book excerpt

The Editor and the Murderer

When Sophie Wilkins heard about Edgar Smith, she was determined to edit his book. Then the two became something more.

Sophie Wilkins in her office at Knopf, 1967. Photo: Adam Wilkins
Sophie Wilkins in her office at Knopf, 1967. Photo: Adam Wilkins
Sophie Wilkins in her office at Knopf, 1967. Photo: Adam Wilkins

On the morning of November 11, 1967, Sophie Wilkins traveled by train and hired car to Trenton State Prison. She was, at last, about to meet Edgar Smith in person, after corresponding with him for months. She dressed primly, per prison regulations, and tried to tamp down her sky-high expectations after months of correspondence that had begun on strictly professional terms and grown into something far, far more complicated.

Smith wasn’t yet one of the most famous convicts in America, but he was on his way to becoming one. Two years earlier, William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, had written an Esquire article on Edgar’s plight, and his belief that the man had been wrongfully convicted in the 1957 murder of fifteen-year-old Victoria Zielinski. Buckley not only took issue with the police’s initial interrogation of Smith, he bought the original defense strategy of blaming another man — a one time friend of Edgar’s — for the crime.

Sophie had been struck by the literary quality of Edgar’s correspondence that Buckley quoted in the article. She wondered if there might be a book in his story, and if so, she wrote Buckley, she wanted to edit it. With Sophie and Buckley’s help, Edgar would be vaulted from prison to the country’s highest intellectual echelons as a best-selling author, an expert on prison reform, and a minor celebrity — but such heights had an expiration date, and he would fall, spectacularly, to earth within a few short years.

Sophie had joined the book publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf in 1959 as assistant to the editor in chief. She had started acquiring books of her own a few years into the job, but the pickings weren’t as plentiful as she’d liked, and she’d had some difficulty getting her acquisitions approved by the higher-ups. Knopf was one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the United States, still nominally run by its founder and namesake, Alfred A. Knopf. But the company would go through major changes during Sophie’s first years there. The house was in transition, but the key to the transition was the pursuit of profit, never Sophie’s primary goal as an editor.

Sophie wasn’t sure if she was part of the old guard or the new guard. She had started at Knopf at the age of forty-four, making her significantly older than the other editorial assistants (as well as some of the editors). She had lived a far more unconventional life than the other female assistants, who cycled through the company on their way to eventual marriage and children. Sophie, however, was a different sort.

At the age of twelve, she had emigrated from Vienna with her family in 1927, reuniting with her father, who’d arrived in the United States a few years earlier. Sophie hadn’t known a word of English upon landing at Ellis Island but had picked it up fast enough to graduate from high school four years later and to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative literature at Brooklyn College. She later became a doctoral student at Columbia University, studying and sparring with the literary critic Lionel Trilling, supporting herself by working as a secretary in the English Department office and teaching freshman composition.

Sophie was on her third marriage, to the author and literature professor Thurman Wilkins, and had two sons by her second husband, the psychiatrist Alvin Meyer. (Sophie’s first marriage at the age of nineteen was so brief she hardly ever discussed it.) “Those years of marriage to Prince Charming, when Cinderella should have been so happy, seem in memory the most agonizing of my life,” she once wrote of her time with Alvin. “I felt completely off base, didn’t really know what was expected of me, how long this magic could last.” Two abortions, eleven years apart, bookended the marriage.

By 1967, her decade-long union with Thurman was also running into trouble. When she’d met him, Thurman seemed stoic and placid, and the boys took to him right away, which persuaded Sophie that he would be an excellent stepfather. But Thurman’s calm began to evaporate within a few years of their marriage, as he struggled with his mental health. There would be hospitalizations and breakdowns in his future, and Sophie, despite being devoted to him as a caregiver, despaired of the encroaching loneliness, worsened when both of her sons moved hundreds of miles away for college.

Sophie’s personality and demeanor, too, marked her as alien to those she worked with at Knopf. Whereas others’ general bearing was quiet and reserved, Sophie was loud and passionate. When measured rationality was the norm, Sophie’s gregarious outbursts stood out. She did not abide by professional norms and operated at a higher temperature than was usual at Knopf. That made getting her desired book projects through to publication all the more frustrating of an experience because the editorial board said no far more often than they said yes to her ideas.

Sophie sensed commercial opportunity and professional salvation in the letters from Edgar Smith that Buckley quoted in his Esquire piece. Usually, she gravitated toward translated literature, a means of putting her native and still fluent German to use, as well as her decent French (and in small but lethal doses, Yiddish).

What spurred Sophie to push herself out of her comfort zone to write Buckley was her belief in Edgar’s innocence, and whether he might be interested in writing a book. If he was, she wanted to be the conduit for that belief to reach an even larger audience. “I daresay this question has been asked and answered many times over by now,” she wrote Buckley in the fall of 1965. “But I would like to go on record, at least, that this house is interested, if there is such a possibility.”

Sophie’s correspondence with Edgar Smith began in May 1967, after she’d learned from his mother that he was fifty thousand words into a book — roughly halfway through the manuscript, according to his own calculations — and expected to be done by mid-July. (Like many would-be authors, Edgar would blow this self-imposed deadline as well as other ones.)

There was one unexpected complication to sort out before Sophie could write Edgar: when the officials at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton learned she was married, they insisted Sophie obtain signed approval from her husband. “It is their way of being certain that no extramarital hanky-panky is going on,” Edgar explained in his first letter to Sophie on July 24, 1967. “How about that? They must think I am Houdini.”

A subsequent letter from Edgar revealed more detail about the book, which he had provisionally titled Murder in Mahwah, after the New Jersey town where Zielinski had been killed. It read like “a very long, very dull, legal brief — and one full of holes.” To get around the gaps, Edgar decided to “discard documentation in favor of interest and continuity.” If that meant recreating scenes based on speculation and inference, rather than what he himself had witnessed or had knowledge of, then so be it. He had already worked on chapters about Zielinski’s murder, the police interrogation, his arrest, and his trial. The final manuscript, Edgar expected, would run close to 125,000 words.

His plan met with Sophie’s enthusiastic approval. “You are right about wanting to publish your work,” she wrote back a few days later. “If you see where you can improve it, it will be worth the time it takes.”

Sophie also made one early editorial note suggesting that Edgar start with his arrest and not the background. “The drama of such a start hooks the reader, and afterward he will be much more patient with background fill-ins than he will be if asked to start with background he hasn’t as yet a strong reason to be interested in reading about.” She suggested he read Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

The frequency of their exchanges grew, with Sophie writing multiple-page letters several times a week and Edgar stacking two-pagers together whenever possible. Their correspondence abated later in the summer of 1967 while Sophie was traveling throughout Europe, but it did not stop; rather, it changed tone. The “strictly professional” barrier began to relax, with Edgar doing most of the boundary breaking.

In one of her early letters, Sophie had complained about “getting old and cranky.” Edgar protested this: “You can’t be that much older than I am — at least from what my mother tells me, and I can assure you that I don’t feel old.” Would she prefer to be young and giggly? “That would be a fate worse than life, or whatever. Besides, the Smith Theory of Gerontology is that a woman is not old until the last rites have been said over her.”

After Sophie described, in self-deprecating fashion, a brief dalliance with a Greek man while on her European vacation, Edgar countered with a personal anecdote of his own:

Why shouldn’t the Greek find you interesting? I do. While still a fuzzy-cheeked nineteen, in Hawaii, I lived for six months with a woman forty-three, a Mrs. Rich-Bitch from Palm Beach, also an ex-Russki — her folks skipped in October 1917. ‘Twas the best, most instructive, six months of my life. After her, young chicks were like Dullsville. I was astonished to discover that some women can talk. Until then, I thought girls only blushed and giggled — before and after.

That was a prelude to Edgar expressing more overt interest in Sophie. “What sort of ill-mannered clods are you accustomed to? If a woman is interesting, I can’t see what the hell difference it makes how old she is. You, for instance. I couldn’t care less if you were 20, 90, or 190 — I dig you, and I don’t know what else counts. Age, good looks, etc., only count with a woman with an empty head. [I] discovered 11 years ago that young, beautiful, oversexed, empty-headed women make marvelous house pets, but lousy wives. (Something tells me that I could prove to be quite a surprise for S.C. Wilkins.)”

Over the course of the fall of 1967, Sophie and Edgar’s correspondence became more frank and intimate. Sophie would later claim that it had been a ruse on her part, a way of providing a degree of thrill to a condemned man in dire need of it. But the thrill was hers to feel as well, a diversion from loneliness and depression and a chance at fulfilling some greater mission — that the end, a publishable book, could truly justify the means.

“For me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sophie would write William F. Buckley in 1979. “And because of it, I was able to forget all scruples about whom I might be having to do with, about the monster who had brained Vicki [sic] Zielinski and my natural revulsion from such an incomprehensible creature as that. I ‘couldn’t believe’ this man had actually done it, not the man who had written such letters to you and to me; it had to be untrue.”

The correspondence got hotter and heavier. Edgar called her “Red” because of her auburn locks, and “owl” because he thought she resembled one (this was, apparently, a compliment.) Sophie called him “Igor” and later, “Ilya.” She sent him photographs of herself, and obliged when he asked for more. She insisted that she didn’t believe in monogamy anyway: “A man like you should have more than one woman in his life,” Sophie wrote on November 5. “By a man like you I mean a born lover, gifted that way; a talent has to be exercised, encouraged; it is a source of joy and we have too few of these to throw away what we have.”

The next threshold author and editor needed to cross, having broken so many boundaries already, was to meet in person. Edgar joked that when they met at last, they would be “like two virgins on their wedding night.” When they did so, it didn’t go quite as planned.

Sophie Wilkins passed through security at Trenton State Prison. She was led into a room with a glass partition through which she would be able to see Smith and talk to him through the headset on the table in front of her. She tried to be calm, but she couldn’t help being anything but.

Then he appeared. This was the man whose book she was eager to midwife into existence, who had, through his letters, blasted through emotional and sexual barriers? He still had his youthful looks but had put on weight over a decade in prison. He kept his mouth closed most of the time so as not to display the prominent gap created by the recent extraction of two infected front teeth, even though she had reassured him, “What’s a couple of teeth between friends?” He was taciturn and uncommunicative, and when he did speak, his pronounced northern New Jersey accent seemed at odds with the tone of his letters.

Sophie felt awkward, talking too much to fill in the gaping silences, what she said clanging off key. The meeting ended before she knew it, and it was time to trek back to New York City. She was disappointed, yes, but mostly with herself.

Edgar, however, expressed an altogether different opinion of the visit. “What a complete joy to see you!” he wrote her later that night. “You are charming, delightful, and not just a bit intoxicating: there are going to be some long days and nights ‘twixt now and the next visit, at which time I shall do my best to be a talker rather than an eye-gazer.” He signed it “Love, Eddie” — the first letter, but hardly the last, he would sign that way.

Sophie demurred, and would sink into a depressive funk over the next few weeks. But the dark cloud would lift the next time they saw each other in person, and the correspondence deepened into ever more dangerous emotional territory. At Christmas, Edgar declared that something had changed between them: “What the hell is this … you boob … you’re falling in love. Open your eyes, stupid … You’ve had it. Face it boy, Cupid has shot you right in your fat butt. You’re a goner.”

Edgar professed shock about his feelings. “A lot of women have come and gone in my life, but never one I’ve so much wanted to love, nor have I been so happy to love, as you. You’ve put meaning back into my life, and that alone would be reason enough to love you. I want you, obviously, but even more — is that possible? — I want to be with you, here in the visiting room, walking through the city, dining out, dancing, in some quiet place where it is just you and me and our imaginations, anywhere, everywhere.”

Sophie was flattered and thrilled but still skeptical of Edgar’s feelings. Within months, that skepticism would disappear entirely.

When she visited on January 20, 1968, Edgar called it “one of the best, happiest, most fun-filled days of my life.” That night, he wrote:

I woke up this morning in love with you, and tonight I’ll go to bed utterly, completely insane for you. Did you notice it? Somewhere during the visit there was one quiet moment when we just looked at each other and that said all there was to say. If there ever was a chance for us to put on the brakes, even if only to slow down, we both know now that it’s much much too late. We is goners!

Sophie, writing three days later, concurred: “Isn’t it funny that the more you know declarations are not necessary — you’re right we said everything with one long look; I’ll never forget it, wouldn’t want to; your eyes looked greener than ever.”

Their letters to one another bubbled with professions of love. There was also a more carnal aspect, which found expression in what Edgar referred to as “hatkic epics” (“hatkic” was an acronym Sophie devised for “have to keep it clean”.) Those long letters, exceeding twenty single-spaced pages, weren’t sent through the Trenton State Prison system, lest snooping censors create problems and revoke the privileges of its increasingly famous inmate.

But there was no page limit on communication between Smith and his lawyers; Edgar could send them anything, at any length. So, as long as his and Sophie’s “epics” were enclosed in sealed envelopes tucked into his legal correspondence, falling under the rubric of attorney-client privilege, the censors would be none the wiser. Beginning sometime after that January 20 visit when they had exchanged their long and wordless look, Edgar and Sophie got to work spinning “sagas” that were ferried through Smith’s lawyer as “personal and confidential.”

Though the first such “epic” has never surfaced, Edgar referenced it in a letter on February 8, 1968: “It should … cure you of the notion that thy prince is cool, reserved, unemotional, etc. Whatever the words used, the thought behind the epic, from start to spinish [sic], is that I am gone over you … I may be hatkic, but hatkic with talent.”

So how hot was Sophie’s epistolary relationship with Edgar? One characteristic example was from an “epic” sent to Sophie in late April. In it, Edgar detailed how he had written a more tame letter to her, flopped onto his prison bed, and begun to daydream, “and it didn’t take much of that to get Houdini standing up looking around for a [certain] owlet. Well, at this point I got curious, grabbed a ruler, and began jotting down some specifications. I lied to you! But it was a white lie because I didn’t mean for you to take those 7 inches literally.”

Then, Edgar wrote, he had run into a vexing issue: “How does one measure a prick? Along the top, side, or bottom? Decided on the top. How about circumference? Where?” It got complicated, but what finally emerged is as follows:

Photo: Sarah Weinman

What a crazy hatkic thing to do. If anyone had seen me sitting here with a ruler, measuring my cock, I would have been certified right then and there. But it was funny. Every time I put the cold, plastic ruler against it, the fuckin’ thing began to go down. What I do this for is beyond me. The best way is to slip it in you just as deeply as it will go, to the root, then you will know exactly how it fits.

And on Edgar went in a similar vein, acknowledging “what a couple of nuts we were. Two supposedly grown-up people. Just goes to prove that love is simply a pleasant form of insanity. You do know that I love you, don’t you? That’s what this is about.” Perhaps the best way to sum up the way he described his feelings for Sophie was this line: “I wanna mess around in all of your orifices!!!”

Sophie did not keep copies of her own “epics.” She likely destroyed them out of a growing sense of embarrassment and shame, with all that would transpire over the next few years, as well as the fear that someone else might read them.

Based on Edgar’s descriptions, as well as her own allusions in letters sent directly to him, she didn’t resort to the sort of crude and graphic sexual descriptions that marked Edgar’s contraband correspondence. She was no prude, but profane language was not her style. And she seemed to be as sexually gung ho about Edgar as he was about her. Was it real? Was it mutual manipulation in the form of epistolary masturbation? Was Edgar conning Sophie or vice versa or both?

Their erotically charged letters often mentioned what could happen if Edgar was released from prison. The possibility, however fantasy-laden, did exist. Both clearly knew that reality would pale in comparison to the elaborate scripts of imagination each had conjured up, separately and together. So long as reality remained out of reach and Edgar’s release was in a permanent state of limbo, Sophie and Edgar could dream, by day or by night, about what might occur and how their relationship might deepen if they were granted pure freedom.

From Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman, to be published by Ecco on February 22, 2022. Copyright © by Sarah Weinman.

The Editor and the Murderer