Thursday, February 27, 2003

Novelist Sheldon Still Writing at 86
Wed Feb 26, 2:35 PM ET

By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press Writer

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - He quit college after one semester, can barely hunt-and-peck on a typewriter and has never touched a computer keyboard. Yet 86-year-old Sidney Sheldon has written 16 novels and is spending most of his waking time writing three more books.

Well, "writing" is a misnomer. Sheldon talks books. He dictates to his secretary, Mary Langford, who happens to be a court reporter. She runs the machine's tape through a computer and it emerges as a portion of the manuscript.

"Isn't science amazing," Sheldon marvels.

The dictating technique stems from Sheldon's early struggle to gain a foothold in Hollywood, in the mid-1930s. As a young hopeful from the Midwest, he was unable to get inside the studios. At the time, studios employed young people to outline new books for busy executives to consider and Sheldon decided to try out for a job as a reader. He compressed John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" into a few pages and sent them to every studio.

The only reply came from David O. Selznick, who wanted a book synthesized for the screen by 6 p.m. Sheldon took two streetcars and a bus to get to the MGM studio, where a relative worked as a secretary. He persuaded her to take his dictation as he skimmed through the book. He delivered the manuscript to Selznick's office shortly before 6 and won his first movie job.

Today, Sheldon is working on three projects: a novel, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?"; a memoir, "The Other Side of Me"; and a collection of short stories, "Sidney Sheldon's Miracles and Other Mysteries."

"I've finished the first draft of the autobiography, and I'll be turning the novel in by June," he reports. "Then I'll go to work on a rewrite of the autobiography. Meanwhile, I'm doing research for the 'Miracles' book."

Sheldon holds up two folders half-filled with sheets of paper, the novel so far. "When I'm finished, I'll have seven of these folders totally filled," he says. The first draft will go through a dozen rewrites. Some writers hate rewrites, not Sheldon, "because every time I rewrite, the book gets better," he says.

He works all day, seven days a week. "I have no hobbies," he explains. "I could do two books a year easily. But I won't. I'd rather have (a book) as good as I can make it."

Sheldon lives in a white stucco compound with a red-tile roof beneath the rocky peaks behind Palm Springs. It started as a single house, then he added another house on one side of the original. When Kirk Douglas (news) decided to sell his house on the other side, Sheldon bought it.

The result is a cluster of houses, two swimming pools and several guest cottages, including one where Sheldon and his secretary work. The grounds are handsomely designed with palms, flowers and velvety lawns. There's a house where his wife, Alexandra, does her arts and crafts. The Sheldons also retain their West Los Angeles home, which they use for refuge from the punishing desert summer.

Sheldon didn't try novels until he was 52, but he's been writing words — and even some music — most of his life. His first sale came when he was a boy of 10 in Chicago: a poem to a children's magazine, Wee Wisdom. Emboldened, he sent short stories to other magazines but was rejected.

Awarded a one-year scholarship to Northwestern University, he had to drop out after a semester to help support his family during the Depression. He worked as a theater usher, shoe salesman and checkroom attendant at a night club. The club's band leader played one of the boy's songs, and he set off to find his music-writing fortune in New York's Tin Pan Alley.

No luck. But he found his calling when he ushered at a Manhattan movie house.

"Day after day I saw movies with glamorous sets and beautiful people, and I was living in one room at the YMCA and making less than $17 a week," he recalls. "Finally I said, `That's what I want to do: I want to write for Hollywood.'"

While reading at Universal Studios, he and another writing hopeful, Ben Roberts, sold several B-picture scripts to Republic Pictures.

The pair served together in the Army Air Corps during World War II, yet found time to turn out scripts for such Broadway shows as "The Merry Widow," "Jackpot" and "Dream With Music." Sheldon later won a Tony for the Gwen Verdon hit "Redhead."

After the war, he submitted a movie script to Selznick titled "Suddenly It's Spring." The producer bought it and gave it a new title, which Sheldon thought was terrible. "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" — starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy (news) and Shirley Temple (news) — was a big hit and won Sheldon an Academy Award.

His other screenplays included the musicals "Annie Get Your Gun," "Easter Parade," "Anything Goes" and "Jumbo." Sheldon turned to television in 1963, producing and writing many of the scripts for "The Patty Duke (news) Show" (1963-1970) and "I Dream of Jeanie" (1965-1970).

"It never once occurred to me that I could write a novel," he says. "I was doing Broadway, screenplays, television. But a novel? No.

"I got an idea that was so introspective, it entered the character's mind. I didn't know how to do that in a dramatic form. So I gave up. But it was so strong in my mind that I came back to it. That was my first book, 'The Naked Face,' about a psychiatrist whom someone was going to murder."

"The Naked Face" wasn't a big seller, but it won an Edgar, the mystery writers' equivalent of the Oscar, and became a feature motion picture starring Roger Moore (news). The next book, "The Other Side of Midnight," went through the roof_ 52 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It was made into a not-so-successful movie starring Susan Sarandon (news).

The string of best sellers continued. Because of Sheldon's background as a screenwriter, the books are fashioned in dramatic scenes, making them highly readable and easily converted to theatrical or TV movies (11 have been). The story lines vary, but a recurrent theme is the strong-willed woman who finds herself in jeopardy.

A major asset of Sheldon's novels is authenticity.

"I never write about any restaurant in the world unless I have had a cup of coffee in that restaurant," he declares. "I have been to 90 countries, and everywhere Alexandra and I go, we do research. I take notes and she takes photographs."

Sheldon, an imposing man with a round, ruddy face and slightly thinning white hair, seems to possess unlimited enthusiasm for his craft. "Writing novels is the most fun I've ever had," he insists.

"It gets harder. When you acquire a certain reputation, people expect to enjoy your books, and you don't want to disappoint them. Yes, I worry about repeating myself. But each character is so distinctive that I don't think that will happen."

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