SAMUEL RAMEY, AMERICAN BASS – When I told people who know him that I was working on a biography of Sam Ramey, most of them looked at me as though I’d gone crazy. “Sam? How are you going to get him to talk?” Well, by golly, I did, and the result is a darn good story which illustrates how much study, sacrifice, and just plain grit goes into the making of a career. Sam was at the top of his game when I first met him in Ottowa, where Handel’s Rinaldo was making a pre-Metropolitan Opera stop. A major star in Europe, and on many American stages, he had not yet broken the Met’s sound barrier. Rinaldo changed everything; but the change came with a great deal of fireworks. Ironically, Sam Ramey, the most congenial and taciturn of artists, took arms against the Met and the result, a David vs. Goliath clash, made headlines. And that’s only one of many fascinating episodes in the life of a great American singer.
MARILYN HORNE: MY LIFE – I stumbled into doing Marilyn Horne’s book. A literary agent contacted a writer friend of mine to ask if he would collaborate with the singer on her autobiography. Knowing that Horne was my friend, he called to see what I thought about the offer. My thought was, “Why didn’t I come up with the idea to do a book with her?” but I couldn’t say it. Instead, I called Marilyn and gave him a glowing recommendation. Months later I was speaking to my friend’s wife and asked, casually, how the Horne project was going. “Oh, he’s not doing it,” she answered. Surprised, I asked what had happened. “Well, he did the proposal and the agent submitted it. But the advance wasn’t big enough, so he dropped it.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “Why should I tell you?” she questioned. The light flashed. “Oh, wait a minute, would you have wanted to do the book?” “Of course.” Immediately, she called her husband, who put me in touch with the agent. I wrote a proposal and got a substantially higher advance than my friend had been offered. (Horne recently had received a great deal of publicity because she was bringing a Handel opera to the Met stage for the first time. Publishers hunger for headlines that boost sales; thanks to Rinaldo, I’d come in on a wave of them. That’s what increased the advance.) Marilyn and I began working together at the Honolulu home of her good friend, Jim Nabors. Nabors was away and had turned his ocean front property over to her. The two of us would sit out on the lanai, do our work, and watch the sunsets. I was completely and utterly spoiled by the experience. Later, I would learn that collaborative efforts most often do not take place in Paradise.
ELIZABETH TAKES OFF– Elizabeth Taylor had taken off a great deal of weight and the project was, ostensibly, a diet book. In truth, the advice and recipes provided yet another armature upon which to drape her thoroughly documented life story. She had signed a contract with G.P. Putnam & Sons and my name was on the list of potential collaborators. When the list was whittled down to a handful of writers, Taylor came to New York to make the final decision. She held individual interviews in her suite at the Alrae, now the Plaza Athenee. This was not the first time I’d laid eyes on this star of stars. When she appeared with Richard Burton in Private Lives in Boston, Taylor hosted an Academy Award party to which a friend invited me. Along with many others, I spent the evening in Taylor’s suite at The Copley Plaza Hotel. We were introduced and I couldn’t believe that I had lived to see the day that I looked better than Elizabeth Taylor. (She was going through a particularly rough period.) When I saw her again at the Alrae, I knew that day had long passed and would never dawn again. Taylor had come out of the Betty Ford Clinic with a new lease on glamour; she was utterly dazzling. We had a really pleasant chat. She said she felt comfortable with me, almost as though we already knew each other. “Well,” I commented, “we were at opposite ends of the country, but we did grow up together.” I was hired and went off to Hollywood to work with one of its immortals.
NOW YOU KNOW – I knew Kitty Dukakis back at Brookline High School. She was Kitty Dickson, then, the daughter of Harry Ellis Dickson, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a prominent Hub personality. Kitty was a vivacious teenager who grew into a dynamic woman. Now You Know was supposed to be a look at a presidential campaign as seen through the eyes of a candidate’s spouse. The book, however, took a 180-degree turn when Kitty’s agonizing struggle with depression (and its handmaiden, alcoholism) became public knowledge. The subsequent story was compelling enough to put Now You Know on the The New York Times’ bestseller list. Kitty went through hell, but she fought her way out of a situation that might have destroyed a person of lesser inner strength. She’s gone on to become an advocate for many worthy causes.
GINGER: My Story – What a piece of work was this woman! We began our collaboration at her ranch in Medford, Oregon. Ginger wanted me to stay with her, but I opted for a room at a motel down the road. (In general, I don’t stay with my subjects, because I need time for reflection and preparation.) Confined to a wheelchair after an onstage fall, Ginger’s spirit belied her physical state. Yes, she had grown plump, her face was round, and her lemon-colored, straight hair hung limply below her shoulders. But her eyes sparkled. China blue, rather than sapphire, they were quite as remarkable as Elizabeth Taylor’s. Politically, Ginger was a little to the right of Attila the Hun, and little wonder. During the McCarthy era, her mother had been one of Hollywood’s most avid red baiters. Although references to the communist menace occasionally cropped up in our conversations, she, unlike her mother, had not been actively involved in outing people. Ginger was a Christian Scientist and insisted that I accompany her to a church service. (I remember that she pressed a dollar into my hand and told me to drop it into the basket during the collection.) I had been hired to “cut down and tidy up” a manuscript Ginger already had written. To that end, I questioned her, taped her answers, and incorporated them into the existing text while excising lengthy passages that revealed little more than detailed descriptions of what she was wearing at the time. During one session, I asked her if she ever had anything going with Fred Astaire. She told me they dated only once, when she was appearing in Girl Crazy on Broadway. That evening, I did some fact checking in Astaire’s autobiography, Steps in Time. The next day I questioned Ginger. “Yesterday, you told me you only saw Astaire once,” I said. “That’s right,” she answered. “Well, I read his book last night,” I offered tentatively, “and he said you went out with him quite a few times, and that your mother cooked dinner for him on a couple of occasions.” Ginger looked up. “So?” she snapped. “So, what’s the story, was it once or a few times?” Ginger fixed her blue eyes on me and answered firmly, “It’s my book.” And so it is.
I PROMISED MY DAD – Cheryl Landon Wilson was the daughter of Michael Landon’s second wife. While Landon, one of television’s most popular stars (Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie), could not adopt Cheryl as her own father would not allow it, she was raised in the Landon household. The book recounts the story of her childhood and young adulthood. Cheryl, not surprisingly for a child of Hollywood, became part of the drug scene and was spiraling downward when Landon stepped in. She credits his tough love with helping her pull her life together. It’s a candid book, and Michael Landon’s many fans assured the book’s success.
IT’S BETTER TO LAUGH – In the 1990s, Kathy Levine, a staple of the QVC channel, was television’s most popular selling host. I, however, didn’t watch QVC. I had never heard of her until I was asked to do her book. At our first meeting, I was hooked. She is one of the warmest, funniest, and most persuasive human beings I’ve ever met. Never mind selling refrigerators to Eskimos; she could sell them to polar bears. Working with her was a pleasure and the result was a delightful recounting of the rise of a nice Jewish girl from Allentown, PA to television fame and fortune. Kathy pitched our book on the QVC network and, although I don’t know how many polar bears bought copies, it became a national bestseller. As a result of our collaboration, I began watching QVC and purchased a Star Trek game for each of my three children.
A HELLUVA LIFE – Maureen Stapleton was among the finest actors this country has produced. Whether on stage, on screen, or on television, she was incomparable. Her trifecta of acting awards–Tony, Oscar, and Emmy–proves it. Her personal life was less balanced. Maureen had her demons and booze was the biggest. When I worked with her, I found myself in the position of enabler and collaborator. (Before we got down to work each day, I usually had to make a run to the local package store to pick up a jug of wine.) Maureen was smart, funny, and generous, but the demons sapped her. Pathologically afraid of airplanes, she would not, under any circumstances, fly. She even cowered when a plane flew overhead. That dread grew to embrace other forms of transportation. One time I drove her from Lenox, MA, where she lived, to Troy, NY, where she’d been born. During the ride, she continuously cautioned me about perceived dangers in our path. I found myself repeatedly shouting, “Shut up,” in order to keep us from going off the road. I lost my temper with her only once, and that was right after the book was published. Scheduled to appear on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Maureen, without informing me, cancelled. “How could you do that?” I stormed, “Fresh Air sells thousands of books!” Maureen was sheepish but offered no answer. I calmed down and asked her to autograph my copy of the book before she left for Lenox. I treasure the inscription she wrote: “To Dr. Jekyll from Mr. Hyde.” Forgive me now if I, immodestly, cite my greatest professional compliment. It came from Neil Simon who wrote The Gingerbread Lady with Maureen in mind and in which she appeared on Broadway. I introduced myself to Mr. Simon at an awards function in Washington, D.C. “You wrote Maureen’s book?” he said, “How did you do it? It sounded just like her.” A writer can’t get better praise than a statement like that from a master.
WE SHOULD BE SO LUCKY – Nothing succeeds like success and my first collaboration with Kathy Levine spawned a sequel: We Should Be So Lucky. It brought her saga up to date and was, arguably, an even more arresting story than the original. Kathy was more open about her personal life and the narrative provides many touching as well as hilarious moments. My affection for the book is heightened by the drawings done for it by my daughter, illustrator Amy Sarah Appleton.
OONA: Living in the Shadows – This was my first biography. Oona O’Neill had fascinated me partly because she was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, but mostly because she lived a café society life that was irresistible to a small-town girl such as I. I grew up reading about her in newspapers and magazines. I had no truck with May/December marriages in those days and couldn’t believe it when this dazzling young beauty married the aging Charlie Chaplin. I forgot about Oona until I saw that she had died. Something clicked. Friends had been urging me to write a stand-alone biography and Oona seemed the right subject. I continued to collaborate as I also pursued my solo project. It took nearly 8 years to get the book finished. There were so many hurdles to overcome that, at one point, I tried to give back the advance and stop the project. My editor wouldn’t let me. The Chaplin children would not talk to me, but I could hardly blame them. They were protective of their mother and had been burned by other writers who tried to get the dirt, rather than the facts. A break came when Betty Tetrick, Charlie Chaplin’s cousin, became my ally. She filled in a lot of the gaps. After the book came out, Betty told me that the family was, if not ecstatic, at least respectful of my efforts. I spent more time on the Oona book than on any of the others, but it was all mine and it climbed to the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.
MARILYN HORNE: THE SONG CONTINUES – In the mid 1980s, I befriended Jose Feghali, a Brazilian pianist who had just won a gold medal in the Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth, TX. After the competition, Jose came up to New York, stayed with me, and practiced on my piano for his Carnegie Hall debut. We’ve been friends ever since. In 1999, Jose came to New York for a recital and invited me to lunch. During our get-together, I learned that he had developed a special interest in recording technology and, among other projects, was working on a “Great Voices” book series for a small publishing house. Each book was a biography of a renowned singer and contained a CD, for which Jose was responsible. The publisher wanted to do a book on Marilyn Horne and Jose asked if I would be interested in doing it. “I did one twenty years ago,” I reminded him, adding, “and I’d be delighted to update it.” Shortly thereafter, Ms. Horne agreed to another go round. In the second book, an episode dealing with Horne’s and Beverly Sills’ joint appearance at La Scala was dropped. Here’s why. Sills, also my friend, stopped speaking to me after the first book appeared. Years later, we made up. Consequently, I demurred from including the Scala story in the updated book. You’ll have to read both versions to discover what I’m talking about.
LOVE ALWAYS, PETRA – Petra Nemcova, a supermodel from the Czech Republic, made headlines when she survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated 11 countries. Petra and her photographer fiancé, Simon Atlee, were vacationing in Thailand when the killer wave struck. Her pelvis broken, she clung to a treetop for 8 hours until she was rescued. Simon was not so fortunate; he was swept away to his death. The book tells Petra’s story from her childhood in Communist- controlled Czechoslovakia through her rise to fame as a model and her dramatic rehabilitation after the tsunami. Petra’s recovery provides a graphic tale of triumph over tragedy. She successfully resumed her modeling career and, at the same time, poured her energies into various good works, including Happy Hearts, the charity she established to benefit the children of Thailand.