Tuesday, September 4, 2012

ARLENE--A CAREER MENTOR HAS DIED


Arlene Friedman and me at a Fawcett sales conference in Scottsdale Arizona, November 1981

I just received the sad news from my friend, Belle Newton, that our former colleague--Arlene Friedman died last Sunday. I had been expecting it. Arlene had barely survived the death of her husband when she learned she had cancer again. She had struggled with this last bout for quite some time.

Arlene Shepherd, which was her married name, and her preferred way of being known since her retirement from publishing, left the business as President and Publisher of Doubleday. She had held previous editorial positions at Macmillan, Crown and Fawcett Books, where she was editor-in-chief when I joined the company. A little background...

After kicking around the publishing business in my youth for some six years, I found myself in January, 1977 starting my career in earnest. I had fooled myself into believing that I should be an editor. Silly me. I had no talent or the attention span required to find and usher a book through the publishing process. It was way too slow a discipline for me. But in 1977 I got an offer to join Fawcett Books, a successful publisher of mass market paperbacks, as a publicist. I had some previous experience having worked as a freelance publicity assistant for a small PR firm that specialized in promoting books. Actually I didn't have all that much experience. I didn't get to pitch authors to TV producers, magazine and newspaper editors. Nor did I get the opportunity to write press releases--the bread and butter of the publicist's daily grind. I mostly stuffed jiffy bags with paperback novels and press kits for mailing, answered the phone, and refereed the growing animosity between my two bosses as their partnership unraveled. But I did pay attention to what was going on, listened to them pitch story ideas to editors and producers, and observed as they created campaigns for their authors.  One of their biggest clients was Avon Books, a popular paperback publisher and home to Rosemary Rogers, who was enjoying enormous success as a writer of steamy historical romances--those potboilers that showed a muscled man of action aboard a ship, or standing on the hilltop of his great spread of land, in some sort of absurdly romantic clinch with a woman of heaving bosom and flying red or raven hair. Ms. Rogers popularity was such that she would be sent out to meet her public in various cities all around the country. It was our job to make sure her itinerary was filled with local interviews and events where she would meet her fans and generate lots of sales.

Predictably the partnership of this agency went up in flames one morning. I arrived at the office to find that one of the ladies had actually punched her partner. One of them departed. The other asked me to stay and take on more responsibility at no extra pay. Since she was the person I liked least in the partnership, I decided to leave. A few days later the partner I liked best, called to say there was a job opening in the publicity department of Fawcett Books, one of Avon's chief rival paperback houses. Avon's publicity director had liked me and recommended me for the job. I was sent to interview with Belle, who was the newly promoted publicity director. I liked her immediately. She asked me to write a press release, and gave me a novel by Phyllis Whitney to test my writing skills. I left a little apprehensively. I had never written a press release before. Belle also gave me a few of their press releases to show the department's style.

Fortunately my mother's bookshelves were loaded with many books published by Fawcett: Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt and prophetically Anya Seton, a popular novelist of historical fiction. I had read many of them as a teenager. I breezed through the book and then agonized over the construction of the press release. I'm sure were I to read it today, it would embarrass me hugely (fortunately this was the pre-computer era). But eventually I submitted it and waited. I heard nothing. October, November, December all passed by without any word from Belle. I called her in January, intent on demanding the return of my written samples. Belle was very glad to hear from me. Could I come in for one more interview with Leona Nevler, Fawcett's publisher? This seemed to be the break I had been looking for. We set the time and on the appointed day I arrived and was ushered into Leona's large, light-filled office. Her desk was piled high with manuscripts to the point where I couldn't see her behind the precariously stacked debris that threatened to collapse. Leona was a tiny, tightly wound woman with dark hair and sad eyes. She came around to the front of my desk and shook my hand wanly and offered me one of the two seats. Taking the other chair, she asked me why I wanted the job. To this day, I don't understand how I managed to respond the way I did, which went something like this:  "I've read James Michener and Victoria Holt from my mother's library. I'm more than familiar with the works of Phyllis Whitney, Taylor Caldwell and Mary Stewart. But most of all Katherine (written by Anya Seton) was one of my favorite books as a teenager (it truly was). I'd like to work for the publisher of all these wonderful books." Leona's eyes lit up. Right away I knew she would always be a supportive colleague if I was lucky enough to land this position. She thanked me for coming and by the time I had ambled back to Belle's office, I had a job.

Those first few months at Fawcett were hell. I was anxious that I would be discovered as a fraud with no talent for publicity. The day I started, CBS bought the company (which included a magazine division with Woman's Day as a flagship publication). I spent an awful lot of time in meetings with the editorial group and then with sales. I was handed lots of writing assignments which jangled my already frayed nerves. But Belle was encouraging and after a few months I discovered I truly did have an aptitude for the job. It suited my short attention-span well. I could interact with every department in the company from production and art departm to permissions. I enjoyed talking with TV producers, travel agents, magazine and newspaper editors, and most of all to the authors themselves.  It was also the first time I realized that I could write competently, my publishing future seemed settled, and I was no longer some one's assistant. 

Most of these meetings were dominated by a flame-haired woman of generous proportions named Arlene Friedman. She was the editor-in-chief and was possessed of a huge personality. Diane von Furstenberg's famous wrap dress was all the rage in those days, and Arlene owned a closet-full of them. She was the first female executive in clubby publishing world that I can remember who dressed flamboyantly. She even wore open-toed high heels. Her nails were always bright red and her hair was always BIG! I would later discover the technique she used to make her hair look so voluminous. Before leaving her office, Arlene would bend over in her chair and brush her hair forward--at least ten strokes. She would flip her head back, look at the make-up mirror she always kept at her desk and then spray her hair into place. That red hair of hers had a life of its own. In that first year, I got to know Arlene very well. She seemed to like me and I certainly liked her. She was down-to-earth, salty, loved a lewd joke, and spent a lot of time on the phone talking in her high pitched and nasal voice with hardcover editors and sub-rights people and agents, who were her pipeline to finding the best and most successful books for reprinting in paperback. People liked Arlene--a lot. You would go to lunch with her and find that her relationships with these people had gone on for years.

Arlene had worked at William Morris after she graduated from Katherine Gibbs School where she learned shorthand and typing. She did not go to college. She joined Fawcett about twelve years before I got there, beginning as Leona's assistant. Arlene's other skill was that she was a passionate and quick reader. She simply gobbled up book after book. Her reading was prodigious. She would read anything--potboilers, thrillers, literary fiction, crime, romances (historical, contemporary, romantic suspense), tons of non-fiction from politics and biography to how-to, true crime, exposes, and cookbooks. Arlene had an infallible sense a book's commercial viability. She could also negotiate and because of her skills, she was promoted over and over again, finally achieving the title of editor-in-chief.

Arlene's opinion and judgement were front and center of every meeting. She projected confidence and knowledge. She was always prepared. She didn't mince words, and she was impatient with people who wasted her time. She could keep a meeting focused and where others could get side-tracked, Arlene had her eye on the ball and moved it along. Initially she got on well with the CBS executives, even the less-than-experienced management the company installed to run the publisher. Leona would be stubbornly resistant, but Arlene was a negotiator and could almost always work around her bosses. She smiled, kept it civil and business-like and then when it was time to relax, she could be the heart of the party--and it worked for a long time.

I got myself into trouble with Arlene once. We were in a promotion meeting and one of the sales reps was being difficult about the ambitious sales goals of a first-time author's historical romance Leona and Arlene were high on. The book was called THE FRENCH PASSION. Don't know why I remember this title after all these years. I had read the manuscript the night before and was quite taken with it. The sales rep said this particular category didn't work in his territory, and didn't agree with any of the promotion plans set forth. He also hadn't read the book, and despite every one's enthusiasm, still resisted. I piped up without thinking that perhaps I should read it to him, if necessary, and then he might see what all the enthusiasm was about.

A few hours later, Arlene's assistant called me and said Arlene needed to see me.  I grabbed a cigarette (we smoked in those days) and headed over to what I thought would be one of our regular cozy chats. I should have known something was up when Aileen, pointed me over to Arlene's desk and told me to sit while she was winding up a call. Then she left and closed the door behind her. WhenArlene hung up the phone, she lit into me in her most imperious tone. " Greg--if you ever do something like that in a meeting again, I promised to embarrass you in front of the entire group. What the hell were you thinking about? Your comment to that sales rep was counter productive, and absurd. Don't ever do that again.  Now get out of here, I'm busy."  At first I went completely white and then my face turned absolutely fire-engine red. I was mortified. Of course she was right and I felt the complete fool. I fled back to my office and finally took a breath and calmed down. Arlene never mentioned the incident again, and I made sure I never caused her to be that upset with me again. Unlike many others I've encountered throughout my business life, you always knew where you stood with Arlene. There was never any subterfuge. She called it as she saw it. The next day, she was back to her old sassy self, the previous day's unpleasantness forgotten. 

We once had to meet with Pierre Franey, the famous French chef to discuss the promotion of his book, The 60-Minute Gourmet. Pierre decided we would lunch at the very fashionable (at the time) Le Cirque (where he had been co-founding chef). Three of us were attending from the publisher and as we looked over the menu, Arlene whispered to me, "what's Poussin?" "Fish," I incorrectly replied with my bad high school French. She was surprised, but I think relieved when a grilled baby chicken arrived on her plate. We had a good laugh about it in the taxi going back to the office.

My favorite memories of Arlene were at the annual American Booksellers Convention or at sales conferences. I was always kept busy at these conventions, planning parties, dinners, lunches, author signings, and various public relations duties. On free nights, we would go a terrific restaurant where Arlene would be at her most relaxed. She loved to dance in those days, and she was an outrageous gossip. She knew about every body's business.  She was never mean or cruel about someone unless they were truly awful. She was a favorite of every hardcover house's sub-rights director--the folks charged with selling her the paperback rights to their top-selling books. In addition to all the bestselling romance fiction,  Fawcett also published other big-name authors:  John Updike, Art Buchwald, Thomas Tryon, John D. MacDonald, Jeffrey Archer, Charles Schultz, and many others. At these industry gatherings, Arlene was good company. She'd glad-hand anyone who came up to say hello. Her generous spirit insured that anyone around her would have a good time. 

I've written before about Arlene's long marriage to Harold Shepherd. I often had dinner with them, and during the holidays, I always joined them for their annual Christmas Day party, where I usually supplied dessert. One year Arlene, who was a pretty good cook, was upset about a chocolate dessert she had made. It had been in the oven for far longer than the recipe indicated and she couldn't figure out why it seemed so under-done. She called ahead to warn me there might be a problem and then read me the recipe. Nothing seemed out of order and when I arrived, she pulled it out of the refrigerator. I asked to see the recipe again. Still nothing seemed amiss. For some reason, I asked her how much heavy cream she had used. A light bulb went off in her head as she showed me the container. She had used a whole pint rather than the eight ounces the recipe called for. The cake managed to hold together, but it was fragile looking. I helped her cut it in the kitchen before bringing the plates out to guests at the table. Of course it was delicious and following Julia Child's maxim of never explain, never complain, we never acknowledged the error.  Nobody was the wiser.

Arlene and I worked together for five and a half years.  But the paperback industry was already having troubles, and CBS was not happy with the company's financial performance. The last year was very tough, with Leona being sacked because she had resisted every change the corporation tried to impose on us. Arlene took over Leona's responsibilities, and she found herself depressed that this happy career she had so long enjoyed was falling apart. I had become publicity director by then, but it was clear our days were numbered. CBS eventually sold Fawcett to Ballantine Books. Most of the staff didn't join the new company (ironically Leona would end her publishing days at Fawcett, Ballantine having re-hired her). Arlene and I were given our departure dates. Betty Prashker, an old publishing friend, asked her to join the team at Crown Books where she got me involved in a bad plan to have Outlet, a Crown subsidiary that specialized in remainders and reprints of older picture books and reference, join in a partnership with Waldenbooks (the forerunner of Borders) for a line of paperback originals called Pageant. It was doomed from the beginning, but it did give me a chance to work with Arlene again, if only for a little while. Eventually Arlene decamped for the chance to run the Literary Guild in its last profitable years. She ended her career as president of Doubleday before retiring. Quite a resume for a lady who had gone no further in her education than secretarial school. I wound up at Wm. Morrow before leaving the corporate publishing world three years later to go out on my own as a freelancer.

We stayed in touch, though not as often as we used to. Arlene kept herself busy between homes in Manhattan and East Hampton, where her husband owned a very successful real estate business. She kept up her reading, gobbling up books faster than anyone I knew could possibly read. She was also a huge movie fan, and could be seen at screenings of new movies all over town. When I decided to move to Portland, Oregon in 2009, one of the last lunches I had in Manhattan was with Arlene and Belle. Arlene looked ill. She was moving slowly, though she was immaculately groomed, her red hair still a thing of wonder, her nails a gleaming red. She still had that naughty glint in her eye, but she also looked sad. Shep was failing--both had been dealing with illness.  We stayed in touch and I often sent her jokes, links to my blog about life here, and the occasional phone call. I wrote her a very nice note of remembrance when Shep died, and she called to say how touched she was. In the last year or so, she would send a note telling me she was hoping to come out to Portland for a visit. That would have been something to anticipate. I would have loved squiring my mentor around town, showing her the beauties of Portland, and taking her to some of our fine restaurants.

Arlene will be mourned and missed by her many friends and colleagues in the publishing business. She came of age when books still meant something as a cultural entity--as important as movies or television. At the peak of the mass market paperback business, millions of copies of a popular novel were routinely published in paperback, and many of them back listed for years and years. Today the escalating cost of the average paperback is too expensive. People can download books on their tablets and e-readers. The Internet has cut into the time people used for reading (such as this blog).  I know it sounds hopelessly old-school, but in Arlene's era, there were big personalities in the publishing world and it was a smaller universe, most of it concentrated in New York. It was easy to know everybody and Arlene Friedman made it her business to do just that.

Arlene was a good colleague, mentor and friend. She was a kick to know--memorable in every way and I will miss her terribly.

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