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BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross. "Isn't She Great?" the new film about best-selling novelist Jacqueline Susann, opens in theaters today. The film is based on a chapter from Michael Korda's memoir, "Another Life," about the people he's worked with during his more than 40 years in the publishing world. Besides Susann, Korda edited such authors as Graham Greene, Larry McMurtry, Tennessee Williams, Harold Robbins, Carlos Castaneda, Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon. Jacqueline Susann is best known for her book "The Valley of the Dolls." Bette Midler plays Susann in the new film. Nathan Lane plays her husband and manager, Irving Mansfield. And David Hyde-Pierce plays her editor, Michael Hastings. In this scene, Hastings has gone to Susann's place to talk to the couple about Susann's book.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "ISN'T SHE GREAT?")
BETTE MIDLER, ACTRESS: What the hell's wrong with you? It's dawn, for crying out loud.
DAVID HYDE-PIERCE, ACTOR: Miss Susann, I'm Michael Hastings, your editor. We have a lot of work to do. I have a great many comprehensive notes...
MIDLER: Notes? What do you mean, notes?
HYDE-PIERCE: For changes, for your book.
MIDLER: Changes? Like spelling? (laughs)
HYDE-PIERCE: Miss Susann, your manuscript at present is nigh unto incoherent.
MIDLER: And that's bad?
MIDLER: Well, Mr. Picky, buster, you just hold on.
HYDE-PIERCE: Where's she going?
NATHAN LANE, ACTOR: Isn't she great?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BOGAEV: David Hyde-Pierce's character, Michael Hastings, is based on Michael Korda. Terry spoke to Korda last year.
(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: You edited Jacqueline Susann. You got her after "Valley of the Dolls," which was published in 1966, and you did her book "Love Machine."
MICHAEL KORDA, "ANOTHER LIFE: A MEMOIR OF OTHER PEOPLE": "The Love Machine."
GROSS: Excuse me. (laughs)
KORDA: The "The" is very important.
GROSS: Why is it so important?
KORDA: Because it was important to Jackie.
GROSS: Oh, OK. (laughs) So -- now, you talk in your book about how important "Valley of the Dolls" was in terms of its impact on publishing. How do you think "Valley of the Dolls" changed the publishing industry?
KORDA: "Valley of the Dolls" essentially proved that you can take the elements of a woman's romance novel, i.e., to write a really big tear-jerker, but that you can combine them with a roman a clef about real people like Judy Garland, who is, of course, one of the characters in "Valley of the Dolls," and a lot of inside show business stuff, and that you can put in a whole lot of really tough, salacious, down-to-earth dirty stuff a la Harold Robbins, but from a woman's point of view. So nobody had ever put all these things together in one book. Everybody figured that they were separate categories, that you could have big romance tear-jerkers, or you could have big salacious tough sexy novels like Harold Robbins, or you could have romans a clef, celebrity novels about the entertainment industry. But Jackie very perceptively realized that you could put all these three things together in one book. And that's what "Valley of the Dolls" is.
GROSS: I think she changed the way books are sold and marketed, in a way, too.
KORDA: Yes, because coming out of the entertainment business, Jackie felt that the book could be marketed like anything else, and so Jackie was the first person really to make the author the center of the campaign, not the book. She was the first person to make the booksellers into allies by building up a huge Rolodex with every bookseller in the country and every book clerk, bookstore clerk in the country, with their names, their favorite flower, their astrological sign, the names of their dogs or children, their birthdays. I mean, Jackie had in her palm tens of thousands of booksellers all across the United States who were absolutely fanatically loyal to her. And finally, she was the one who opened up for the first time the ability of the novelist to go on television and sell a novel as if it were a product. It was not for nothing that she had sold Schiffly (ph) Embroidery as the Schiffly Girl on television for all those years. She simply took that and applied it to a book. Before that, people would say, Oh, you can't do that, and if you could do that, it would be (inaudible) wrong. But once Jackie had done it, it made perfect sense to everybody.
GROSS: What was that like for you to work with somebody who was marketing herself as well as her book? I mean, she had become such a celebrity. Did it make it harder for you to work with her?
KORDA: Well, it -- as you will have gathered from my own life, career, and so forth, I'm not somebody who shies away from turning -- people turning themselves into celebrities for the purposes of their books. (LAUGHTER)
KORDA: But I adored Jackie. First of all, let me say that Jackie was a terrific person to be around. I should tell you that I used to edit Jackie by sitting next to her in her pink apartment at the Navarro (ph) on Central Park South, and she had a pink IBM Selectric typewriter and typed on pink paper. And she -- in all her typing and writing career, she had never discovered the shift key, so she typed only in capital letters, like a very long telegram. And she would type one page -- Also, she didn't punctuate. She would type one page, and she would hand it to me and say, "Read this, doll." And I would read it, and I would make some suggestions. And then she would explode, and we would have an enormous, knock-down, drag-out screaming fight, at the end of which she would accept some of my suggestions, which she would carry out by herself on the page using an eyebrow pencil to make her corrections.
KORDA: And then she would put that page to one side and put a new sheet of pink paper in the typewriter and would move on to the next page. The point being, A, that Jackie cared very much about what she was writing and worked very hard at it, but B, that if you were going to edit her, she expected you to fight. If you didn't fight, then you weren't sincere. You didn't care. So every page had to be fought over. She truly brought to those books an enormous energy. I mean, for one thing, in "Valley of the Dolls" and "The Love Machine," she opened up the woman's novel to frank scenes of abortion, oral sex, all sorts of things which hitherto had been thought to be stuff that you did in pornographic novels printed in Paris, as opposed to enormous romantic women's best-sellers. She opened it up to stuff that women knew was happening, and even to some degree was happening in their own lives, but had never read about in escapist fiction before. And in doing that, she truly changed the face of American publishing and American fiction.
GROSS: Now, how did you find out about her secret life, the life that she tried to keep from her fans, that she had breast cancer, that she had an autistic son?
KORDA: I did not know about that until the end of Jackie's life. I always used to wonder why the Mansfields owned a Cadillac and kept it downstairs in the garage, Cadillac convertible, because they never had, so far as one could tell, any kind of domestic life except occasionally sitting home and making phone calls to the Coast. They were out every evening. There was never anything in their refrigerator. There was no evidence that they had any kind of a personal life. And they also -- they didn't have a country house, they didn't have a place in East Hampton, they didn't do anything like that. So I could never figure out why they needed to keep a Cadillac downstairs in the garage. Well, it turned out that the Cadillac was kept in the garage because every Sunday the Mansfields got in it and drove up to this institution in Connecticut where their son, Guy, was kept, who was totally autistic. And I think that one of the things about Jackie that has to be appreciated, and I think I make this clear in the book, is that Jackie came of that generation that truly believed show business style, which was that you never let the public see you crying, you never let the public see you hurt. She -- it -- the fact that she was dying of breast cancer, the fact that she had an autistic child, these were things which, today, she would reveal to "People" magazine in a shot. In fact, she would kill to have these things on -- in "People" magazine. But for Jackie in her day, the public was only supposed to see the smiling, happy side of your life. They weren't supposed to know there was a downside. And so she bottled this up, which took a tremendous amount of courage, and kept it from us all. We didn't know that she was in pain. We didn't know that she was dying. We didn't know that she'd had a failed double mastectomy. We didn't know that there was an autistic child. You would never have guessed that from the Mansfields.
(END AUDIO TAPE)
BOGAEV: Michael Korda. The new film, "Isn't She Great?" about Jacqueline Susann is based on a chapter from Korda's Memoir, "Another Life," about Susann and the many other authors Korda edited in his long publishing career. We'll return to Terry's interview with Michael Korda after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: We're back with an interview Terry Gross recorded with editor Michael Korda last year. His memoir of his 40 years in publishing is "Another Life."
(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)
GROSS: One of the authors who you worked with much earlier in your career was Harold Robbins, best known for "The Carpet Baggers." And I think -- you know, the reason why he was such a popular best-selling author was the sexual content of his books, which was particularly racy in the period that he was writing in, in the '60s. Was your job as editor to make sure there was enough sex, or to make sure that the sex wasn't going to get the publishing company into trouble? I mean, how were you supposed to deal with the -- at that time pretty explosive sexual content of his book?
KORDA: Well, it's interesting that you should say that, because I don't altogether agree with you. First of all, you never have to worry about there being enough sex in Harold Robbins, because there was always more than enough.
KORDA: Sometimes too much. But curiously enough, that's not what I think made Harold a great best-seller. I think the sex was, as it were, the icing on the cake, though I realize that sounds like a sexual metaphor...
GROSS: Yes, it does.
KORDA: ... (inaudible) kind of scenes in his book. But what made him a best-seller was that he was a wonderful, wonderful story teller, that his books had a beginning, a middle, and an end, a tremendous narrative thrust and drive. They moved very fast. You were taken from one page to the next, from one chapter to the next, unable to stop reading. In a way, the sex scenes detracted from that, because they tended to slow the reader down and stop the reader. But the readers expected it, so of course it had to be there. When Harold began to be less successful as a writer was when his story telling drive began to fail him, and he simply substituted more and more sex scenes for the original narrative drive and excitement of his books. "The Carpet Baggers" is, in fact, an almost perfect good-bad novel, one of those great big good-bad novels. I've published a lot of them in my time, and I really love them. "Carpet Baggers" and "The Adventurers" were, of course, very special by Harold, but it's exactly the same that's true for, say, Jacqueline Susann's "The Love Machine" or for the novels of Jackie Collins today, or any of these major big best-selling good-bad novelists. Their chief ability is to keep the story moving.
GROSS: So which Harold Robbins books did you do?
KORDA: I did not myself edit "The Carpet Baggers," though I was sort of tangentially involved with it. But sometime after "The Adventurers," I became Harold Robbins' editor for the rest of his life.
GROSS: So what were the standards of language and sexual content for the time?
KORDA: Well, people were shocked by what there is in Harold, but in fact, if you go back and read Robbins' books, the sex scenes are shocking, but the use of words is not necessarily so shocking. It's curious. I think people are more shocked by obscene words, or were then, than by obscene actions and scenes. Harold today would, I think, read fairly tamely. I recently reread "The Carpet Baggers," because I wanted to read, of course, that favorite sex scene of all American popular fiction, in which the woman gives the man a body shave in the tub, which, while -- in a tub full of champagne, that's right. The tub is full of champagne, and he gets into it, and she shaves his entire body. And I found it actually not terribly stimulating, perhaps because I really don't want to be shaved all over by anyone. (laughs) But it seemed to me pretty tame. For the time, however, it was sensational.
GROSS: I have to say, I bet that would really sting a lot, because if you got shaved in a tub of alcohol, that's going to sting a little bit.
KORDA: Well, but that might add, you know...
GROSS: That -- it's possible.
KORDA: ... a little sting would be a help.
GROSS: So was it ever embarrassing for you to work on his books?
KORDA: No, I...
GROSS: I don't mean artistically embarrassing, I mean, you know, having to talk with him about the sexual content or language.
KORDA: No, you know, I come out of the movie business. I never worked in the movie business, but my entire family is in the movie business. So I like to think that I'm comparatively unshockable. No, I was never shocked by Harold. I found him an extremely difficult man to deal with, and on the whole, one of the most graceless, ungrateful, and...
KORDA: ... genuinely grumpy and ill-tempered people that I've ever had the pleasure of working with. But I was not particularly shocked by his language. In any case, at that time, book publishing itself was going through a period in which almost everybody swore like troopers because it was just at that period where people were showing their liberation from the traditional good manners and somewhat laid-back quality of book publishing by using an expletive in almost every sentence.
GROSS: What year are you thinking of?
KORDA: This would be the beginning of the '60s, just before the Berkeley free speech movement.
GROSS: Right. Tell that great story about the characters' names in two different halves of one of his books.
KORDA: Well, I used to edit Harold Robbins very gingerly, because he himself was one of those writers who are not, as a matter of fact, all that rare, who like everything about being a best-selling writer except doing the writing. He hated writing. And in fact, the only way in which you could get Harold Robbins to write a book was to wait until his debt from the house in Acapulco and the house in California and the yacht and the wife and the ex-wives and the children and the IRS had run up so high that he actually had to start writing, at which point his agent-lawyer, Paul Gitlin (ph), would lock him in a bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel and tell Harold that he would only allow Harold to have room service after Harold had passed under the door so many pages. So Harold would have to sit at the typewriter typing and type, say, let's say 20 pages, at which point Harold (ph) would allow him to order a sandwich and a cup of coffee. And that's how Harold would write enough pages to get the next payment for the book, whatever it was, say, 200 pages, he got another $250,000, which was a lot of money for the day. But then the moment he got the money, he would run off again to the south of France in the yacht and stop writing and start spending until the next crisis obliged him to pick up writing again. Well, in the case of writing this particular book, there had been a several-month hiatus between finishing one section of it and sitting down to finish the next. And during that time, Harold, of course, never bothered to reread what he had written, vaguely remembered the plot, but had totally forgotten the names of the characters and their physical attributes, except, of course, the sexual attributes, which were the same in all Harold's books. And therefore, the second half of the book bore very little resemblance to the first half of the book. The characters -- you could see that they were the same people, but they had different names, different eye colors, different descriptions -- everything about them was in that sense quite different. So I went to see Harold Robbins at his hotel in New York when he was visiting to broach this difficult problem to him, and said to him, "Look, it's really a very simple problem. Either we go with the people as they are in part one, or the people as they are in part two. All that we have to do is make that decision. I will do the work, I will do the rewriting, I will change the names, I will change the eye colors, I will change everything that has to be done. You just have to tell me whether you want me to use the ones in the first part of the book or the second part of the book." And Harold gave me this kind of -- he had this kind of grumpy, angry, tough-guy stare. He looked at me and he said, "You're telling me I made a mistake." And I said, "That's right." He said, "You're telling me that the people in the second part of the book are different from the people in the first part of the book because I forgot." I said, "That's right." He said, "You're telling me that you can fix it, you'll do it all yourself." I said, "Harold, I'll do all the work myself. All you have to do is say, `Follow part one' or `Follow part two.' I'll take it away, I'll do the whole thing, you'll never have to look at it again." And Harold thought about it for a moment, and he looked at me, he gave me this contemptuous glare, and he said, "No." So I said, "No? What do you mean, `No'?" And he said, "No." He said, "All these years I've been shredding my brains out sitting in front of a typewriter writing novels for these readers. Let them do some work for a change." (LAUGHTER) KORDA: Well, so I said, "Wait a minute." I protested. I said, "You can't do that. You can't have a novel in which somebody's called Jane in the first part and has blue eyes and is called Janette in the second part and has green eyes." He said, "Yes, I can." And his lawyer-agent, Paul Gitlin, who is also a friend of mine, but a very tough guy indeed, and who looked exactly like Harold -- they looked like Tweedledee and Tweedledum -- said, "You heard the man. He said what he wants." So we printed the book the way it was, and we shipped out hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies, as we did on any Harold Robbins novels. And the curious thing is, nobody ever wrote in to complain. (laughs) (inaudible)...
GROSS: OK. That's -- wait, wait, wait. The fact that nobody ever wrote in to complain, I think, kind of proves my point, that a lot of people read Harold Robbins for, quote, "the good parts," as opposed to his fantastic story-telling ability.
KORDA: Yes, I think so. Also, they were willing to -- Harold had been absolutely right about them. He knew his readers, as any best-selling novelist does. He knew that they would make the jump, that they would figure out that the girl with the big tits in the first part was the same as the girl with the big tits in the second part. The fact that the names were different, they simply could ride right over that. They got the point. Harold had been absolutely right. And I learned from that, actually, that the best thing to do with Harold Robbins was to let him do what he wanted to do. (END AUDIO TAPE) BOGAEV: Editor Michael Korda. His memoir of his life in publishing is "Another Life." We'll continue after a break. This is FRESH AIR. (BREAK) BOGAEV: Let's get back to a 1999 interview with Simon and Schuster editor Michael Korda. (BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)
GROSS: Now, you edited two presidential memoirs, memoirs by Nixon and Reagan. What are some of the problems unique to presidential memoirs?
KORDA: Well, the first problem with presidential memoirs is that presidents almost never tell the truth about anything. And that's difficult, because as a publisher, you feel a kind of vestigial tug that tells you that it would be better if a book contained some truth. Most presidential memoirs are simply exercises in ghost-written fiction presented as nonfiction.
GROSS: You tell a story about how when you were editing President Reagan's memoir that -- you know, it was ghost-written, and I think you were trying to keep that from everybody, make it seem like, you know, Reagan really wrote it himself. And you and he were...
KORDA: (inaudible) that's not quite so, we weren't trying to keep it from everybody. We were just trying to play it down.
GROSS: Play it down, thank you. (laughs)
KORDA: That's a big distinction.
GROSS: Much more discreet, play it down. (laughs)
KORDA: Keeping it from anybody is lying, playing it down is just an aspect of marketing.
GROSS: Thank you. So you and he were posing for a publicity shot as if you were editing on the book together at that moment. And what did Reagan say to you when he left the room?
KORDA: Well, we were -- yes, we were surrounded by photographers and by people from all the news services. I mean, it was a full-scale press conference, at which President Reagan and I appeared at this table with a pile of blank paper and a couple of pencils and pretended to be editing this book. It was a contrived photo-op. And at the end of it, when everybody had finished, the president stood up, and in his usual jovial way, cheered to the press. And as he was going out to the door, he turned and he said, "I hear it's a wonderful book. I'm going to read it myself one of these days when I have time," and was gone. (laughs) I said, only Reagan could do that. I...
GROSS: Did that end up in the newspaper story?
KORDA: Of course.
GROSS: (laughs) And he wasn't kidding, right? I mean, he didn't mean that as a little joke.
KORDA: No, I think he did mean it as a little joke, all right, but on the other hand, he -- as usual, he didn't have any anticipation of the amount of space it would take up in the stories, or the amount of inconvenience and discomfort it might cause us. I became very fond of him, again, politics to one side. I found him a wonderful man to work with. People complain about his memory, and of course now it's most unfortunate because he has Alzheimer's. But I never saw any real sign of that. If it was something that interested Ronald Reagan, he had the most wonderful memory in the world. For example, he could tell me the name of every one of his horses. He knew them all the way back. He could tell you everything about them. Which matters, because I'm a horseman as (inaudible)...
GROSS: Yes, but on the other hand, you describe him as basically having no attention span, you know, that when he'd drift away...
KORDA: Well, he had no attention span when it didn't interest him. If he was talking about his horses, he had a very long attention span. Also, he had a kind of Zelig-like way of placing himself in the forefront of events where he was not, which again was not malicious and was not in any way lying. What it was, was that the -- Reagan, coming out of show business and an actor, is a wonderful or was a wonderful raconteur, one of the best. And over the decades, each of his anecdotes had been honed, told a thousand times, refined to the point where it was a perfectly tuned and absolutely perfected story. And the president would say, "Ah, let me tell you the story... " and then he would tell you this wonderful story, with a -- and he -- of course, he was an actor, he -- beginning, middle, end, punch line, he got it all right. The problem with it is that being an actor, over the years, he tended to put himself more and more in the foreground of the story. Thus he'd tell Yitzahk Rabin and everybody else that he had been the first American to reach Buchenwald and see the horrors of the concentration camps. And when he told Yitzahk Rabin this, Rabin burst into tears, because the story was so wonderful and so moving. The only problem is, when we put it in the book, that we discovered that it wasn't true. Ronald Reagan, of course, had never been outside the United States in the Second World War and spent the entire Second World War in Culver City editing footage for military photographers. He had seen the footage of American troops liberating Buchenwald. But over the years, as he told this story, he gradually moved himself into the foreground of the story, until he was the one who had liberated Buchenwald.
GROSS: Why, I find that terrifying.
KORDA: Well, no, it's -- actually, it's not uncommon. And if you get old enough, you will find yourself doing it yourself. But, of course, being an actor...
GROSS: Just sort of moving yourself...
KORDA: ... (inaudible).
GROSS: ... into being the first person in this historic moment is different from forgetting...
KORDA: But, you see, it's Zelig. Remember the film, in which Zelig appears...
KORDA: ... everywhere? Eventually Ronald Reagan's anecdotes always put him into the foreground. Done in the most innocent possible way. For example, I tell in the book, "Another Life," the story of his speech to the Medal of Honor winners in which he told this wonderful story about the pilot of a B-17 shot down over Germany who orders the crew to bail out because the plane is on fire, and discovers that the ball turret gunner, a young man of 17, is wounded and stuck in this turret in the back and can't get out. So the pilot unfastens his straps, climbs out of the pilot's seat of this crashing airplane, works his way back to where the ball turret is behind the wings, sticks his arm down through the little hatchway, and grips the boy's hand, the dying boy's hand, and says, "Don't sweat it, son, we're going down together." And the Medal of Honor winners all burst into tears and applauded at this wonderful story. The only problem is, as we discovered, that it never really happened. It's in a 1944 war movie that Ronald Reagan saw. (laughs)
But his conviction that it had happened was so strong, his ability to convey, even to the Medal of Honor winners, the pathos and the courage of this story, was so powerful that it might as well have happened, if you see what I mean. And you had to guard against that when he wrote his memoirs, because it was my job to be forever, in the most embarrassing way, saying to the president, "Mr. President, I don't think you can say this." Not an easy role to play. In addition to which, I had to urge upon a very reluctant President Reagan that he had to include at least one sentence in the book to indicate that he had once been married to Jane Wyman, because he, or Nancy, whichever one it was, was determined to leave that out of the book. And I said, "You've got to put it in the book, because -- I don't care if it's just one sentence. But if you don't say that you were married to Jane Wyman, then the critics and the reviewers will assume that you haven't told the truth about anything else."
(END AUDIO TAPE)
BOGAEV: Editor Michael Korda. His memoir, "Another Life," is the basis for the new film about Jacqueline Susann, "Isn't She Great?" starring Bette Midler. It opens in theaters today. For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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