was unbearable.  City government quickly sprang into action by passing the Sullivan Ordinance.

NO PUBLIC SMOKING BY WOMEN NOW proclaimed the New York Times headlines on January 21, 1908

The subtitle questioned whether or not women would be reasonable enough to follow orders:

The Sullivan Ordinance, to be Passed by the Aldermen Today, Makes It Illegal. WILL THE LADIES REBEL As the Ladies of New Amsterdam Did When Peter Stuyvesant Ordered Them to Wear Broad Flounces?

Will the ladies rebel?  Gosh, if you let 'em smoke, the next thing you know they'll be trying to vote!  Evidently this is a textbook example of a writer that didn't get out enough.  Rebel, they did. 

New York's finest hustled Katie Mulkahie off to the hoosegow for firing up a smoke January 22, 1908.  New York Mayor Seth Low vetoed the discriminatory legislation two weeks later, although it would be 1920 before women could legally vote in the U.S.  For those keeping score, when it came to women's suffrage we were several years behind Denmark, but well ahead of Djibouti, if that is of any consolation.

Meanwhile Harry Peyton Steger's standard of living was improving dramatically in 1908, thanks to his new position as literary advisor at Doubleday, Page & Company, but, just like New York Cityat the turn of the century, Harry was searching for his identity, too.  Old friends were being usurped by a new breed.

"It is to my mind the most galling irony of life that associations cannot be kept up independent of time and space," Harry wrote to John Lomax.  "I have now an entirely new set.  They live, most of them, in New Jersey and write books and magazine stories.  A half dozen of them sell pictures they paint of sway-backed, thin-hipped girls.  A quaint crew and not the type with which we used to foregather.  It was more the sort of exit that you or Bedichek should have had than I."

Just as Steger was beginning to gain a foothold in New York City, another Fannin County boy was drawing crowds in Boston.  Erwin E. Smith moved to Massachusetts in 1906 to study under the direction of prominent sculptor Bella Lyon Pratt.  While Smith is known today for producing a large volume of historic photography depicting cowboys hard at work in the early 20th century, the Honey Grove native was also a talented sculptor that earned a prize from the Boston Art Institute for his bust of a Sioux Indian. 

But then, just as it remains today, it was Smith's photography that caught the public's eye. 

In 1908, a Boston gallery displayed 40 of Erwin Smith's enlarged photographs of life out West and the exhibit was stopping crowds in downtown Boston.  Two articles about Smith appeared in the Boston Herald.

Erwin Smith's childhood friend, Harry Peyton Steger, recognized the artistic and historic contribution Smith was making.

Speaking of Smith's photographs, according to the Handbook of Texas, Steger noted, "Whether the man who took them succeeds as a painter and sculptor, he has already done a work of great importance."

The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger only contains four entries for 1908; two missives were mailed to Harry's parents in Bonham, the aforementioned letter went to John Lomax and one was mailed to Roy Bedichek, although that note probably rubbed salt in his old friend's wounds; Harry was now enjoying the fruits of his labor, while Bedichek had several lean years still to come. 

For the remainder of his days, Steger would be consumed by his ambitious goal to make his mark in literature.  Harry's every waking moment seemed to be divided between business luncheons, entertaining and recruiting writers at his bungalow in Freeport or traveling extensively on behalf of Doubleday, Page and Company. 

"Some of his friends treated him as a sort of literary accoucheur, and depended on him to ease the births of their brain children, for they wrote and even wired him whenever they reached an awkward spot in the composition of a story," wrote playwright and humorist Montague Glass.  "I remember once that in response to a telegram he journeyed as far south as Georgia to comfort a perplexed writer who was badly quagmired in the middle of a Saturday Evening Post serial.  Another time he went to a western city and for several days sat outside the closed door of a writer's study to make sure that no intoxicants entered until the work in hand was finished."    

"Lest anyone think these anecdotes trivial, let me say they are related to illustrate the simplicity and unaffected goodness of a man who in culture and real ability stood head and shoulders above the stilted, self-conscious little writing world of New York, where even professional humorists and illustrators for comic papers wear horn spectacles and the unbending expression of a hanging judge," Glass continued.  "I remember Harry at the public dinners and other revels of our efficiently organized New York Bohemia.  There he sat while the craftsmen of the graphic and literary arts advertised themselves with speech, stunt and story--a twinkle in his boyish eye, his hair rumpled up, his shirt-front bulging, like an indulgent grandfather at a children's birthday party.  He was, in fact, the foster-father of these spoiled literary children.  I once accompanied Harry to the New York office of a London Publisher and witnessed negotiations with the publisher's representative, Mr. Smith, for the American rights to a popular English novel."

"Observe the behavior of Smith," Steger relayed in hushed tones to Glass before the two men entered the publisher's office. “In about 10 minutes he will touch the hand-bell on his desk after the fashion of the attaché in the third act of Sardou's Diplomacy and he will ask for the last London mail.  The intention is to put the matter at once on such a high plane that I ought to be ashamed to dicker about the difference of a few dollars."

Glass and Steger were scarcely seated before Smith rang the bell and the stenographer brought in a handful of letters. 

"Smith carefully selected one letter and, throughout the negotiations, he referred to it at intervals by way of refreshing his memory," Glass recalled.  "Moreover, he quoted from it long sentences, tending to prove that both his principles and his principals forbade the acceptance of less than one and a half times the amount of Harry's offer.  Even when he was not reading from it, he held it in his hand and it continued to be a splendid source of corroborative evidence until the stenographer entered and told him that a lady in the outer office wanted to speak to him.  When he left the room, he omitted to take the letter with him and Harry pounced on it immediately."

It read:

We store your furs
Where moths can't reach them
For 2% of their value
Write us a postcard today
Our representative will call tomorrow

Previous Steger articles: