Monday, October 25, 2010

Mickey Mantle and the Road Not Taken

George Vecsey in today's NY Times offers up a fascinating "what if." In his column, "Home Runs and Demons for Hamilton and Mantle," he talks about Mickey Mantle's problems with alcohol and promiscuity, his troubled childhood, and - most damning of all - the permissive environment he found himself in with the Yankees. Nobody helped Mickey deal with any of this.

Then George comes up with the thought that dazzled me. I quote: "Suppose Mantle had signed with his boyhood favorites, the Cardinals, and played for a fatherly manager like Eddie Dyer or Johnny Keane, alongside his temperate hero, Stan Musial, instead of being scolded by Stengel and ignored by Joe DiMaggio and indulged by the open city of New York? We will never know."

I can almost see Mantle in a Red Bird uniform and a couple of more pennants flying over Sportsman's Park.
Here's a link to the article. In Rangers’ Hamilton, Shades of Mantle, but Brighter Outlook -

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chapter One - Continued. "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin"

Here is more of the first chapter. The book is available at


FlashBack Productions occupies a large house in a residential neighborhood, just north of Sunset Boulevard where Hollywood meets Beverly Hills and the rent begins to escalate. I walked up the stone-lined path to the front door, through a yard deep in shadows amidst a tangled variety of tropical trees, the yard accented with splashes of yellow and pink and red flowers. If it hadn’t been for the hum of traffic on Sunset, I might have thought I was in the Brazilian jungle. Back in Ohio, they might have been shoveling snow.

     “Hi. You must be Cooper. I’m Heather.” The receptionist spoke with a warm, husky timbre. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Herbal tea?” Pause. “Coffee?” 

      “Juice sounds fine. Thanks.”

     “Guava? Papaya? Pomegranate?” Pause. “Orange?”

     “Surprise me.”

     She headed down the hall. “I’ll tell Kevin you’re here.”

     I sank down into a long, plush sofa set against a large, bubbling aquarium in the wall. I knew Kevin McDaniels, the head of FlashBack, only from several phone conversations. His enthusiasm about the project was contagious. I hoped he was as likable in person. And I hoped he liked me. I was the outsider from the Midwest with the credentials he had been looking for. 

     Kevin had said he was looking for a “nontraditional” viewpoint, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. This was an incredibly significant opportunity for me: a writing assignment in Hollywood with the potential to establish myself on my favorite subject, Charlie Chaplin. my all-time favorite, close to obsession status.
     Heather brought my juice over. Orange. I expected her to take me into Kevin’s office. I was wrong. Two minutes later, Kevin walked up. From his voice on the phone, I had pictured short, chunky and bald. He  was over six feet tall with the smooth, powerful lines of a natural athlete, topped off with a head full of pure white hair. The hair just didn’t match up, an anomaly that looked like a bad make-up job. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, about ten years older than me. 

     “Cooper. Hi. Kevin McDaniels.” He extended his hand, which I both shook and used as a rope to pull myself out of the couch. He backed up his grip with a wide, contagious smile. I liked him immediately and relaxed. “Come on back. How was your flight?”

     “Smooth. The way I like them.”

     “Hotel okay?”

     “Very nice.” 

     We entered his office, a spacious room that looked out onto the back yard and the pool, some orange trees, and a golden retriever stretched out by the sliding glass doors. A living, breathing real estate brochure. 

     We sat in director’s chairs on opposite sides of a low, teak coffee table. He cut to the chase. “Why should I hire you, Cooper?”

     A fair question, but one I hadn’t expected as a starting point. “Because you want to give highly talented writers from mid-America a chance to participate in the dynamics of Hollywood.” Sometimes I speak before thinking.

     He laughed. “Of course.” He shifted forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, staring intently at me. “Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re here. Let me explain. You made the short list, but I pretty well had it narrowed down to another writer. Then I got this in the mail.”

     He handed me a single sheet of folded paper, undated, no letterhead, with a short, handwritten message. “Mr. McDaniels, it has come to my attention that you are embarking upon an important new series dedicated to early Hollywood personalities, including Sir Charles Chaplin. Forgive my impetuousness, but I would suggest you  consider a young man named Cooper Thiery of Columbus, Ohio, as one of your creative resources. Through my duties here at Oxford University, I have become aware of his insight into the subject and believe it would be in your interest to, at the minimum, contact him. Please excuse the abruptness of this intrusion and lack of follow-through on my part, but I shall be on sabbatical for the next six months. Best of luck on your project.” The signature read “Ian Picking, Professor of Cultural Heritage, Oxford University.”

     The handwriting matched that in the Robinson book.

     I handed the letter back to Kevin, held my hand as steady as possible, and said nothing.

     “I called Oxford,” he said. “Picking is indeed on sabbatical. Out of touch for another four months.” 

     Kevin continued filling in the background on our meeting, but my mind was working over the similarity in handwriting, the appearance of the book at the hotel and the Oxford letter. I just wanted Kevin to say I had the job, so I could start to work and not deal with the puzzle.

     “Any thoughts about that?” 

     He was waiting for my answer, and I hadn’t even heard the question. 

     “About what?”

     “About where you might start. Are you with me, Cooper?”

     I apologized for my drifting, then recalled some of the comments from the book. Maybe that would take the interview in the right direction. “Two areas,” I said. “First, Chaplin’s relationship with Edna Purviance. I think there’s more there than has been uncovered so far.” In a paragraph about her and Charlie, her name had been circled with the comment, “Half the story.” It could be accurate. “The other area is what he did with some of his films, where he stored them, especially one that theoretically no longer exists. Chaplin didn’t destroy much of his work, even if he didn’t like it. It’s worth a look.” I stopped. Other areas seemed workable, according to the notes in the Robinson book, but I didn’t want to start a laundry list of possibilities. Less is more, as someone once said. An architect, maybe.

     Kevin moved into an overview of the project, much of which we had discussed on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Then he stood up and the meeting was over. A four hour flight, each way, for a half hour meeting.

      Back in Columbus, a message was waiting on my answering machine. Also, a new e-mail was sitting in my inbox. They both said the same thing. “Good news. You start on Monday. Welcome to the dynamics of Hollywood.” I treated myself to a couple of double-cut pork chops for dinner and four draft Guinness's at a neighborhood hangout. I would have gone dancing if I liked to dance.

The Mad Men and Women of D'Arcy Advertising

We gathered on a brilliant afternoon in late October, the Mad Men and Women of D'Arcy. We reconnected and remembered, traded stories, hugged and kissed, told each other how wonderful we looked, and held handshakes longer than usual. 

A hundred different paths now brought us back to the large room of a micro-brewery and restaurant in the heart of Kirkwood - paths that had taken many of us to distant reaches of the country, moved some of us just a few blocks, to new jobs, different careers, or nothing more challenging than a round of golf or a flower bed. Now some of us spoke of our children's achievements or our grandchildren's talents. Most of us talked about faded campaigns, unforgettable clients, celebrations and disappointments, theme lines that once bristled with energy and originality and still called forth a spark of pride. 

In each other's eyes, we were still young, unafraid of any assignment, willing to deal with tough clients, able to prove that we were the best damned ad agency anywhere in the world. But we wore name tags, just in case that name or that face was slightly out of reach. And so few were.

Advertising was a different business back then. For many of us, it was the only one we knew. For others, the younger ones there who still had plenty of hair and a youthful glow, it was still the same game, only the rules and tools had changed. In fact, the world had changed in the less than 100 years of D'Arcy. With roots that had their beginnings in 1906, the agency no longer exists except in the history books and occasional columns, where tales of Mad Men and Women are told with a flair reminiscent of great battles, heroic deeds, and wondrous achievements.

And D'Arcy still lives in one other dimension: in the hearts and memories of those of us who once worked there, and - on this one day - came together in the warmth of the love we once shared.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Solid Review About "Where the Mountain Takes Me"

Earlier this year, a biography I wrote was published, and has recently received a fine review (not a perfect  10, but highly acceptable) from Jeffrey Penn May. The name of the books is "Where the Mountain Takes Me, and it is about a rather incredible individual who overcame depressing odds from the moment he was born to become an accomplished engineer and dentist. He finally succumbed to mesothelioma earlier this year. You can read about this book, and the review, at

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chapter One of "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin"

In case you have a few minutes and feel like reading something new, here is the first chapter (or the first part of it anyway) of my novel. The book is due from the printer next week, and then I head for a Chaplin conference in Ohio end of the week. I hope you enjoy this.

An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

- J. D. Salinger

Creativity takes courage.

- Henri Matisse


“You like Charlie Chaplin?”

The guy in the next seat obviously had noticed the book I was reading. From the tone of his voice, I knew he wasn’t a Chaplin fan.

“Yeah, I think he’s pretty funny.” I wasn’t really interested in getting into a conversation with him, not with a four-hour flight ahead of me.

“You look like an intelligent guy. Let me ask you a question.” He rolled up his Sports Illustrated and jammed it into the magazine pocket. “How can you find running around in circles and poking people with a cane and throwing pies funny?”

I kept my book open. “Chaplin did more than that. He wasn’t big with pies either. Other comics did pies.” I couldn’t believe we were discussing pies at thirty-thousand feet. I felt trapped in my seat, there wasn’t enough leg room, my sneakers looked dumb.

“Anything in that book about him being a Commie?” he said.

The captain’s voice interrupted with information about altitude, cruising

speed, and the approximate time we’d be landing in LA Even though I didn’t want to go any further with this guy, the Commie remark bothered me.

“That actually was never a fair accusation,” I said. “He wasn’t a Communist. Maybe if you’d read a little about him, you’d know what that was all about.”

“I know they kicked him out of this country. I don’t have to read more than that. And what about all those little girls he was messing around with? You saying that didn’t happen?” With each accusation, his voice grew louder.

I didn’t answer. Confrontation makes me uneasy. Given a different situation I might have launched into a stout defense of Chaplin and his personal life. Like when you stick up for a friend who’s not there. Not this time, though. I just wanted to be left alone, read my book, prepare for the opportunity ahead in Los Angeles.

“I guess there’re some people who don’t like him,” I said. “I just think he’s funny, that’s all.”

I missed Lauren. I still felt the need to reach over and hold her hand on takeoffs and landings. That’s when I get nervous. Lauren was always there, reassuring me with her warmth and strength. But Costa Rica had ended that. I hadn’t flown since then, nor gone bike riding, our favorite sport.

“Now Bob Hope...he was funny,” he said and returned to his Sports Illustrated.

I picked up my laptop, briefcase and book, and moved to an empty seat further back. I was still trying to get a handle on my interview tomorrow. Their consideration of hiring a freelancer from Columbus, Ohio, to write a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, still baffled me. Sure, I had good credentials on Chaplin, and writing for film had been my goal for the last several years. My shelves were stacked with scripts, treatments, and concepts, none of which had aroused much interest. Sometimes luck follows persistence. Still, why me?

The rest of the flight was smooth. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last smooth period in my life for awhile.


The following day in LA shaped up as relatively predictable. I’d grab breakfast in the coffee shop at nine, spend a couple of hours in my room reviewing notes, take a walk to put my thoughts in order, eat a light lunch, then be at the production house a little before one for the interview. By late afternoon I’d be on a plane headed back to Columbus, either to continue my gradual decay there or pack for the return trip to LA That was the only part I couldn’t predict. Or so I thought.

The phone rang after breakfast.

“Mr. Thiery, this is the front desk. We have a package for you.”

“A package? For me?”

“Yes, sir. A large manila envelope. Shall I send it up, or would you prefer to fetch it?” The clerk with a British accent seemed to be the hotel’s attempt to add some class to a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished Hollywood establishment.

“I’ll come down.” I hadn’t expected a package, not even mail or messages. I was here for only the one day. Maybe it had something to do with my pending interview. I “fetched” the envelope, opened it on the elevator and a book slid out, one that was appropriate for the day’s events: David Robinson’s acclaimed biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art. I flipped through it and saw no note, no explanation for its presence, no name or address. I already owned the book, had read it more than once, referred to it dozens of times. This was, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written about Chaplin. My copy was sitting on a shelf back home, along with another hundred or so books about him.

I called the front desk. “Where did this package come from?”

“A gentleman left it here, Mr. Thiery, just minutes before I called you.”

“What did he look like?”

“Rather short, looked to be in his fifties, white hair. Steel-rimmed glasses, I believe.”

“Did he leave a name? Or a message?”

“No, sir. All he said was, ‘I think Mr. Thiery needs this.’ Something like that. He was a cheerful sort, pleasant smile. Is there anything wrong, sir?”

I told him no and hung up. The book was obviously used, the dust-jacket well worn, the black and white cover photo of Chaplin slightly faded, the edges of the pages stained. My sense of order began to unravel as I looked through the book. Notes had been written in the margins, words and phrases underlined or circled, large “X’s” scrawled, seemingly at random, with comments such as “rubbish” and “not so” and “Yes.” Not an abundance of comments, but enough to hold my interest. The previous owner, it seemed, had either possessed a keen insight into Chaplin or a willingness to question the author. Why it had been passed on to me, and who had delivered it, puzzled me. I worked my way through the book, paying closer attention to the markings, balancing them with my knowledge of Chaplin’s life. I didn’t know if the comments were accurate. They were, however, within the realm of possibility, with some intriguing speculation about his life and art.

I forgot about my walk, about lunch, and spent the rest of the time engrossed in the book. If I got the job, I would spend my next three months focused on my favorite personality of all time, attempting to define the line between an artist’s work and his private life. One other line would become significant, a line that would test my sense of reality, a line that I had previously believed to be impossible to cross.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Books vs Nooks

Dear Reader: What lies ahead? Check out the cover on the latest New Yorker Mag. Title of it is "Shelved."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Books, Nooks and The Big Read

I spent a couple of hours last Saturday wandering among the booths and displays at The Big Read in Clayton. Mostly I was trying to stay on the shady side of the street, since the temperature was more reminiscent of August than October. I saw several people from the St. Louis Writers Guild there and some other book-focused friends. I also saw lots of books, stacked and displayed on tables, resting on shelves, put there by organizations and individuals who were showing how they wrote, printed, bound, marketed, distributed books...and got young people involved in books. All in all, a very positive experience for a writer.

However, there was an item there that alerted me like the rumble of distant thunder. Or maybe the sky brightening just before sunrise (to stay with nature metaphors). I'm talking about the Nook. A young man was offering demonstrations of just how easy it is to use a Nook. As I stood there looking at it, I felt as though I was at an Exposition of The Latest Radios sometime during the 1930's. I was surrounded by the latest table models, portable, consoles, cabinets, all heralding the dominance of radio. And over in a corner sat a young man with a strange looking contraption on a table. It had a little screen, which had a picture on it, a picture that was grainy and in black and white and moved. He called it television.

So what about all those books at The Big Read on all those tables? What is their future? Will the Nook and the Kindle and the iPad hold sway in the not-too-distant future? Quite possibly. But I think there will always be a place for books. At least I hope so. One thing for sure, though. Unless technology comes up with something I can't even imagine, nothing will ever replace The Writer. The story will always start with someone sitting down at a table or desk and looking at a blank page.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Another Taste of Chaplin

If things go as planned, my novel, "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin," will be off the press by next weekend. Later in the week I'll probably post the first chapter. In the meantime, here's a wonderful scene for your enjoyment. It's from "The Great Dictator," (1940) with Chaplin performing a marvelous pantomime to a familiar piece of classical music.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The New Novel: Me and Charlie Chaplin

Twelve years in the writing. And rewriting. And rewriting. So my new novel, "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin," will be off the presses in about 3 weeks. The idea hit me in 1997 or '98 in LA when I was walking around the Chaplin Stage at what was then A&M Records, then became Jim Henson Productions. The novel takes place in - naturally - Hollywood, and the time is today, and the 1920's. And yes, Chaplin is a major character in the book. A couple of other characters in the book are Fatty Arbuckle and William Randolph Hearst. I'll tell you more about it in future posts. That photo of Charlie and me was taken in Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin lived after he left the U.S. in 1952. For now, though, enjoy one of Charlie's most famous sequences. It's from "The Gold Rush," released in 1925.