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If You're So Famous... 

One author's fleeting brush with celebrity.

The author, caught in a peaceful moment between - creditor calls. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The author, caught in a peaceful moment between creditor calls.
I should have known I was in trouble when my 15 minutes of fame began on the toilet. It was 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and I had spent the day with my three kids and the car radio tuned to Radio Disney. It was not the best way to keep up on current events. That's why I was unprepared when my wife entered the bathroom, holding a portable telephone, her hand covering the mouthpiece. "Don't flush!" she whispered. "Ted Koppel's office is calling. He needs you to appear on an ABC News special tonight."

"There's no time to fly you to New York," I was told by the excited producer. "We need you by 7 p.m. We can arrange for the interview to take place at WEWS . . . Can you do it?"

"Of course," I said. "What do you want me to talk about?"

And that was when I learned that John Kennedy Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law had died in a plane crash. It was the latest tragedy to strike the Kennedy family, but there was no time to contemplate the deeper implications. Network television was calling.

Six years before, I had written a book titled The Kennedys: The Third Generation. It was an insider's look at the family co-written with Barbara Gibson, a woman who had gone from a career with the FBI to being matriarch Rose Kennedy's assistant.

The book research began when John Jr. was perhaps the most inept young prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's office. He twice flunked the bar exam, then almost lost his first case. A woman had surprised a burglar in her Manhattan apartment. The arresting police officer found the man cowering between the sheets of her bed. However, John forgot to show that the woman and the burglar were strangers. The judge, hoping to use an open-and-shut case to better train the bungling young counsel, had Kennedy go back and establish all the facts to ensure a conviction.

People magazine would name Kennedy the "sexiest man alive," a designation editors invented so they could put his chiseled face on their cover and sell extra copies. The following year, though John was as handsome and eligible as ever, someone else won.

"You're America's Ken Doll," I wrote John. "Everyone dresses you up and pretends who they want you to be. I'd like to know the real you. I'd also like to know why you couldn't remain the sexiest man alive for more than one year."

John's secretary called. He loved my letter, wouldn't talk, but encouraged friends and acquaintances to not shun me when I called. The result was a book that enjoyed modest success and enough access so other Kennedy biographers interviewed Barbara and me when our sources wouldn't speak to them. Then, five years later, we received an even more modest offer for reprint rights. My share was $1,000. The book was expected to sell a few thousand paperback copies -- just enough to earn back the advance.

I updated the book, adding 100 new pages to account for weddings, births, and the inevitable "dumb Kennedy tragedy." On Friday, July 16, 1999, I faxed the final corrections for the new edition, due out in November, to the publisher. On Saturday, Ted Koppel called. I spent two more days of interviewing people connected with the ill-fated flight, and the book was reedited and sent for printing four months ahead of schedule.

"They [the publisher] were going to print 65,000 copies and thought they'd sell two-thirds," the editor soon told me. "Now they've upped the printing to 125,000 copies."

By the next morning, the numbers had begun to rise. "We have 175,000 back orders," the editor said joyously. Back orders are firm prepublication orders from stores around the country. Within three days, there were 375,000 back orders, and the senior editor was telling Barbara our first check would be more money than if either one of us had a real job.

The networks and cable companies came calling. Barbara got CNN. I had Ted Koppel. Both of us had Fox.

The London arm of the publisher called, wanting gossip. I provided an outrageous theory a friend had downloaded from the Internet: John, said the web posting, would return to New York after cousin Rory's wedding and announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Hillary Clinton, livid at the thought, had arranged for the secret military installation at Montauk to use an experimental particle ray gun to shoot down the plane.

"We can't use that. It's so negative," the American publisher said. London insisted on my adding the story, noted as an unfounded rumor, to the British edition.

At the same time, I learned that my publisher was paying a large sum for the 1,500-title backlist of a bankrupt publishing company. It would take control of all previous titles, then be able to reissue the books. This was further proof that the publisher was having great financial success. And I was busy being famous.

Bookstores had me sign books that moved swiftly off the shelves. Friends saw me on network TV. The New York Times Best-Sellers List with my name on it was mailed to me weekly. A writer friend for Hollywood Reporter sent me blank business cards to autograph. Only after I returned them did he tell me that the owner of a used bookstore paid him $5 for each, pasted them into past editions of my books, and marked them up an additional $10.

Collection agency calls stopped. Creditors offered me payment extensions. Everyone knew I would soon be solvent.

My royalty check was due near the first anniversary of John's death. Again I was making the talk show rounds. E! was rerunning unrelated documentaries on which I had appeared -- biographies of Roseanne Barr, John DeLorean, and others -- allegedly taking advantage of my renewed fame. Then the check came.

The money received was less than a fifth of what was promised, though industry trade journals never reported any problem with sales, as they routinely do for all major books in trouble.

Shocked, I began calling. One editor said the book had done well, but whatever accounting I received was accurate.

Another editor told my co-author the Times list did not really reflect sales. The book was a bomb, said the editor, perhaps the biggest of 1999. We might be overpaid with the current small check, a comment that, in our paranoia, we took as orders to shut up.

None of this jibed with what bookstore people were telling me. I suspected the publisher had used my royalties to purchase titles from the bankrupt company, but I had no proof. I could not afford an audit. Then the publisher sent me an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., to celebrate its 1999 success with a luxury dinner at the Four Seasons.

Now I'm on assignment in New York. Other publishers still congratulate me on the best-seller. Strangers in my hotel lobby call me by name -- "aren't you . . .?" But meals are being taken in obscure, ultra-cheap Asian restaurants. My sons are tired of Aldi's chicken and hot dogs. My wife would like to put more than a down payment on a tank of gas for our overburdened van (130,000 miles and counting). And every third telephone call is a creditor with the same question:

"If you're so famous, how come . . ."

Ted Schwarz is the author of numerous books. He lives in East Cleveland.

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