This story is adapted from an upcoming issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
In the early fall of 1933, first-time novelist James M. Cain and his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had a problem. Cain, 41, a hard-drinking journalist from Baltimore trying to hang on in Hollywood, had written a crackerjack crime novel about a California drifter and his married lover.
It was short, mean and scandalously sexy. It had a brilliant opening: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
The problem: The title, “Bar-B-Q,” was a limp noodle.
“Dear Mr. Cain,” Knopf wrote in a three-line letter on Aug. 22, shortly after acquiring the 30,000-word novel for $500, “BAR-B-Q is not a good title and I think we must devise something better.”
The ensuing struggle to find a title – which would become one of the most famous in 20th-century American literature – is one of many captivating episodes in Cain’s papers, which reside in the Manuscript Division. Correspondence with film stars such as Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck – all of whom starred in film adaptations of his books – and journalism legends, such as H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann, fill dozens of boxes.
But, in 1933, Cain was going nowhere fast. He’d gotten canned from his last screenwriting gig and was scraping by on freelance magazine features. He and his second wife (there would be a total of four) were living in a little house in Burbank, at $45 per month. Knopf wanted to get the book out in January of 1934, and Cain needed the money. So he churned out a flurry of new titles. How about “Black Puma”? “The Devil’s Checkbook”? “Western Story”?
Pffft, said Knopf. He didn’t like any of them. As September turned to October, and the first galleys still had “Bar-B-Q” on them, Knopf began to get anxious. “We really must christen the book soon,” he wrote. He came up his own title – “For Love or Money” – and pushed Cain to take it. “It’s good,” he wrote on Oct. 6, underlining “good” four times.
Pffft, Cain scoffed back. Sounds like a musical.
He was a large, burly man, and nobody ever accused him of being demure. Back home, his father had been an English professor and president of Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His mother had been an opera singer. Cain himself was a lover of opera, smart company and fine food. He spoke impeccable English. He had briefly worked, just prior to coming to Hollywood, as managing editor of the New Yorker, under co-founder Harold Ross. But he had a love for roughnecks and the little guys in life, an affection he had honed as a writer at the Baltimore Sun, where he was buddies with Mencken. He was such close friends with Lippmann – today considered the father of modern journalism – that Lippmann had, in fact, negotiated the sale of “Bar-B-Q” to Knopf for him.
“There is only one rule I know on a title,” Cain would later blare. “It must sound like the author and not like some sure-fire product of the title factory.”
Besides, he often chatted with a friend and playwright named Vincent Lawrence. The two liked to discuss story structure, so much so that Lawrence had helped him come up with the plot outline for this first novel. In one gab session, Lawrence mentioned that when he was stuck at his house, nervously awaiting correspondence from producers, that he’d noticed that the postman, when he finally arrived, always rang…twice.
Bingo! said Cain. What a title! “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” He excitedly wrote Knopf on Oct. 2.
Knopf was not amused. This debut author was telling him – the founder of one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses – to scrap his title for something this bizarre? “I don’t think THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE anything like as good a title as FOR LOVE OR MONEY and I hope you will agree. For one thing, it’s awfully long.”
Cain did not, in fact, agree. This was remarkable, particularly considering his dire economic and professional circumstances. Things were so tight, biographer Roy Hoopes later noted, that Cain had borrowed $1,000 from Lawrence just to stay afloat – the 2019 equivalent of $20,000. For two solid weeks, with publication deadlines crashing down on them, he stuck to his title. Knopf –no doubt to his own later great relief – backed off.
“Turn about is fair play,” Knopf wrote on Oct. 23. “Since you were good enough to drop a title (‘Bar-B-Q’) at our suggestion, we will abandon FOR LOVE OR MONEY at your request. Let us accept the one you seem to like best, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. It’s a sort of crazy title but I like it…I think we’ll be happy with it.”
Yes, yes, they most certainly were. “Postman” was an immediate sensation, selling millions of copies and establishing Cain, along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as one of the founders of American noir and hardboiled crime fiction. Cain sold the movie rights to MGM for $25,000, nearly $500,000 today. Along with “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce,” it made Cain a lasting name. A decent sort, Cain dedicated “Postman” to Lawrence, and never failed to credit him, as the years passed and his fame grew, as the person who was the key to his success.
Still, readers were mystified – there is no postman in the book. Nobody rings anything. What the heck does it mean?
In later interviews and letters, like one to reader Clara T. King on May 21, 1936, Cain claimed this identifying double ring by letter carriers was an old British or Irish tradition and that it doubled as a metaphor for the delayed justice meted out to Frank and Cora, the killers, with “postman” standing in for “justice.”
“They had to answer the second ring,” he wrote.
It was hooey, but it was Hollywood. It worked.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.