A Book Editor in Palmy Days; His Stable of Fabulous Beasts

Another Life: A Memoir of Other People , by Michael Korda. Random House, 530 pages, $26.95.

Publishers’ memoirs are inevitably fatuous or self-centered–”So I said to him, ‘Leo, why only do war? Do peace, too!’” Michael Korda’s Another Life is not just a horse of a different color, it’s a different kind of animal altogether–a book so diverting, so lively, and so well intentioned (even in its wickedest characterizations) that it calls for a new classification: a Book of Fabulous Beasts.

The heart of the book–and the reason why even people with no interest in publishing will revel in it–lies in its set pieces about many of the famous and-or outlandish figures of our time, from Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Jesse Jackson to Swifty Lazar, Joan Crawford, Joseph Bonanno and Jacqueline Susann. Mr. Korda worked with all of them (and many others, including more writerly writers like Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams and Larry McMurtry), and while he doesn’t exactly spill the secrets of the confessional, he comes close enough to make this an elevated work of gossip; in other words, the kind of book we all like to read.

Like everyone else who didn’t inherit a publishing house, Mr. Korda wandered into the business by accident, after the army, Oxford and a quick dart into the foiled Hungarian revolution of 1956. Unlike everyone else, he stuck–in fact, he’s stuck at (or to) Simon & Schuster for 41 years. Michael and I coincided for the first 10 years of his tenure there, beginning in 1958, and were close friends (although, for no particular reason, we haven’t spent time together in many years), so I have a strong personal interest in his account of what now appear to be publishing’s palmiest days. Although his relationship to fact is sometimes casual–Henry Simon was married to Margaret Halsey, not Martha Gellhorn; it was Kay Brown, not Phyllis Jackson, who brought Gone With the Wind to the attention of David O. Selznick–and though his take on events is often far from mine, the overall picture is truthful, sometimes painfully so. (It’s not for nothing that he calls his chapter on the travails of Simon & Schuster “File Under Grief.”)

What he remembers of me is so warm and generous that I would have recused myself from writing about his book if I hadn’t felt the need to argue with his view of much that was taking place around us. Given Michael’s lifelong fascination with all things military (his doodles were invariably of guns, combat boots and warplanes, and, at one point, he tells us, he slept with a gun under his pillow), it’s no wonder that he interpreted life at Simon & Schuster as a pitched battle, everyone maneuvering for position against everyone else. There were camps. There were strategies. Most of all, there was a struggle for power. But if there was, I certainly didn’t know it. What my pals and I were doing was having a wonderful time being publishers. Who needed power when we had been granted what we really wanted–responsibility? The seething contentiousness was to a great extent in the gimlet eye of the beholder.

Certain other confusions come from the joyous conflatings of a natural-born storyteller. For instance, the description of how I worked on Catch-22 –the manuscript endlessly retyped, looking like a jigsaw puzzle as I “labored over it, bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface” of my office–is a memory of some other ghastly editorial proceeding; working with Joe Heller has always been the calm collaboration of a team of amused specialists–no dramatic interventions required. As Mr. Korda relates, a novel that he and I worked on together–Dariel Telfer’s notorious The Caretakers –did require the most radical kind of intervention, tape and all. Dariel, by the way–a nice, middle-aged lady from Colorado–thanked us for our efforts with a crate of celery, a publishing first (and last), I believe.

The important things Mr. Korda gets right. His take on the changing nature of publishing is shrewd and accurate, as he charts its progress from a relatively genteel occupation run by well-meaning men (never women) who loved books, through the ludicrous limo-and-private-chef days of the 70′s and 80′s, to today’s synergy-driven reign of the technocrats. And he is fascinating on Richard Snyder’s Ahab-like determination to see Simon & Schuster outgrow Random House, which after a series of corporate deals led to his summary dismissal. You might think this was material for a Greek tragedy–remember hubris?–but instead Mr. Korda makes us understand how this famously difficult man could command loyalty, respect and even affection.

A kind of cheerful mischief infuses his accounts of his fabulous beasts. Consider Max Schuster, “a bit walleyed, as if searching, like a flounder, for danger on the periphery of his sight,” and the redoubtable Mrs. S. (“‘Learn from Max,’ she called out to me as I opened the door. ‘It’s a great opportunity for a young man to work alongside a genius.’”) And consider Ariel (Puck) Durant, self-appointed co-author–with her husband, Will–of the behemoth Story of Civilization , which for all I know is still luring thousands of unsuspecting readers a year into joining the Book-of-the-Month Club. “‘Isn’t it disgusting,’” she muttered fiercely at a Schuster party given in the Durants’ honor; ‘My poor Will labors away, half blind, year after year, for a pittance, mere pennies , while they ‘–gesturing at the Schusters–’live like kings on his sweat.’”

Most fabulous of the writer-beasts was Jackie Susann, whose novel The Love Machine Simon & Schuster took on at a low point in its fortunes. “Dick had made it clear that failure was not an option. Too much was at stake: his career, mine, and the whole question of whether Simon & Schuster could make a go of it with high-stakes ‘commercial’ fiction.” Luckily, Jackie turned out to be a pro. Asked if she could meet her deadline, “she looked at me through narrowed eyes. ‘You bet your fucking ass,’ she said.” And she did.

The saga of Jackie (soon to be seen as a Major Motion Picture, starring Bette Midler) is one of Another Life ‘s prime comic turns. Supported by her cheering section–her husband, Irving Mansfield (“Isn’t Jackie great?”); her “publicity assistant”; and her famous poodle, Josephine–Jackie produced the goods, orchestrated an amazing publicity campaign, alive with ankhs and angst, and terrorized Simon & Schuster. (“‘I want the name of the girl who put me on hold,’ Jackie screeched at me over the phone one day. ‘I want her fired! Nobody puts Jacqueline Susann on hold!’”) Mr. Korda wasn’t terrorized, however; somehow he managed to be above the battle even while serving in the front lines, and as a result he can afford to acknowledge and admire the courage, the humor and the underlying decency of this sacred monster.

Because he had been constantly quoted in the press on the subject of Susann, Mr. Korda “glimpsed, for the first time, the possibility that an editor need not necessarily be mute and invisible–that he or she might become as much of a celebrity as the best-selling authors were.” Far from recoiling at this possibility, he allowed himself to be “dragged … all too willingly into the limelight,” a move that, whatever you may think of it, certainly helped his own writing career. He was soon a double-barreled success, as editor and author. And while his fiction, on the whole, lacks the persuasive conviction of, say, Jackie Susann’s, his book of family memoirs, Charmed Lives , is a triumph, and this second memoir is, too.

Both books, given their strong personality, are peculiarly impersonal; Mr. Korda stands back from himself the same way he stands back from others. Indeed, he subtitles his book A Memoir of Other People , which is fair enough. But there is some personal history here, as well, and though he sketches the outlines of two marriages and the birth of a child, these parts of the book seem dutiful, even evasive. In this era of regurgitated confession, Mr. Korda is an anomaly: the autobiographer who really doesn’t like to talk about himself.

He is most ardent and unarmored in his talk about editing itself, a process that captured his imagination early and that still fascinates and gratifies him. Most readers (but not most editors) will be surprised to realize that he has probably spent more of his editorial energy on books and writers we’ve never heard of than on his stream of best-selling authors–and with little reward, other than the almost perverse joy one gets from helping to make a manuscript better than it was, even if that better isn’t very good. But unlike the rest of us editors, Mr. Korda is equipped with the super-acute, if at times tipsy, memory of a natural writer. And nowhere does he put it to better use than in his book’s most brilliant–and disturbing–scenes, the extended descriptions of several social functions with ex-President Nixon.

The first of these takes place in the Nixon residence in New York. The Nixons, he quickly perceived, “remained small-town Californians who had ended up in New York only because they had been obliged to leave Washington. New York was their Saint Helena”–which may or may not explain why, while Mr. Korda was being seated at dinner, “Nixon went to the other end of the table, took Mrs. Nixon’s hand, and said, ‘Nice to see you.’” In a subsequent encounter with another ex-president, Mr. Korda caught Ronald Reagan yearning for–yet too polite to commandeer–the last chocolate-chip cookie on a plate being passed around a coffee table. This funny and touching story doesn’t carry quite the weight of the Nixon material, but what could?

The finest chroniclers of the great and the near-great have often been courtiers–the Duc de Saint-Simon, for instance, or Lady Murasaki. Mr. Korda comes from such a world, his first important personage being his uncle, the movie mogul Alexander Korda. And like every great courtier, Michael Korda has served his royalty truly and well–never a toady to his writers and never disloyal. What makes his book not only amusing and instructive but appealing is that his close and canny observations are conveyed with a writer’s glee, never with sour resentment or envy. And what would he have to be envious of? He has had all the success and satisfaction a man deserves who has understood and accepted his nature and made thorough use of his talents.