4. The Manuscript
When did you finally begin the first draft of the book?
Shortly after I learned about Walter Freeman’s sojourns to Steilacoom, maybe mid-1975. You might say I began writing even before this because my first idea was to merely keep enlarging “The Dark Odyssey,” which seemed a proven commodity. So every time I learned something usable I would block it in the existing manuscript.
Once you ended the research period and started writing, were you able to devote most of your time to the task?
Unfortunately, no. I was also editing this weekly magazine and writing a weekly column and occasionally going on movie junkets. During this
period I also fell in love and got married and went on a honeymoon. And I was still researching, often taking off days and even weeks to follow some trail or other, all during the time I was writing the various drafts.
When did you complete a first draft?
I had something in late 1975 but it was very rough and maybe three times longer than what it turned out to be. It also didn’t have the framing device or first-person point-of-view and was different in other ways as well.
Did you think of what you were writing as a biography of Frances Farmer?
Never. I never intended to write a balanced account of her life or appreciation of her career as an actress or a study of her films. Those touched the story, of course, but, in my mind, I was writing a journalistic account of an unusual involuntary commitment.
Did you approach any agents or publishers as you were writing that first draft?
Yes, but I had no luck at all.
I sent a handful of agents or publishers a copy of “The Dark Odyssey” and my plans of enlarging it. None of them were interested. Or I should say they were all interested but felt the existence of the other book trumped my idea.
Ned Brown, who I got to through my friendship with the author James Jones, and Sterling Lord. Brown was quite interested in the story but felt he wouldn’t be able to get a top publisher to even look at a manuscript about an obscure actress who already had a book written about her that hadn’t sold well.
Which publishers did you approach?
The only one I can recall right now is Doubleday. There was an editor there named Larry Ashmead who read my prospectus and wanted to do it. We wrote back and forth several times but it went nowhere. He took it to his editorial board and marketing people and they said no. For the same reason: there was no room in the world for two books about such an obscure figure with such a depressing story.
But you went ahead and wrote the book anyway?
I wrote it because I needed to write it. It was burning in me. Also, I figured that even if New York wasn’t interested in it, Hollywood might be. By this time I knew that two stars were competing for the film rights to the alleged autobiography. But Jean Ratcliffe was holding them up for big money and all sorts of creative control. I figured that maybe one of the buyers might be interested in what I was doing as source material.
Charles Bronson, who I mentioned before. And Roger Smith, who was trying very hard to buy it as a vehicle for his wife, Ann-Margaret.
Did you approach either of those parties?
Roger Smith actually approached me. Someone representing him called me and said they had read “The Dark Odyssey” and might be interested in buying its film rights if I turned it into a book. But, from talking to him, I could see they would not ultimately be interested in what I was doing at all. They wanted a story of a woman triumphing over great adversity: an inspirational story.
So, when you went ahead and wrote this draft anyway, what kind of response did you get on it?
A terrible response. It bored everyone who read it silly. Even Steve Heard, my biggest encourager. Even my new wife, Kathie. They both loved the original article and hated my enlargement of it. They felt that it just felt padded and didn’t work at all. It was very discouraging.
To what did you attribute this dichotomy?
Well, I didn’t know. But as I brainstormed with them I gradually saw that, first, the draft was far too long and detailed. The article read like a bullet and its enlargement got bogged down in displays of research that slowed the story to a crawl. But, as they both pointed out, the really important thing the article had that the book didn’t was my presence. In the article you feel the presence of a storyteller who is not particularly objective—he admires her—and is emotionally involved, New Journalism-style, with her story. You feel what he feels for her. The enlargement was more objective, and thus less involving.
This is when you decided to do a first-person book?
More than that, I decided to do a whole different kind of book. I decided to write it very much as a detective novel, in which the detective/narrator gradually falls in love with the dead woman he is investigating—a kind of real-life version of Laura. This love was a genuine emotion that I felt from time to time as I was following Frances’ trail—though obviously not all the time. I figured that if I could call up that emotion and let it carry her story, it would make the book something different and special. Moreover, under this approach, the obscurity of the character would work for the story instead of against it. To emphasize that obscurity I even decided it would be better to avoid the name of Frances Farmer in the title or on the cover altogether. To sell it as a unique historical mystery, instead of one more tale of a fallen movie star.
Would you say then that your intentions for this new version of the book were more literary than journalistic?
I saw it as a hybrid. All the information about Frances Farmer would be true, or as true as the narrator could discern it to be at that point in the story. But the framing device of the investigator would be more literary. I got the idea that it would even be interesting if a reader sensed that the narrator’s point-of-view was becoming less objective and less trustworthy as his telling of her story goes along and he becomes more emotionally involved with her.
And this became Shadowland?
Yes, though I didn’t have that title in mind at the time. The first line, which I love, instantly hit me: “I remember the first time I saw her.” The book just flowed naturally out of that sentence.
You later described the book in interviews as a “nonfiction novel.”
I saw it aspiring to be in the same genre as In Cold Blood, Armies of the Night or even Roots.
When you wrote a draft in that form, what kind of reaction did you get with it?
Everyone on my team loved it. So did I. I thought: this is the book. This is the most compelling way to tell this story. And it’s something different.
Were you able to immediately sell it to a publisher?
No. I contacted an agent named Knox Burger, who the book editor of the P-I recommended to me. Knox handled, among others, John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee thrillers. He read the manuscript and quickly agreed to handle it. He said it might be a hard sell—it was unlike anything he’d handled or even seen before—but he cautiously believed in it.
Did you think, at this point, you were home free?
I sort of did. But nothing happened with it. It languished. Months passed. Knox and I corresponded periodically during this time but he was never very specific. All he would say was that he was “having no luck.” I never knew specifically who he sent it to or what they said. Before long, almost a year passed like this.
You must have been feeling pretty frustrated.
I was, and mainly because I thought he was taking the wrong strategy with it. I thought he should forget New York and try to sell it as a movie first, to one of these producers who were still trying to buy the rights to the autobiography. Then sell it as a book.
He didn’t agree?
He was not comfortable with that idea at all. He dismissed it. Gradually, his letters to me got fewer and shorter and more pessimistic. Then, after a lengthy time passed in which I didn’t hear anything at all from him, I figured the book had moved so far to the rear of his back burner that he’d forgotten all about it.
What broke this impasse?
One day I got a call from Steve Heard, who had by this time moved to L.A. Without telling me, he had given his copy of the manuscript to a movie-producer he had recently met named Marie Yates. She had read it and loved it and had taken it to a more powerful producer—in fact one of the biggest names in Hollywood—and he wanted to buy it. Not maybe. Not let’s talk about it. He wanted to buy the film rights, period. Not only that, he’d sent the manuscript on to his friend, the editor-in-chief of the most powerful publishing house in New York, and he wanted to publish it as one of his company’s most publicized books of the year.
Who was this producer?
Steve didn’t know and Marie Yates wouldn’t tell him. Because, he said, she wanted to protect herself in the deal. She wanted me to come down and sign something that would, if I decided to take this mystery producer’s offer, ensure a place for her production company, Courtney Productions, in the making of the film.
Were you leery?
Oh, yes. Completely. First of all, it sounded almost laughably too good to be true. Then I did a little investigating and found that Marie Yates had never produced anything in her life and Courtney Productions (named after her infant daughter) consisted of her, her husband Tim (who owned a print shop on Wilshire Boulevard) and another fellow whose name escapes me but was supposedly their seed-money man. She did have a few family connections in show business, however, and there had recently been a line in an Army Archerd column in Variety to the effect that Courtney Productions was a new company that “had some pix perking.”
But you had nothing to lose?
Nothing, and, of course, I wanted to know who this mystery producer, “one of the biggest names in Hollywood,” and this publishing giant were, if they existed at all. But just when I was about to come to L.A. and find out, something so bizarre happened you wouldn’t believe it.
The very day after I spoke to Marie Yates on the phone, as I was contemplating this trip to meet her, I happened to be watching The Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and they were running a feature segment on the growing phenomenon of “Deadbeat Dads,” fathers who ran out on their families and avoided paying support by moving to a new state and assuming a new identity. And as an example of this phenomenon they had followed this one particular sleaze ball of a deadbeat dad from his abandoned family in Florida to Hollywood, where he was trying to set himself up as a movie producer and where they ambushed him with a camera crew. Now who do you think this despicable character was? It was Marie Yates’ partner in Courtney Productions, their money man. What are the chances? I figured it was God talking to me. I called Marie Yates and told her to forget it.
How did she react?
She was distraught. She was bawling. She said she had been taken in by this charlatan and had since broken all relations with him. He was no longer part of Courtney Productions. She told me she was a Scientologist, and that honesty and integrity were everything to their religion. This actually did not help her case with me. Because Steve Heard had not mentioned this was her connection to him and that annoyed me. So I ended the call with a quick “no thanks.”
But she kept calling back?
Several times. She kept breaking into tears. And she had a compelling argument. She said, all I had to do was to come down there and meet this mystery producer and if I didn’t want to make a deal with him I could walk away and I would never hear from her again. So I finally decided: what the hell? I flew down to L.A.
So who was the mystery producer?
She still wouldn’t tell me, at least not straight off. I drove to her modest house and met her, and met her husband, and her mother, and little Courtney. They seemed like nice people. And she was dying to take me to the mystery producer but first she wanted me to sign something that, for a token consideration of $1, bound her to the film project, if I made a deal with this fellow. She also, since the arrangement with this man involved a book deal, wanted ten percent of the book. I said, “You must be kidding.” She said she thought she deserved it, if I made a deal with the publisher through this mystery man. If an agent did a similar sale that’s what he would get and, in fact, she had worked as a literary agent in times past, so what was the problem?
Did you think, at this juncture, of consulting your other agent, Knox Burger?
I really didn’t, because I hadn’t heard anything from him for so long that I felt abandoned by him. Also, this strategy of going to Hollywood first was something he had completely rejected. He didn’t even want to talk about it.
Were there no lawyers present at this meeting?
Later in the meeting a lawyer did show up, a young storefront guy she knew. We all argued back and forth and I finally agreed, assuming the publishing deal was made, to give her the ten percent under the condition that it would give her the same ongoing fiduciary obligation to me that an agent would have. If I was giving her that commission in this pie-in-the-sky deal, I didn’t wanted it to be a finder’s fee. I wanted the same ongoing service I would get from an agent toward looking after my interests. She agreed to this so the lawyer drew up a one-page "letter of intent," I believed it was called. Understand that this deal was contingent on my happy acceptance of the publisher and the producer, who at that moment was supposedly waiting in his Beverly Hills mansion to meet me.
So you signed the paper.
I signed the paper.
And lived to regret it.
No, not really.
Who was the producer?
I know the name but—
I had never heard of him. But she quickly explained that he was the executive producer of The Exorcist, which had been the greatest book/movie phenomenon of the past decade. Before that, he’d been a top agent, representing Shirley MacLaine among others, and he was married to Tippi Hedren, which made him the stepfather of Melanie Griffith.
Did this impress you?
Yes it did. Especially the Tippi Hedren part, since I was a big Hitchcock fan. So this was starting to look vaguely real and, with everyone suddenly happy, we all got in my rental car and drove out to Coldwater Canyon, where Noel Marshall was indeed waiting for us. Along the way, she told me a few more things about him. How, as author William Peter Blatty’s agent, he had masterminded his writing of The Exorcist, its brilliant marketing campaign, its translation into a movie and the movie’s even more brilliant marketing strategy. Noel loved books and now that he had made untold millions on this one, he had just gone into partnership with McGraw-Hill to recreate its success with other suitable books, working closely with his friend, Fred Hills, the editor-in-chief of the company’s trade book division. He had recently made the first of these book/movie deals with the author Thomas Gifford for his new novel, The Man From Lisbon. I and my Frances Farmer book would be the second.
What was Yates’ connection to Marshall?
When I asked, she was vague about this. She spoke as if they were the oldest and dearest of friends. I found out some years later that she’d only met him days before. She’d answered an ad he’d placed in a newspaper to sell one of his cars and they got to talking. Crazy, huh? But that’s how business is conducted in Hollywood. She’d heard about the manuscript from somebody in Scientology and hustled herself right into the profitable middle of both a movie and a book. I’m not sure, at this point, she’d even read it.
What was Marshall like?
Like something out of a Werner Herzog movie. As she’d also explained on the drive, Marshall was throwing a good many of those Exorcist millions into a very personal movie called Roar, of which he was the writer, producer, director and star (along with Tippi, Melanie and the rest of his family). He was filming it at a sprawling ranch they owned out in the desert stocked with more lions, tigers, jaguars, elephants and other wild beasts than your average big-city zoo. As it was explained to me, the movie was to be a leonine version of The Birds, except that the lions of Roar were more admirable creatures. Noel was obsessed with the lions and liked them much better than he liked people. When I met him, the first thing I thought was that he looked like a lion, with a mane of hair and a shaggy, unkempt beard and a killer look in his eyes. I liked him immediately. He sat me down in his immense, elegant living room and just schmoozed the hell out of me. Then Tippi Hedren came out and joined in. It was great.
What was his attraction to Frances Farmer?
Noel and Tippi both saw themselves as Hollywood mavericks, which was true. Frances Farmer was the ultimate Hollywood maverick. I think they genuinely identified with her. Their attraction to the manuscript was honest too. They had each obviously read it more than once. They knew it better than I did.
But, like all producers, he must have had notes.
Damn few. They seemed to have no qualms. They loved the whole idea of it: especially the Laura approach. They were in love with that.
Did he talk about the possibility of your working on the script?
Yes, he knew from his conversation with Marie Yates that I wanted a shot at it, and he was more than accommodating. In fact, he insisted upon it. That was part of the deal. I had to do the script.
This sounds like every young writer’s dream come true.
Oh, it was, and it got even better. He wanted me to hop right on a plane to meet Fred Hills. He handed me a first-class ticket and I went straight to LAX, flew to New York and checked into the Essex House, where McGraw-Hill had booked me a room grandly overlooking Central Park South. The next morning, I hiked a few blocks to the McGraw-Hill Building, which is one of the city’s most classic skyscrapers, and took the elevator to Fred Hills’ penthouse office.
What was Hills like?
Urbane, Ivy League, buttoned down. He had been Nabokov’s last editor and seemed in every other way about as far away from the gritty flamboyance of Noel Marshall as you can get. But he and Noel genuinely liked each other. I remember seeing a picture on Hills’ desk of him wrestling with one of Noel’s lions. He thought Noel’s generalship of The Exorcist was one of the most brilliant campaigns in the history of American publishing and Hollywood moviemaking. He also seemed to love my book.
He “got” what you were trying to do with it.
He essentially did. He loved the Laura approach. He agreed that Frances Farmer’s name should not be in the title or on the cover. He would have some notes, he warned, but thought I would find them minor.
So you signed up.
Not immediately. Many months passed before the contracts were drawn up. At any time in those months I could have backed out. But who would want to back out of something like this?
What happened to Knox Burger?
I had pretty much forgotten about him. Then, not long after I got back to Seattle, Fred Hills called me and said: “There’s another Frances Farmer book project.” I said: “What?!” He said, “An agent named Knox Burger is flogging it around town. I’m having lunch with him tomorrow.” I thought, Uh, oh. I immediately sent Knox an explanatory mailgram but he somehow didn’t get it before his lunch the next day with Hills. Hills told him the news.
How did he react?
He went ballistic. I mean he was furious. Hills said he left mid-lunch. Just shot out of there. He fired off an incredibly nasty letter calling me a coward and an underhanded cheat. It was as harsh as my mail from Edith Farmer. He cursed me and hung up when I tried to call and explain. And he filed a complaint against Noel with the Producer’s Guild. Noel was amazingly unphased by it but I was shaken. Years later, when he died, his lengthy New York Times obituary said Knox was a “crusty” personality who could put people off. They weren’t kidding.
You acknowledged him in the book.
I figured he deserved that, and because I did mention him people always assumed he was the agent of the book.
Did you consider giving him his ten percent?
Since I was now paying Marie Yates ten percent of the book to be my agent, I naturally wasn’t eager to pay Knox Burger another ten percent to reward his failure to sell the book. But I would have if he hadn’t been so hostile. I don’t think he would have taken it in any case. His ego had been badly bruised and it was more important to him to lash out at me than it was to receive the commission. He soon got even, however. The next year he sold a first novel called Gorky Park for a million dollars, at that time a record.
How much did you receive for the book?
I don’t remember exactly but not much. It wasn’t as if every publisher in New York was competing for it. According to Knox Burger’s fuck-you letter, some sixteen publishers had turned it down. The incentive to McGraw-Hill was Noel Marshall’s intention to make a movie out of it. They expected a respectable but in no way blockbuster initial sale. Any real money they, or I, would see from it would be down the road, after the movie came out, largely off the softcover edition. I should have mentioned that the deal included a paperback from Berkley/Jove a year after the hardback.
How did the title Shadowland come about?
It was Fred Hills’ idea. It’s from the last line of the book, which refers to “the long and disturbing shadow of her death.” I liked it immediately. To my mind, it conceptualized what the book was. A fascinating, unsolved historical mystery with truly frightening implications.
Wasn’t there once a movie magazine called “Shadowland?”
Yes, a rather classy one in the silent era. I knew about that and it was another reason I liked the title. It evoked the haunting mystique of the movies.
So what happened next?
Next I wrote a new draft to the notes of Fred Hills and another editor named Burton Beals.
Was this an extensive rewrite?
No. But, as short as the manuscript was, they thought it was too long. They wanted it no longer than 50,000 words. Something that could be comfortably read in one sitting. That mean shortening what I had in two ways. One—and they felt very strongly about this—was my story, the framing device, the Laura aspect, which was originally much more detailed and passionate. They thought it should be more deadpan and fatalistic, which was the way it ultimately turned out. I basically agreed with him on this but it caused a big problem with Noel Marshall.
Noel liked the passion and detail of the search. He said it was the passion of the narrator that most attracted him to the piece in the first place. He felt so very strongly about this that it threatened to drive a wedge between him and Hills. Ultimately, however, Noel was so preoccupied with the ongoing production problems of Roar that he didn’t have the time or energy for a fight.
What was the other way McGraw-Hill wanted it shortened?
They wanted to get rid of some of the detail and generalize parts of the story, to make it read less like a biography and more like a page-turning mystery.
Can you give me an example of this?
Here’s one that sticks in my mind. There was a great story I heard about the party the city of Seattle threw for Frances the night of the premiere of Come and Get It. When she suddenly found herself face to face with a former Washington State congressman named Albert Johnson, who had earlier denounced her for the Russian trip. Now this Johnson character was maybe the most reactionary congressmen in U.S. History—so unabashedly bigoted that he made the KKK look like the ACLU. I felt Johnson’s career was so little known and yet so harrowing it rated a whole page of backstory. But their confrontation got reduced to one line in which she called an unnamed conservative congressman a “hypocrite” and calmly walked away.
Did anyone at McGraw-Hill think the book should have footnotes and a bibliography?
To my knowledge, no. I don’t think anyone there ever thought it should have those trappings of a scholarly biography—and I certainly didn’t.
Were there any other conflicts between Noel Marshall and Fred Hills over the content of the book?
Yes, a slight one. Noel felt there was enough evidence that the lobotomy had happened that the book should just go ahead and say it as a fact. I did not want to do this, mostly because, as I mentioned earlier, I thought the story would be more lingeringly effective as an open-ended mystery. Hills completely agreed with me about this. He and Noel fought about it, but Noel finally, but grudgingly, gave in.
Was Hills at all concerned that his company might be going out on a limb with this story?
I think he probably was and, ultimately, he did not go out on any limbs. He wanted to see enough of the research to confirm I was not exaggerating or making anything up. McGraw-Hill had recently been through the Clifford Irving scandal and was not looking for another. I think that was another reason why Hills supported me in not saying she definitively had the lobotomy.
Did you have any conflicts with McGraw-Hill?
Several small ones. At the end of the process, after the book had been edited and was ready to go, Fred Hills decided it needed an epilogue, with a brief author’s message about the evils of organized psychiatry, and an acknowledgement. I didn’t want to do either. Both seemed a jump out of keeping with what this book was, at least in my mind. But he felt strongly about it so I went along.
You said “several” problems. What else?
Then, at an even later hour, he wanted a prologue. The one that’s there now. I hated the idea. It broke the first-person unity of the piece even more drastically. But he said he thought the book needed a “grabber” to immediately pull in the reader. Again, I went along. What did I know?
Wasn’t there a problem about acknowledging Steve Heard?
Right, I forgot about that. When I wrote this acknowledgment I didn’t want to write, I had to, of course, acknowledge Steve. When I told Steve I was doing this, he asked if I might also mention the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. Now, in fact, this organization had done nothing but lend moral support but I had great respect for Dr. Szasz, one of its founders, and I knew it had done commendable work in fighting for the rights of mental patients. So I did as Steve asked. When the proofreader saw it, he told Hills that he thought this organization might have a link to Scientology. Hills hit the roof. He asked me, very upset, are you a Scientologist? I said no, not even close. Was Noel a Scientologist? I told him I doubted if Noel had ever even heard of Scientology. The only Scientologist in the deal was Marie Yates. Fred asked me to remove the reference to the CCHR. This time I stood up. If I had to acknowledge anyone it had to be Steve Heard and if that was the way he wanted it to read that was what he would get. Fred Hills said, “Okay, but I hope it doesn’t come back to bite you.”
In retrospect, do you wish you had fought harder against the prologue and epilogue you felt violated the integrity of the piece?
Yes, in retrospect, I do. But at that precise moment, just months before the publication date, I had a family crisis that took me completely out of the game for those months. My wife, who was pregnant, came down with a severe case of toxemia. The doctors put her in the hospital and told us she had maybe a ten percent chance of survival and the child even less. Happily, through the efforts of one miraculous doctor, we eventually got through the storm. My wife survived and the baby, a girl, did as well, though her birth was induced and she only weighed two pounds. There’s an interesting side story in connection with this crisis that relates to Frances Farmer. Do you want to hear it?
I had been at this hospital vigil for so long I had lost all sense of time and space. Then one night, Kathie’s blood pressure shot up alarmingly and they had to induce the birth at once. So they proceeded to do it and, while I was waiting, it suddenly occurred to me that this hospital was only a few blocks from the Harvard Avenue site where Frances Farmer was born. I hadn’t made that connection before. Then, an hour or two later, as I was holding my tiny preemie daughter in that incubator room, tearfully vowing to love and protect her for as long as I lived, the possibility of an even eerier coincidence suddenly jolted me. I asked the nurse: what’s the date? She told me it was September 19.
Frances Farmer’s birthday.
5) The Book
Someone writing about the book more than thirty years later for the Internet Movie Database referred to its publication in 1978 as a “media sensation.” Is that a fair description?
I suppose so, though I was too naïve to realize it at the time. I assumed every book got its kind of treatment.
You were reviewed everywhere and appeared on every talk show in existence?
Well, not quite. But, in retrospect, I can see that the book was the ideal candidate for the publicity machine. It was mercifully short and written in a deliberately simple style. I remember Lillian Hellman once saying, “If you want your book to be reviewed, make it brief.”
And it had a gallery of riveting pictures that told the story, even if you didn’t read the book.
True. Reviewers and talk-show producers leaped at it.
Also, you were young, attractive, well-spoken and generally cut a sympathetic figure.
If you say so.
McGraw-Hill had a legendary publicity department in the ’70s.
It did, under the command of an intensely Teutonic man named Victor de Kyserling, who came off like Erich von Stroheim and, in my memory, I see wearing a monocle and carrying a riding crop.
You met with him?
He and his assistant, a lovely woman named Alice Acheson, personally groomed me for the book tour.
I understand McGraw-Hill actually gave their authors an instruction manual on how to create the best impression on talk shows.
And I dutifully read it. Later, in a piece on book publicity, The New Yorker savagely lampooned this manual and McGraw-Hill stopped using it. As I recall, it was pretty funny, telling you things like “Look the host in the eye” and “Be sure to work in the title of your book at every opportunity.”
How long was this tour?
Months. They started me off with an East Coast tour and then they had me do a Midwest tour and then, after a few weeks of rest, a West Coast tour.
How many interviews in all?
Including the telephone interviews after the tour, more than two hundred.
That’s a phenomenal number. To what do you attribute this intense media interest? It has to be more than the fact that the book was short.
It probably had a lot to do with its spectrum of subject matter, all of which was currently trendy: Old Hollywood, political conspiracy, psychiatric abuse, feminism and so forth. I don’t know what it’s like now but in those days, by law, broadcasters had to have a certain amount of “public-affairs” content and this fit that criterion on several levels. It was also just a good story that I gradually learned to tell in a five-minute, ten-minute, fifteen-minute, half-hour and full-hour versions. I got better at it over time so the demand for my presence on these shows actually increased as I went along.
Did you enjoy it?
At first, I just ate it up with a spoon. I was a kid in a candy store. The celebrity treatment, having people hang on every word I said. It was quite an ego trip. Over the months, though, it dragged me down. At the end, I just wanted to crawl away.
I seem to recall you on the NBC Today Show being interviewed by Tom Brokow.
That was at the start of the tour. I can remember going into the NBC studios at the top of Rockefeller Center and seeing this set they’d constructed for the interview with a billboard-size blow-up of the book cover as a background. Brokow chatted with us (my wife was with me on the tour) for a time before the interview, telling us his journalism stories. Treating me like his professional equal. It was pretty heady stuff.
Did you do Good Morning America?
They didn’t interview me but they did two documentary segments on the story. A tremendous boost. Rona Barrett, their Hollywood correspondent, was a great friend of the book and pushed it at every opportunity.
Yes, when he was still doing his late-night radio show from Washington D.C. I was on it for the full four hours, going well after midnight. It was insane. I had been doing interviews from early that morning. I had to do push-ups during the commercials to stay awake. But King made the whole thing fun. He was quite a character, and his show had more impact than anything else I did. For years after that, people would come up to me and say, “I heard you on Larry King’s Show.”
What other broadcast media do you recall?
Don Imus, Joe Franklin, Dorothy Fuldheim. As I say those names, it makes me realize what a different era that was. Those people were all, like Larry King, characters, true eccentrics. Dorothy Fulheim was this cranky old lady who was an institution in Cleveland.
You did most of the major-market morning talk shows?
AM Philadelphia, AM Chicago, San Francisco Today, you name it. Those shows are mostly gone now too, or have changed their format to pure fluff, and it’s a shame because the level of discussion on those shows was relatively high.
Had many of your TV interviewers actually read the book?
Virtually all of them had, and seemed to feel passionate about it. I’ve since learned this was quite an anomaly. The only one who hadn’t read it and was upfront about it was Tom Brokow. I remember him whispering to me just before the camera started to roll, “Help me, I haven’t read the book.”
What about print interviewers?
They were, of course, even sharper. As I read over these feature stories to prepare for this talk, I was astounded by how well-written and perceptive they tend to be—and the amount of space given to them. Edith Herman’s piece in the Chicago Tribune, Larry Swindell’s in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cathy Trost’s in the Detroit Free Press. And so many more.
Meanwhile, the reviews of the book were rolling in?
Yes, most of which, like the feature stories, I didn’t actually sit down and read until recently.
Time called it “incorrigibly readable.” Parade called it “brilliant and definitive.” Those are money reviews.
Those were sweet to read because the very first review that came in, from Kirkus Reviews, panned it.
Where else was it reviewed?
The New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, L.A. Times. Virtually all the major East and West Coast papers did feature reviews, with lots of pictures. And it was reviewed in hundreds of smaller newspapers around the country. True to Lillian Hellman’s truism about reviewers and short books.
Even Screw reviewed it.
Screw ran a surprisingly intelligent review.
The book was also popular in the gay media.
The gay community “got” Frances Farmer, for sure. Every gay journal of the time did a feature review. Doug McClelland’s piece in After Dark took up five pages and used almost a dozen pictures. It was one of the best things done on the book.
Were you also big in the supermarket tabloids?
I only saw one, as I was in the checkout line at Safeway. It was called the Midnight Globe and it had an interview with me that I had never given, using words someone made up entirely. I was astonished by it. I didn’t realize they could do such a thing and routinely get away with it.
Were any of the reviews you did read at the time particularly memorable?
The most memorable was by Dr. Thomas Szasz in Inquiry. He summed up exactly what the book was, and what I wanted it to be. Since his writing was such a big influence on me, that meant a lot. Another review that was special to me was the one by Alvah Bessie in the Chicago journal, In These Times.
My old colleague on the blacklist.
Yes, Bessie was one of the Hollywood Ten who defied McCarthyism and went to jail for it. He knew Frances Farmer in the Group Theater and met her again in San Francisco in 1957. He made a point of saying he “concurs with others who knew her before and after the asylum experience that she was ‘not the same woman.’” He also wrote me a nice letter.
Were there other negative reviews besides Kirkus?
Some. The most vehemently negative was by Kenneth Turan. He really hated it and took a whole page in American Film magazine to say why. Years later, I met him. A mutual friend introduced us. An awkward moment.
Where you happy with McGraw-Hill’s ad campaign?
Ecstatic. They bought giant display ads in the New York Times Book Review and I don’t know how many other places. The ads were intriguingly enigmatic yet dignified and, with one exception, did not use Frances Farmer’s name in the ad copy. It was sold as a mystery, just as I’d asked.
What was the exception?
One of the ads threw in the subtitle: “The Search for Frances Farmer.” I objected and they dropped it.
I recall a kind of Raymond Chandler-esque radio ad for the book.
They contracted a very stylish radio spot for the West Coast that made the book sound like The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. I loved it.
Were you visiting bookstores around the country?
Only in New York, L.A. and Seattle.
The usual thing of sitting at a table and autographing books for people who bought it?
No. Noel felt that wasted too much time. He believed you should go to the store and sign as many books as it had in stock as fast as you could. Because a store can’t return a signed book to the publisher and it counts as a sale.
Was Noel Marshall buying up books to prime the bestseller lists?
Wasn’t that what he did with The Exorcist? What he promised to do for you?
Noel was so bogged down in the mounting problems of Roar by then that he didn’t have the time or money to invest anything in Shadowland. The only thing he did was have Marie Yates talk the Pickwick Bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard into doing a massive window display for the book. At the time, this was considered the most important bookstore on the West Coast so this was not a small thing.
Looking back on it now, what was your favorite experience in publicizing the book?
My guilty-pleasure experience was in a TV studio in the Chicago Board of Trade, overlooking the floor. I had taped a segment for some show, the last one of that leg of the tour and I was eager to get home. But as I was leaving, the producers of that city’s version of Meet the Press came to me, absolutely frantic. The live show was about to air and the sole guest had either died or was incapacitated, I forget which. They needed a substitute, and quick. Would I do it? Sorry, I had a plane to catch. They were so desperate they offered to pay for a helicopter to pick me up on the roof afterward and speed me to the airport or even charter a plane, if necessary, to take me to Seattle. So I did it for the helicopter ride, and I have to say that the challenge of psycho-babbling my way through an hour-long live news show in which I was the only guest being grilled by five reporters who had not read the book or even had the foggiest notion of what issues it raised was exhilarating. I quite enjoyed it.
What was your worst experience?
A morning talk show in L.A. in which I was paired with Dr. Laura Schlessinger. It was at the end of the tour and I was exhausted anyway and this strident woman host was doing everything she could to turn the thing into a shouting match. In the breaks she would egg us on, saying, “Call him a fool.” Or “Tell her she’s stupid.” The whole affair left a terrible taste in my mouth and, looking back on it now, I can see how it was a premonition of the mean-spirited circus TV would become.
Did all of this activity have any impact on the sale of the book?
It obviously did. The book sold much better than McGraw-Hill anticipated, according to Hills. I don’t remember the numbers, and I don’t think I ever knew them. But it went through six printings in its first few months. It was number-one in Seattle for a time and made several other important bestseller lists. They were more than pleased, especially since they had only expected the hardback to be a loss-leader for the movie and its paperback tie-in.
6. The Movie
But, gradually, all this promotional activity came to an end?
Only gradually. For the rest of the year I was still doing one interview after another, by phone from Seattle, with smaller and smaller papers and radio stations. And since the book had resurrected her name in a positive light, the memory of Frances Farmer was being honored at film festivals and I was constantly being asked to introduce retrospectives of her films.
Weren’t you also sued about this time?
You’re right, I was. I had almost forgot about that. I was sued in the middle of this publicity blitz by Shepard Traube, who thirty-six years earlier had also sued Frances Farmer.
Who was he?
Shepard Traube was the New York agent she signed with after returning from her Russian trip. He sued her for nonpayment
of his commission after she went to Hollywood. He sued me for defamation of character.
How did you defame him?
I referred to him in the book as being, when they met in 1935, “an enthusiastic smalltime agent.” He claimed in his suit that he had been her manager, not her agent, and that he told me about that distinction when I interviewed him and I had ignored it. I ignored it because in all the legal papers of his suit with her, he is always identified as her “agent.” It was petty harassment but Traube had gone on to some success as a Broadway producer (his big hit was Angel Street in 1938) and he could afford to pay lawyers. The suit was almost immediately thrown out of court in New York but not before I had to fly there and hire a lawyer to draw up a response that cost me $5000, which was not a small fee in those days.
And wasn’t there another suit at this time that was instigated by your side?
An almost suit. The horror author Peter Straub was coming out with a novel also called Shadowland. Since it came on the tail of all this publicity that well established that title in the public ear for us, this seemed a low blow. Lawyers were consulted and meetings were held but the upshot was that you can’t copyright a title.
Not unless that title has been established as a household word, practically. McGraw-Hill’s top lawyer thought they might have a shot at blocking it under the principle of “secondary meaning” but he didn’t think it would be worth the trouble.
Traube/Straub. And more lawyers.
So how did this year of media exposure leave you?
Exhausted, and vowing never to do it again. I embraced it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience but it really took something out of me. The whole process was, ultimately, demeaning in a way that’s hard to explain.
Were you able to take some time off before returning to the newspaper?
No, because while I was on the book tour, Jack Doughty called and offered me a new job at the P-I that I couldn’t refuse: its movie critic. The former critic, my friend, had quit and Doughty was desperate to have me replace him—to the point of offering all sorts of incentives.
Was it your ambition to be a movie critic?
Not really. But I wanted to write about movies and be around the movie industry and this job was a chance to do that. There were only about fifty full-time, benefit-paying movie critic jobs in the whole country and the P-I was one of the best of them because it allowed its critic to take junkets and run the beat as more or less a personal fief, picking what he wanted to do with little or no editorial interference. The job also carried a special power, because, as I said before, Seattle was regarded at that time in Hollywood as the most important regional market. In a long feature article that year, the Boston Globe had declared Seattle “Movietown U.S.A.”
So where did the Shadowland movie stand at this point?
It was standing in line behind Roar, which was continuing to suffer one setback or natural disaster after another: floods, fires, disease, endless actor maulings by a variety of wild beasts. Basically, nothing was being done on my movie. The first step would be for Noel to call for the script I was supposed to do, but he told me he was not going to do this until he had Roar under firmer control.
Was this frustrating?
Not especially. Because I needed the time to learn how to do a script. The truth was that I had never even read a script before, much less written one. I had never even seen one. So I needed the time to learn the form and figure out the right approach.
Were you talking to him about it on any regular basis or was he—
Oh, I was talking to him all the time. And I was seeing him every time I came to L.A., which with this new job was frequent. In time, I became friends with him, and with Tippi, and so did my wife. Over a two-year period, and many expensive dinners in posh Hollywood restaurants, and many trips to the ranch to ride the elephants, and play with the lions and tigers and jaguars, we became part of his extended family.
Did Tippi Hedren take part in your discussions about the movie?
Frequently. She was pretty much Noel’s producing partner. She also confessed to me one night after we’d shared a bottle of wine that it might be interesting casting if she played Frances in the later years and Melanie played her in the younger years. I didn’t think that was a good idea and neither did Noel. But I have to say that I came to have great respect for her. Her commitment to those animals was truly noble.
What sort of things were you talking about, regarding the script?
The basic approach: whether or not to play Frances’ life in its chronological order, without a framing device; or to play it in episodic flashbacks, off the “Laura” story of the investigating reporter.
What was his thinking?
His initial thinking was that it would be too hard, and maybe too clunky, to recreate the “Shadowland approach” to film. He was not sold on this notion of playing it “straight” but it was his inclination.
What did you think?
I was willing to try that approach but my past experience with the material told me that it worked best as a detective story and, really, a love story. Frances’ life needed to be filtered through a sympathetic, outside point-of-view. Otherwise, it comes off as being merely depressing instead of gut-wrenchingly bittersweet.
Did you eventually do that “straight” version of the script?
I did, but mostly just to get the form down and show Noel that this approach would likely not work.
Did the script convince him of this?
As far as I know, he never read it. If he did, he would have to pay me for it. He had not officially called for it yet. I went ahead and did it anyway because I wanted to get at least a pass of it out of the way so I could move on to another writing project that had been obsessing me.
Were you beginning to have any doubts about Noel Marshall? His commitment to do the movie?
I never doubted his commitment and in the downtimes of Roar, of which there were many because of all the delays and disasters, he would always get very excited about it. But I could also see that Roar was going down the drain. I got to be good friends with his cameraman, Jan de Bont, who at one point was scalped by one of the lions, and I watched miles of footage with him in the editing room. None of it was hugely impressive to me. The acting was really amateurish. Sometimes Noel would screen an edited sequence for me and want my opinion. I didn’t know what to tell him. It just wasn’t working and he had deluded himself that it was, or could.
Were you getting any doubts about his character?
I had no illusions about Noel. I could see that, like all movie producers, he was a con man. Thomas Gifford, the author of The Man From Lisbon, told me that Noel had failed to do any of the things he promised to do for that book and had taken no steps to make the movie version. Noel and William Peter Blatty were suing each other over The Exorcist profits, which was not a good sign. But I had a strange weakness for him. He was a larger-than-life character caught up in a Fitzcaraldo-sized personal obsession.
One that came to no good end.
Sadly true. Before it was over, he sunk all he had—$17 million—into Roar and shot off and on for five years and accumulated more footage than Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia combined and never got a U.S. release. I understand it finally came out on DVD a couple of years ago but I never saw it.
Let’s get back to your movie. What was your involvement after doing a script?
In a bizarre way, I became its producer, or at least its public face. Noel was incommunicado with Roar and Marie Yates, his producing arm in the Shadowland movie, didn’t have much of a profile or even an office. So everyone who wanted a part or any other job on the movie came to me. Noel even encouraged this. He didn’t much like or have any respect for Marie Yates. When people called his office he had his secretary tell them, “Call Bill Arnold in Seattle.”
I can remember it being considered a very hot movie project—an almost guaranteed Oscar nomination for whoever played the part of Frances.
A steady stream of actresses were calling me at the newspaper. It got to be something of a joke there.
Who was calling?
Michelle Phillips, Lynda Carter, Jill Clayburgh. Practically every semi-hot or up-and-coming actress of the time you can think of. Lauren Hutton called me from her bathtub. I could hear the water lapping against her nude body.
Also, I’ll bet, plenty of ambitious but totally unknown actresses.
I would get a resume and photo in the mail almost every day. And sometimes they came with a subtle offer of more than just their acting talent. One day I’ll never forget, this absolute knockout with a little community theater experience dropped by the P-I and told the receptionist she would wait until I had time to see her. When I finally did, and we sat down over a cup of coffee, she placed her hand on my leg and told me in no uncertain terms what she was willing to do for the part. I was genuinely shocked. What a business.
What was the most unusual or offbeat casting application you received?
I see where you’re leading me. That would be, of course, the one I received from a young woman who, under the name of Constance Money, starred in what is generally considered the greatest feature-length pornographic movie of all time: The Opening of Misty Beethoven. This is a movie that played in one Washington D.C. theater for more than ten years, which may be the longest run in movie history. She was the daughter of a wealthy Seattle doctor and had a couple of Quaalude-juiced wild years after attending Mills College in which she partied hard with people like Warren Beatty and Hugh Heffner and starred in this one expensive porn movie that made her a legend. Playboy called her “the Garbo of Porn.” She strongly identified with Frances Farmer and believed she could play the part. She even had a series of photos taken of her recreating the various photos of Frances in the book. She was very intelligent and had authentic star quality and I thought she deserved at least a test. But Noel wouldn’t even consider it.
Were there any actresses you personally favored for the part?
There were two actresses I thought would be ideal for the part. The first and foremost was the Dutch actress Monique van de Ven, who was called “the Marilyn Monroe of Holland” and was married to Jan de Bont, Noel’s cinematographer. I got to know her quite well from the Roar set and from her trips to Seattle, where her Dutch films had a fanatical following. Except for her accent, I thought she would be the perfect Frances Farmer. If you ever want to see a magical star turn, take a look at Monique in Paul Verhoeven’s Cathy Teppel.
Who was the other?
The other was Candice Bergen. My wife Kathie and I both felt strongly that she would be good casting for Frances. But this was before Murphy Brown showed how good she could be and no one agreed with us. Noel thought she was a lightweight. One of her best friends was the indie director, Henry Jaglom, who wanted to direct a Shadowland film and had become a friend of mine. He was currently helping her write her growing-up memoir, Knock Wood. And he also thought the role was way beyond her reach, and that she was too insecure to even think of taking on such a demanding challenge. No one but Kathie and I could see her in the part.
Did you ever meet with her?
I did, and I found her as insecure as Henry Jaglom said she was. But she certainly proved everyone wrong about her acting skills. I still think her unique blend of beauty, insecurity and bluster might have made a terrific Frances Farmer.
Were you being approached by any other directors besides Henry Jaglom?
Yes, because in my job, in a normal month, I might meet or have an interview/lunch with a half dozen A-level filmmakers, most of whom knew about or had read the book. So I was talking about it with directors all the time. A number of them let me know they might be interested.
Were there any directors that you particularly favored?
My dream director for the film was Arthur Penn, because I loved Bonnie and Clyde so much. But he wasn’t interested. He said it was just not his thing. Alan Pakula told me he was interested, and would have been great, but Noel had some sort of grudge against him. Another director I liked for the job was Curtis Harrington, who had made a number of wonderfully inventive low-budget horror and suspense films. He loved and understood the book and told me he would “kill to do it.” I pitched him but Noel just didn’t think he was a big enough name.
What was Marie Yates doing all this time?
She was growing more and more frustrated with Noel Marshall.
Were you talking to her?
Almost every day. I had developed the first-draft script with her, even though she knew even less about screenwriting than I did. I could see that, as time passed, she was developing a deep hatred for Noel and she was constantly badmouthing him and crying on my shoulder about how he treated her. He thought she was a non-talent hustler and she could no doubt sense this and see that he was not going to give her any real power in the filmmaking process. I felt sorry for her and, at the same time, there was something incredibly galling about her ever-growing animosity toward Noel.
Because I had gotten into bed with Noel on her endorsement of what a beacon of integrity he was in a sea of show business sharks. Now she was calling me up every day with some new third-hand gossip about what a crook he was.
Why, at this late stage of the game, was she telling you all this?
Increasingly, she was saying, “We have to break with Noel!” And I said, “How?” And she said, “I don’t know. But I’m talking to my lawyer. I’m talking to other people in the industry who want to make a movie out of Shadowland.”
You were not as frustrated as she was?
No. I simply had more sympathy for Noel’s problems than she did. I wasn’t in as big a hurry as she was to get the movie going. I had this new job as a film critic I was still adjusting to and, more importantly, I had another book project: an epic novel set in the Far East that I had been off-and-on writing for several years since college. I thought I might finally be in a position to interest a publisher with it and I was devoting all my spare time toward trying to finish it.
So Marshall had Roar and you had your Far East novel but Marie Yates had nothing else.
That’s about it, and she was just getting further and further out of Noel’s favor for her efforts. Then one day she called me and said she had found another producer, one much more prominent than Noel Marshall, who would finance me in a lawsuit to wrest the rights away from Noel so I can sell them to him. Who, I asked, would that be? She didn’t want to tell me until I agreed to pursue this course with her. I said, sorry lady, I’m not playing the game of Mystery Producer again. She said, “The producer is Mel Brooks.”
Didn’t that strike you as absurd, given that Brooks was a comedian?
No, because I knew his new production company, Brooksfilms, was producing “serious” movies, including a film version of the play,The Elephant Man. Moreover, I knew Mel Brooks. I had met him a few months earlier and we really hit it off. I considered him something of a friend.
How did that meeting come about?
I was in New York on a movie junket and my friend Susan Stanley, the film critic of the Portland paper, asked me if I wanted to have an advance peak at Mel Brooks’ new movie High Anxiety, and interview him. I said sure. I saw the movie, and then she and I met him in the Fox Manhattan office. The three of us talked for more than two hours—I still have the tape—and it went way beyond an interview to be this profound and very personal conversation about the meaning of life. Susan told him about Shadowland and Frances Farmer and he had been quite interested. At the end of this love fest, we were all misty-eyed and Mel actually kissed each of us on the cheek. I got his autograph, addressed to my infant daughter—the only time I’ve ever asked for one. I thought he was one of the grandest human beings I had ever met.
So you began to look on Marie Yates’ defection with more favor?
Well, I knew Noel Marshall and I knew of his attorney, Jay Plotkin, and I didn’t for one minute think it would be as easy as she and Mel Brooks thought to get those rights back. But she wanted me to come down and talk to Mel about it and I thought: Gee, it would sure be great to see my pal Mel again.
Did you tell Noel Marshall about this?
No, because I didn’t see it as any kind of defection. I was just going down for a social meeting to see what Mel had to say.
What did he have to say?
It took a while to find out. I flew down to L.A. where I met with Marie Yates and her husband and their lawyer, and got a lengthy briefing on the legal basis by which Mel Brooks’ team of attorneys would get the film rights back to me so I can sell them to Brooksfilms. Then we drove out to the Fox studio on Pico Boulevard and walked to the old administration building and climbed the stairs to a gigantic office that had once belonged to Darryl Zanuck. There we waited. Mel was in an adjoining conference room, ostensibly on some other business, though I could occasionally make out the name of Frances Farmer in the muffled conversation. After more than an hour had passed, the door finally opened and we were ushered in.
Was your pal Mel happy to see you again?
Not noticeably. As we shook hands, he couldn’t have been any colder. He didn’t even smile. When I alluded to our earlier happy meeting in New York, he said he didn’t remember it. Then we all sat down at this long conference table, me at one end, Mel at the other. Between us were Marie and her attorney, three of Mel’s attorneys and maybe five other members of his entourage. The air was solemn, with little cheerful small-talk or the usual social niceties.
You’ve got me on the edge of my chair.
That’s where I was. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Then, all at once, he went into a monologue about how he had decided to make a movie about Frances Farmer and thought my book would be the best source for it. He said he was therefore prepared to finance a lawsuit to get the rights back from Noel Marshall so I could sell them to him. His attorneys had told him that, since Marshall had made no moves to make the movie and reneged in many other ways on his contractual obligations, they believed they could get a quick judgment. Then the monologue got weird.
In what way?
He told me he understood from Marie that I wanted to work on the script and be part of the movie team. That, he said, would not happen. He wanted this project for “his boys” (who I gathered were the writers of The Elephant Man script, Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren). I would have no input into the script and my only connection to the movie would be an invitation to its premiere. Then he went on to tell me that I was “nothing” in his eyes and that he was an important filmmaker and how I should be happy that he was willing to have anything to do with me. He went on with this theme for some time, I mean an eerily long time. It turned into a rant, with me the object of his anger. He kept telling that he loathed journalists and didn’t like having anything to do with them.
Did you say anything back?
Not a word. I just sat there. It was surreal. Marie and her lawyer were squirming in their seats. They were as uncomfortable and surprised by this as I was, maybe more so. Meanwhile, the gallery of yes-men were punctuating Mel’s pronouncements with wise nods and, every so often, seconding his comments with a “That’s right, Mel.”
This sounds like a scene from Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.
It was! That’s exactly what I thought too! The scene with the fatuous movie mogul and all those flunkies knocking each other down to light his cigar.
How did the meeting end?
On a threat. He said, in so many words, that if I didn’t go along with him, he could go ahead and make the movie anyway because it was about a public domain figure and he didn’t really need to buy the book to film it. Witness what he had done with The Elephant Man.
What did that mean?
I had no idea. But I soon learned. The Elephant Man had been a recent hit Broadway play. But when Brooks decided to make a movie out of it, he didn’t purchase the rights from the author, Bernard Pomerance. He just commissioned “his boys” to adapt it, with the same story and characters and feel and dramatic arc and a few differences. He even used the same title. He claimed it was public domain material. There was a lawsuit that I think must have been settled because there was no trial. It was a smart move on Mel’s part because whatever he settled for was sure to have been a lot less than buying a hit Broadway play. But the grab was largely considered to be unethical, if not a downright theft.
So Silent Movie had turned into Goodfellas.
That’s how it struck me. He made the threat and then stood and left the room. The stooges remained for a while, seeing that I was livid and trying to smooth things over. I remember one of them saying, “Mel’s bark is worse than his bite.” Our side adjourned to a nearby cocktail lounge to lick my wounds. Marie Yates was in tears. She said, “I have no idea why he spoke to you like that.” Her lawyer said he’d heard that Mel was the kind of guy who liked to “brutally humiliate an employee in public and then buy him a new car.” That is, for some reason, what he wanted to do: humiliate me. I have no clue why. I remember the lounge was empty except for us and a small party at a nearby table that included Milton Berle, who looked morosely depressed about something. It occurred to me that all great comedians might be manic-depressives.
I take it you told Marie Yates you weren’t interested in a partnership with Mel Brooks.
I told her I didn’t want to be in the same hemisphere with him. She was despondent but still trying to talk me into accepting his offer. For some reason, the encounter really unsettled me. What bothered me most was the realization of how stupid I had been to think this monster from hell was my friend. He had just needed a good review and a sympathetic interview from the Northwest quarter of the country and he had charmed the pants off me to get it. How incredibly naïve I had been! I spent that night at the Century-Plaza Hotel, where the Shah of Iran was staying in the penthouse above me. Down below several hundred Iranian students had massed to protest his presence. They were waving placards and chanting insults way into the morning. Neither the Shah nor I got any sleep that night.
Did you tell Marshall about this?
Not immediately, I confess. But I did eventually. He knew all about Brooks and The Elephant Man but thought he had tied his own hands from pulling off a similar move with Shadowland by making that lawsuit offer to me. Noel didn’t seem overly concerned by what had happened. But I’m not sure he ever spoke to Marie Yates again.
Wasn’t this bizarre scenario immediately followed by an almost identical one with an even more prominent filmmaker, Francis Coppola?
Indeed it was.
Can you tell me a little about that episode?
Where to start? I suppose it begins with a guerrilla movie promoter operating in Seattle at that time by the name of Jeff Dowd.
Jeff Dowd, the Big Lebowski?
Yes, the very guy on whom the Coen Brothers later modeled their movie.
One of my favorites.
I was, in a way, actually present when the three of them came together for the first time.
This is an aside I think I have to hear.
It was a few years later, when Jeff called me one day from New York, pumping with excitement. He said, “I’ve just seen the first screening of a movie called Blood Simple made by these two crazy brothers. They’re going to be huge. Here, talk to them.” And he pulled one of the brothers to the phone. Now what could I possibly talk to him about? I hadn’t seen his movie or even heard of it. But that was Jeff Dowd. He loved to put people together.
Was he like the Jeff Bridges character?
Sort of, but in many ways he was even more outrageous. Everyone who knew him has a full repertoire of Jeff Dowd stories. He was a former antiwar activist who had served time in McNeil Island Federal Prison for a protest he’d helped stage in Seattle that turned violent. He got in the movie business with his grassroots promotion of the Vietnam War documentary, Hearts and Minds. He was a strangely wonderful person, uncouth and slovenly by nature and often a blowhard, but a skilled promotor who was truly idealistic and completely loyal to his friends and his cause. I found I could trust him. To me, he embodied many of the better aspects of the ’60s.
He was the middleman in the Coppola twist?
He was working for Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in the Seattle test marketing of their movie, The Black Stallion—a film I really liked and had, as a critic, befriended. I was actually working behind the scenes with Jeff trying to help him figure out a marketing strategy for the film, when one day, in the middle of this, he came to me and said, “Francis wants to do Shadowland.”
Dowd knew about your problems with Marshall and Brooks?
He knew all about it. What happened was that he gave the book to Tom Sternberg, a Coppola lieutenant and the producer of The Black Stallion. Sternberg read it, went nuts for the story and gave it to Coppola, who also loved it, and, without any qualification, said he wanted to do it.
Had you met Coppola?
Yes, not long before this at the junket for Apocalypse Now in New York. After the round-table interviews, I was one of three journalists who had a freewheeling group interview with Coppola that went on for three hours and later became part of his legend. Because, in it, he predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the precise course movie history would take into the field of computer animation over the next two decades. Many years later, I sold my tape of that interview to the Zoetrope Company for their archives. Nicolas Cage also asked me for a copy of it. In any case, like Mel Brooks, I had very recently met Coppola and I was very impressed with him—though he didn’t kiss me at the end of the interview.
You must have been flattered when Jeff Dowd came to you with the news that Coppola was interested.
Are you kidding? After the two Godfathers and Apocalypse Now, Coppola was like the god Zeus to my movie generation. And it got even better. Tom Sternberg was soon calling me up every day just wild with his company’s enthusiasm for doing Shadowland.
But Shadowland was still tied to Noel Marshall.
With the golden lure of Coppola’s name, I thought for sure that I could talk Noel into joining forces with Zoetrope or maybe selling his interest to them.
Did you approach him with this idea?
I did and he wasn’t interested. Not one bit. He didn’t want to work with Zoetrope and he wasn’t going to sell his interest, for any price. He was thoroughly pigheaded about this. I decided that maybe Marie Yates was right.
Where was she in all this?
I kept her informed on everything. She was ostensibly my agent on the book and I told the Zoetrope people she would have to have some role in their Shadowland movie. But she didn’t like the Coppola idea at all and kept trying to get me to make the deal with Brooks, which totally mystified me.
So what happened after Noel Marshall said no to the Coppola idea?
We had it out and I broke with him. Zoetrope wanted to finance a lawsuit against him in my name to get the rights back. The same idea Brooksfilms had. Their lawyers also thought Noel’s hold was very shaky under the circumstances. I told them, okay, let’s do it.
You met with the Zoetrope lawyers?
Yeah, in L.A. They drew up an agreement and I signed it. We were in business together against Noel Marshall.
In the meantime, did they intend to work on the movie?
They were actively trying to package it. Coppola did not want to direct the movie himself. He would be the executive producer, with Sternberg the producer. One day, Sternberg called and said he about had it all wrapped up: Meryl Streep as Frances, Arthur Miller doing the script and Michelangelo Antonioni directing. He had commitments from Miller and Streep, and Antonioni was nearly there but was delaying his decision until he met with Zoetrope on a trip to L.A. the next month.
Your head must have been spinning. But they didn’t want you to do the script?
No, but I didn’t care. I was tired of it by now. I would have been more than happy to step aside for America’s greatest living playwright. I couldn’t imagine what that trio would come up with—certainly not what I originally had in mind—but it was sure to be something interesting.
Did you ever meet with Coppola personally about it?
That’s another strange story. Shortly after this, Sternberg called and said, “Francis is coming to Seattle next week and wants to meet with you.” The main reason for this Seattle visit, it turned out, was that Coppola was test-screening Roman Polanski’s new film, Tess, at the Guild 45th Theater. Polanski, you may recall, was a fugitive from American Justice for his famous dalliance with an underage girl. He was a friend of Coppola’s and Coppola was doing this U.S. test of the film for him as a favor. But Sternberg giddily hinted that Polanski might be sneaking across the Canadian border (not many miles north of the city) to attend the screening himself.
As a journalist, that bit of information must have put you in a strange position.
It sure did. If Polanski made that trip back into the country on the sly it would be a seismic story that I absolutely could not ignore. So I went to the test screening of Tess expecting to meet with Francis Coppola right afterwards and then maybe rush to the paper to write a story about the secret return of Roman Polanski. They were going to literally hold the presses for me. But neither of these events materialized.
Polanski didn’t show and, for me, neither did Coppola. He was at the theater all right but spent the movie pacing in the lobby, on the phone or deep in conversation with members of his entourage. I waited on the sidelines, with Sternberg every once in a while coming up and saying, “Just a few minutes and Francis will be with you.” Then the movie was over and Sternberg said, “He’s going to be on the phone with Roman for a while and wants to meet with you at the hotel.” This was the nearby Edmund Meany Hotel. So I went to the hotel and waited. And waited. Every hour or so I was paged to the house phone and Sternberg would say, “Another half hour and Francis will be with you.” Finally, at about 2 a.m., Sternberg called and said, “Francis is too tired to meet tonight and he has an early flight in the morning. He wants to set up a meeting for next week in L.A.” I was really pissed.
Can’t say I blame you.
And that wasn’t the only example of this kind of infuriating or erratic behavior on their part. They were forever setting up meetings for conference calls and forgetting all about them. I would have conversations with people in the Zoetrope office about some point or other and the next day they would have no memory of the conversation. I thought they were all nuts, literally, clinically. It wasn’t until I read Eleanor Coppola’s 1991 book, Notes, that I realized what was going on. Everybody in the Zoetrope Company in this period was coked out of their minds. All these people I was trying to deal with, maybe even the lawyers for all I knew, were snorting cocaine all day long. And that’s not an exaggeration.
How did this alliance with Zoetrope come to an end?
It came to an end the morning I picked up a copy of Variety and saw a story, I believe on the front page, saying that Mel Brooks was going to make a Frances Farmer biopic in partnership with an expert on the tragic actress named Marie Yates. Tom Sternberg called and said that, since Brooks and Yates clearly intended to make the version of Frances Farmer’s life that was Shadowland, and would be underway with it long before the lawsuit in my name against Noel Marshal could be decided, Zoetrope had no choice but to pull out of the deal.
The Yates-Brooks announcement must have come as quite a shock.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I immediately called Marie to see what was going on. Her husband answered. She didn’t want to come to the phone. I heard some hushed conversation in which he forced her to the phone. (They would soon be divorced.) She sounded teary. She said it was true. She and Mel were making the movie without me. And it was all Noel’s fault. I asked: What about the contract you signed, vowing to look after my interests in the book in exchange for ten percent of its royalties? She was renouncing it in a document drawn up by Mel’s lawyers. I think I probably hung up on her at that point.
What was your feeling?
Of course, I was furious.
What did Noel Marshall have to say about it?
He called me up and said he was going to sue Brooks and Yates. He would wait a while to see if this was real or just a feint but he had contacted his lawyers and was putting them in motion. He wanted to sue in both of our names, which he said would be stronger than him suing them alone. I didn’t want to do it. Let him and Brooks, the two Hollywood monoliths, slug it out. But he pointed out that I had no choice.
Why was that?
When you sell the rights of a literary property the standard contract says you, the author, must join in any lawsuit the buyer initiates to protect those rights. If you don’t, he can sue in your name. It sounds reasonable enough on the surface but most authors don’t realize the Kafkaesque place that might lead to. I became a good example of that. I was stuck. I had to join Marshall in his suit.
Weren’t you just devastated by all this?
I can’t say that I was. I didn’t think Marie could get away with it. I also didn’t think Mel Brooks could get away with it. I mean, clearly he didn’t want to make just any Frances Farmer movie. He didn’t want to make Will There Really Be a Morning? or My Sister Frances: A Look Back with Love. He wanted to make Shadowland, as he said to me face to face and in front of witnesses. My unique and very personal take on the subject. To the point of hiring a woman whose only qualification for the job of his co-producer was her fiduciary relationship to me. So I thought, this ploy might have worked for The Elephant Man but it won’t work for Shadowland. I was wrong.