A Hidden Life
It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly…
Where is the piece, the editor wanted to know, about Thomas Tryon? I knew where it was, but I wasn't telling. It was in that dark and musty cupboard of my mind where I keep all those articles which (a) I hope never to write and (b) which would be mean and nasty if I ever did. When Ingmar Bergman was a bad little boy, his father would lock him in a closet and tell him there were things in there that would bite off his toes. My cupboard is the same.
My interview with Tryon had not been a success. We'd met in the bar of the Continental Plaza Hotel about two months ago. He was visiting town to promote his new book of fiction, Crowned Heads, which you may have noticed on the best-seller lists or even read in the Reader's Digest. It was going to be his fourth best seller in a row, and it had already been sold to the movie for $2.3 million.
That is a lot of money for Hollywood to pay for a book. Even an Irving Wallace or a Harold Robbins might look at a figure like that and purse his lips and let out a long, low whistle, and then perhaps turn to the window and look out into the night and absentmindedly jingle the change in his pockets. For $2.3 million you expect your money's worth, and Universal Pictures was going to get it: Thomas Tryon's book contained four longish stories and it was going to be made into four movies. Henry James wrote books, none of which ever became one movie.
And so Thomas Tryon ("I hate it when they call me 'Tom'--I want to put that whole side of me behind me") was on a national tour to promote his book. The fiction was that I had read the book and he had written it, and we could discuss it. That was a better fiction than those within his covers. I had read the book, and he undoubtedly had written it, but what we would be discussing wouldn't be the book so much as the deal.
I would learn that Billy Wilder was going to direct the first story in the book, and that Michael Bennett would direct another from Tryon's own script. That would be incidental, you see, in the course of discussing how Tryon turned from acting to writing, and how he worked, and what his ideas about his writing were, and so on. So the book would be the ostensible subject of our discussion, and the $2.3 million would be what you might term the buried subject: What we were really talking about while engaged in a conspiracy to talk about something else.
The actual hard-cover edition of Crowned Heads, you see, wasn't really the point of his trip. It would sell well, of course; the Literary Guild had picked it up and the Ladies Home Journal had excerpted it. Oh, it would make the best-seller lists, all right. But if you looked at it in the cold, hard light of day, it was really not a book at all. It was four original movie treatments, collected between hard covers and retailed by the once-great house of Knopf so that a movie deal could be made, and so that the resulting movies would inspire hundreds of thousands of paperback sales of this volume "soon to be made into four major motion pictures."
But I've left Thomas Tryon sitting in the bar of the Continental Plaza Hotel. He's not there alone. I'm there, sitting across from him, noticing that the bar is an uncommonly pleasant room furnished like an old English library. The walls are covered with books not intended to be read, but if this notion depresses Tryon he doesn't let on. His agent is also present. His agent is a middle-aged Irish-American who seems to be angry about something, and who keeps looking at his watch.
Tryon has a Martini, I have Scotch and soda and Irish-American has gin and tonic, which he immediately leaves in order to go out into the lobby and see to something.
Tryon is very pleasant. He talks about the ideas in his books, about the way the reviewers have been kind enough not to give away the surprise endings, about how people still refer to him as "actor-writer Tom Tryon," about how good it made him feel to autograph his book that afternoon at Kroch's and Brentano's. ("The people kept asking me not to make them wait so long between books.")
I nod, ask questions, take notes, am quietly grateful when the waitress comes unbidden to ask if we'd like a second drink. The whole interview goes smoothly. Irish-American returns, sips at his gin and tonic in a perfunctory manner, and says it is time to go. Tryon will not be hurried. He is gracious, polite, he talks another five minutes. We shake hands and he leaves.
I go over to the bar, sit down, order another drink and think very hard to myself. This is what I think: Nothing has happened here this afternoon except that I have been placed in the service of a conspiracy. That conspiracy is to elevate a non-book, Crowned Heads, by Thomas Tryon, into an artifact worth spending $2.3 million on.
Since the millions had already been spent, the book was by definition worth the price, and so interviewers like myself were too late to prevent greater injury or loss of property. I felt that I, personally, had been involved in a hype, and that at some deep place in his soul Thomas Tryon was not enjoying his national publicity tour all that much, either, although, of the two of us, I didn't have $2.3 million as a consolations. Weeks passed. One afternoon, I went to the Blackstone Hotel to interview John D. MacDonald. He is a man who has written 66 novels that have sold 65 million copies. If you are not an admirer of his kind of fiction, there is no use telling you this, but John D. MacDonald is a master craftsman. He has written 16 novels about a private investigator named Travis McGee. I have read nine of them.
We talked about the possibilities of making movies from the Travis McGee books. One was made, Darker than Amber, with less than success. "I still retain all the movie rights to all the others.' MacDonald told me. "I got an offer from a Canadian syndicate for $2.1 million for the whole kit and kaboodle, but the deal fell through. I was kind of happy. If the movies had turned out to be crap, the McGee books themselves might have suffered. Look what happened to poor Matt Helm after Dean Martin got through with him..."
Yes, I found myself thinking, of course: MacDonald has just answered the question I didn't even know I was asking about Thomas Tryon. I knew I wasn't offended by the fact that millions of dollars were being spent on Crowned Heads. It's Universal's right to spend all the money they want on whatever they pleased. I even knew I didn't care that Tryon's book was badly written, because good movies are made from bad books every year. What bothered me was that Tryon had manufactured a book as a means of making a movie sale, that the sale itself was the occasion for a book to be printed, promoted, sold and, unhappily, even read.
Then here was John D. MacDonald, another commercial author, a best seller, admired by fans of crime novels but taught in few universities. And he was balancing his affection for the Travis McGee books against more than two million dollars, and coming down on the side of his books. There was a respect here for the writing itself, and I'd found that lacking in Tryon. The importance of Crowned Heads come not from its pages but from its selling price, but the Travis McGee novels had been written for their readers.
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