BOOK REVIEW / The other side of Millionsville: He writes bestsellers and is very rich. Peter Guttridge meets Sidney Sheldon
Saturday 19 December 1992
Faced with such statistics, questions about his novels' literary qualities seem both churlish and irrelevant. Face-to-face with Sheldon, who greets you in the hallway of the Eaton penthouse apartment he bought from Andrew Lloyd Webber, you suspect such questions won't get you very far.
For Sidney Sheldon is a professional interviewee. He looks good - tall, broad-shouldered, with a shock of white hair, a slightly pink face, navy blazer and maroon tie. He talks well. A veteran of scores of whistle-stop US publicity tours and hundreds of chat shows, he needs only the most generalised question to set him off on a string of anecdotes, amusingly delivered in a well-modulated voice, with appropriate pauses for dramatic effect. He is very charming, and deflects anything remotely probing. If you persist, is there impatience behind his bonhomie? Is it perhaps the same asperity that makes the maid so nervous when she accidentally drops a coffee spoon on the floor. Sheldon stops talking. Silence. 'Sorry, sir,' she says in a tiny voice. A pause, then Sheldon resumes his anecdote with a smile.
But these are slight moments in an entertaining hour's anecdotes from, you remember, a master storyteller. And what makes Sheldon so interesting is the extraordinary life he led before writing novels, encompassing poverty in Chicago and New York and major successes on Broadway and in Hollywood. 'I was born in Chicago during the Depression,' he begins. 'My father was a salesman who moved around a lot. I went to a lot of different schools but I was the first one in our family to go beyond third grade.'
At first Sheldon dreamed of being a songwriter. While working as a hat-check attendant in a hotel in Chicago, aged 17, he gave the bandleader one of his songs. The man liked it, orchestrated it and included it in his repertoire. Excited by this, Sheldon persuaded his parents to let him go to New York to be the next Irving Berlin.
He got nowhere with the music publishers in New York, but he did see a lot of movies and aspired to the lifestyle he saw on the screen. Next stop Hollywood, as an aspiring scriptwriter.
'Naturally, I couldn't get past the studio gates, though I visited them all. Then someone told me about readers, who wrote synopses of books for busy producers. I'd just read Of Mice and Men so I sent a synopsis to every studio. Within three days I had a job at Universal.' Sheldon established a routine: up at 5am to write scripts before going into Universal to spend the day as a reader. The scripts were bought by low budget 'B' picture companies. At 18, he was an established screenwriter.
After war service, he and co-writer Ben Roberts went to New York where they were asked to write the script for a stage revival of The Merry Widow, to be choreographed by George Balanchine. It ran for 18 months. They had two other hit shows running on Broadway at the same time. Sheldon was by now 25. He hankered after a return to Hollywood and came up with a script which David Selznick bought and filmed as The Bachelor and The Bobby Soxer. It starred Cary Grant and won Sheldon the Best Screenplay Oscar for 1947.
'Over the next 12 years I wrote scripts for them all - Grant, Astaire, Crosby, Judy Garland. I was good friends with Grant, whom I later directed.' His screenplays included Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun and Anything Goes. By the time he left MGM to join the nascent television industry, he was also a producer/director.
In television he plugged straight into the mainstream, creating four long-running television series, including Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie. He moved into novel writing in the late Sixties when he had an idea for a story that he could not see working on the screen. The Naked Face was turned down by five different publishers. When it was eventually published it won an Edgar Allan Poe award and sold 17,000 copies. His agent was very pleased. 'I said, excuse me but I've had a show on the air for five years watched by 20 million people a week. I'm not thrilled with 17,000. I made no money on the book but I had such a wonderful sense of freedom. So I wrote the next one with no expectations.' He pauses deliberately. 'That was The Other Side of Midnight and it changed my whole life.'
The Other Side of Midnight has as its main character a strong, beautiful woman who struggles against all the odds to move from rags to riches. She is a Sheldonian archetype, and reappears in some form as the main character in all of his fiction. 'I like women who are strong but retain their femininity.' he says, 'I have met so many women like that. People like Sherry Lansing (the Hollywood film producer), my first wife Jorja (who died) - and Alexandra, my second wife.' (Alexandra, a former child actress, is sitting at the other end of the table, a beautiful but disconcertingly silent witness to the interview.)
Women make up 60 per cent of his readers. Another fan is the US President-elect, who has just sent Sheldon a note - signed Bill - thanking him for his latest book and saying how much he was looking forward to reading it once he had a little spare time. For such readers Sheldon works non-stop, with his next three books already mapped out. Admittedly, much of this work involves travelling around the world with Alexandra doing background research on the glamorous lifestyles his characters usually end up leading. Even so, why doesn't he retire? 'Writing is my life. I go down to Palm Springs to relax, by the third day I'm restless. I want to go back to work. When I finished The Stars Shine Down, I told all my friends I was taking a year off. They bet me I wouldn't. I paid out over dollars 3,000.'
The kind of drive he has exhibited in his life would, in his fiction, relate to some childhood unhappiness or trauma. He isn't about to reveal anything like that about himself, although there is perhaps a hint when he talks about his parents. 'My mother, Natalie, was remarkable. She wasn't creative but she loved to read. And she worked, selling dresses in Chicago, until she died, aged 75.'
Was his father proud of him? Sheldon pauses, though not this time for dramatic effect. 'My father was different - I don't know how to describe him. He was proud of my success. When Jeannie was on he told me all his friends liked the show. But he wasn't around too much. He moved around a lot.'
He then tells a story about his first piece of published writing. 'When I was 10, I wrote a poem and asked my father to send it to a kid's magazine I used to read. He sent it under my uncle's name - I think my father was afraid they might reject it and it might somehow reflect on him.'
That's the nearest he comes to any personal revelations. Perhaps he is saving them for his autobiography, scheduled as the book after next. How long does he anticipate it will take? He gives an avuncular smile. 'Well, it's taken me 75 years so far.'
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