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The swindler

Robert Louis Stevenson was not a businessman. His wife Fanny had the acumen for that, but she wasn’t around on that evening at Baker’s, in Saranac Lake, when her husband unwittingly put the both of them in financial jeopardy while playing host to Sam McClure, his next American publisher, and while appearing to be playing fast with Charles Scribner, his then American publisher, who was somewhere in the civilized world on the other side of this wilderness.

Fanny was off on one of her excursions, living up to the reason for her presence in the USA in the fall of 1887. After having lived seven years abroad, this native of the American frontier had become homesick and longed to see a lot of people. The recent death of her husband’s father Thomas Stevenson provided the circumstances to let it happen by means of a voyage to America. Fanny was with her family in Indianapolis when Robert Louis Stevenson and Sam McClure talked business in Andrew Baker’s living room in front of his fireplace.

Sam McClure was in Saranac Lake because RLS was the new star of the American celebrity scene, made famous by his fictional, two-faced fiend, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it was McClure’s business to do business with people like that — the author, that is. McClure would discover, as would others, that Robert Louis Stevenson was an atypical client.

“He was unlike almost any other author I ever met, singularly loveable as an author, and as a man,” McClure claimed. RLS had something that one of his friends called, “A spirit intense and rare” that stuck to people long after he was dead. It even drove some of them to start up a society in his name and to hijack Andrew Baker’s house to make it into a shrine, just because Stevenson lived there for six-and-a-half months.

And so it was that in 1922, Sam McClure returned to Saranac Lake to be guest speaker at the annual, late summer meeting of the Stevenson Society of America Inc. Sam’s listeners filled the lawn while he spoke from the veranda once used by his subject to walk around on when the snow was too deep to get into the woods. McClure began with a warning: “This is going to be a terribly scattered talk, but I will do my best.”

McClure had made several trips to Saranac Lake during that memorable winter of 1887-88. He told his listeners, “I want to explain that my relations with Mr. Stevenson were, at first, entirely in connection with my business, a newspaper syndicate.” McClure gave some good background information, and then from his podium he pointed backward toward a door. “We were right in this room here with the fireplace. … After some conversation, I asked him how much he wanted for his serial rights; he said 800 pounds. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I am going to pay you just twice 800 pounds for your next novel. I am going to pay you $8,000.’ He was somewhat reluctant …”

It was at this point of conversation that Fanny’s absence would become a factor. Stevenson got talking about himself and practically led McClure to the button he needed to push for effect. All McClure had to do was say, “Well, that’s easy. If you get a yacht and take long voyages and write about them, stories of adventure and so forth, I will pay all expenses of the yacht!”

“And out of that talk came the South Seas cruise and the consummation of the contract for much of his work,” McClure said. “The contracts for both the novels and the letters were made that evening,” without Fanny’s knowledge or input.

McClure continued: “Stevenson, as I said, was very reluctant to make an agreement, and I didn’t know exactly why until after his ‘Life and Letters’ were published.” McClure then refers to a letter RLS wrote at Baker’s to Charles Baxter, in which he exults over his recent deal with McClure as one of the positive results of sudden fame, oblivious to the double-dealing involved. But it wasn’t a businessman who ended his letter saying, “But I’m awfu’ grand noo, and long may it last.” That grand feeling didn’t last long. When his wife Fanny found out, she quickly pointed out the legal implications and probably questioned, again, her husband’s common sense, or lack of it.

McClure continues: “His exultation was short-lived. Two days after that letter to Baxter he wrote to Mr. Charles Scribner, with whom he was already under contract for all his work published in this country: ‘Heaven help me. I am under a curse just now. I have played fast and loose with what I said to you and that, I beg you to believe, in the purest innocence of mind. I told you that you should have the power over all my work in this country; and about a fortnight ago, when McClure was here, I calmly signed a bargain for the serial publication of a story. You will scarcely believe that I did this in mere oblivion; but I did; and all I can say is that I will do it no more, and ask you to forgive me.’

“Some weeks later Stevenson wrote to Henley: ‘I have had the most deplorable business annoyance, too; have been threatened with having to refund money; got over that, and find myself in the worse scrape of being a kind of unintentional swindler.'”

All that could have been avoided if there had been one more adult in the room — Fanny — on that above-mentioned evening in Saranac Lake when RLS and McClure were talking business in front of Andrew Baker’s fireplace. Fanny attracted detractors, but she had supporters, too. Sam McClure was one of them and included this during his “terribly scattered talk” from Baker’s veranda:

“It is impossible to understand Stevenson or to talk about him without talking about Mrs. Stevenson, who was in many respects the most remarkable and one of the most loveable and charming women I ever met. She was made to be the mate of Robert Louis Stevenson. Next year when you have Mr. Low here with you, ask him to tell you of those marvelous days in France when this youth, Stevenson, running by a window of a hotel, suddenly jumped up so that he could see into the dining room and saw her as she was rising from the table, looked straight into her eyes — how he determined, as he went on up the street, that she was the only woman in the world whom he would ever marry. Mrs. Stevenson had an exotic, Spanish beauty which was at its height when Stevenson met her, and with this beauty she had a wealth of experience, a reach of the imagination, a sense of humor which he never met in any other woman.” Of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, after the death of her husband, “I could only say to myself — ‘Hector’s Andromache!'”

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