THE MEMOIRS OF GERALD NACHMAN
This is the final installment in our publication of THE MEMOIRS OF GERALD NACHMAN. Gerald will write a special column for next week's edition that will sum up the series and look to his future. There are several chapters of the
complete MEMOIRS that were not published in this series, but will appear
in the eventual book form of The MEMOIRS.
At right, the late ED SULLIVAN
in his younger days. Nachman
spent months preparing a
book on Sullivan, then began
to wonder if he'd made a big
By GERALD NACHMAN
Just before Seriously Funny came out in March 2003, accompanied by the sound of car bombs in Baghdad that drowned out much of the promotional cheers and marching bands for my book, Bob Gottlieb, my editor, asked me, offhandedly, Whats next?
I had been waiting to broach that delicate subject but felt it might be too soon, with the new books still in the warehouse and the ink still fresh on the pages, so I was overjoyed when Gottlieb brought it up on his own. I said Id been mulling over that very question and had a few ideas I would send him when I got home. I added that Id like to write a biography but hadnt found anyone who interested me enough or who hadnt been written about many times already.
I mentioned that the lyricist Sammy Cahn had always intrigued me, and that I knew him slightly, but Bob quickly muttered something disparaging about him. I suggested Jimmy Durante, a lifelong idol, but how many people alive had seen him or even knew who he was now? Plus he didnt lead a dramatic life, one reason a musical about him never got to Broadway. Durante, fascinating as he was to watch, was someone Id rather just write a long appreciation of rather than wade through the facts of his life.
My friend Morrie said, Why dont you write about someone whos alive, for a change? It was a very good question, but for months, maybe years, I had lain awake nights trying to think of anybody, dead or alive, who could make a great book that hadnt yet been written. Just when I would decide no such person existed, somebody would write a book and prove me wrong. There were still personalities out there that hadnt been exploited yet; I just hadnt thought of any.
After the relative triumph of Seriously Funny, mostly rave reviews and the quiet publication of a paperback version, I was rabid to start work on a new book. I sent Martha, my agent, half a dozen or so ideas, one of which she liked a lot--a book about The Ed Sullivan Show, which seemed to have several things going for it:
It was a single topic, not a sprawling survey book like my last two, allowing me to focus on one theme; there hadnt been a definitive book on the show and only two relatively cursory books at that: A Thousand Sundays and a standard bio by the shows former flack, plus a big coffee table book, A Really Big Show, with great photos and a smart, literate text by the book and TV critic John Leonard 12 years earlier. I hadnt ever seen it, maybe not a good omen; Leonard covered some of the same ground I wanted to, wittily but without much depth.
The best book on the show turned out to be an obscure little biography about and by Marlo Lewis, Sullivans original producer, written by his wife Mina Bess, which I found online. The book had all sorts of inside details that only a producer would know about. It was 20 years old and few even knew it existed. I later learned that Mina Bess, in her 90s, was still alive and might talk to me.
In brief, the publishing coast was fairly clear. Also--and always a major worry--nobody else was likely to write a new book on the show, which left the air in 1971. (My book about radio had been scooped by Leonard Maltin, whose "Great American Broadcast" beat my "Raised on Radio" to the marketplace.) Yet plenty of people were still alive who grew up watching the Sullivan show and had fond memories of it, so it wasnt as ancient as the golden age of radio but it had a period feel that appealed to me; the `50s seemed to be my personal era of expertise.
A Sullivan book wasnt quite as contemporary as Seriously Funny, but The Ed Sullivan Show was an iconic moment in pop culture history, running 23 years, from 1948 to 1971, spanning four decades of TV, starting with its earliest days. It occupied a unique place in American life and was very much of America, which appealed to my love of all things steeped in Americana. When my agent ran my proposal past Gottlieb, he had a few questions but liked the idea, so I set about preparing a proposal to present to Pantheon, which indicated they might be interested but needed to see a few chapters first.
I didnt plan to write a biography of Sullivan, whom nobody cared about, but, rather, a biography of his famous long-running influential TV show. Necessarily, it would include a lot of stuff about Sullivan and his life and times, which turned out to be more fascinating than Id realized. His early career was especially interesting, starting out as a famous sports columnist and then Broadway gossip columnist, which led to emceeing a few wartime benefits that brought him to the attention of CBS in the first days of black and white TV.
Sullivan himself was a far more colorful guy than he seemed on TV and as he still is remembered. He wasnt just a mush-mouthed emcee who lurched around the TV screen for an hour every Sunday night, mispronouncing everyones name and generally becoming a clownish figure that mimics (indeed everyone) loved to imitate.
He was, in fact, a shrewd impresario who knew how to book and program a show, how to find and cajole huge names, how to work the phones--all of which hed done before in arranging World War II fund-drive shows and filling his column with items. Ed loved to be a big shot, and he was. He had tried movies as a screenwriter and radio as the host of two programs. He got a third chance when CBS called on him to host a TV variety show and this time he resolved not to blow it.
The book would give me a chance to write about lively 1920s newspapers, when Sullivan was a hot-shot young New York sportswriter, and about New York in the 1930s and 40s when Ed was a leading gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, where he was still writing his column Little Old New York when I landed there in 1972. He died in 1974. Our paths never crossed but our columns did: his ran in the same entertainment section that I appeared in when I wrote a weekly TV column at the Daily News in `73.
His life was full of famous feuds, coups and colorful personalities. It seemed great fodder for a book, and one that seemed right up my show biz alley. The show had a fascinating history and slow decline. In its heyday it was the crossroads of pop culture in America, until rock and roll gradually did it in--in large part a self-inflicted wound when Sullivan brought on rock and rollers that he hated and who alienated his core audience.
I set about researching it so as to write a knowledgeable proposal, which Bob okayed and my agent sent to Pantheon. I spent six months on it, calling as many people connected to the show as I could locate, from Eds commercial spokeswoman Julia Meade to producers and, mainly, to many of the performers who had played the show multiple times.
I talked to some 35 stars by phone, among them Tony Martin, Carol Burnett, The Supremes Mary Wilson, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene. This was a preliminary roster. I didnt need in-depth interviews, just their memories of Sullivan and playing the show. I spoke to the few remaining Daily News writers who knew Sullivan when he wrote for the paper (TV critic Kay Gardella and sports cartoonist Bill Gallo). I tried to get an interview with Sullivans daughter, Betty, and her husband Bob Precht, who replaced Marlo Lewis and was the shows producer during the second half of its long reign, when Precht tried to broaden its appeal and booked acts like Elvis Presley, The Beatles and countless rockers.
Precht, retired in Missoula, Montana, wrote a curt note saying he and his wife had no interest in being interviewed for the book--a curious response that would need further investigating. Why remain silent? I later learned that they had been interviewed by James Maguire, who was--yes!--writing a book on Ed Sullivan! Scooped again. McGuire had written several chapters for the book online, done as a strange sort of interior monologue from Sullivans perspective. I checked around and learned that Billboard Books planned to publish Maguire's book in late 2006. Nothing I could do about it except plunge ahead with my own version.
I spent about half a year researching and writing seven or eight chapters, rough drafts but semi-complete. I immersed myself in the `20s, `30s and `40s--my favorite times in America--and sent my agent four or five polished chapters to present to Pantheon along with my fleshed-out proposal--a pretty hefty package by then.
A week or so later, Martha called to say that Pantheons editor in chief had liked the Sullivan chapters and proposal but decided that, instead of a book about just the Ed Sullivan show, he wanted a book about 1950s television generally. I was crushed, having put in so much time and effort on a book Pantheon had seemed to want. Worse yet, I felt a book on early TV would be yet another big comprehensive book of the sort I just didnt want to write again.
Gottlieb thought it could be a good book on what he called TVs black and white years, and his enthusiasm sparked my interest. I hated to say no, so I said yes, and threw myself yet again into a fat new project. At least I had one chapter fully researched--The Ed Sullivan Show. My agent got a contract with a nice advance, a little more than Id gotten for Seriously Funny, which I signed and returned, if a little uncertainly.
So I started all over again, essentially, buying and reading 20 or so books on TV in the `50s, looking at some DVDs just coming out on shows of that decade. Previous books on `50s TV tended to zero in on one genre, such as westerns, sitcoms, detective shows, dramatic shows, plus several books on the blacklist, McCarthyism, the presidential campaigns and the conventions. It looked like a massive undertaking - and indeed, I already felt buried under the weight of it all.
Nonetheless, I burrowed on, reading books that either skimmed the decade or plumbed deeply into one facet of it, like a great book on the dramatic series of the era--Studio One, Playhouse 90, Kraft TV Theater, etc. I interviewed Tad Mosel, a major TV playwright, and Arthur Penn, the film director who began in early TV.
Much like radio, early TV was a vast panorama of innovators and scoundrels, old has-beens and hot young actors and directors who became movie luminaries (Sidney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Redford, John Frankenheimer), all hacking away at a new medium they were making up every day as they went along--exactly as early radio had. There were many parallels. So many landmark shows were born then: Gunsmoke, Twilight Zone, Mr Wizard, Omnibus, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Texaco Star Theater, etc., etc..
It was overwhelming, just as Id feared, and I began to get cold feet the more I read and the more I realized how much ground there was yet to cover with those cold feet. I interviewed Don Herbert (Mister Wizard), Jon Provost (Lassie), Dick Van Patten (Mama), Joyce Randolph (The Honeymooners), a few I tracked down. But my list of people I needed to contact numbered at least 100, any of them likely to keel over any day (again, like the radio book).
After six months, I realized there was simply too much to get a handle on--too many shows, too many significant events, too many people to track down and talk to. I had just spent five years burrowing through the library stacks researching two books and the prospect of spending another two or three years was too daunting to think about. Did I want to spent my remaining years squinting into microfiche machines? Im not a born researcher but forced myself to be twice before, as a kind of adventure, but this didnt seem like an adventure--wading through piles and piles--forests!--of books.
I decided I simply wasnt up to it but hated myself for wimping out. I had long ago sent back two book contracts (for a biography of Robert Benchley and for a dual biography of Lerner & Loewe) and winced at backing out of a third book. After laying awake nights wondering what to do, I decided to bite the bullet and explain to my agent and Gottlieb that I had changed my mind. I crafted an apologetic note and sent it off, feeling like a huge gorilla had been pried off my back the moment I dropped the note in the mailbox.
It was better to pull out now than midway through the book, I reasoned. Even though many authors dont finish books they contract for, I still felt like a bum for throwing in the towel and sending back a $60,000 advance. Bob and my agent were both so understanding (especially the latter, for whom it meant a $9,000 loss) that I felt even worse about my decision but I also felt liberated at not having to write a book that seemed like a 20-ton term paper. I was determined to find a better idea.
Meanwhile, James Maguires biography of Ed Sullivan was published. I bought it on the Internet and flipped through it to get a sense of its depth, details and writing style. It covered all the necessary ground but without much flair, so I wasnt envious. I read one lukewarm review of the book, in the New York Times--the last I ever heard of it. I had mixed feelings: sorry for Maguire that his book had sunk without a trace, glad that it hadnt been my book and peeved that Pantheon may have been right not to let me write it.
Still, Maguires Sullivan book and its instant disappearance may have spurred me on to get my own version of the Sullivan show saga into print. Id already spent six months or more on it--what with juggling several proposals, it was hard to know anymore how much time I had spent on it--and hated to see so much work consigned to my filing cabinet.
Despite Pantheon, my agent still liked the Sullivan idea and pitched it to about 15 publishers, none of whom were remotely interested. A few publishers didnt quite grasp the concept, somehow thinking it was to be a biography of Ed Sullivan rather than mainly about the show. The two are, of course, inextricably interlocked, but I rewrote the proposal to make it clear that the thrust of the book would be a history of the show.
After my agent gave up on the Sullivan book, I sheepishly decided that I had been much too rash in discarding the big book about early TV, its first black and white decade, and wrote her that I had now decided I could write it. This sudden change of heart came to me when I realized that I had written a book on radio that covered three decades, so why couldnt I produce a book about just one decade of TV?
Sending back the contract was one of my stupider career decisions, and I regretted it too late. My agent told Pantheon that I had changed my mind and was now ready to write the early TV book, but by then they had lost interest. I must have seemed too much of a wimp to take a chance on again. I feared I had blown a great relationship with Pantheon after two books. Gottlieb and my agent said no, but I still wonder.
About this point, my agent seemed to lose interest as well, so I decided to try a few academic publishers if the commercial houses werent interested in a Sullivan opus. More and more, it seems, non-surefire best-sellers are likely to find a warmer home at university presses, which are not so manically blockbuster driven and are willing to take a chance on an interesting topic that may appeal to a limited but avid audience - i.e., a history of The Ed Sullivan Show. (An old girlfriend said she wondered who would plunk down $30 to read about a 45-year-old TV show, and she may well be right.)
I tried three major academic presses--Harvard, Princeton, Columbia--before realizing that I had neglected the one under my nose, the University of California Press, which had published the paperback version of my radio book. I sent two proposals to the music editor at UC Press, since there was no pop culture or movie/TV editor listed on their Web site, and, to my great amazement, she answered within a week--a new worlds record for proposal responses. She liked both ideas but wanted to move first on the Sullivan book since I was already deeply into it.
There were a couple of hurdles: an editor at an academic press may love your book idea but it first has to be passed on by two readers before an editorial board formalizes it--and then--bingo!--a contract. The editor asked me for some possible readers who were not friends, and I gave her five, of whom one is a certifiable friend (the estimable ex-TV critic Ron Miller, onetime head of the TV critics association).
The others included an archivist at the Museum of TV & Radio in New York (an acquaintance) and Bob Thompson, the TV guru at Syracuse University whom Id already interviewed for the Sullivan book. He had given me an hour between sound bites for networks for whom Thompson is their go-to guy whenever anyone significant in TV dies or some TV-based event needs explicating. Whoever my editor ultimately chose (youre not told), both passed on the book in their reviews of my proposal, both were enthusiastic about the idea of such a book, and both thought I was a likely guy to do it.
So, re-invigorated, I plunged ahead and, for six months, have been getting the book into raw shape for a first major edit and reshaping before sending it to UC Press. We decided on a March 2008 deadline, so it likely wont emerge until early 2009. Last month at a party, I also acquired a new agent, so after only three years of trying to peddle this problematic book I suddenly seem to be within sight of the goal line.
Ive pretty much finished the research, and, as before, a few major people didnt want to be interviewed--primarily Sullivans daughter Betty and her husband, Bob Precht, who produced the show its final decade--but Maguire did get to them and Im able to skim the cream off that (with attribution).
Vince Calandra, a former head talent coordinator who had been interviewed to death during the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' Ed Sullivan shows, decided--after a few questions--he didnt want to talk to me, claiming, Everyone else is makin money off this but me, and, rather incredibly, said goodbye. Happily, a wonderful online resource, the Archive of American TV, has a six-part interview with Calandra, who goes into great detail about the Beatles show. The only other No Thanks I got was from the great impressionist John Byner, who said hes been misquoted too often. I also got turned down by Stiller & Meara, who played the show 36 times, but Ive not given up on them.
Some of the people I got to, and who I think bring the show and the era, colorfully to life include: Carol Burnett, Connie Francis, Tony Martin, Frankie Laine, Jack Carter, Shecky Green (some are retreads from the comedy book), Jan Murray, Dick Cavett, Mary Wilson (of The Supremes), Robert Klein, Phyllis McGuire, Eartha Kitt, Jerry Vale, Patti Page, Marty Allen, Jill Corey, Shelley Berman, Leon Bibb (who also decided to clam up when I mentioned his being unfairly blacklisted from the show), Polly Bergen, Bill Dana, Mimi Hines, Phyllis Diller, Sergio Franchis widow, Julius LaRosa, Denny Doherty (of the Mamas and Papas), Dick Martin, Leslie Uggams and many others.
The book is long, and in need of major cuts--most likely to come from two chapters I have a special professional fondness for: One on Sullivans sports writing career and another on his Broadway gossip columnist years, prior to creating Toast of the Town. If so, it may wind up on thecolumnists.com, since I hate to lose anything Ive spent so much time on, even if it may be tangential to the thrust of the book, The Ed Sullivan Show saga.
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. The Ed Sullivan photo is courtesy of Wikipedia. This special extract from a work in progress is published by special arrangement with the author. All inquiries about this work should be directed to the author by use of the Talkback feature below. This excerpt first posted here Nov. 19, 2007.
CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE WITH NACHMAN'S
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HIS CAREER TO DATE.
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