Can Taliban Kid Get a Book Deal? Agents Reach for 11-Foot Poles

When 20-year-old San Anselmo, Calif., native John Walker headed

to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, he presumably renounced the commercial,

capitalistic

impulses that have contributed to the United States’ bad

reputation abroad.

But even before the prison

ship U.S.S. Bataan unloads its

notorious cargo in Cuba and the next step of Mr. Walker’s fate is decided, the media is working overtime to determine if his

family will turn to good old-fashioned American commercialism-in the form of a

book or film deal-in an attempt to save Mr. Walker’s hide.

Since shortly before the New

Year, the publishing and film grapevines have been humming with speculation

that one or both of Mr. Walker’s estranged parents were contemplating such

projects, purportedly to pay for any legal defense of their son that they may

need to mount.

But, so far, there has been nothing in the way of concrete

evidence. A spokeswoman for former Assistant U.S. Attorney James Brosnahan, who

has been representing Mr. Walker and his parents, adamantly denied that any

such deals were in the works. “There have been no efforts by the family to sell

book or film rights,” said the spokeswoman, who requested anonymity. She did

confirm, however, that “freelance” writers and producers looking for their help

in making the story into a television movie of the week have approached the

family.

Mr. Brosnahan’s spokeswoman added that those offers “are not

being considered” by the Walkers.

David Burgin, editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner , told The Transom, half in jest, that his

staff “makes 400 calls every day to see if there’s a deal and who’s signed it.”

And one prominent New York book scout, who requested anonymity, said: “We’ve

definitely heard that the story is circulating, but we haven’t seen anything

yet.”

It’s a sticky, conflict-ridden question, one in which the

apparent meatiness of Mr. Walker’s story-rap-loving California boy converts to

Islam, joins the Taliban and ends up being captured after fighting against his

native country in one of the most brutal chapters to date of America’s war

against Al Qaeda-cannot be judged on its own merits. Rather, it must be

assessed in the context of the thousands of lives lost at ground zero, the

lives of American servicemen and women that have been risked and lost in

Afghanistan, and the current wave of patriotism that has blanketed the country.

The unanswered questions about whether Mr. Walker will be tried

in a criminal or military court, as well as whether his behavior will be deemed

treasonous or merely criminal, also further complicate the matter. Some

states-including New York and California-use “Son of Sam” laws, named after

serial killer David Berkowitz, to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes.

But Mr. Walker’s case is not so clear-cut.

According to many sources in the tightly wound publishing and

film industries, current sentiment dictates that even if the Walkers broke

their silence, they might have a tough time finding any takers.

When, for instance, I.C.M.

literary agent Esther Newberg was asked if she would consider doing business

with Walker family, she replied: “You’re talking to the wrong person. ‘Cause I

think it’s treason. What he did is treason. And thinking that it’s treason doesn’t

give me any room to work.”

Ms. Newberg said she thought Mr. Walker’s story “should be

treated the way the Son of Sam was. You shouldn’t profit from murdering and

maiming people. I can’t imagine a respectable publisher publishing it. I think

he shouldn’t profit in any way.  You can

quote me saying this: He shouldn’t make one

thin dime .”

Some publishing executives were a little more circumspect.

“Everything about 9/11 was crashed immediately, but this one aspect wasn’t,”

said Terry Guerin, a partner at Gotham Scouting Partners. Mr. Guerin said that

how and when Walker’s story makes its way to the shelves is an “ongoing

question,” but that he hasn’t yet heard anything about a proposal. He guessed

that there’s been “an intuitive call that this is an unattractive figure, and

that that’s what’s prevented a wholesale rush to crash a book about him.”

Mr. Guerin added, however, that he’s sure it’s only a matter of

time before such a project materializes, though not necessarily via Mr.

Walker’s family. He said it would depend on what turns Mr. Walker’s case takes,

and which writer could be matched to the story.

“I couldn’t say without seeing a proposal,” said Simon &

Schuster head David Rosenthal. Mr. Rosenthal added that he’d “heard the rumors”

about a John Walker book proposal, but had yet to see anything.

Mr. Rosenthal compared the abstract idea of the book to the

manifesto circulated by Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. “I remember when Kaczynski was

trying to sell his book-I saw that, everyone did. I thought it was boring.”

The man who didn’t think Mr. Kaczynski’s story was boring was

Beau Friedlander, founder of Context Books. His imprint was set to publish Mr.

Kaczynski’s manifesto before pulling the plug at the last minute because of

“dire, irreconcilable differences of opinion” with the jailed author. Later,

Context published a book by Rhoda Berenson, mother of Lori Berenson, an

American who is still jailed for aiding leftist rebels in Peru.

But though Mr. Friedlander’s publishing history has gotten him

labeled a “leftist and reactionary,” he said that he wouldn’t touch the Walker

story “with a 10-foot pole.” He also said that he couldn’t see larger trade

houses taking the political chance of telling what looks to be an unsympathetic

story.

Mr. Friedlander said that, in his opinion, the Unabomber’s

manifesto was “a historical document,” whereas the story of an American kid

from a broken family finding a new-albeit religiously zealous and

violent-family is “a tiny footnote in the annals of history” and “the product

of an overheated news cycle.”

“It’s not like he’s John Brown,” laughed Mr. Friedlander. “He’s

John Walker.”

Literary agent and

conservative pundit Lucianne Goldberg is another one who wouldn’t touch a

Walker proposal with “a 10-foot pole.” Still, Ms. Goldberg said, if Mr.

Walker’s family was so inclined, they probably wouldn’t have trouble finding a

publisher.

“Where there’s a buck to be

made, there’s always a publisher who wants to take it. The race is to the

swift,” Ms. Goldberg said. But, she added: “I think a publisher would rather

have a journalist go do this story than people with a vested interest,” such as

Mr. Walker’s parents. “For them, getting a sympathetic view is always the

motive,” Ms. Goldberg added. “Anyway”-and this is a serious problem-”they’d be

hard to promote. A publisher would have a hard time booking the parents on, you

know, The Today Show . They’re not

sympathetic people.”

Though all of the sources contacted by The Transom denied

interest in publishing or representing Mr. Walker or his family, all were

curious as to why they hadn’t seen a proposal yet. Indeed, in a sign that New

York’s commercial instincts were once again flowing freely, several called back

and asked to be informed if an agent or lawyer for the project was eventually

tracked down.

The Howard Awards

On Dec. 6, 2001, Our Town ,

the community newspaper of the East Side, published its 31st anniversary issue

devoted to its annual “Our Town Thanks You” awards. Otherwise known as OTTY’s,

the awards honor East Siders “who have achieved greatness in the past year.”

To achieve such a feat, the self-described “small-town newspaper

in the big city”- where you can “see your neighbor’s name in a story about

community opposition to a new tall building”-reached out to its readers and

community leaders and asked them to nominate candidates in 11 categories, from

“Royalty of Retail” to “Community Activists,” to determine a “veritable ‘who’s

who’ of New Yorkers.”

According to Tom Allon, the paper’s publisher and editor in

chief, reporters and editors at the paper and by Mr. Allon himself then

augmented the list of candidates. The names were then sent to a panel of nine

judges led by public-relations executive Howard Rubenstein, who recommended

four of the judges on the panel (Mr. Allon picked the rest).

So some careful readers of Our Town were amused that at least four

of the year’s first-prize winners, as well as a number of the runners-up, had

connections to the judges-especially Mr. Rubenstein.

Jack Rudin, for instance, whose Rudin Management is repped by

Howard Rubenstein and Associates, came in first in the “Moguls” category.

Cristyne Lategano Nicholas, whose NYC & Company is also repped by Mr.

Rubenstein’s firm, won a first prize in the “Culture Club” category. Indeed,

Ms. Nicholas may have had more than one judge in her corner: Lisa Linden, the

co-chair of NYC & Company’s “Crisis Communications Committee,” also sat on

the judges’ panel.

And Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, whose institution

recently hired the indomitable Mr. Rubenstein to represent it, had the good

fortune to come in first in the “Educators” category. As for Dr. Harold Varmus,

president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the year’s “Health Care

Pros” category winner, his own vice president for marketing, Ellen Miller

Sonet, sat on the judges’ panel. The list goes on.

Asked about the potential conflicts of interest, Mr. Allon said:

“Howard Rubenstein had absolutely nothing to do with who was nominated for the

awards.” He added that Mr. Rubenstein’s vote did not count any more than the

votes of the other eight judges on the panel. “We’re not going to penalize

somebody just because someone on the panel was linked to their institution,”

Mr. Allon said.

“No one judge had an influence

that went beyond his or her own vote,” Mr. Rubenstein said when asked about the

OTTY’s. “To me, it wasn’t a conflict of interest-I represent so many prominent,

effective, valuable New Yorkers that it doesn’t surprise me. I have so many

clients that have done good things for New York.” Mr. Rubenstein’s authority as

head judge, he said, would go no further than helping to hand out the awards at

the Jan. 10 ceremony at the embattled National Arts Club.

“There’s always a potential for conflict of interest in any

competition,” Mr. Allon summed up. “But we tried to avoid it as much as

possible.”

Gehry’s Layover

When Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens announced

the opening of the exhibition Frank

Gehry, Architect last spring, he said, “Place two unlikely elements

together and Frank will say, ‘Why not?’”

As part of that exhibition, Mr. Gehry was allowed to do an

“architectural intervention” on the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building on

Fifth Avenue. After Mr. Gehry and his staff draped aluminum-mesh panels from

the rotunda skylight and installed a “titanium-clad canopy” over a terrace on

the landmark building’s façade, Herbert Muschamp, in a review in The New York Times , wrote, “You want the

best? Here it is.”

But now, four months after the show closed, Mr. Gehry’s titanium

canopy-which looks like a curly scrap off the crumpled-metal Guggenheim Museum

he built in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997-still punctuates the museum’s façade. Some

observers are asking why.

With the museum Mr. Gehry

designed for the Guggenheim in lower Manhattan stalled by the events of Sept.

11, the canopy is the only visible link between the architect and the museum in

New York City.

During the first week of January, the Guggenheim requested an

extension on a seven-month temporary permit they had received to install Mr.

Gehry’s canopy. Sherida Paulsen, chairwoman of the city’s Landmarks

Preservation Commission, said, “We would only allow one temporary extension,

which we generally allow for six months.” Anything beyond that would require

another application and a public review for a certificate of appropriateness,

she said.

Guggenheim spokeswoman Betsy Ennis said an additional application

would not be necessary. “It’s definitely not permanent. People thought it was

very beautiful and very interesting … so they kept it up a little bit longer.”

Still, Ms. Ennis said, “I don’t know exactly when it’s coming down.”

A spokesman at Frank O. Gehry & Associates in Santa Monica,

Calif., said, “That’s all in the hands of the Guggenheim. We will support

whatever decision they make. The piece belongs to them.”

-Lauren Ramsby

A Cook’s Musical Tour

Wearing a black jacket, black shirt, black jeans and black shoes,

Anthony Bourdain, the author of Kitchen

Confidential , walked into Siberia on West 40th and Ninth. A good hundred

friends and associates were waiting for him to celebrate the publication of his

latest book, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of

the Perfect Meal , a chronicle of nine months of traveling and adventurous

eating (undercooked iguana tamales in Mexico, sheep’s testicles in Morocco, the

poisonous puffer fish in Japan, a still-beating cobra’s heart in Vietnam).

There’s also an accompanying TV series on the Food Network, which debuted the

next day, Jan. 8.

“Do we have the Dead Boys on the jukebox?” he asked the bar’s

owner and his “spiritual mentor,” Tracy Westmoreland, who at his request had

reloaded it with more punk rock, Velvet Underground and the Super Fly soundtrack.

“My musical taste stopped in 1985,” explained the 45-year-old

writer, who’s been called the Lou Reed and Hunter Thompson of the food world.

“The most tragic moment of my life was a) the day Joey Ramone

died, and b) finding out he was listening to U2 when he did. It’s like finding

out the Rosenbergs really were guilty-and,” Mr. Bourdain added, “they were.”

These were harsh words, but Mr. Ramone was once part of Mr.

Bourdain’s pantheon. “You know, there have been five touchstones in my life,

and seeing the Ramones the first time was one of them,” Mr. Bourdain said.

-George Gurley