Author: Greg Oakes
Publication Date: 2008
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After a lengthy successful career in editing and publishing, Thomas Bertram (Bert) Costain began writing best-selling novels in his twilight years when most people are winding down for retirement. From 1947 to 1965, he dominated the best-seller and book club lists, as he churned out epic historical novels and non-fiction titles annually, selling millions of copies and providing fodder for motion picture screenplays. Previously, he worked as the editor of The Guelph Mercury, and later rose to the position of editor in the Maclean's empire, where he developed and showcased Canadian literary talent. Enormously talented, Costain accepted top positions in American media empires. Despite a stellar career and wide international popularity only decades ago, he is forgotten today.
Thomas Bertram Costain was born in Brantford, Ontario on May 8, 1885, the son of John Herbert and Mary (Shultz) Costain. His mother was Canadian and his father was an Isle of Man native. His father was always unsuccessfully inventing, so the family endured modestly. At the age of nine, an interest in history dawned in Bert. Before he finished high school, he had written three ambitious novels, one a 70,000 word romance about Maurice of Nassau, He was so certain he would become a novelist that he had not made any other career plans. A reporter's job opened up at the Brantford Courier and the editor, remembering a mystery story Bert had submitted that was not published, offered him employment at five dollars a week. Bert acquiesced: as a sports writer he would get free admission to all the local lacrosse games. Though initially unimpressed, Costain discovered he liked journalism. It was better than other entry level jobs he had tried like parcel boy, emory wheel glue boy and wood shavings shoveller. Ambitious to a fault, he switched to the Brantford Expositor for $10 per week and then to the Guelph Herald for $12 a week.1
Costain arrived in Guelph in 1907 to work for Joe Downey of the Guelph Herald. He only lasted a few months before heading to the Ottawa Journal for a brief stint at $14 per week and then he landed a position as a police reporter at the Toronto Empire and Mail for $17 per week. By 1908, he was back in Guelph, summoned by J. I. Mclntosh to become the editor of The Guelph Mercury for $28 per week, a grand sum for a 22-year old. Costain tried to modernize the newspaper's format. He had worked on big city rags where large headlines and blaring typography dominated. Though he had no editorial experience, the "boy editor", as he was dubbed,2 zealously pursued change, cajoling advertisers and the typesetting department. The die-hard production employees liked to do things their way. Merchants whose classified ads had traditionally occupied the front page for decades loathed him at first. Costain's enthusiasm and the benign support of the publisher won over the laggards in the composing room. The advertisers took longer. Under Costain's tenure, The Mercury scooped the competing Herald so often that the merchants began to accept his policies. Not only was The Mercury printing the news, it was printing it on the front page. Bert spent four years as editor of The Mercury, crucial years when he learned his craft. He eventually got fresh exciting events on the front page of The Mercury and family and civic happenings moved inside. Font and format were changed for legibility and readership appeal. The Mercury began to look like the dominant source of news that it was in Wellington County.
Mercury Building: The old Guelph Mercury building that was the home of the newspaper between 1867 and 1951.
Photo appears courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, Mercury Building, (C60-0-0-0-0-834).
While in Guelph, Bert attended a production of the "Pirates of Penzance" and immediately noticed vocalist Ida Spragge, daughter of the proprietor of P. Spragge's livery barn on Trafalgar Square. Costain was smitten and a six-month courtship ensued. However, it took Costain a few weeks to juggle his schedule before he sought out Ida as he had several reporters to manage and a newspaper to run. Fred Northmore, who worked for Costain, recalled him coming into work all dolled up and excited on the day of his wedding. Northmore was able to pin a large sign on his back that indicated he was being married that day. He was at the post office before someone informed him. Ida Randolph Spragge became Mrs. Costain on January 12, 1910.3 In her later years, Dale Nurseries of Brampton named a yellow rose in her honour, the lda Costain Rose.
The irregular hours of the newspaper business played havoc with Costain's marriage. Always seeking greener pastures, Costain answered an ad for a position with a Toronto business magazine. John Bayne Maclean interviewed Costain and liked the young man's answers to his shrewd questions. Maclean was from Puslinch and they found they had a lot in common. Within weeks, Horace Hunter brought Costain to Toronto to join the Maclean Hunter publishing firm as assistant editor oÍ the Hardware & Metal Paper and the Plumber and Steamfitter Journal. The group had a string of 15 profitable trade and technical journals. Findlay Weaver, who later chronicled Costain's adventures for The Guelph Mercury, was hired at the same time to work on the book dealers journal. Costain was quickly promoted to editor of the hardware paper and within a year he was given the same responsibilities on the plumbing, dry goods and milliner and menswear papers. Supervising four papers was difficult considering the constant staff changes. However, Costain thrived, possessing superior organizational skills and a talent for counselling young staff. Inevitably his duties expanded until he was de facto general manager of the whole trade paper group.4 Costain demonstrated zeal for improving the quality of the publications. He was an ideas man who could inspire his crew to higher achievements. His eventual rise to the top of the Canadian magazine business would take less than three years.
Costain was occasionally given additional assignments assisting Col. Maclean with his precious Maclean's magazine. Eager for the challenge, Costain assumed more responsibilities, tweaking Maclean's with new styles and substance. His successful touch with the trade papers soon encompassed the national leisure magazine. By October 1914, when "T. B. Costain, Editor", finally appeared on the masthead of Maclean's, Costain was essentially managing the day-to-day affairs of the whole Maclean's publications group. A veteran of countless decisions, the title gave him power to exact even greater change. Page sizes were extended; ads were removed from the back of the magazine and dispersed amongst the text; large illustrations and special effects were added. Costain was destined to transform Maclean's into Canada's national magazine.
Costain contracted top Canadian artistic talent like C. W. Jeffreys and members of the Group of Seven. A true pioneer of Canadian literature, he published the works of Ralph Connor, Emily Murphy, Sir Gilbert Parker, Lord Beaverbrook, Charles G. D. Roberts, Nellie McClung, Robert Service, and Ernest Thompson Seton. Costain travelled the country searching for talented writers and authors. In1915, he wrote a note to McGill University professor Stephen Leacock to suggest possible contributions. Convincing Colonel Maclean to loosen the purse strings, he insisted that established writers should get $100 per article and that Leacock's wry, witty pieces were more than worth that price. Costain rubbed pencils with top Canadian literary talent and gave them a national venue. At the time, creative writing was equated with poverty and even successful Canadian authors required day jobs or had to relocate to American or British centres. Costain was eager to change that. Though he was still in his twenties, he became the premiere purveyor of Canadian literary talent.5
Costain was the not the stereotypical editor. He budgeted his time as carefully as his expenses. He calmly analysed and resolved any crisis. He never shouted and was more of a listener than a talker. His favourite drink was tea. Costain studied every aspect of publishing and proposed methods of efficiency and cost-savings. His early goal was to have his salary keep pace with his age. At age 22 he was making 28 dollars per week and he hoped by age 50 to earn more than $50 per week. Though Costain's salary at Maclean's never exceeded $100 per week, he did get bonuses for Maclean's circulation increases. He was able to make Maclean's magazine profitable. In 10 years, he increased its circulation from 25,000 to 80,000 and doubled the number of issues from monthly to bi-weekly. By 1920, Costain was earning about $10,000 per year and had a reputation as one of Canada's great forces in promoting home-grown literature.6
Thomas B. Costain. Courtesy of the Brant Historical Society.
George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, recognized Costain's genius and hired him in 1920 as associate editor, doubling his salary to $20,000. Lord Beaverbrook advised Costain that he might be making a mistake by giving up such a senior post in Canada but Costain's first obligation was to feed his family. In the United States, he was known by his first name Tom and he soon became an American citizen. Costain would serve 14 years, and eventually become the Post's chief associate editor. Costain excelled as a talent scout, he discovered and developed many new American writers, such as J. P. Marquand, Earl Derr Biggers, Mary Lowery Ross, and Charles Francis Coe. He ensured that the work of all the great popular writers of the period appeared in the Post . Costain left the Post in 1934 to become Eastern story editor for 20th Century Fox films. Samuel Goldwyn appreciated his ability to spot a best-seller but Tom was frustrated dealing with Hollywood and travel to the west coast and he resigned in 1936.7
In 1937, with E. H. Ellis and P. Hal Sims, he made an ill-fated attempt at publishing. He launched a pocket-sized rnagazine, American Cavalcade, that published short fiction. It lasted only two years after consuming extensive capital. Costain secured a part-time position in 1939 at Doubleday and Company as an advisory editor.8 Once again Costain's talent-rearing acumen secured employment.
Thomas B. Costain. Courtesy of the Brant Historical Society.
Costain worked three days a week in the office and the rest at home beginning to write his own novels. Time was running out if he wanted to pursue his childhood goal. Following advice he had given others over the years, he wrote about what interested him. He would rise early each day and write 3,000 words in four hours. Consumed by biography and history, he prepared a lengthy non-fiction manuscript he called "Step Children of History" about unknown but important historical figures. His literary agent advised he had enough material for several novels. Obscure historical characters do not sell, so Costain mixed the rare with recognizable historical figures. Though he could financially afford to experiment with fiction, he also freelanced short features to keep a positive cashflow.9 In 1942, his first novel, For My Great Folly, about the pirate John Ward was published. It became a Book League of America selection and quickly sold 132,000 copies. At age 57, Costain was an author. The New Yorker described it as a better than average tale with pretty ladies, dashing men and the usual marital trimmings. It was the template for Costain's future works: historical romance, with colour, detail, period slang, archaic food references, intrigue and rousing action. Costain extensively researched all his entertaining adventures. Costain spun his tales with a paradoxical combination of precision and casualness. His histories were vivid with everyday details.
Ride With Me, about the Napoleonic English diplomat-general Sir Robert Wilson, was released in 1944; followed in 1945 by the Black Rose, a tale of the Mongol warrior Bayan. The Black Rose was one of the most popular books of the era. Launched with a print run of 650,000 copies, it sold over two million. It was championed as superior to Gone With The Wind. The film rights were purchased for $125,000 and Tyrone Power starred in the movie.10 Set in the 13th century with a set that stretched from England to China and characters like Robert Bacon and Kubla Khan, the New York Times insisted the book swash-buckles with the best of them.11 Several reviewers compared Costain to H. Rider Haggard and Sir Walter Scott. In 1947, Costain wrote The Moneyman about Jacques Couer who financed the Hundred Years War. It was a best-seller and a book club selection. He followed in 1949 with High Towers set in 17th century Canada. He followed with Son of A Hundred Kings in 1950 set in small town 1890s Ontario. Elaborately plotted, it was compared to Dickens. Again Costain scored with major book clubs and best-seller lists. Readers might recognize Costain's veiled settings from his early life in Brantford and Guelph.12
Costain had co-written a biography of ]oshua in 1943. He returned to the Bible for his most ambitious project yet, the Holy Grail. The Silver Chalice, published in 1952, follows the fate of the chalice from Christ's Last Supper through to Paul and ]oseph of Arimathea. It was the best-selling novel of the year. A young Paul Newman made his movie debut in the resulting Warner Bros. movie.13 His books, however, did not always translate well into movies due to their length and elaborate sets and costuming.
A prodigy at 60, Costain's book sales were astronomical in an era when 20,000 sales was considered good.14 Costain's tax return for 1945 showed income of $200,000 from the Black Rose. Costain quipped about paying $185,000 in royalty income taxes. Ever the pragmatist, he didn't give up his editing duties at Doubleday until 1946 when he was assured of his success.
Costain wrote a steady run of best-sellers until his death. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, his books were released with six-figure press runs. Costain produced a book a year with each averaging five drafts of 200,000 words. Costain's books sold in excess of 15 million copies. His writing made him incredibly wealthy.15 Cognizant of his own mortality, Costain set a brisk writing pace. He wrote the non-fiction "Pageant of England" series that included: The Conquerors (1949), The Magnificent Century (1951), The Three Edwards (1958), and The Last of the Plantagenets (1962). His detailed chronicles of British history secured his fame as a popular historian. Having exhausted the old, he produced a four-volume Canadian history series called "The White and the Gold", which he commenced with the first book in 1954 and finished with the final volume in 1961. The first volume, about the early French explorers, sold an amazing 100,000 copies in Canada alone. He also wrote a history of the invention of the telephone, The Chord of Steel (1960). It sold in excess of 50,000 copies in Canada. Brantford born, he resented the Americanization of Alexander Graham Bell. While completing the histories, he also ground out several more fictional best-sellers set in ancient times in foreign lands: the two-volume Tontine (1955), Below The SaIt (1957), The Darkness and the Dawn (1959), and The Last Love (1963). Costain's prodigious output also included novellas, youth books, and other biographies.16 Although Costain enjoyed the less profitable factual histories, he had commitments to his publishers for historical fiction. He may have had even greater sales had he written American history. His works were translated into 17 different languages including Malayan, Czech and Finnish.
Thomas B. Costain. Courtesy of the Brant Historical Society.
His factual histories were well received best-sellers but some of his fictional works had astronomical sales. John Jakes, a current historical fiction writer who had many of his novels turned into television mini-series, cited Costain as an inspiration.17 Costain developed the popular historical style later practised by James Michener and Pierre Berton. Costain made history come alive for the reader and demonstrated how the past affects the present. His recurring themes were social change, the decline of chivalry and the rise of the commoner. For Costain, history was not static. Revisionist historians today challenge our vision of history. Costain's works sold millions and helped a generation explore their past.
Costain received an honourary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in 1952 for his contributions as one of the greatest historical writers of his time.18 In 1965, the Canadian Club of New York presented him with their gold medallion making him its seventh honouree. Costain was working on a novel with Benjamin Franklin as a central figure when he died of a heart attack at age 80 in 1965. Costain's estate was valued at $500,000 when his will was probated.19 Newsweek, Time and most major press media printed his obituary. He was buried in Brantford.20
Though a U.S. citizen, Costain never relinquished his ties with south-western Ontario. He kept in touch with his magazine and newspaper colleagues. He loved Canadian history. He left several legacies that should have secured immortality. Years before Canada Council grants, he developed new Canadian writers. Adept at improving people, he discovered promising talents and provided them with ideas and venues for their works. Lured to America like most successful Canadian talent, he repeated the process at the flagship Post. There are many literary prizes and competitions today but none recall Costain's input as a talent broker. With long experience in satisfying popular literary taste, he launched his own phenomenal best-selling literary career. None of his books is in print today. Though his novels settings are exotic and the history compelling, they are tedious to shorter modern attention spans. His non-fiction histories are not cited by university professors. Popular writing can become out-dated quickly but Costain's themes are universal. Costain was in a hurry to write everything, conscious of his own mortality. Would he be disappointed to find it was all in vain? Canadians do not remember Bert Costain who went to the United States and Americans have forgotten that Canadian fellow Tom Costain who wrote about Canada. Perhaps a new generation will discover Costain's contributions and restore his memory to the literary pantheon - if not for his popular novels, at least for his contributions to the development of early Canadian literature.
- "Destiny as Novelist Seen From Childhood by Costain," Brantford Expositor, 30 June 1967.
- Findlay Weaver, "Big Days in Mercury Story Recalled by Boy Editor," The Guelph Mercury,1955.
- Thomas B. Costain, "T.B. Costain Struck Mercury during Period of Transition" The Guelph Mercury , 20 July 1927 . p.102.
- Floyd Sherman Chalmers, A Gentleman of the Press (Toronto, ON: Doubleday, 1969), p.186-195, 210-213.
- "A Weaver of Literary Tapestry," Brantford Expositor, 1 December 1967.
- Findlay Weaver, "Crowning of Costain's Career in Superior Canadian History," The Guelph Mercury, 10 November 1966; "In The Editors Confidence," Maclean's, 15 January 1946.
- "Thomas B. Costain Described as a Young Man in a Hurry," Brantford Expositor, 10 September 1960.
- "The Pen of Thomas Costain is Laid to Rest " Brantford Expositor, 9 October 1965, p.1.
- Merrill Denison, "Prodigy at Sixty," Maclean's, 15 January 1946.
- Edward Toledanomeknes, "Cameras Turn on the Black Rose in Morocco Today," New York Times, 15 May 1949, p.x5.
- Thomas C. Chubb, "Meet Attilla and his Friends," New York Times, 11 October 1959.
- Gerald Clark, "Thomas B. Costain: Today's Most Successful Historical Novelist is Recreating the Story of his Native Canada," Weekend Magazine, 2 August 1952, p.3-4; "Costain's Life Examined at Centennial Teach In," Brantford Expositor, 8 April 1967, p.22.
- Thomas C. Chubb, "Around A Modest Battered Cup," New York Times, 27 July 1952, p.Br.4.
- Nona Balakian, "Talk With Thomas Costain," New York Tímes, 17 August 1952, p.Br.15.
- "Former Guelph Citizen is Honoured at Ceremony," The Guelph Mercury, 10 September 1960.
- Harry R. Warfel, American Novelists of Today (New York: American Book Co., 1951).
- Elizabeth Leiss McKellar, Thomas B. Costain: The Charles Dickens of Brantford, (Brantford, ON: Grand Memories, Sept. 1991), p.19 -21.
- "Brantford Prepares to Honor Costain in Ceremony Today," Brantford Expositor, 9 September 1960.
- "Costain's Will Filed," New York Times, 23 October 1965, p.13.
- "Author Thomas B. Costain Dies at 80," London Free Press, 9 October 1965, p.2; "Thomas Costain, Author, 80, Dies," New York Times, 9 October 1965, p.2; "Thomas Costain Dies at New York Home," The Guelph Mercury, 9 October 1965, p.13.