Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Yesterday, Paleo Retiree kicked off part one of our two-part interview with Sue Mengers biographer Brian Kellow. Today we conclude our conversation. We cover, among other topics, how to write a biography, Brian’s reaction to Janet Maslin’s pan of the book in the New York Times, and being insulted by Cathy Moriarty.
Blowhard, Esq.: It took you three years to research and write this book. How do you keep up your energy through such a long project?
Brian Kellow: In the first place, I was getting to talk to so many incredible people that it just kept propelling it forward. It was very exciting to be getting such great stuff from so many people. I remember very well, when I interviewed Fran Lebowitz, that night I realized Sue was right — everyone really is a star fucker. Because Fran dazzled me so completely for an hour and a half. I got on the street when we were finished and I called my partner and said, “I have just spoken to the most brilliant woman.” I mean, my head was spinning. I said very little. I asked about seven questions! It was fantastic. Then you think, “Well, if I’ve got this person, maybe I can get that person.” Then the whole game of who you can get becomes very exciting. You have to figure out how to approach them.
BE: How does approaching one differ from approaching another?
Brian Kellow: You have to persuade them that you’re not only serious about what you’re doing but that you don’t intend any harm to their friend. You have to be very careful about the kind of thing you say. I’m not the kind of person that, when I meet someone, gives away every card in the deck.
Paleo Retiree: It’s got to be helpful that you have a big track record now.
Brian Kellow: Yeah, that’s right. And I think there’s something reasonably unthreatening about me, despite the fact that I’m six-foot-two and broad-shouldered. I just believe in laying it out honestly: what I want to do, what I’m looking for, and what I don’t know. And I always tell them that if they have something off the record, I’ll respect it. Or if they have something they don’t want to talk about, I’ll respect that too. And often, when you tell them that and, after you talk to them for an hour and they realize you’re not a lunatic, they’ll say, “Well, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but you know what, I think I want to … ” And that’s great when that happens.
BE: Can you think of an example of when that happened?
Brian Kellow: Somebody told me something that was so hilarious that I laughed myself silly. She said, “I can’t believe I’m gonna tell you this, but I trust you, so that’s why I’m telling you.” And she told me this absolutely sidesplittingly funny story. It went in my manuscript, it went to Viking, then she mentioned it to one of her colleagues and the colleague said, “How could you have told him that — you’re out of your mind!” So then of course she asked me to take it out. I don’t think it would’ve hurt her in any way but, y’know, you have to respect that.
PR: It helps to play the game fair.
Brian Kellow: I mean, I’ve been approached by people for interviews myself, and I know in a second how much I’m going to tell them.
BE: What’s the hardest thing about pulling off a project like this? Keeping up your energy level? I can get bored with subjects after a few hours.
Brian Kellow: My partner Scott said, “I think you’ve got the most incredible focus I’ve ever seen. How you can spend this much time on one person is beyond me.” In a funny way, I think I have almost — and I don’t want this to sound annoying —
PR: Go for it, baby.
Brian Kellow: Well, I think because I love to read, I think I have almost a novelist’s approach. I don’t think I’m the best writer in the world by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think I’m the most insightful. But I think I do have a very, very good sense of pace and I think I know how to structure things. And I don’t know how I learned that, except by reading, and reading closely and reading carefully. My friends tease me a lot because I seem like an idiot savant. And I am! I remember things with great precision. I can remember telephone numbers from my childhood. I can remember conversations verbatim from my years growing up. I don’t know why.
BE: A good gift for a biographer.
Brian Kellow: It is. I think it’s a huge gift. I have a fucking great memory. And there’s a wonderfully exciting thing that’s happened every single time, where I get the ending as it’s handed to me. And I think, “That’s it. That’s the last page of the book right there.”
BE: When did that happen to you with the Sue book?
Brian Kellow: It happened when I was at a lunch with Toni Howard at Craft in Los Angeles. She told me that story about the pocketbook with the joint in it. We finished, we said goodbye, and I get out on the street and I think, “Joint! Pocketbook! Last page!” It’s almost like I’m writing a novel, in an odd way. I want to make the characters have the breath of life and I want to structure it properly. And of course I want to get the facts right.
BE: When you look at those thousand-page biographies — like volume one of that Stanwyck bio that just came out — do you have any desire to do that kind of book?
Brian Kellow: I haven’t had a chance to look at the Stanwyck book yet. Victoria Wilson is a brilliant woman, and it may well be a masterpiece. I guess I question the need for two enormous volumes on the life of Barbara Stanwyck. I love Stanwyck, but that assumes a huge commitment on the part of the reader. Victoria is great on context. She gave me some very helpful suggestions on my book “The Bennetts.” I do intend to read her book, and context is hugely important. But I remember reading a review by Jeanine Basinger that complained that Stanwyck almost became a supporting character in her own life story. Anyway, I look forward to reading it myself.
PR: Does that make you cheap and sleazy, and not deep and academic?
Brian Kellow: No, I don’t think it makes me cheap and sleazy at all. I mean, there’s plenty of context in my book. There might be less in this one — there was a lot in my Pauline book.
BE: It’s a great cultural history.
Brian Kellow: I like to show the change in whatever profession they were working in: show how it changed and how either they changed with it or did not. That dynamic I spend a long time thinking about.
BE: I loved the parts in the Sue book about the ‘50s New York theater world, and the film world of L.A. in the ’70s and how it changed in the ‘80s. How do you determine the scale of that? Does it get a paragraph, does it get 10 pages? How do you make that choice?
Brian Kellow: You feel it. It’s whatever feels right. I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule about how much to include. It has its own significance and you figure that out. In this book, the ‘50s were very important because that’s when Sue’s taste was formed.
BE: Besides your good memory, how do you corral all of your research? What are the nuts-and-bolts of how you manage the information?
Brian Kellow: I do it in a way that would probably seem old-fashioned to many. I have filing cabinets and files, and I organize it by subject. I have interview files that I alphabetize that I refer to constantly to refresh my memory. But I also have files with headers, like, “New York 1950s.” Or “Agency business 1960s.” I keep it organized by theme and subject. It’s a big puzzle.
PR: As you’re typing your way through the book, do you proceed from chapter one to the end?
Brian Kellow: I do. That’s when you find your own personal connection to the subject. You’ve done all the research and things have been working in the back of your mind. But then when you do the actual writing, you discover the connection. In this case, it was the relationship with her mother. My mother was nothing like Sue’s mother — my mother was a smart, loving, generous woman in many ways. But she was also a constant nitpicker, a critic, and she was constantly afraid that her children were going to embarrass her. So that was a real point of contact. Not that you’re in any way writing your own story, but you have to connect.
BE: What was that connection for you with Pauline?
Brian Kellow: With Pauline the identification for me was being a Westerner, an outsider, and crashing through into the New York literati scene. It still boggles my mind that I meet people who ask me where I went to school! They say, “Well, where did you go? Did you go to Yale? And where did you grow up?” I say, “Oregon.” And they say, “Oh, you went to Reed!” I say, “No, I did not go to Reed, I went to Oregon State University.”
PR: And yet somehow here you are.
Brian Kellow: So I totally connected with Pauline’s frustration, and her ability to laugh about it too, because they’re all such pompous jackasses.
BE: If you were talking to some young up-and-coming writer who was thinking of tackling a biography, what kind of tip would you give him about how to approach it?
Brian Kellow: Make sure it’s someone you’re interested in because you’re going to have a spend a lot of time with them.
PR: God knows there’s a kind of biography where you can really sense that the biographer got sick of his subject.
Brian Kellow: The one I remember came out in the late ‘80s, I think. It was William Wright’s biography of Lillian Hellman. I think he just grew to despise her. And I don’t blame him because I think she was a monster. So I would say, yeah, love the subject. I would say, Be prepared to have it take over your life because you’re going to be thinking about it all the time. All the time. You’re going to be having dinner with friends and say, “Excuse me, let me write something down before I forget!”
PR: You have to become a monomaniac.
Brian Kellow: I’m very lucky because I live with an incredibly patient, understanding person. So when I’m half there, he doesn’t mind. But he did say the other day, “You’ve done enough biographies!”
BE: When you’re working on a big project like this, do you ever get a sense that you’re missing out on the rest of life?
Brian Kellow: Yes! God, absolutely. Take me to the hockey game!
BE: It’s years of relentless focus.
Brian Kellow: The way I work is: I get up, I go to the gym, I eat something. Then I sit down and work. And I work all day. And I’m not one of those people who can take a big chunk out of the middle of the day. I can’t have lunch with people. That’s a rare treat for me, because it kills the day.
PR: Are you taking a break from Opera News right now to promote the book?
Brian Kellow: I only work there half the week, I don’t work there on Thursday or Friday. But, yeah, you are very aware that life is going on all around you, and there are times when you would just like to go to the movies. Or you’d like to go for a bike ride or just do nothing. But I’ve never missed a deadline.
PR: I like the way you say that — like it’s a principle.
Brian Kellow: I think it is a principle. I work at a day job where writers miss deadlines all the time. I think if you don’t work at a job like I do, I think you’re much more likely not to have any structure on your time so you think, “Oh, well, I can turn it in two weeks late. The radiator broke. The ceiling caved in. My dog had to go to the vet.”
BE: Do you want to talk about the Janet Maslin review on the record?
Brian Kellow: I don’t know. Should I say anything about this or not? I was … I was taken aback by her review. And I’ve been very nicely reviewed almost all the way, so I knew this was bound to happen someday. But I was baffled by the way the review began with a sort of dismissal of Sue Mengers herself and the idea that anybody would waste his time writing a book about such a person. I don’t know Janet Maslin at all, and she wrote a very, very good review of the Kael book —
PR: But she seemed offended or something by this book.
Brian Kellow: I have a feeling this book really rattled her in some way that just kind of made her incredibly irritable. And I have a theory.
PR: I have a theory too. Which is that you aren’t being relentlessly judgmental in the book. We’re living in a funny time when people get offended all the time. And here you deliver this romp about this really earthy woman. But what’s your theory?
Brian Kellow: I think she wanted me to take a very strong stance against Sue and her overall behavior and was troubled when I didn’t. I also don’t think she understands, despite her years of reviewing, how a character like Sue could prosper in a place like Hollywood. She’s looking at it from the standards of the East coast. “We don’t put up with this sort of behavior. We’re politically correct. We don’t call people ‘cunt’.” Not that I’m advocating that people do that!
PR: By not judging it, you’re advocating it.
Brian Kellow: This is all pure speculation on my part.
BE: How tuned in are critics generally to the realities of movie production?
Brian Kellow: I don’t think they’re tuned in. Not at all. I think they know very little about the process by which movies are made.
BE: Do you think that’s a failing on their part?
Brian Kellow: I think if you’re a great critic, you don’t necessarily have to know. I think if you’re a terrific critic who can persuade with your point of view, then I don’t think it matters. But my bottom line is that I don’t think Maslin really gets what that era was all about and how Mengers was able to become a huge success.
BE: If you were to put together a reading list of ‘70s Hollywood, what books would be on it? If you had to say, educate Janet Maslin?
Brian Kellow: Absolutely Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” would be at the top of the list. “The Friedkin Connection,” Billy Friedkin’s autobiography.
PR: Friedkin is one of the world’s really colorful storytellers.
Brian Kellow: He’s an incredible raconteur. I think that book is great. What else? I think the Faber & Faber interview series, “Conversations With” the directors, are terrific. Some of the individual biographies, like David Weddle’s book on Sam Peckinpah. And — and! — I think the criticism of Pauline Kael. Look at “Reeling,” look at “When the Lights Go Down,” look at “Taking It All In,” which looks at the end of that era and her despair. You could read those reviews — week by week — and you can learn everything there is to know about the ‘70s. It’s like a master class.
PR: One thing I think your book is great at is recalling that that era wasn’t all “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Straw Dogs.” There was a lot of square schlock too.
BE: “Earthquake!”, “The Towering Inferno”…
PR: A lot of people went to see those movies.
Brian Kellow: Absolutely they did. There was a lot of crap. We were having dinner the other night and they were showing that god-awful movie version of “Mame” with Lucille Ball and I thought, “How did this get made in 1974?”
PR: Sue herself had kind of schlocky taste. She loved the fact that groovy things were happening and that people were smoking dope and having sex, but she really, really liked old Hollywood.
BE: It even came across in her food preferences, like how she loved the Cheesecake Factory. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book was being served fancy chocolates at David Geffen’s house and she said, “I don’t eat that shit. I eat See’s.”
Brian Kellow: I’m with her! Every time I’m on the West coast, when I’m at the airport I grab a box of See’s. But yeah, I think she had incredibly pedestrian taste about a lot of things. She saw the genius of a lot of those people. She got why Brian De Palma was such an odd, offbeat kind of director, but I think it was about exploiting it for his benefit and for hers. And people have to remember that there were a lot of “Masterpiece Theater” kind of movies that came out during that era. A lot. Things like “Joseph Andrews” and “Young Winston” and “Cromwell” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”…
PR: Franklin Schaffner had a big career for years.
Brian Kellow: Absolutely. It wasn’t all underground ‘70s sensibility.
PR: Why couldn’t Sue write her own story?
Brian Kellow: She made up a lot of excuses. She’d say she wasn’t getting enough money or she didn’t want to kiss and tell. And I think a lot of it was that she could be quite private about the deals that were going on. I think that’s why she had her archive destroyed — she didn’t want to have anyone else sifting through it.
BE: What was she being protective of?
Brian Kellow: Of her clients.
PR: She was this funny combination of being sometimes shockingly indiscreet and very protective.
Brian Kellow: She was a mass of contradictions, she really was. And I think she was afraid that it would look like she was trying to reclaim the spotlight and, besides, what if it failed? What if the book bombed?
PR: She already had the legend, so why risk it?
Brian Kellow: She understood that unavailability was her greatest asset. They wanted to do a reality show about her once and her attitude was, “Why the fuck would I want to do that?”
PR: How is your screenplay about Pauline going?
Brian Kellow: It’s out, it’s finished, it’s called “The Critic.” It’s being shopped around. I wrote it with my friend Michael Slade, who’s a television writer and a playwright. It was a great collaboration because I’ve never written a play.
PR: And yet you have such a lot of experience in the theatrical arts.
Brian Kellow: Writing a play terrifies me. It’s not for the faint of heart. And Michael has so much experience with that kind of structure and I have a good movie eye, so I think we came up with a really wonderful script. We’re looking for women directors to attach to it.
PR: I loved the draft you sent to my wife and me. Performers and directors could really go to town on it.
Brian Kellow: Yeah, you get into this whole conversation with people and the conversation isn’t how good it is but who can sell it. The piece is for an older woman, so that’s a very short list. A very, very short list. And some people seem to be concerned that Warren Beatty is a character in it.
But I love to write about difficult personalities. I don’t like mean people at all. I don’t like vicious people. But I’ve always been drawn to big, complicated, sometimes difficult personalities. I did not grow up in a docile family. I have one brother and it was a lot of very big personalities in a very small house. My parents loved each other very much but they bickered constantly. But it was funny. My brother and I used to think my parents were hilarious — the things they would say to each other, the way they disagreed.
BE: What’s your next project?
Brian Kellow: I’m two-thirds of the way through my novel. I want to finish that. But I want to do another biography, definitely.
PR: Are you ever going to write a biography about a man?
Brian Kellow: I would like to. I want a change of pace.
BE: Is there a recovery stretch after you do a big project like this?
Brian Kellow: Absolutely! Because you turn it in to the publisher and I always wind up tinkering with it a little bit more, and then some late interviews will always come in, as they did in this case. Speaking of which, can I tell you one of my favorite stories?
Brian Kellow: After I finished the manuscript and turned it in to Viking, I got a call from Cathy Moriarty, to whom I had written, and it somehow wound up in her spam folder. So she called up, she was very apologetic, she said “I’d love to talk to you,” so we started chatting right on the spot. She was very briefly Sue’s client, so she didn’t have a lot to say. We’re talking, she’s very nice, and she says, “Tell me what the name of the book is.” And I said, “It’s called ‘Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers’.” She said, “Oh, that’s good! That’s a great title.” So we talked a little more and I realized that we’d reached the point in the conversation where I didn’t have anything else to ask, but I was just enjoying talking to Cathy Moriarty. I wasn’t really asking her any questions, I was just kind of bullshitting. And she goes, “Yeah, great. Anyway … Can I go now?” And I thought, “I like you.” I like anyone who ridicules me.
- Brian’s book with Eileen Farrell.
- His biography of the theatrical Bennett family.
- His biography of Ethel Merman.
- His biography of Pauline Kael.
- The Jewish Forward shares some memorable moments from Brian’s current book.
- Tatum O’Neal recalls being a small kid who was part of Sue’s ’70s circle.
- Some great quotes by and about Sue.
- The Los Angeles Times talks to Brian about Sue Mengers.